Tag Archives: education

Wuthering Linkspams (14 September 2014)

  • [warning for discussion of violence, rape threats, suicide] They Are Not Trolls. They Are Men. | Rosie at Make Me a Sammich (Sept 9): “By calling these people “trolls,” we are basically letting them off the hook. It’s a lot like the “boys will be boys” mentality that helps to keep rape culture thriving, but it’s also different, because boys are expected to be human. By calling these people “trolls,” we relegate them to non-human status, and we make it clear that we don’t expect them to live up to the same behavioral standards as human beings.”
  • Researcher loses job at NSF after government questions her role as 1980s activist | Jeffrey Mervis at ScienceInsider (Sept 10): “In August 2013 she took a leave from Union College to join the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director in its Division of Undergraduate Education. And that’s when her 3-decade-old foray into political activism came back to haunt her. [...] Barr was grilled for 4.5 hours about her knowledge of three organizations [Women's Committee Against Genocide, the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence, May 19 Communist Organization] and several individuals with ties to them, including the persons who tried to rob the Brink’s truck [in 1981 near Nyack, New York].”
  • [warning for discussion of sexual harassment] After the Shermer Article: What Do You Decide? | Stephanie Zvan at FreeThoughtBlogs (Sept 11): “This news story contains accounts of three women, named and well-known in skeptic and atheist circles, who say that Michael Shermer engaged in sexual behavior aimed at them without their consent. How many incidents of that sort are you willing to put your reputation behind? That’s what you do when you continue to employ Shermer, entwine your name and reputation with his. If now is not the point when you feel having that name and behavior associated with yours is bad for you, when does that happen?”
  • 17 Rare Images Tell the Real Story of Women in Tech | Michael McCutcheon at Mic (Sept 9): “Tech isn’t a male dominated field, in many respects. Women are responsible for some of the core innovations that drive the Internet today. It’s increasingly important to remember as we read the disquieting stats about the industry. Diversity seeds creativity and it’s possible that women approach the development of tech in slightly different ways that, when combined with others’, helps produce a more powerful Internet. It’s why having more women in tech, and recognizing and celebrating their accomplishments that began over a century ago and continue today, is vital to producing a more powerful future.”
  • [potentially NSFW content] Breasts without Photoshop violate community standards | Sam B at Fit Is a Feminist Issue (Sept 11): “We were banned from Facebook, sent to the virtual time out chair in the corner, for 24 hours. I was also forced to scroll through pages of rules about content and about community standards and then tick boxes promising my photos didn’t contain nudity. Mostly tedious. But I confess I’m a bit riled about what got me banned: ‘Bare Reality: 100 women and their breasts’ A hundred women have bared their breasts and their souls as part of a project to further understanding of how women really feel about their breasts, and how they really look.”
  • Women’s education in Hogwarts (before the first wizarding war) | The Postmodern Potter Compendium (Aug 6): “Question: What are your thoughts on the education of women in the wizarding world? Authorial assumption: Possibly antiquated, similar in nature to education of non-magical British women in the 1800s or so – most conservative people with the least contact with muggle world did not develop that much when women are concerned – given that the wizarding world separated from the muggle world in 1689-1693.”
  • Mother Gothel’s design makes me uncomfortable | Not Your Ex/Rotic (Sept 10): “Her dark, thick, curly hair, her sharp nose, and the way her features are generally perceived as more “ethnic” in comparison to all the other human characters in Tangled – it all reminds me of an archetype for Jewish women”
  • [potentially NSFW content] 23 Female Cartoonists On Drawing Their Bodies | Kristen Radtke at Buzzfeed (Aug 12): [illustrations] “So what happens when women draw their own bodies in a medium that has represented them so poorly? While graphic books published by men each year still outnumber those by women, the exclusionary landscape of American comics has been called into question. From blockbuster successes like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, to rising indie artists and vibrant online communities, female cartoonists are producing some of the most exciting work in the genre.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; 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.

Solicitation on flipping the script

This is a guest post by April Wright. April is a graduate student in evolutionary biology at the University of Texas at Austin. When she’s not crunching data at her computer, she teaches courses for novice biologists so they can learn some computation. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, gaming, running with her dogs and spending time in the kitchen. You can get ahold of her at her website or Twitter.

So I wrote a blog post that went a little bit viral the other day. And a lot of people have asked in the past couple days what can be done to improve the atmosphere at programming meetings. I’ve been chewing on that pretty substantially.

