Tag Archives: diversity

Structure and Justice

A few months ago, I attended a talk at Mozilla by Ted Nyman (of Github) titled “Scaling Happiness”. The video is freely available.

Nyman argued that companies with minimal formal structure are better for workers (specifically, better at maximizing workers’ happiness) than more traditional companies. Whenever someone asks whether something is “better”, I ask “better for whom?” Whose happiness was Nyman talking about? He didn’t say, but when I think about happiness, I ask what’s best for women, for people in GRSMs (gender, romantic and sexual minorities), for disabled people, and for people of color, since not too many people seem to think about what’s best for people in these groups. (For the record, I’m in the second and third of those groups, though I’m usually not perceived that way in one case, and often not perceived that way in the other.) Happiness for the dominant cadre in the software industry — that of people who have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, and heterosexual privilege, and who lack visible disabilities — is not the same as happiness for everybody.

I don’t mean to say that happiness is a zero-sum game, that when abled white cis men are happy, that inherently takes away some of the limited pool of happiness from disabled trans women of color. Rather, part of the problem is that people who have privilege perceive happiness as a zero-sum game; part of their happiness comes from seeing themselves as better than others.

I think most people in the tech industry or in open-source or free culture communities know what I’m talking about when I say “structurelessness”. Perhaps you work at a “flat” company that encourages employees to make up wacky job titles to put on their business cards, calls everybody a “team member”, or renders everyone uncertain about who their boss is. Or maybe you’ve only worked at more structured, hierarchal organizations: ones with managers, a complicated organizational chart, ranks, and hierarchy. You probably know the distinction even if you’ve only been on one side of it.

Does structurelessness eliminate competition, abuses of power, and status hierarchies, or does it just drive them underground? To break down the question, let’s look at a few ideas about structurelessness, some of which are from Nyman’s talk and others are just things I keep hearing from people in the free/open-source software and culture world.

  • Authenticity: people are happier when they are able to be who they really are at work.
  • Informality: people are happier when they’re able to be informal at work, such as by wearing T-shirts with holes in them or saying “fuck” a lot.
  • Conduct: formal mechanisms for guiding behavior aren’t that important, since in a healthy organization, people will just be nice to each other.
  • Leadership: people whose job it is to manage aren’t necessary when people can just manage each other.
  • Accountability: formal goals and performance metrics just get in the way of getting a job done.

As a nod to structurelessness, I’ll take on these points in no particular order.

Hierarchies

First, why would a feminist argue in favor of structure when structure so often means hierarchy, and hierarchy is deeply entwined with oppression?

It’s true, I’m not a big fan of hierarchies. Maybe they can be used for good, but I haven’t seen a lot of that in reality. At the same time, though, it’s also a fallacy to think that simply declaring we’re not going to have hierarchies makes hierarchy go away. Jo Freeman wrote about this in the ’70s, in her essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Based on her experiences in feminist organizing, she found that groups of people (like feminist consciousness-raising groups) that declared they weren’t going to have a formal structure devolved into unofficial hierarchies, which were much harder to challenge and hold accountable.

Authenticity

Do you trust people to see you for who you are? I mean the question in two senses: (1) Do you believe that it’s even possible for you to communicate who you are to others without a great deal of effort, and (2) Do you trust others, as a general rule, enough to assume they will behave cordially towards you once they know who you are?

In his talk, Nyman talked about how in typical companies, many relationships are inauthentic. That is, people don’t act towards each other in the ways that they would in the absence of a rigid, externally imposed set of relationships. At least stereotypically, people don’t behave towards their bosses, or to their subordinates at work, the way they behave with their friends. He argued that people are happier when they can present themselves authentically and have authentic relationships, and that a less structured organization fosters such relationships.

If you are queer, or trans, or have mental illness, or all of the above, you probably know something about the perils of presenting yourself as you really are. Dan-Savage-style coming-out narratives notwithstanding, many of us who are placed socially in these ways find that we cannot be completely authentic in all aspects of our lives. I definitely want to express myself, but I have to balance that against other needs, like being able to make a living in a capitalist society. If I dressed the way I’d prefer to, if I talked more openly about the times when my depression and anxiety prevent me from getting work done, I might find it harder to fit in, to stay attached to a professional group, to stay employed, than I already do. So instead, I wear T-shirts and cargo pants, and I let people think (at times) that I’m merely disorganized or not that committed to what I do.

In my opinion, it takes a lot of privilege to assume either that greater authenticity leads to greater happiness, or that the only reason you would leave who you are at the door when you step or roll into work is the formal, organizational structure of the place where you work.

Moreover, being your authentic self in front of somebody else requires trust, and outsiders have very good reasons not to trust insiders. For me, part of what I mean when I say I lack a certain amount of privilege is that every day at work, I make calculations about who is safe to interact with and who is unsafe. Of course, there are degrees of safety and it’s not a binary choice. For example, every time someone uses “crazy” as a pejorative — suggesting that what I am is also a label to insult an idea with — that decrements their “safety” score inside my head. Almost everyone uses this word in this way — even I still do, given that I’m not free of internalized ableism — which is why I say it’s not a binary property. If my company became totally flat and got rid of all structures, processes, and goals, I wouldn’t be able to have authentic interactions just because of that. I’d still have this calculus of safety I have to apply all the time.

And what about when who you are makes people uncomfortable? If you’re queer, trans, kinky, poly, disabled, you probably either have spent a lot of time trying to blend in, or you have stories about when people become uncomfortable upon realizing some aspect of who you really are, and having to comfort them. (Or both!)

To take a completely different example, do you really want to encourage people to be “who they really are” when who they really are is a harassing creep? Maybe having to be a bit inauthentic at work serves an equalizing function, like a uniform. If you know what the rules are, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to follow them and less likely that you’ll be cast out for breaking a rule you didn’t know existed.

Informality and isolation

Usually, no one tells little kids on the playground who to play with and who not to play with. But even very little kids start forming hierarchies of exclusion when left to their own devices. Vivian Paley’s work, as documented in her book “You Can’t Say ‘You Can’t Play'” showed both that in groups of kindergarteners, leaders emerged who got to decide which kids got to play and which kids got excluded; and that a teacher could change that by imposing the simple rule that “you can’t say ‘you can’t play'”. And increasing the amount of inclusion in the group made the kids in it feel more accepted, on the whole. An advocate of structureless organizations might argue that Ms. Paley should have just let her pupils be their authentic selves and form their own social alliances. But at least according to Paley’s account, imposing the rules made the kids happier — contrary to Nyman’s claims about structurelessness and happiness.

Now, perhaps kids are just different from adults. I also don’t think it’s necessarily human nature to form hierarchies in the absence of formal rules. Fundamentally, I don’t care whether that’s because of nature or nurture. No matter what combination of nature or nurture it is, as human beings we have the latitude to choose what we will value. Personally, I value inclusion, and while I can’t prove logically to somebody else that this is something they should value too, I think there’s plenty of evidence that inclusion and the overall happiness of people in a group correlate. And, as Paley’s kindergarteners show, inclusion does not necessarily naturally arise from structurelessness.

Mentorship

Isolation is closely related to an insidious way in which people who believe themselves to be good can perpetuate oppression: the withholding of mentorship. In another context, that of law schools, Pamela J. Smith wrote about how even when Black women gain admission as law students, informal social barriers to the development of mentoring relationships with faculty members are a form of discrimination that is difficult to challenge (“Failing to Mentor Sapphire: The Actionability of Blocking Black Women from Initiating Mentoring Relationships”, reprinted in Critical Race Feminism, Adrien Katherine Wing ed.)

Informal mentoring between apparent peers is mediated by social power dynamics as well. In her book Leaving The Ivory Tower, Barbara Lovitts wrote about the importance of tacit knowledge in determining whether Ph.D students succeed or fail. Many graduate programs are quite structureless in a day-to-day way; despite having a clear hierarchy (tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, non-tenured instructors, postdocs, grad students), new graduate students must navigate a system with very little formal structure in order to learn the unwritten rules of the game. The difference between being a popular person and an unpopular one in grad student social groups can be the difference between academic success and failure. Would fewer grad students drop out because of isolation if there was a more formal process for initiating beginning students?

In my personal experience as someone who, earlier in my life, didn’t resemble most of my colleagues, lack of mentorship is a major structural barrier to success both as an academic computer scientist and as a software engineer. And I think lack of structure translates into lack of mechanisms to encourage formal mentoring relationships — something that has a disparate impact on women, people in gender, romantic, and sexual minorities, people of color, disabled people, and everybody else who may not feel comfortable approaching someone of higher social status to ask for support.