I’ve had a lot of good discussions over the past couple days (help yourself to warm fuzzies here).

Reader bioatmosphere made a very good point in the comments, pulled out below:

The burden to fix things shouldn’t be on you just because you’re experiencing them

She’s right, of course. And that reminded me of this post by Cate Huston, which closes with a section called “Changing the Conversation”. I’ll copy the crucial bit (do read the whole thing, though) below:

Are you doing meaningful work?

Do you feel appreciated?

Do you feel respected?

And I’m going to tack on one more:

Do you feel like you’re part of something?

Because I think that’s what really got me: I felt like I was part of something, then I didn’t. It’s not just being snubbed that hurts, it’s a sense of loss of a community I kinda thought I fit with.

Since I have some ears bent towards me for a bit: People who feel integrated in communities and happy at meetings, what about it? What about these communities and meetings that makes you feel appreciated? Or respected? Or part of something? And what could you do to help someone else feel that?

Get at me via whatever channel preferred. [Mod note: while we normally do not encourage anonymous comments, they are acceptable on this post. Please note that your IP address will be logged, but is only visible to blog administrators.]

NAND and NOR gate sketch, coincidentally in the shape of a heart

Hacker School Gets an A on the Bechdel Test

NAND and NOR gate sketch, coincidentally in the shape of a heart

NAND and NOR gate sketch, coincidentally in the shape of a heart – by me this week

cross-posted from Cogito, Ergo Sumana

When part of the joy of a place is that gender doesn’t matter, it’s hard to write about that joy, because calling attention to gender is the opposite of that. I want to illustrate this facet of my Hacker School experience: mostly, Hacker Schoolers of all genders talk about mostly the same things. And we talk about them in all gender combinations — including, just by chance, among women.

The “Bechdel Test” asks whether a work of fiction includes at least two women with names who talk to each other about something other than a man. Thus in my blog I have an occasional series listing topics I’ve discussed with other women. My life passes the Bechdel Test! ;-)

So here is an list of some things I’ve discussed with Hacker School women. (About half the facilitators, cofounders, participants, and residents are women.)

Some Things Hacker School Women Talk About

  • why LVars and set operations relate to current work in distributed systems
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • IRC etiquette, and when to use IRC instead of a mailing list, videocall or wiki
  • troubleshooting git-review
  • the Haiku operating system’s key features (many of them similar to BeOS)
  • refactoring a function a guy wrote so it doesn’t do everything in main() (technically breaks Bechdel?)
  • whether to work at a nonprofit or for-profit
  • where is that maple syrup smell coming from? (answer: someone was making oatmeal)
  • our GitHub report cards
  • how to use machine learning techniques to train a Markov chain to generate funnier sentences
  • how the hell Makefiles work
  • what the hell a cuticle is
  • binary search and Huffman coding
  • saving time with useful Python standard library modules (string, time, os, etc.) and packages, e.g., requests
  • Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
  • where pip gets its info (PyPI)
  • the Pythonic convention for reading from a file, with open('file','r') as f, and the fact that it’s a context manager
  • when and how to use list comprehensions and dictionary comprehensions, generators and decorators, ord and chr
  • why we use pass for stub functions or classes instead of return
  • birth control amortization
  • how you would override Python’s default behavior to raise an exception when slicing a list with a negative int
  • how to write a hill-climbing algorithm and why
  • G.K. Chesterton’s use of the mystery genre
  • what the #! (hashbang) line at the beginning of a script actually does
  • song currently stuck in one’s head (“Gettin’ Jiggy Wid’ It”) and confusing “Wild Wild West” with “Back To The Future III”
  • what it takes to work remotely
  • security issues inherent in creating a sandboxed version of an interactive Python interpreter
  • who put this post-it note on the fridge saying “No Java on Monday”? When? Did the author mean the beverage or the language? Was it descriptive or imperative? Why did they never take it down?
  • an awesome 1982 Bell Labs video about UNIX featuring Lorinda Cherry

I could make this list probably ten times longer. My point is, if you don’t care about gender, Hacker School is awesome. If you’re irritated by the tech industry’s usual gender crap, Hacker School is blissfully free of it and you can — if you want — turn into someone who doesn’t care about gender for three months.*

You can apply now for the next batch — apply by Saturday night, December 14th.

* an oversimplification! But you get what I mean.

To my daughter’s high school programming teacher

This is a guest post / cross-post from Rikki Endsley who tweets as @rikkiends and is community manager for USENIX in addition to being a tech writer. See also the original post for other comments and the follow-up: What could possibly go wrong?