Likewise, people with disabilities that affect how they process tacit social cues — such as people who are on the autism spectrum — may have a much easier time contributing harmoniously when the rules are made clear than when they must access all resources by guessing at a system of unwritten rules. Since ability to write software isn’t contingent on being neurotypical, barriers to entry for neurodiverse people mean excluding a portion of the talent pool for no particular reason.

When a marginalized person joins an organization, in the absence of structure, isolation and lack of mentorship can combine to render them powerless and unable to ask for — or perhaps even express — what it is that they need. In such a situation, it’s easy for that person to then be labeled “unproductive” by the very community that has, without even knowing it, made it impossible for that person to learn and grow. Formal structures are one way to level the playing field and make sure that everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of whether senior folks in the organization find them initially easy to relate to or identity with.

Codes of conduct and diversity expectations

I don’t know how a structureless organization would maintain or enforce a code of conduct. Maybe in such an organization, everyone just likes each other so much that it’s not necessary to have one. But codes of conduct aren’t needed because people aren’t nice or because they don’t like each other; they’re needed because different people have different expectations about what kind of behavior is appropriate in which contexts. It doesn’t seem to me like getting rid of formal structure solves that problem.

Codes of conduct are just one way to help a group become or remain diverse, by ensuring a safe environment for everyone and providing mechanisms to address breaches of that safety. Without formal structures, how does a company make and keep itself diverse? While the practice of affirmative action is often inaccurately derided as “quotas”, a few tech companies do go as far as to institute numerical quotas for hiring women. I would suspect that such a practice, and even more flexible affirmative action concepts, would conflict with informality. But how does a structureless organization avoid devolving simply into hiring friends?

In general, how do you make sure that an organization without structure doesn’t default to recreating the same power hierarchies that exist in its underlying society? I asked this question during the question and answer period at Nyman’s talk, but it got a little lost in translation. Nyman’s answer amounted to “we won’t hire racist or sexist people”. But that’s not good enough. Everyone raised in a white supremacist society has unconscious racism, and everyone raised in a patriarchy has unconscious sexism. It’s obviously inadequate to dismiss the possibility of recreating systematic oppression “because most of us are good ethical people”. Nyman himself admitted that Github is getting less diverse.

Leadership

Unless it literally consists of a collection of people, each working alone — in which case you’d wonder what makes it an organization — in an organization without people formally titled “manager”, people will have to step up to manage each other at least sometimes and to some extent. How do you take initiative and assert power — in the absence of a structure that makes that power legitimate — when you’re already culturally oppressed and disempowered? If nobody is a manager, who will be most successful in, say, asking that their team institute a “run regression tests before committing code” policy: a tall, white, able-bodied, cis man; a short, Latina, disabled, cis woman; or a fat, Black, genderqueer person? When is it possible for people to really treat each other as equals, and when do they infer hierarchies when not given a formal hierarchy to look to?

What about when you’ve been punished in the past for trying to regulate others’ behavior instead of “knowing your place”? If you’re perceived as female, knowing that girls who assert power get called “bossy” and women who assert power get called worse, but also knowing that your leadership skills will eventually be called into question if you don’t assert power, structurelessness starts looking like a double bind.

Accountability

Without goals and performance metrics, how do people get held accountable? I don’t just mean accountability for delivering on the promises one makes as part of doing one’s job. How about, for example, not finding a subtle way to fire somebody for discriminatory reasons and make it look like it was performance-related?

In his talk, Nyman acknowledged that more “formal” processes are necessary for handling harassment: he acknowledged, “you can’t just go to anyone” if you’ve been harassed. But what else, falling short of “harassment” as such, might require a formal process?

Summing up

I’ve been pretty negative about structureless organizations. But there might be positives. Are they more open than more traditional companies to people with less formal education, or whose biographies are otherwise non-traditional? (I don’t know.) Do they make it harder for entrenched managers to retain power by virtue of seniority? (Again, I don’t know.)

To be fair, there isn’t just one set of processes that could arise when an organization sets aside formal structure. The majority could end up ruling most of the time. Or an organization could make decisions based on consensus. Or it could be cloyingly called a “do-ocracy”, in which decisions get made by whoever has enough time and energy to implement the consequences of the decision. I still think there’s the risk of majority rule, though, and the problem with that is that decisions about basic rights, respect and dignity can’t and shouldn’t be made by a majority. Where do basic rights, respect, and dignity come into this discussion? The number of occupations that are at least potentially a route into the middle class, at least theoretically available to anyone who has acquired a certain skill set that is possible for anyone dedicated to acquire, is steadily decreasing. If you’re in a social class such that you need money to live, learning how to program isn’t a bad way to go. But that will only continue to be true if tech company jobs are open to any qualified candidate, without the hidden price tag of humiliation based on one’s race, gender, disabilities, or sexual orientation.

Majority rule is, then, a problem because majorities often opt to keep minorities in their place for the benefit of the majority. And yes, a group made up of entirely people who see themselves as good and ethical can and will deny basic rights, respect and dignity to people based on gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and other axes of oppression. The world might be different someday, but we can’t get there by pretending we are there.

Your thoughts, readers?

Thanks to Geek Feminism bloggers Sumana, Mary and Jessamyn for their comments.

Baby, we were born to linkspam (12 February 2013)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

A rickety-looking treehouse

Open Source, Closed Minds? A reflection on Joseph Reagle’s “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”

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At the beginning of this year, First Monday (a longstanding, online-only academic journal) published Joseph Reagle’s article “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”. The article is the only comprehensive study I’ve seen so far of online discourse drawn from free and open-source software and data communities that focuses on attitudes towards gender and sexism.

In what follows, I examine Reagle’s presentation of two major themes: how dominant definitions of “geek identity” serve to keep communities homogeneous; and how ideologies held by open-source workers sometimes serve to justify mistreating people in the name of freedom of speech. Finally, I suggest another reason for open-source communities’ problems with diversity and equality: an economic one. I’ll use the terms “geek culture”, “open source culture”, and “hacker culture” roughly interchangeably. Not all geeks or hackers work on open-source projects, but open-source communities represent, to me, a highly valued position in the hierarchy of value subscribed to by many people who identify as geeks and/or hackers.

Disenchantment

I had a visceral reaction to the “On being a geek” section of “Free as in sexist?” This section covers ground that is familiar to me: the obsessive, monomaniacal approach to programming that hacker culture valorizes; the relationship between this style of working and a confrontational, aggressive style of argumentation; and the relationship between geek identity and normative whiteness and maleness. (As I don’t have any special authority to speak about race or racism, I won’t discuss those issues in depth here; I recommend Mary Bucholtz’s paper “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” [PDF link], in which she argues that American nerd culture consitutes an explicit rejection by certain white youths of those aspects of American popular culture that arise from Black Americans.) Even so, the section affected me on more than just an intellectual level. As I read the quotations Reagle chose from sources such as Richard Stallman’s and Joseph Weizenbaum’s writings, as well as interviews with women studying computer science, I felt afraid and disappointed. I felt ready to get out of this field myself as fast as possible. Before I could help myself, my subconscious was already rushing ahead and reviewing the plans I’ve turned over in my head about jobs and careers that I could do that wouldn’t require me to be either a Toxic Open Source Guy, or an enabler for one.

When I was 15, sleeping in a lab and working for 20 or 30 hours at a stretch appealed to me. I wanted to lose myself in code, stop noticing my physical body because I was too engrossed in turning over abstractions in my mind. I think some part of me thought that if I got to be a competent programmer, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know how to form connections with other people or that my body was the wrong shape for me. I know now that escaping into work is not a helpful coping mechanism for me. Nowadays, I’ve exercised agency to make my body more comfortable for me; I see a therapist; and I have friends. I want to do my job reasonably well for eight hours a day and go home. I don’t want to run away from life outside the screen by immersing myself in work. I know most of the guys who do the sleep-in-the-lab, work-twenty-hours thing aren’t running away from what I was running away from. (I wonder what they are running away from.)

In Reagle’s article, I read, “Bente Rasmussen and Tove Hâpnes found female CS students who did not want be associated with the dominate [sic] identity of “key-pressers”, i.e., those who were not able to talk about anything beyond computers.” I thought — that’s me, too! I don’t want that either. I don’t think I have to quit being an open-source programmer if I want to have an identity that isn’t just about computers. But sometimes when I’m around people who do seem more like key-pressers than I am, I feel like that’s the way I have to be in order to fit in and be accepted.

Then I try to imagine what it would be like for me if on top of all of this, I felt like I had to conform to a vaguely woman-ish gender role. I didn’t know I wasn’t female until I was 18, and didn’t know I was male until I was 26, but I never felt much pressure to be what girls or women were supposed to be. On the other hand, if I was a cis woman, or even more so, if I was a trans woman (since trans women get expected to conform to gender stereotypes for women even more so than cis women are when their trans status is known), working in the industry I work in, I would have an almost impossible set of constraints to solve. As Reagle shows, success and status in open-source (and even in non-technical “free culture” communities like Wikipedia editing) are correlated with adopting a (superficially) overconfident, aggressive, argumentative persona. Women get to choose between being socially stigmatized for violating gender norms, or being ignored or mocked for violating open-source cultural norms. It’s a double bind.

Reagle quotes a passage from Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse: “‘Scary’ and ‘afraid’ are words that recur again and again.” For me, these are emotions that recur again and again when dealing with open-source culture, and when recalling the memories that reading Reagle’s article brought to mind. What strikes me, though, is that I’m almost twice the age of some of the undergrad students who Margolis and Fisher describe. When I was those students’ age, CS culture seemed safe, not scary. It was the rest of the world that was scary to me. Now, something’s changed. I think part of it is that I’ve had too many conversations with colleagues about gender politics that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless. Those interactions leave me afraid of being dismissed, dehumanized, objectified, or belittled again if I speak up. I’m also afraid of the sinking feeling that, for me, comes from being silent when I witness something I know is wrong. After a while, just walking in the door to the office seems like an entire day’s work.

Another quotation (from a social psychology journal article by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues) that stood out to me was “The profoundness of this alienation is hinted at in a recent study that found even an ‘ambient environment’ of stereotypical geeky items in a room (e.g., science fiction memorabilia and junk food) depressed female undergraduate interest in computer science.” While looking for a new place to live near my workplace in Mountain View, Ca. recently, I was browsing through rentals on AirBnB, and found a post advertising a bunk in a “hacker fortress”. I think the feeling I had when imagining living in such a place might be akin to how the women in that study felt when they saw a roomful of Star Trek figurines and Mountain Dew Code Red bottles. At 15, the summer I was doing an unpaid programming internship and drinking Jolt in the mornings, living in a “hacker fortress” would have seemed like an exciting idea (never mind the potential rape and sexual harassment that someone who looked like I did at 15 would have experienced — I probably would have dismissed that risk at the time). Now, even contemplating having to live in a place with a name like that sends my stomach dropping through the floor.

This section of Reagle’s article is valuable for showing that what I and so many others have experienced is part of a pattern; it’s not a coincidence, nor is it due to some weakness of character that we all happen to share. Women who have been involved, or tried to be involved, in free culture encounter hostility, not as a universal rule but as a recurrent pattern. It’s certainly not that Joseph Reagle is the first person to point out that free culture is systematically hostile to women — women have been saying this for a long time. But the evidence he collects is one more persuasive tool to put in the toolbox for convincing the naïve that yes, geek culture has a sexism problem. In the long term, though, we won’t have made any progress if people in the dominant group only believe women’s experiences when a male academic documents them.

It’s not just women who have been saying it, either. What Reagle doesn’t mention is that queer, trans, and genderqueer people in open-source share many of the same experiences that women do. In my opinion, like most transphobia and homophobia, that’s collateral damage from a fundamental hatred of anyone perceived as departing from a constructed heterosexual, cis male ideal — and that includes cis and trans women, as well as queer men and genderqueer and gender-creative people. (The omission of queer and gender-non-conforming people’s experiences could be due to a lack of written sources documenting it; there are various reasons why people in gender, sexual and romantic minorities might talk about their stories in a forum that lacks a permanent record.)

What makes me sad about all of this is that I still want to be around intellectually curious and playful people who are passionate about learning and making things (though, ideally, ones who don’t limit their inquiry to a single narrow specialty). I still want to have peers who inspire me to be and do more. I still love nerd humor when it isn’t mixed up with brogrammer racism and sexism. But what keeps me out of spaces that attract people like this is that I’m tired of being erased, silenced, and talked over. When I say how uncomfortable I feel when someone is engaging in homophobic hate speech at my workplace, and I’m told that it’s not hate speech or that my reaction to it isn’t real or valid, that’s stressful for me. It makes me want to disengage from the whole community. I’m tired of my female friends and colleagues getting death threats. I’m tired of being told I have a victim complex if I talk back to the abuse that gets directed at me and my friends even if nineteen out of twenty times, I’m silent about it. (It’s actually when I’m acting the least like a victim — when I’m not passively accepting whatever abuse is directed my way — that other software people shame me for “playing the victim”.)

The Mythical Manarchist-Month

While “On being a geek” was an appreciated summary of ground familiar to me, I found the “Openness” section more novel. I was pleased to see that Reagle opened the section by referring to Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, because Freeman’s article resonates with me strongly in light of last year’s troubles at Mozilla.

In my opinion, though, Reagle leaves a few dots unconnected in his discussion of “‘bad apple[s]‘ and ‘poisonous people'”. If it’s really a minority of the community that (quoting our own Terri Oda) “actively hinder women’s participation by trying to derail discussions, make contributions significantly more time-consuming, or send inappropriate or even violent private messages to contributors”, then why are they allowed to effectively dominate the community by putting pressure on women to leave whenever they feel like doing so? I think it would be doing a disservice to everyone to ignore the role of the majority of male contributors in the community, who stand back and watch, who fail to exercise effective moderation in discussion forums, who lack the courage to confront other men who are being actively sexist. It is also a disservice to everyone to ignore microaggressions. The ultimate effect of death threats or a constant stream of little reminders that no one feels obligated to include you (like co-workers addressing a mixed-gender group as “guys”) is to make out-group members feel like they’re just not wanted. “Good” people (people who think of themselves as tolerant, polite, and considerate), not just toxic “bad apples”, can engage in microaggressions. And even “good” people often get unnecessarily defensive when called on behavior they weren’t aware was a problem. There’s a fine line between recognizing the disproportionate power of a small number of belligerent people in the open-source community, and using that an excuse for other people to do nothing in response.

The section titled “Ideology” is perhaps the most challenging one to the cherished beliefs of open-source participants about themselves and their role in the political economy — Reagle tallies up a damning list of open-source idols (Stallman, Raymond, Wales…) and their Randian beliefs that would be amusing if we weren’t talking about men who so many people take seriously. Reagle’s insights on how an anarcho-libertarian ideology lends itself neatly to justifying the rightness of the existing gendered power structure are sorely needed. But again, I think he could have gone a bit further. The thing about freedom, at least the way it manifests today in open-source communities, is that it looks a lot like freedom from accountability, without freedom from the very real constraints that burden the many. It’s free as in freedom, not free as in beer, but I’ve started to hear “free as in free from consequences” when I hear open-source people use “free speech” as a reason to be abusive. It’s customary in both open-source and closed-source programming to use the legal mechanisms of licensing and copyright to absolve oneself of all consequences resulting from bugs in one’s software, as per the quotation from the GPL that I opened with. This is not where I want to debate the merits of that approach to the profession of engineering — I do want to ask what happens, though, when a programmer extends that approach to licensing into his personal life. What happens to a community when many of the individuals in it assert their right to “free speech” and thereby claim entitlement to shift responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Typically, when people feel entitled to make others pay the cost for their choices, the people who end up paying are people who the underlying social power structure places as subordinate. I’m using the pronoun “his” because people who are not socially recognized as men (specifically, white men) simply lack the power to do this.

One example of this freedom from consequences is the refrain that so many of us who speak out have heard, over and over, from our colleagues: “Have I offended you? Then the problem is that you’re so easily offended. Your feelings are your responsibility, and I have no obligation to not offend you. No one has the right to not be offended, and anyway, I’m an equal-opportunity offender, so if other people can take the heat, why can’t you? It must be because there’s something wrong with you. You really ought to lighten up, take a joke, get a sense of humor, not let those words have so much power over you, be less sensitive.” (The routine has become so standardized that Derailing for Dummies, as well as the Geek Feminism Wiki, catalog it.) How can these incantations of emotional blame-shifting be unrelated to the disclaimer of responsibility that appears in the GPL and other software licenses? If what characterizes the professional culture of software engineering is our refusal to own our work, what characterizes the after-hours culture of programmers is a refusal to own our words. It’s a culture of solipsism that makes minority group members into objects, designating people in the out-group as dumping grounds for the majority’s animus and need to mock the less powerful. Demanding that another person “be less sensitive” is rude, yet gets treated as polite. And because already-privileged people who make such demands get rewarded further (beginning with social acceptance), there’s little incentive for them to practice empathy.