Trigger Warning: mentions of threats violence and rape

Dear sir,

I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages (Visual Basic? Seriously??) or about the A my daughter earned in your class. And, actually, my daughter had no specific complaints about you as a teacher. I, on the other hand, have plenty of feedback for you.

First, a little background. I’ve worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She’s been a beta tester (and bug finder) for Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope release), and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro. (I know, I know … kids today.)

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for “spring break”, attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC ’12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter’s Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May — two years early — and is now attending high school in India as her “gap year” before heading off to college.

So what’s the problem?

During the first semester of my daughter’s junior/senior year, she took her first programming class. She knew I’d be thrilled, but she did it anyway.

When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. “Well, I’m the only girl in class,” she said. Fortunately, that didn’t bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys in class. My daughter said that you noticed and apologized to her because she was the only girl in class. And when the lessons started (Visual Basic? Seriously??), my daughter flew through the assigments. After she finished, she’d help classmates who were behind or struggling in class.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC ’12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men boys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

My September 8, 2010 post, Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall, discussed illegal gender discrimination in tech. The next day, comments started popping up on the post. Sure, the sandwich comments were easy enough to shrug off at first, but within a few minutes, the comments increased in numbers and intensity. And then the threats of violence started: “The author of this article is a whiny bitch and needs a good beating to be put in her place.” Ten minutes later, the rape threats began, and I shut down our comments site-wide. And then the emails started…

So, you see, I was all too familiar with what my daughter was going through, but I was unprepared for the harassment to start in high school, in her programming class.

I consulted with friends — female developers — and talked to my daughter about how to handle the situation in class. I suggested that she talk to you. I offered to talk to you. I offered to come talk to the class. I offered to send one of my male friends, perhaps a well-known local programmer, to go talk to the class. Finally, my daughter decided to plow through, finish the class, and avoid all her classmates. I hate to think what less-confident girls would have done in the same situation.

My daughter has no interest in taking another programming class, and really, who can blame her.

For her entire life, I’d encouraged my daughter to explore computer programming. I told her about the cool projects, the amazing career potential, the grants and programs to help girls and women get started, the wonderful people she’d get to work with, and the demand for diversity in IT. I took her with me to tech conferences and introduced her to some of the brightest, most inspiring and encouraging women and men I’ve ever met.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you, sir, created a horrible one for girls in computer programming.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

I’m no teacher, so forgive me if you think I’m out of place when it comes to telling you how to do your job. But I am a mother, and I’ve spent years encouraging girls and women in IT, so perhaps my perspective will help you. After all, you didn’t mean to create a brogrammer-to-be environment, did you?

Here are seven suggestions for teaching high school computer programming:

  1. Recruit students to take your class. Why was my daughter the only girl in your class? According to her, she only took the class because I encouraged it. My daughter said she wouldn’t have known about the programming class, otherwise. (I’m adding this to my “parenting win” page in the baby book.) Have you considered hanging up signs in the school to promote your class? Have you asked the school counselors to reach out to kids as they plan their semesters? Have you spoken to other classes, clubs, or fellow teachers to tell them about why programming is exciting and how programming fits into our daily lives? Have you asked the journalism students to write a feature on the amazing career opportunities for programmers or the fun projects they could work on? Have you asked current students to spread the word and tell their friends to try your class?
  2. Set the tone. On the first day of class, talk about the low numbers of women and lack of diversity in IT, why this is a problem, and how students can help increase diversity in programming. Tell students about imposter syndrome and how to help classmates overcome it. Create an inclusive, friendly, safe learning environment from day one. I thought this was a no brainer, but obviously, it’s not.
  3. Outline, explain, and enforce an anti-harassment policy.
  4. Don’t be boring and out-of-date. Visual Basic? Seriously?? Yes, I know I said I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages, even though I’m still scratching my head on this one. The reason I mention your choice is that it doesn’t help you make a good first impression on new programmers. I have no idea what my teen learned in your class because she wasn’t excited about it. Without touching your minuscule class budget, you can offer a range of instruction with real-world applications. With resources like Codecademy, for example, students could try a variety of programming languages, or focus on ones they find interesting. Have you considered showing kids how to develop a phone app? Program a Raspberry Pi? Create a computer game? Build a website? Good grief, man — how were you even able to make programming boring?
  5. Pay attention. I don’t know what you were doing during class, but you weren’t paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed that my daughter was isolated and being harassed. Do you expect girls to come tell you when they are being harassed? Well, don’t count on it. Instead, they pull away, get depressed, or drop out completely, just like they do in IT careers. You want to know what happens when women speak up about verbal abuse or report harassment? Backlash, and it’s ugly. Best case, she’ll get shunned by classmates or colleagues. And hopefully she won’t read any online comments…ever. But it can get much worse, with the vulgar emails and phone calls, and home addresses posted online, and threats of violence. Sadly, this isn’t rare; this happens all the time, from high school on up into our careers. Don’t believe me? That’s because you aren’t paying attention.
  6. Check in. Talk to your students in private to see how class is going for them. Talk to other teachers or school counselors. Had you talked to my daughter’s counselor, for example, you would have known how class was going. The counselor worked closely with my daughter to help her graduate early, and she would have had no problem getting an honest answer about my daughter’s unpleasant experience in your brogramming class. Did you expect me to call you? Believe me, I wanted to, but I also respected my daughter’s request to let her handle the situation. And see number 5. Had I told you how class was going for my daughter, her situation would not have improved, and might have gotten even worse.
  7. Follow up. At the end of the semester, take a survey. Allow students to submit anonymous online answers to questions about the class material, your teaching methods, and their experience with other students. Allowing anonymity will help you get honest answers and, hopefully, you can improve your programming class for your next round of students.