The egocentrism I’m talking about isn’t just about dynamics between men and women. For example, Linus Torvalds’ public verbal abuse of Linux kernel contributors is an example of how open source culture also tolerates abuse directed by men at other men. (Sometimes it doesn’t just tolerate it, but even encourages it, as when bystanders comment “well, assholes get things done.”) Social hierarchies and displays of dominance are certainly alive and well in how men interact with each other; and because hackers often define themselves as beings of pure rationality and logic, they rationalize these hierarchies as “necessary” for “getting things done”. (I think we could also “get things done” if we recognized and accepted that as humans, we frequently act for emotional rather than purely “logical” reasons — and maybe even if we accepted that the dichotomy between emotion and reason is a false one.) That, however, does not mean that verbal abuse between men is just as intense for the recipient as verbal abuse directed at women by men. It doesn’t mean that verbal abuse between men gets excused as easily as abuse directed as women. And it doesn’t mean that there as just as many opportunities for a man to exploit another man’s vulnerabilities as for men to put women in their place. It could hardly be otherwise, given the wealth of experiences that women bring to interactions with men, of internalized messages that (even for those women who have worked hard to unlearn them) tell them that they deserve whatever abuse they get, that they really had it coming. It’s not that abuse is ever acceptable when directed at anyone of any gender. Rather, it’s that being punched in the face feels more intense than being tapped on the shoulder.

Ultimately, we have to ask whether the freedom to abuse people is one of the freedoms we value. Richard Stallman himself identified four freedoms when it comes to software: “the freedom to run the software, for any purpose”; “The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish”; “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor”; “The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.” (He notes that for the second and fourth freedoms, access to the source code is a prerequisite.) The freedom to be an asshole does not appear on this list. Rather, these values point to inclusivity (the freedom to run the software, as in: to be included in the community of people who get to use it) and altruism (helping your neighbor; helping the community by distributing a better version). (Perhaps the inclusivity part is a bit of a stretch — the freedom to participate does not explicitly appear, which may say something about what Stallman took for granted.)

Decades before, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about another set of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How often do you hear stereotypically privileged open-source guys talk about freedom from fear? As I’ve discussed, much of the dialogue that happens when hacker culture talks about diversity and inclusion is about laughing off the idea that anyone else’s fears might be reasonable. Likewise, techno-libertarianism has very little room for a discussion about freedom from want. There isn’t much time and space in hacker culture for freedom of worship, either — especially when you take a broad view of what “freedom of worship” means and interpret as freedom to believe in things that can’t be proven with logical rules from empirical facts (like the dignity and worth of each human being), without being punished for it through ostracism or in any other way.

In either case, “freedom to treat other people as if they don’t have feelings, or as if their feelings don’t matter” is not on the list. (Thanks to Leigh Honeywell for pointing out Stallman’s and Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and the parallels between them, to me.)

Diversity as Devaluation

I want to ask a question outright that Reagle at best hints at: Is the very nature of open-source, its fundamental ideologies and values, inherently bound up with the insulation of oneself from the collaborative social project of making progress towards equality?

Maybe the whole system by which people produce free and open-source software is designed to provide the same sort of cozy lifestyle that one can find by being a programmer writing proprietary software, but without all those nagging structures of accountability that one finds in the corporate world. Like policies against harassment and discrimination. It’s true that companies adopt those to protect themselves against lawsuits, not to be morally correct, but they do protect people. And open source is a world without that protection. Maybe comparing open-source and corporate proprietary software is the best experiment one can do to determine what measures attract or repel participation by women. We know that open-source projects have an even more lopsided gender balance, as a general rule, than proprietary projects mainly composed of people being paid by a corporation to work on them. Can that really be a coincidence?

In a community with no formal governing structures, it’s far easier for people to take advantage of whatever privilege and power they inherit from the underlying society. One form this power takes on is that of speech acts that dehumanize and objectify people, and appeals to “freedom of speech” to immunize the speaker from the consequences of their speech.

I think that the desire to make boob jokes with impunity is not the only reason why male open-source programmers would want to keep women out, though. After all, the sexist jokes and comments that tend to engage the “free speech” defense the most are rarely funny or interesting. I think sexist jokes and comments are actually a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We know that male-dominated professions tend to be more socially prestigious and more highly paid than female-dominated or even gender-balanced professions. This can’t be an accident; men’s social over-valuation and their disproportionate participation in work that people think of as important form a positive feedback loop. For example, consider doctors and nurses: no doubt, women originally got tracked into nursing since medicine wasn’t considered an appropriate profession for a woman (gotta keep that power out of the hands of women). But even now that women have been allowed to study medicine for quite some time, nursing continues to be a lower-paid and less-praised profession, in large part (as far as I can tell) due to the significant presence of women in it.

The thing about prestige-as-male-domination is that it’s fractal. For example, within medicine, it’s common knowledge that primary care providers are likely to be women, while doctors who work in the most prestigious and highly compensated specialties (e.g. neurosurgery) are more likely to be men. Likewise, within computer science and software engineering, both of which are male-dominated as a rule, it’s harder for women to gain entry into some fields than others. Anecdotally, those fields (within academic CS) are theoretical computer science, programming languages, and operating systems. Among non-academic programmers, open-source programming (especially systems programming) occupies the role that theory, PL, and systems do within academe: looked up to and highly valued. By contrast, self-styled expert programmers tend to disdain jobs in areas like Web development and quality assurance — that’s “women’s work”, to the extent that any software jobs are. Technical writing, as an occupation, is even more looked down on and even more open to women. Perhaps that devaluation is part of a more general distaste among programmers for documentation, which could allow outsiders to glean the in-group’s secrets. Writing documentation is also a form of teaching, which is also a traditionally female-coded profession, and also a profession that’s frequently looked down on. So that’s why it’s so important for men in the high-status subdisciplines to maintain their status by making sure women don’t enter and devalue their field. Keeping women out means keeping salaries high.

(Statistics backing up what I just claimed about medicine — at least for the US — are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges (PDF link): see table 3 on page 13, “Number and Percentage of Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2007″. The only specialty that’s majority-women is pediatrics; cardiovascular disease, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and a few other specialties are over 90% men. I don’t know of any similar reports about gender distribution (and salary distribution) within different areas of the software industry, so I don’t claim to be speaking any more than informally, based on what I’ve heard over the years.)

“It’s amazing the things women did to advance computing before it advanced to the point that we learned women don’t like computing.”
Garann Means

Before computers were machines, computers were women. Most of us know that part of the story. What I know less about, personally, was the specifics of the process by which men drove women out of the profession of computing as it, well, professionalized. I can guess that white middle-class dudes saw an easy desk job that potentially would pay well, and the rest is history. Without evidence (at least not any that I have handy right now), I claim that none of this was an accident. Expelling women from computing was essential to the historical process of the professionalization of software and hardware engineering. (I know that that’s roughly how it went down with the profession of medicine, as documented by Kristin Luker in her book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood: as “scientific” medicine arose, mostly-male doctors needed a way to push mostly-female midwives off the scene, and one of the ways they did that was by inventing the supposed immorality of abortion as a wedge issue.) For many men, a job just doesn’t have as much value if it’s a job that many women do too. And numbers don’t lie: jobs in male-dominated professions literally do have more financial value than jobs in more equal or female-dominated professions.

So arguably, open source is not just a different way to produce software. It’s also an experiment in building an alternative economy for status and peer review. At the same time as for-profit companies began to look harder at how to diversify themselves, how to create policies that would protect workers from sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination, the open source movement gained more and more momentum as a way to recreate all of the good bits of being a software engineer in industry (high social status, freedom, and money) without those annoying parts like human resources departments, processes, accountability, and rules (mostly rules to protect less-powerful members of the community). I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There’s one misinterpretation of this section that I’d like to head off before it starts. I’m not suggesting that some nefarious group of patriarchs got together, had a meeting about how to exclude women, and disseminated the memo in a lockstep, hierarchical fashion. That’s not how it works. There is no intelligent designer or invisible hand that makes sexist decisions — rather, sexism is an emergent and self-reinforcing pattern that arises from the choices of many individuals. Just as organisms in nature behave in predictable ways without there being any central evolution planning committee, people who study societies have observed that groups of humans often act out predictable patterns too. Of course, sociology and anthropology have different methods and different standards of evidence than biology and physics do, but the social sciences are the only tool we have for rigorously analyzing how groups of people operate. It would be silly and anti-intellectual to discard these disciplines in favor of nothing just because they aren’t like physics.

Finally, a note if you’re asking “where does the money come from in open source?”: more than a few businesses pay engineers (often quite well) to work on open-source software for either part or all of their working hours. (I work for one of them!) In addition, open-source work is frequently a gateway to lucrative jobs and to the kind of social connections that make it possible to found startups. “Free as in freedom” doesn’t mean people work for free, and seemingly more often than not, they do anything but.

Conclusions

Reagle ends his meticulously researched piece with a conclusion that appeals to me as an intersectional feminist: he says that to achieve the goals of openness of diversity, we can’t just focus on openness and diversity as goals (any more, I might add, than an individual can live a happy life by resolving to strive for happiness); we can’t make things better by focusing on a single axis. Just as severe gender imbalances are a symptom of a broken community, addressing root causes will increase diversity as a side effect. But we can’t ignore gender (or race, class, sexuality, or ability), either. Responding to Kat Walsh’s writing about Wikipedia, he says, “the language of being ‘more open and diverse in general’ is problematic. Seemingly, there is no ‘in general’ yet when it comes to notions such as ‘geekiness’, ‘openness’ and ‘freedom'”. I agree — during last year’s code of conduct discussions at Mozilla, some people protested the idea of what they saw as a bureaucratic document codifying standards of behavior with “Can’t we just all be nice to each other?” But being nice, as many people construe it, includes subtly undermining the value and place in society of women and people experiencing a variety of other intersecting oppressions. Likewise, the concepts of “geekiness”, “openness”, and “freedom” will not magically lose their gendered connotations — we have to actively work at it. We can’t build a world where gender doesn’t matter by pretending we’re already there.

Hacker culture is a personal topic for me, so my own conclusions can only be personal. When I was 16, I saw geek culture as something I had to become a part of because I didn’t know any other way to be the person I needed to be. Now that I’m 32, I’m increasingly afraid that it’s something I have to leave in order to be the person I need to be. I know now what I didn’t know when I was 16: that I can be free from constant misgendering, no matter what job I do. I also know what I didn’t know then: I need to be somebody who is kind, patient, willing to admit he’s wrong, and able to make space for other people to join in. I’m not sure if that’s compatible with being in the open-source community, while also having self-respect, dignity, and a place at the table.

Where this is more than just my personal dilemma, though, is that once, I wanted passionately to write open-source code, and now it’s a struggle for me to keep going; not because the nature of the work has changed (on the contrary, it’s gotten more fun as my understanding of it has deepened and my confidence has grown), but because either the culture has changed or I’ve become more aware of its shortcomings (or both). Wouldn’t you want to know about it if you were driving away potential contributors — or forcing them into impossible trade-offs? I don’t think anyone should have to choose between doing good work they love and feeling valued and respected as a human being.

Thanks to GF contributors Leigh, Skud, Sumana and Shiny; as well as Graydon Hoare, for their comments. Thanks to Debra “Teacake” for linking me to the statistics on gender distribution in medical specialties.

ETA Wed. Feb. 6th: Joseph Reagle posted a response to the responses, which is also worth reading.

Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Re-post: Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on November 12, 2012.

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?

Re-post: Thoughts on the “Dark Side” discussions

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on August 3, 2012.

I’ve been travelling this week, so it’s taken me a while to get around to this, but as founder of the Geek Feminism wiki and blog I wanted to respond to the posts by Nice Girl, Rikki Endsley, and others linked and listed in this post.

To Nice Girl and Nixie, I want to say I am sorry this happened to you at OSCON, and that you were made to feel unwelcome by people who identified themselves with the Geek Feminism community. It’s provoked a lot of discussion among us, and we agree — inasmuch as a loose affiliation of people with no official structure can agree on anything — that it’s not in keeping with the values we wish to espouse.

We are taking a few different steps to address the specific concerns raised. One is that we are reviewing our wiki pages to make sure that we have information on slut-shaming and that it is appropriately cross-linked with articles about sexualised environments at geek events to help reinforce/educate people that criticising an individual woman’s choice of clothing is very different from criticising (for instance) a business that uses booth babes as a marketing device.

The second thing is that we are setting up a process so that people can contact us if they experience harassment by someone associated with GF. This is a work in progress, especially since GF is (as mentioned) a loose affiliation with no official membership, and because we may be asked to deal with harassment that occurs outside our own spaces. However, if someone is harassing another person under GF’s name or in a way associated with GF, then we want to provide a private way for people to contact us, and respond appropriately.


Now, on a more general note, I would like to address a few of things I’ve seen mentioned lately.

Firstly, Geek Feminism — like feminism in general — is not monolithic or homogenous. People come at it from all kinds of perspectives and with all levels of experience. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to say what tenets or beliefs we hold as a group.

As a short list, people who have publicly associated themselves with Geek Feminism (eg. by being a regular blogger or frequent wiki contributor) include: men, women, trans and genderqueer people, married people, single people, polyamorous people, monogamous people, parents, childless people, people of colour, mixed race people, immigrants, people of a variety of religions or no religion, people with disabilities, heterosexual, bisexual, gay and lesbian people, asexual people, people with > 20 years experience in technical fields, members of the “digital generation”, students, academics, unemployed people, people who wear suits every day for work, professionally published writers, artists and crafters, community managers, open source developers, people who work with proprietary/non-open source software, gamers (online and off), science fiction fans, anime and manga fans, vegetarians and vegans, femmes, butches, androgynous people, people who have worked as sex activists and educators, people who produce erotica/porn, people with PhDs, people with no degree, introverts, extroverts, people on the autism spectrum and off it, people with other mental health diagnoses… I said it was going to be a short list so I’d better stop now. And these are just among the “regulars” I can think of; when it comes to our wider community, including people who read our blog or regularly refer to our wiki or support us in some other way, I can’t even begin to imagine the range of backgrounds and perspectives. (Which is not to say that our diversity is perfect — we certainly have clusters where some backgrounds/perspectives outweigh others — but that we are not all alike in our views or opinions.)

A while ago I was talking to Mary, offline, about how we would define Geek Feminism. We weren’t really able, though we came up with a few ideas to characterise the style of feminism that tends to happen around here. We never published them or really took them anywhere because, again, they’re not entirely representative, though I think they do give a little insight into the overall tendencies of this community. So, I present them here, but ask that you take them with a big grain of salt and do please feel free to disagree or suggest other ideas if you have them.

  • Documentation: our main tactic is to document things. To some extent this grows out of my original (very personal and individual) reason for starting the GF wiki back in 2008: I was making an effort to learn more about women’s experiences in geek communities and to contextualise that within the framework/jargon that feminism had already developed in non-geek contexts. My tendency when learning something new is to write documentation to help cement the idea in my own mind and to (hopefully) be of use to others in the future. And so, I created the wiki, which has been fairly central to GF since then.
  • Scientific/logical: without trying to imply that everything we do follows the scientific method and is peer reviewed (because it’s obviously not) I do think we have a more science-friendly approach than many other branches of feminism. Some feminists tend to see science as a tool of the patriarchy, and distrust it by default, whereas we more often believe in science as a Good Thing even if we might criticise the methodology of participar research. As geeks, we also tend to fall more towards the “logical” end of the logical-emotional spectrum than is common among women and in other branches of feminism — noting, of course, that the very divide between logical and emotional is a cultural construct! We also communicate easily using scientific language and concepts.
  • Minority women environments: Most of us operate in minority-women environments (eg. tech industry, online gaming, science fiction fandom) which makes for a very different style of feminism from majority-women movements. As minority feminists, we talk a lot about “increasing the number of women” or “making a space welcoming for women” and we deal most often with issues of invisibility, marginalisation and harassment. Women in majority fields, on the other hand, have to face issues like having their work recognised as “real” work, and being fairly remunerated for it. These differences lead us to make all kinds of assumptions about who our community of interest is and what strategies/tactics work for us.

Again, I think these are just tendencies and I want to be clear that I’m trying to be descriptive not prescriptive here, but I do think those ideas are indicative of the way GF tends to think and operate as a community.

I don’t think we can say much beyond that. Many of GF’s regular posters try to operate with an awareness of intersectionality, but I don’t think we could claim it as universal; many of us consider ourselves sex-positive, but probably not all; many of us have left-leaning politics, but then again I haven’t polled everyone so who knows. My point, I suppose, is that when we talk about “what Geek Feminism does” or “what Geek Feminism is” let’s remember that it’s a large, diverse community and that generalisations tend to fall flat.


I’ve identified as a feminist for most of my life, but I only recently started really learning about (and, I hope, starting to understand) the complexities of it.

Like many feminists before me, I went through a stage of “girl stuff is icky”. I thought that feminism was about levelling up into male-equivalent privilege: being allowed to do boy things, being treated as one of the boys, being paid as much as men were. I eschewed anything feminine, and thought I was morally superior for doing so.

In my time, I’ve been a fan of all kinds of problematic media, up to and including Robert Heinlein, and not seen anything wrong with them. I’ve said things that were racist, ageist, ableist, transphobic, and, yes, sexist. I still do sometimes. Sometimes I’ve done it right here on the GF blog. At times I’ve been called on my *-ism, and deflected or derailed or made some excuse for it. I might be doing that right now — it’s hard to tell, actually, because defensiveness is such a natural reaction, and so hard to recognise and correct for.