Look, you don’t have to tell me how hard your job is or how underpaid and overstressed you are as a high school teacher. I’m a single mother working in tech publishing — believe me, I get it. I like to think what I do is important, but what teachers do has the potential to change the world. No article I write will ever do that, but the daughter I raise might.

I spent 16 years raising a daughter who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of my years of encouragement.

I always told my daughter that high school isn’t real life. Unfortunately, your programming class proved otherwise. In one semester, my daughter learned why there are so few women in IT, and no amount of encouragement from me is going to change that.

EDIT: Rikki has posted this update:
As I said, my daughter is in India for a year, so she didn’t see this article until Wednesday, September 11. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about me sharing her story and all the attention it received. Luckily, my daughter thanked me for writing about her experience. I asked her whether she had any corrections for the article. “Um, maybe tell them that I did actually talk to the teacher and I tried to tell the guys to quit being jerks,” she said. “He told the principal, and it was really embarrassing, which is probably why I didn’t tell you. And I gave up after that,” she explained. My daughter said that, after bringing the problem to the teacher’s attention several times, she finally asked him whether she could talk to the entire class about sexual harassment, he told her he’d think about it, and that’s when he reported the situation to the principal. “And a couple days later I was in the principal’s office being explained to that it wasn’t my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears.” Before my daughter signed off our online chat, she asked me why I wrote about her story now. I told her about Alexandra, the nine-year-old girl who presented her app at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and the titstare app developers who shared the same stage. “Well, I’m sorry that crap happened … to both of us,” she said. I am, too.

Tech confidence vs. tech competence

This is a guest post from Alex, who is a volcanologist in their spare time. When not messing about with rocks in their underground lairlab, they can often be found shouting about trans (especially genderqueer) rights, earlier diagnosis of endometriosis, and books with dragons in.

Content notes: sexism, abuse

My dad was among the first cohorts to graduate in Computer Science at a prestigious university back when the course was introduced. Every single person I’ve been involved with long-term – and some of my major interests along the way – has been a computer scientist. Over the course of my life, I’ve frequently chosen to hang out with programmers; in my early-to-mid teens, I spent a slightly worrying amount of time on Netnews (yes, as distinct from Usenet). I grew up in the Silicon Fen. I half-joke that I was brought up by the Internet; I’ve just graduated with an MSci in physical sciences from a similarly prestigious institution.

And it wasn’t until 2012 that I first wrote code.[1]

Hello, everybody. My name’s kaberett, and I’m a Dreamwidth volunteer.

Code. It’s used in my field: it’s a vital component of modelling. I’ve spent my life surrounded by coders and design architects, by people whose reaction to “nothing exists that does what I want” is “okay, I’ll build one, then”; whose reaction to “I’m bored” is “what can I make?” And still: it was 2012 before I wrote any code.

Sadly, I think there’s a pretty obvious first-order explanation for this: I was assigned female at birth, and socialised accordingly. I spent my childhood being torn down by my computer-programmer father for “not having learned [that] yet,” or for answering questions “too slowly” at dinner, or being told I’d “never get a job if…” or being yelled at about how valuable his time-that-I-was-wasting was.

Does this mean I think all programmers are like him? No. Did it mean I was too scared to use the (theoretically) best resource available for me to learn from? Yep! And it landed me with a whole bunch of other issues. Asking for help with maths was right out – and so, really, was asking for help with anything. I’d acquired the conviction that I’d be belittled and torn to shreds, and that any information I did get would have more to do with building up my “instructor”‘s ego than my own knowledge base.

That experience is what I’m bringing to the table here. That, and a whole lot of reading, about the issues with diversity in FLOSS culture – and some more first-hand experience, this time with a place that is, by all accounts, doing it right.

And here’s what I suggest: in terms of getting high-quality code written by a diverse community, line-for-line my gut says that tech confidence is much more important than (perceived) tech competence.

Let’s pause a moment, while I define my terms. I use (perceived) tech competence to mean, broadly, the (perceived) ability to identify and fix a problem (without use of external resources). I use tech confidence to signify the belief that this is something that one can do – or learn to do, if one doesn’t know how to yet: it’s about trusting yourself to be able to figure it out, and trusting your community to help you rather than deride you if you ask questions.[2]

And that, right there, is where we stumble straight back into the issue of the meritocracy: the idea that a competitive environment – in terms of number of lines of code written, or features rolled out, or bugs squashed – is more important than one that values every contribution and every contributor.

Meritocracies are inherently broken, and competitiveness – while sometimes healthy – also erects an enormous barrier to beginning volunteers and coders. An ivory-towered culture of enthroned experts – one that enforces the idea that you must have a high level of technical knowledge to be worth talking or listening to – makes many people afraid to ask questions. This in turn makes learning slower and knowledge transmission harder, and leaves the group more likely to land in a situation where the only person who understands how to do what Sam does is, well, Sam. And that’s a problem – when Sam becomes ill, or they take a holiday, or they decide they don’t want to be involved any more, or sometimes they die. This is something that’s seen over and over again in, for example, the field of graptolite studies.


Let’s take a diversion, actually. Graptolites are an enormously important extinct species, most a couple of inches long at the outside, and they more-or-less resemble saws. Their diversity and steady morphological evolution – and the fact that they were found in all oceans on the planet – makes them superb for establishing relative ages of sedimentary rocks in the geological record. Problem is, there’s hundreds of species of the little sods, differing in such minutiae as how many thecae (saw teeth) they have per centimetre, the percentage overlap between thecae, the extent of curvature… which is all fascinating, except for the fact that the most recent illustrated catalogue of known species? Was published, as a serial, in 1901. (Want to know about some awesome scientists, incidentally? Look up Gertrude Lillian Elles and Ethel Mary Reader, née Wood.)

Do you know how many species have been reclassified since 1901?

Answer: a lot.

And so your best bet for identifying a particular graptolite is, if you’ve got one, to hunt down your local expert and get /them/ to do it for you.

And then, in the way of all flesh, they die – and you find yourself waiting for the next generation of experts to develop their eyes, because none of them write any of this down.


One of the things I’m spending a lot of my volunteer time on at the moment is encouraging Dreamwidth’s new volunteers (affectionately referred to as “babydevs”). This means, in practice, that I’m spending a lot of time writing documentation: how to do things that Everyone Knows, so that there isn’t the entry barrier of perceived “wasting senior devs’ time with trivialities”; so that we get consistency of explanation; so that we are more welcoming.


As I’ve said, pretty much my entire experience of volunteer work in the FLOSS world is at Dreamwidth, where I’ve been encouraged, throughout, to get started, to ask questions, and to seek help. Dreamwidth values my broader contributions to the project just as much as it values any code: I’m valued as much for tagging our incoming suggestions for features, adding to our volunteer wiki, putting together lists of easy-to-tackle bugs (“babydev bait”), and for end-user support, as I am for what coding I do. And that’s important: I got embedded in the volunteer culture well before I started trying to learn new skills, and the encouragement and support I got for that made me believe that I’d have the same level of encouragement and support if I attempted to branch out. It’s not just me this helps, or people who are new to coding: we also make space for people who already can code, but haven’t yet found time to contribute to any project due to other obligations. We’re always working on making public records of this: for example, our wiki entry on Things Real Dreamwidth Programmers Do is a relatively recent invention.