Like everyone else, I grew up in a deeply sexist society, and I was trained from childhood to be a part of it. That training takes deep hold, and stays with you for life. We call it internalised sexism.

Someone said to me the other day, “I can’t imagine anyone from GF saying those things to Nice Girl”. I can. I might have said them myself. I might even still say them myself, if I were tired and/or cranky and/or had had a couple of drinks and/or wasn’t carefully filtering what came out of my mouth — all things that tend to happen to me at OSCON (which, to be clear, I didn’t attend this year or last.) I might have blurted something out, thinking I was being funny or making an in-joke, then realised a moment later that I was being a jerk and then not known how to gracefully extract my foot from my mouth.

It happens. It happens to all of us. Every feminist is on a steep learning curve when it comes to this stuff, and we’re all constantly battling our way up that hill while carrying all the baggage of our upbringing in a sexist society.

So to those people who say it couldn’t have happened: of course it could. To those who say it shouldn’t have: you’re right. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that the person saying it wasn’t a feminist, or that feminism (or Geek Feminism) is broken because of it. Saying that internalised sexism is the “Dark Side” of (Geek) Feminism is like saying that bugs are the “Dark Side” of Linux. Sure, Linux has bugs, but the point is that the community is committed to solving them together when they show up.


Another idea I want to touch on is that of the Overton Window, which is the narrow band of political thought that is considered reasonable/non-extreme. Someone actually introduced me to this idea early in my GF days and I’ve found it very helpful.

Unlike most other women-in-technology or women-in-whatever groups, GF explicitly identifies as feminist, right there in the name. Lots of people find this challenging, threatening, or overly strident. I’m okay with that.

I remember more than a decade ago, when the LinuxChix group first started. If I recall correctly, it was the first community for women within open source/free software. There was enormous negativity towards it at the time, and lots of people thought it shouldn’t exist, as if the very idea of a women’s group was threatening. These days, “X Women” groups within open source are commonplace. What changed? Well, one part of it is that LinuxChix and some of the other groups have been around for a while, and everyone’s got used to them. But I think another part of it is that, compared to strident activist groups like Geek Feminism, a mailing list for women to support each other and maybe a dinner at the annual conference seems pretty mild and unthreatening.

We see the same thing with harassment policies at conferences. The Ada Initiative’s Conference Anti-Harassment Policy project (hosted on the Geek Feminism wiki) is fairly uncompromising in how it defines harassment and how it suggests dealing with it. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a few cases where conferences have been lobbied by their attendees/speakers/members to adopt the policy, and have said “We don’t want to, because it’s too strict. But we’ll write our own policy instead.” Then they publish a policy or a “diversity statement” which is less firmly worded. Much as GF people might roll their eyes at this and say it’s wishy-washy and unactionable, the fact is that a conference just made some kind of statement about diversity and/or standards of behaviour, when they hadn’t before, and that that statement had seemed — in comparison to the GF version — to be uncontroversial. Think back a few years, and you might remember that even the mildest of diversity statements was a big deal. Now it’s commonplace.

That’s the Overton Window shifting. By being strident activists, we open up room behind us for moderates to say, “Well, I’m not as extreme as them, but I think we should do something.”

So, overall, when someone says that GF is too loud, too strident, too extreme, too pushy, I tend to consider it a feature not a bug. Feminism, and any political movement, needs people to be loud and pushy so that the moderates can look moderate.


Finally, I’d like to talk about “the opposition to Geek Feminism” that Bruce mentioned in his post. Geek Feminism — feminism in general — already has an opposition. It’s called the kyriarchy. It’s nothing new; we’ve been dealing with it forever.

What we have here is feminists (some self-identified as such, some not, but I don’t know how to describe them otherwise) from different communities/backgrounds/allegiances disagreeing over implementation details. This is common, and happens in all political communities. When it comes to feminism, people often trade on these disagreements to paint the whole movement in a bad light: see, for example, the so-called “Mommy Wars”.

Let’s please try and remember that there is room under the feminism umbrella for many feminisms. In fact, diversity in feminist tactics, just as in communities in general, is a strength. Not everyone has to agree with GF or take part in our community, though we do hope that some of the resources we provide are of use to other groups regardless of their focuses and methods.

It’s trite, but I’m going to ask that we remember that we’re all on the same side. While there are still people sending death threats to women in the geek community, no feminist group is “the opposition” to another.


In re: comments… I’m still travelling, and am going to be out and about with only my phone for the rest of the day, and on a train with limited Internet tomorrow. I apologise in advance if my responses are slow.

Re-post: A Problem With Equality

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 5, 2012.

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I’m going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I’m an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I’m not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don’t have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I’m writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I’ll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don’t feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don’t understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I’ve written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla (“Planet” from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community — both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers — who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: “The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members.” Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear — some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag “research”. My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don’t show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don’t read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This post appeared on Gerv’s personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I’ve only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don’t have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: “Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don’t expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election.” Another Homozilla member wrote, “Even at work, we’re not free from being reminded that some say we’re different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else”, which is something that I agree with and that I’ll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv’s post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I’ll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv’s must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla’s mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it’s really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla’s reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, “represents the views of individual community members” and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users’ understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that’s the responsibility of the interface designers — they should have made the interface less confusing — rather than the user’s fault. That’s because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they’re wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company’s values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I’ve written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is “universal marriage”) and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there’s so much that’s already been said about universal marriage that I don’t feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv’s post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that's possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won’t talk much about Gerv’s original post. I don’t mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I’m going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression — systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries — were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word “oppression” is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla’s projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don’t just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software — and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me — because it is home to me, and I don’t have another home. If you’re still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire “free speech” policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask “In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?”

To some people, the language of “oppression”, “abuse”, and “victims” may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like “only words”, words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn’t make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don’t exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don’t intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you’re still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don’t intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I’m writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I’ve just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I’ve tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • “Why are you talking about power so much? I don’t have power over you.” Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • “How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?” Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • “Don’t you think it’s rather harsh, describing your pain as ‘oppression’? Isn’t that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?” Here’s what “oppression” means to me, and why I don’t see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • “Is it really that bad, what happened? Can’t you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you’re so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you’re saying?” These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • “No, really, is it that bad?” Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I’m inferior is painful, and I’ve tried to explain what that’s like.
  • “So what should we do about it?” I don’t have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • “What does all of this have to do with Mozilla’s mission? And why are you being so critical?” My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I’ve written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we’re stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad — if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself — isn’t there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are — based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on — is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do — engaging in anti-social behavior — is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they’re willing to observe community standards; to do what’s best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don’t see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I’m being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it’s no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I’m disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people’s objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I’m also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the “free speech” argument. The majority must not determine minority rights — that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn’t end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members’ contributions. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn’t see the leaders do that — instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who’s capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it’s their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one’s freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that’s legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer’s computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the “free speech” argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one’s speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be “everyone”, not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism — to be used as a last resort — for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn’t need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there’s no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who’s willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don’t get why we can’t build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we’re doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.

Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?

A Problem With Equality

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I’m going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I’m an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I’m not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don’t have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I’m writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I’ll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don’t feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don’t understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I’ve written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla (“Planet” from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community — both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers — who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: “The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members.” Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear — some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag “research”. My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don’t show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don’t read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This post appeared on Gerv’s personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I’ve only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don’t have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: “Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don’t expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election.” Another Homozilla member wrote, “Even at work, we’re not free from being reminded that some say we’re different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else”, which is something that I agree with and that I’ll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv’s post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I’ll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv’s must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla’s mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it’s really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla’s reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, “represents the views of individual community members” and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users’ understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that’s the responsibility of the interface designers — they should have made the interface less confusing — rather than the user’s fault. That’s because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they’re wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company’s values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I’ve written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is “universal marriage”) and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there’s so much that’s already been said about universal marriage that I don’t feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv’s post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that's possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won’t talk much about Gerv’s original post. I don’t mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I’m going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression — systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries — were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word “oppression” is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla’s projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don’t just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software — and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me — because it is home to me, and I don’t have another home. If you’re still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire “free speech” policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask “In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?”

To some people, the language of “oppression”, “abuse”, and “victims” may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like “only words”, words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn’t make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don’t exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don’t intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you’re still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don’t intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I’m writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I’ve just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I’ve tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • “Why are you talking about power so much? I don’t have power over you.” Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • “How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?” Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • “Don’t you think it’s rather harsh, describing your pain as ‘oppression’? Isn’t that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?” Here’s what “oppression” means to me, and why I don’t see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • “Is it really that bad, what happened? Can’t you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you’re so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you’re saying?” These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • “No, really, is it that bad?” Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I’m inferior is painful, and I’ve tried to explain what that’s like.
  • “So what should we do about it?” I don’t have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • “What does all of this have to do with Mozilla’s mission? And why are you being so critical?” My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I’ve written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we’re stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad — if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself — isn’t there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are — based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on — is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do — engaging in anti-social behavior — is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they’re willing to observe community standards; to do what’s best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don’t see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I’m being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it’s no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I’m disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people’s objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I’m also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the “free speech” argument. The majority must not determine minority rights — that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn’t end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members’ contributions. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn’t see the leaders do that — instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who’s capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it’s their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one’s freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that’s legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer’s computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the “free speech” argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one’s speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be “everyone”, not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism — to be used as a last resort — for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn’t need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there’s no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who’s willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don’t get why we can’t build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we’re doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.

Thoughts on the “Dark Side” discussions

I’ve been travelling this week, so it’s taken me a while to get around to this, but as founder of the Geek Feminism wiki and blog I wanted to respond to the posts by Nice Girl, Rikki Endsley, and others linked and listed in this post.

To Nice Girl and Nixie, I want to say I am sorry this happened to you at OSCON, and that you were made to feel unwelcome by people who identified themselves with the Geek Feminism community. It’s provoked a lot of discussion among us, and we agree — inasmuch as a loose affiliation of people with no official structure can agree on anything — that it’s not in keeping with the values we wish to espouse.

We are taking a few different steps to address the specific concerns raised. One is that we are reviewing our wiki pages to make sure that we have information on slut-shaming and that it is appropriately cross-linked with articles about sexualised environments at geek events to help reinforce/educate people that criticising an individual woman’s choice of clothing is very different from criticising (for instance) a business that uses booth babes as a marketing device.

The second thing is that we are setting up a process so that people can contact us if they experience harassment by someone associated with GF. This is a work in progress, especially since GF is (as mentioned) a loose affiliation with no official membership, and because we may be asked to deal with harassment that occurs outside our own spaces. However, if someone is harassing another person under GF’s name or in a way associated with GF, then we want to provide a private way for people to contact us, and respond appropriately.


Now, on a more general note, I would like to address a few of things I’ve seen mentioned lately.

Firstly, Geek Feminism — like feminism in general — is not monolithic or homogenous. People come at it from all kinds of perspectives and with all levels of experience. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to say what tenets or beliefs we hold as a group.

As a short list, people who have publicly associated themselves with Geek Feminism (eg. by being a regular blogger or frequent wiki contributor) include: men, women, trans and genderqueer people, married people, single people, polyamorous people, monogamous people, parents, childless people, people of colour, mixed race people, immigrants, people of a variety of religions or no religion, people with disabilities, heterosexual, bisexual, gay and lesbian people, asexual people, people with > 20 years experience in technical fields, members of the “digital generation”, students, academics, unemployed people, people who wear suits every day for work, professionally published writers, artists and crafters, community managers, open source developers, people who work with proprietary/non-open source software, gamers (online and off), science fiction fans, anime and manga fans, vegetarians and vegans, femmes, butches, androgynous people, people who have worked as sex activists and educators, people who produce erotica/porn, people with PhDs, people with no degree, introverts, extroverts, people on the autism spectrum and off it, people with other mental health diagnoses… I said it was going to be a short list so I’d better stop now. And these are just among the “regulars” I can think of; when it comes to our wider community, including people who read our blog or regularly refer to our wiki or support us in some other way, I can’t even begin to imagine the range of backgrounds and perspectives. (Which is not to say that our diversity is perfect — we certainly have clusters where some backgrounds/perspectives outweigh others — but that we are not all alike in our views or opinions.)

A while ago I was talking to Mary, offline, about how we would define Geek Feminism. We weren’t really able, though we came up with a few ideas to characterise the style of feminism that tends to happen around here. We never published them or really took them anywhere because, again, they’re not entirely representative, though I think they do give a little insight into the overall tendencies of this community. So, I present them here, but ask that you take them with a big grain of salt and do please feel free to disagree or suggest other ideas if you have them.

  • Documentation: our main tactic is to document things. To some extent this grows out of my original (very personal and individual) reason for starting the GF wiki back in 2008: I was making an effort to learn more about women’s experiences in geek communities and to contextualise that within the framework/jargon that feminism had already developed in non-geek contexts. My tendency when learning something new is to write documentation to help cement the idea in my own mind and to (hopefully) be of use to others in the future. And so, I created the wiki, which has been fairly central to GF since then.
  • Scientific/logical: without trying to imply that everything we do follows the scientific method and is peer reviewed (because it’s obviously not) I do think we have a more science-friendly approach than many other branches of feminism. Some feminists tend to see science as a tool of the patriarchy, and distrust it by default, whereas we more often believe in science as a Good Thing even if we might criticise the methodology of participar research. As geeks, we also tend to fall more towards the “logical” end of the logical-emotional spectrum than is common among women and in other branches of feminism — noting, of course, that the very divide between logical and emotional is a cultural construct! We also communicate easily using scientific language and concepts.
  • Minority women environments: Most of us operate in minority-women environments (eg. tech industry, online gaming, science fiction fandom) which makes for a very different style of feminism from majority-women movements. As minority feminists, we talk a lot about “increasing the number of women” or “making a space welcoming for women” and we deal most often with issues of invisibility, marginalisation and harassment. Women in majority fields, on the other hand, have to face issues like having their work recognised as “real” work, and being fairly remunerated for it. These differences lead us to make all kinds of assumptions about who our community of interest is and what strategies/tactics work for us.

Again, I think these are just tendencies and I want to be clear that I’m trying to be descriptive not prescriptive here, but I do think those ideas are indicative of the way GF tends to think and operate as a community.

I don’t think we can say much beyond that. Many of GF’s regular posters try to operate with an awareness of intersectionality, but I don’t think we could claim it as universal; many of us consider ourselves sex-positive, but probably not all; many of us have left-leaning politics, but then again I haven’t polled everyone so who knows. My point, I suppose, is that when we talk about “what Geek Feminism does” or “what Geek Feminism is” let’s remember that it’s a large, diverse community and that generalisations tend to fall flat.


I’ve identified as a feminist for most of my life, but I only recently started really learning about (and, I hope, starting to understand) the complexities of it.

Like many feminists before me, I went through a stage of “girl stuff is icky”. I thought that feminism was about levelling up into male-equivalent privilege: being allowed to do boy things, being treated as one of the boys, being paid as much as men were. I eschewed anything feminine, and thought I was morally superior for doing so.

In my time, I’ve been a fan of all kinds of problematic media, up to and including Robert Heinlein, and not seen anything wrong with them. I’ve said things that were racist, ageist, ableist, transphobic, and, yes, sexist. I still do sometimes. Sometimes I’ve done it right here on the GF blog. At times I’ve been called on my *-ism, and deflected or derailed or made some excuse for it. I might be doing that right now — it’s hard to tell, actually, because defensiveness is such a natural reaction, and so hard to recognise and correct for.

Like everyone else, I grew up in a deeply sexist society, and I was trained from childhood to be a part of it. That training takes deep hold, and stays with you for life. We call it internalised sexism.

Someone said to me the other day, “I can’t imagine anyone from GF saying those things to Nice Girl”. I can. I might have said them myself. I might even still say them myself, if I were tired and/or cranky and/or had had a couple of drinks and/or wasn’t carefully filtering what came out of my mouth — all things that tend to happen to me at OSCON (which, to be clear, I didn’t attend this year or last.) I might have blurted something out, thinking I was being funny or making an in-joke, then realised a moment later that I was being a jerk and then not known how to gracefully extract my foot from my mouth.

It happens. It happens to all of us. Every feminist is on a steep learning curve when it comes to this stuff, and we’re all constantly battling our way up that hill while carrying all the baggage of our upbringing in a sexist society.

So to those people who say it couldn’t have happened: of course it could. To those who say it shouldn’t have: you’re right. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that the person saying it wasn’t a feminist, or that feminism (or Geek Feminism) is broken because of it. Saying that internalised sexism is the “Dark Side” of (Geek) Feminism is like saying that bugs are the “Dark Side” of Linux. Sure, Linux has bugs, but the point is that the community is committed to solving them together when they show up.


Another idea I want to touch on is that of the Overton Window, which is the narrow band of political thought that is considered reasonable/non-extreme. Someone actually introduced me to this idea early in my GF days and I’ve found it very helpful.

Unlike most other women-in-technology or women-in-whatever groups, GF explicitly identifies as feminist, right there in the name. Lots of people find this challenging, threatening, or overly strident. I’m okay with that.