And all of this is crucial, not just to my own personal growth (which – obviously – I’m very grateful for!), but to Dreamwidth’s success as a FLOSS project. It is not focussing, first and foremost, on tech competence: instead, we work towards fostering tech confidence, through creating a culture where babydevs know that senior devs have their backs; a culture where people feel able to ask questions of the broader community, in public as well as in private; a culture where people learn how to test and debug and Not Give Up; a culture where our co-founders own their mistakes, and do so publicly, so that nobody has to feel alone. When people get discouraged, we give them pep talks. We remind people that it’s okay to learn visibly, instead of having to pretend to be entirely competent all of the time. Everyone can learn from the mistake that anyone makes – and mistakes are caught soon after they happen, so consequences can be minimised.

This is in stark contrast to communities where tech competence is valued above all else: where people feel they have to hide their mistakes. In such settings we routinely observe low volunteering rates from people in marginalised groups, with low retention from beginning volunteers, because people are too scared to ask for help or too scared to admit that they don’t know how things work. This isn’t unique to FLOSS cultures, of course – I’ve just finished a degree at a university regularly ranked in the top 5 globally, and I am appalled by the way in which this institution pushes people towards poorer understanding through militating against asking “basic” questions. It’s a habit that leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstandings lead to bugs, and it’s generally an all-round disaster, in which nobody wins.

So: please, if you want to promote diversity in your volunteer base, consider fostering an atmosphere conducive to tech confidence. It makes spaces more pleasant to occupy, and it produces real tech competence. Looking at things this way round? Well, I can’t see any losers.

[1] That’s not quite true – when I was 12 I spent a fair bit of time messing around with basic HTML and CSS to individualise Neopets profiles. But: it wasn’t standards-compliant; I wasn’t learning the languages as a whole, or even really their grammar; and it was a very structured sandboxed environment, where even very basic efforts were encouraged.

[2] Compare and contrast with the Perl virtues of laziness, impatience and hubris – except that “confidence” has the negative connotations of “arrogance”, because we are, in many cases, taught that it is bad and wrong to be able to accurately assess our capabilities and state them clearly – and it is especially wrong to reassess our abilities in the light of new information.

Interdisciplinary computer science at Mills College

This is a guest post by Ellen Spertus, who is a professor of computer science at Mills College and a senior research scientist at Google. She has been active in geek feminism since 1991, when she released a widely distributed report on women in computer science. Her many publications include a chapter in She’s Such a Geek, and she has contributed to several open source projects, including the software behind the Systers mailing list and App Inventor. She is perhaps best known, however, for being named Sexiest Geek Alive in 2001.

Everyone knows that the computer science pipeline leaks women. Once a young woman decides not to take computer science courses in high school or in college, it is hard for her to reenter the pipeline, and earning a PhD in computer science after a bachelor’s degree in sociology, for example, might seem impossible, even though an interdisciplinary background might make someone a better computer scientist.

In 1984, department head Lenore Blum (who has continued to be a leader in women and computer science) founded the New Horizons certificate program at Mills for women and men with bachelor’s degrees in other fields. (The graduate programs at Mills are coed.) It consists of eight undergraduate computer science courses and prepares students for either careers in industry or for graduate study in computer science. Certificate students have been admitted to computer science PhD programs at MIT, University of Virginia, University of Washington, and other schools.

The more revolutionary program, however, is the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Computer Science (ICS), founded a few years later, which aims to build on students’ past background and not just supplant it with computer science. In addition to more demanding coursework, ICS students need to complete an interdisciplinary thesis that combines computer science with another field, usually their prior one. For example, Erica Rios, who had a background in political activism, developed a technology-enhanced community organizing model to raise consciousness among Latinas over the value of their unpaid household work. Jeri Countryman developed and deployed a computer science curriculum for middle-school girls and went on to work for Techbridge and Iridescent on tech outreach programs for girls. Amy Dewey, whose undergraduate degree was in dance, developed a database to preserve swing dance moves and routines. Whenever a student proposes a thesis topic, I always ask two questions: First, what is the computer science content? Second, what about it couldn’t be done by someone trained only in computer science, like myself? I like to make the point that, rather than being deficient for not having an undergraduate CS background, their diverse experience enables them to accomplish things impossible for a more traditional computer scientist.