I remember more than a decade ago, when the LinuxChix group first started. If I recall correctly, it was the first community for women within open source/free software. There was enormous negativity towards it at the time, and lots of people thought it shouldn’t exist, as if the very idea of a women’s group was threatening. These days, “X Women” groups within open source are commonplace. What changed? Well, one part of it is that LinuxChix and some of the other groups have been around for a while, and everyone’s got used to them. But I think another part of it is that, compared to strident activist groups like Geek Feminism, a mailing list for women to support each other and maybe a dinner at the annual conference seems pretty mild and unthreatening.

We see the same thing with harassment policies at conferences. The Ada Initiative’s Conference Anti-Harassment Policy project (hosted on the Geek Feminism wiki) is fairly uncompromising in how it defines harassment and how it suggests dealing with it. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a few cases where conferences have been lobbied by their attendees/speakers/members to adopt the policy, and have said “We don’t want to, because it’s too strict. But we’ll write our own policy instead.” Then they publish a policy or a “diversity statement” which is less firmly worded. Much as GF people might roll their eyes at this and say it’s wishy-washy and unactionable, the fact is that a conference just made some kind of statement about diversity and/or standards of behaviour, when they hadn’t before, and that that statement had seemed — in comparison to the GF version — to be uncontroversial. Think back a few years, and you might remember that even the mildest of diversity statements was a big deal. Now it’s commonplace.

That’s the Overton Window shifting. By being strident activists, we open up room behind us for moderates to say, “Well, I’m not as extreme as them, but I think we should do something.”

So, overall, when someone says that GF is too loud, too strident, too extreme, too pushy, I tend to consider it a feature not a bug. Feminism, and any political movement, needs people to be loud and pushy so that the moderates can look moderate.


Finally, I’d like to talk about “the opposition to Geek Feminism” that Bruce mentioned in his post. Geek Feminism — feminism in general — already has an opposition. It’s called the kyriarchy. It’s nothing new; we’ve been dealing with it forever.

What we have here is feminists (some self-identified as such, some not, but I don’t know how to describe them otherwise) from different communities/backgrounds/allegiances disagreeing over implementation details. This is common, and happens in all political communities. When it comes to feminism, people often trade on these disagreements to paint the whole movement in a bad light: see, for example, the so-called “Mommy Wars”.

Let’s please try and remember that there is room under the feminism umbrella for many feminisms. In fact, diversity in feminist tactics, just as in communities in general, is a strength. Not everyone has to agree with GF or take part in our community, though we do hope that some of the resources we provide are of use to other groups regardless of their focuses and methods.

It’s trite, but I’m going to ask that we remember that we’re all on the same side. While there are still people sending death threats to women in the geek community, no feminist group is “the opposition” to another.


In re: comments… I’m still travelling, and am going to be out and about with only my phone for the rest of the day, and on a train with limited Internet tomorrow. I apologise in advance if my responses are slow.

helmet

How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference

Guest blogger Courtney Stanton explains how she organized a game developer conference with 50% women speakers. Stanton is a project manager for a video game company in Boston, and long-time feminist scourge of the computer game industry. Her work has been featured on GF several times. Follow her on Twitter at @q0rt.

Hi! In case we’ve never met, the elevator pitch for me goes something like: interactive media/videogames/project management/social justice/interior design/travel/semi-hatred of conferences. Like, *for real* I am not an enjoyer of conference content most of the time, despite going to several of them every year. I always end up sitting in a room listening to the same four straight white men agree with each other on some panel, and then I wander over to the expo floor where a person who doesn’t know anything about the product hands me a flyer and a pen Oh and if I’m *really* lucky, I’ll have paid over a thousand dollars in travel expenses and registration fees.

And so I put on my Ambition hat and decided that rather than complain on Twitter endlessly (well…in addition to, I guess), I should put together a conference for game developers, just to see if it was possible to make one that I would actually attend with enthusiasm. I ended up calling it No Show Conference, because it’s not about pageantry, glitz, or any of the “slick” stuff I see at a lot of conferences. Here, have a link: noshowconf.com

My Criteria:
– Not a bajillion dollars to register
– Don’t make attendees use vacation time just to show up
– Different entry fee/access level for hobbyists/newbies/students/broke friends
– Nothing included should be a waste of time, including the traditional expo hall
– Have an anti-harassment policy and train volunteers on enforcing it
– No panels

And then, because I am sneaky, I also had a secret agenda.

Unstated Criteria:
– Try to get as many women on stage as I possibly could

Since I was the one who made the conference up, I’ve got total control over setting price, etc, so all of my stated criteria have been very easy to enact so far. But getting women in the lineup at game conferences is seemingly difficult, given that so few events even have women speaking at all. I run a monthly networking group in Boston for women in the game industry and their allies, so I know the issue (at least locally) isn’t that there aren’t enough women with innovative, interesting things to say. What gives?

The easiest way I saw for getting more women on stage at the actual event was to get as many women to submit speaking proposals as possible. Selecting presentations was done without speaker information associated with the titles and pitches, so I wasn’t able to “reserve” spaces in the program for anyone based on aspects of their identity — and I wasn’t interested in that sort of reservation system for this event, anyway. It’s a come-one-come-all event for game industry professionals, so more than anything I wanted a really strong set of talks, even if that meant I ended up with, sigh, yet another roster of all dudes.

So! Getting women to submit content: easy? Um. When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

I promised mentoring, I promised practice sessions, I promised one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have spent hundreds of hours speaking at conferences. I emailed my Women in Games Boston group, I attended events and encouraged groups of women in person, I sought women out online, I met with women over coffee. I encouraged/begged them to consider translating the hours and hours I’d spent with them in the past talking about their careers, their specialties, their ideas, into a 45-minute presentation. I told them how much I respected their reputations and their ideas and that I’d be thrilled if they had the time or interest in submitting a talk.

Did every woman respond like that? No. But it was very much the minority situation, me promoting the conference and having a woman say, “oh, okay, does [concept] sound like a good fit?” and then them actually turning around and submitting a proposal. One or two women versus every single man who submitted content. (Also, while I have spoken either in person or online with every woman who submitted, several of the proposals submitted by men were guys I’d never met.)

We ended up getting 18 submissions (8 women, 10 men) for 10 planned slots. In between launching the conference and selecting talks, the keynote speaker I had lined up fell off the face of the planet, but super-conveniently for me, one of the submitted talks was a scorchingly good topic for a keynote, so kaboom, problem solved. Then, I couldn’t get the final selection list down to 10. I had 11 and they were all great, covering things I hadn’t seen presented elsewhere. So I reworked the conference schedule, made room for the extra presentation, and called it a win. What we’ve ended up with is a speaker lineup of 6 men and 6 women and *I swear that was not planned* but hey, it’s convenient for my thesis that you can put together a games conference for the industry at large and still get more than one token woman in your lineup.

Having a non-trivial number of women submitting presentations seems to have made it so that a non-trivial number of women are speaking at No Show Conference. Imagine that.

Huge giant HOWEVER: I came away from the process of promoting and recruiting potential speakers with a bitter, unwilling sympathy for event organizers who say, “there aren’t any women speaking because no women applied.” Like oh em gee y’all. I am hoping that this year’s conference is successful enough that I can make it an annual event, and that these months of cheerleading will have planted some idea seeds that I reap when it comes time to wave the pom poms and encourage speaker submissions next year. I’m hoping that the women speaking this year will in turn encourage other women to apply.

I’m hoping I run into fewer women who self-reject their ideas before I even get a chance to read them.

So hey, I was hoping to get some women on stage and it looks like that was achieved! Hooray! …Hooray? Wellll…while I am really, really pleased with our speaker lineup and our session content, I realize that this is not Nature’s Perfect Conference (yet). But I figured the only way to find new problems was to get some of these recurring, obvious ones out of the way. (And I didn’t even set out to tackle *all* of the obvious diversity problems, just the one I felt I’d be most likely to succeed at this time around.) It’ll be really cool when I, as a white person, figure out how to promote speaker submissions more/more effectively to people of color in my industry. Likewise with QUILTBAG game developers and thinker-types. I think I lucked out somewhat in our venue this year from an accessibility standpoint (ramps, elevators, handicap stalls in all the bathrooms), but I definitely wouldn’t claim that I’ve covered all the bases of accessibility for potential attendees (yet) Short version: I’m not perfect, neither is this event, but I am looking for ways to make it better and more open to all people working in games, both this year and in future years. And in the meantime, at least I’m putting on a conference where a version of myself from another dimension wouldn’t sit in the audience tweeting, “oh hey, a panel with a bunch of dudes on it, how novel.”