Appropriately, the Mills motto is “One destination, many paths”. Students have entered the program through various means and at various stages of life. Constance Conner had partied her way through college, ending up in low-paying dead-end secretarial jobs, where she became the expert on the dedicated word processing machine and early spreadsheets and databases. After a cocktail party conversation with a Mills graduate at age 30, she entered the ICS program part-time. Her first summer internship paid more than twice what she was making at her secretarial job ($15/hour vs. $7/hour). After graduating, she had five industry job interviews and got five offers. She accepted one, which paid well but that she found “uninspiring”. When an ICS alumnus, Allan Miller, remembered an interest she had once expressed in teaching and let her know about a part-time teaching position at College of San Mateo, she jumped at the chance to teach, something she had always wanted to do. In 1995, with the help of another ICS alumna, Dana Bass, she began working full-time at City College of San Francisco, one of the country’s largest community colleges, where she’s taught computer programming to an estimated 400 students/year.

One of Constance’s students, Karina Ivanetich was working in a bike shop after earning a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Sociology from the University of Virginia and pursuing her goal of mountain biking for a few years. She was planning to just learn programming but was so inspired by the material—especially compilers, which Constance frequently mentioned in the introductory programming class—that she entered the ICS program. ICS led to opportunities for her to participate in machine translation research at the University of Pittsburgh and to intern at Google and Wind River, where she implemented an instruction scheduler for their compiler. She is now a Senior Engineer in their compiler team.

Lisa Cowan learned to program as a kid and found it “super fun” but majored in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, not taking any computer science classes but “noodling around” on the pre-web Internet via dial-up. She found work at a start-up and realized she wanted a career in computing, so she entered the ICS program, where she appreciated the small class size and the camaraderie among the students — very different from Berkeley. After Mills, Lisa earned a PhD in computer science at UCSD, applying her anthropology background to studying mobile social media and human-computer interaction.

Alison Huml had planned to major in science at UC Berkeley but got off to a discouraging start. On the first day of her honors chemistry class, she was the only woman in the section. Before she could take a seat, the TA tried to redirect her to the general chemistry class down the hall. Alison stayed in the course but decided to major in English instead, graduating summa cum laude. She worked as a tech writer during the Internet boom but knew that she wouldn’t go far without an understanding of computer science, so she entered the ICS program. She has since co-authored books on the Java programming language and led writing and product management teams at Google, where she is now employed.

Other graduates (and drop-outs) of the program have gone on to work at Apple, Disney, Google, IBM Research, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Splunk, as well as many smaller companies. Marianne Marck is currently Senior VP of Software Engineering for Starbucks. It is tremendously rewarding as a faculty member to help students go from unfulfilling jobs to creative, high-paying ones, even if their starting salary sometimes exceeds mine as a
professor.

My ulterior motive in writing this guest post is to reach Geek Feminism readers and their friends who might be interested in entering the program or applying for our visiting industry faculty position. I can honestly say that feminism is front and center at Mills, a women’s college. Most of the Mills administrators and faculty, including the president, provost, and all of the full-time computer science faculty are women (by happenstance, not design); male faculty are equally committed to women’s advancement. The school is diverse in race, national origin, and sexual orientation, and has a growing awareness of issues faced by transgender and gender non-conforming students and advocacy for their full inclusion. (Editor’s note: Current students at Mills who have questioned administrators about policy have alleged that Mills continues to have an unofficial policy of rejecting women undergraduate applicants whose government-issued identification documents have a male gender marker. Updated to add 5 September 2014: In August 2014, Mills published a written policy making it the first officially trans-inclusive women’s college in the U.S.) Our biggest problems are (1) finding potential students, since they don’t know that a program like ours exists and (2) keeping them after they get great job offers before finishing the program.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

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 17, 2012.

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
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wall-mosaic

Re-post: The Gap and the Wall

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 April 1, 2012.

Last week APM’s radio program, Marketplace, did a story with Freakonomics about the patent gap between men and women. Women are responsible for only about 7.5% of patents in the US. That doesn’t surprise me. What is interesting about this story is that the presenter points to research that shows that when women compete with men they tend to perform worse (not just in comparison with men) than when they compete with women only. He casually recommends that companies like Google allow or encourage women to segregate themselves so that they can attain their full potential without being affected by the gender interaction.

Does this sound familiar? This is the case being made for sex segregated education. Women passionately defend girl’s schools and women’s colleges as safe and nurturing spaces for young women to learn and grow, and I am sure that they often are. My concern is, specifically, with engineering. To my knowledge, there is no women’s college in the US which grants a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I know that some women’s colleges cooperate with a neighboring university so that their students can attend engineering classes, but when women students attend classes at a coed school, they are no longer participating in a women only program. Women may perform better when they are segregated, but the truth is that the real world isn’t segregated and I don’t want it to be. Sooner or later men and women are going to have to work together. I would prefer we change the things that contribute to poor performance by women when working in the presence of men instead of removing all the men.

Do you think you would do better work if you could work in Lady-Land without the Male Gaze? If we are open to segregation why not also look at quotas? Both systems are interfering with “supposed” pure merit systems in an effort to even the playing field.

If you accept that the composition of the community affects the performance of the individual members and you are willing to change the composition of the community to allow some members to perform better then why not move the community to parity as opposed to segregation? Why not require that women need to make up a certain percentage of management and the workforce? I would like to see how women perform when they are represented equally at all levels of an organization.

Game of Linkspam (20 November, 2012)

  • Not Getting It: Men, Women, and ‘Stalk Your Friends’ Apps | This Ain’t Livin’: “The gist of the argument is that it’s going to happen anyway and is already happening, so people shouldn’t object to it. Such statements betray an extreme lack of understanding about what it is like to live as a woman or someone read as a woman in this society.”
  • Outreach Program for Women internships | live.gnome.org: “This page contains the general information about the Outreach Program for Women internships, which are available with a number of Free and Open Source Software organizations from January 2 through April 2, 2013. Please read the information about the application process on this page first, and then see organizations’ pages for the project and mentor information.”
  • Newcomer experience and contributor behavior in FOSS communities – Survey: ”The goal of this research is to understand how a person’s experience as a newcomer to a Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) community influences that person’s behavior and contributions within that community. I am interested in hearing from people who are either technical or non-technical contributors, and who have had either positive or negative newcomer experiences.”
  • Gender in the Hidden Curriculum | Sociological Images: “Gender is an important element of the hidden curriculum. Schools reinforce larger cultural messages about gender, including the idea that gender is an essential characteristic for organizing social life.”
  • Nominate a Gift | UltraViolet: “Ever shopped for a gift for a young girl? It seems like the only options out there are super stereotypical little girl–all pink, princess-themed, and sparkly. There are great toys, books and movies out there–gifts that show powerful, healthy images of girls and women, but it can be really hard to find them. That’s why we’re asking UltraViolet members to help us put together the first ever UltraViolet Holiday Gift Guide: A 21st Century Guide to Non-sexist Holiday Shopping. Do you know of an empowering toy, game, DVD, book, or other gift to recommend for the guide? Submit it here.”
  • The academic jungle: ecosystem modelling reveals why women are driven out of research | Oikos – Wiley Online Library: A little old (June 2012), but it looks like we missed it when it was new. “Two key differences between men and women are the larger role that women play in childcare and house work in most families, and the narrower window for female fertility. Here we explore how these two factors affect research output by applying a common ecological model to research performance, incorporating part-time work and the duration of career prior to the onset of part-time work. … We use the model to provide insight into how women (and men) can pursue a career in academia while working part-time and devoting substantial time to their family…. We also identify how university leaders can enable part-time academics to flourish rather than flounder. ”
  • Am I right ladies | sailorswayze: Comic on being a girl who’s into comics
  • Responses to a sexist rant from Tony Harris
    • And then they came for the cosplayers… | The Beat: “The truth is at comic-cons I’ve seen plenty of men flapping around with their franks and beans hanging out of their tights. Does anyone question whether they are nerds or comics readers or have a pull list or are just trying to get their rocks off by showing their rocks off?”
    • Why, Tony Harris? | The Teresa Jusino Experience: “Suddenly you’re mind-readers and you know for a FACT that if a girl is hot (or even “quasi-hot”, whatever the fuck that means) she couldn’t POSSIBLY find you attractive, or like what you like, or think you’re a cool person, or want to be nice to you because she actually WANTS to be, not just because she wants attention. That shit, like, never happens. Because all hot people are shallow. Shallow is kind of defined by judging people based on appearances without looking deeper (not deep, hence shallow)….aren’t you being just a mite shallow RIGHT NOW, YOU HYPOCRITE?!”
    • An Open Letter to Tony “Effing” Harris: Cosplay Misconceptions and Misogyny |  NerdCaliber: “In fact the only people I have ever come in contact with who had NO idea about the character they were portraying and wearing skimpy little sexy outfits were professional models hired by corporations, as well as indie companies, to try and drive traffic to their sites and booths, and at least they are very up front about this. Much like you when you say “Sorry, while you Cos”Play” I’m actually at work. Thats my office,” well, so are they.”

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.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
Continue reading