Tag Archives: education

FLOSS inclusivity: pragmatic, voluntary, empowering, joyous

Lucy Connor’s “Diversity at what cost?” and Benjamin Otte’s blog post on equality got me thinking about the backlash against diversity and outreach initiatives in open source. Specifically, I sometimes see arguments that inclusivity

  • is a slippery slope into coercion and quotas
  • should not be a FLOSS value, or
  • competes with the core mission of his/her software project.

In response to Otte’s thoughts on whether the principle “all men are created equal” stands in opposition to core GNOME and Fedora goals, I said in part:

The words “equality†and “inclusive†can be easy to misinterpret. Advocates often use them as a softer way of saying “don’t be sexist/racist/etc.†and “let’s give due consideration to people we’re inadvertently leaving out.†Perhaps [critics] are misreading this suggestion as greed for market share, or conflating cowardice with the intention and practice of thoughtful inclusivity.

Yes, it is an important principle that all people deserve to be treated equally *by the law*, and as an ideal to reach toward, it’s laudable. However, it’s a straw-man argument to suggest that advocates for equality and inclusion propose that all seven billion people’s opinions should have equal relevance in every endeavor and choice.

Every organization has a specific mission, such as “change the government’s policies to improve the environment†or “maintain an excellent Linux distribution with cutting-edge innovations.†This is its “value proposition,†in US English. It embodies some of its core values. The Fedora project is indeed facing a tension between its value proposition and one facet of inclusivity — suitability for novice users. But there are many other aspects to inclusivity and an interest in equality, such as accessibility, nonsexist language, university outreach, and documentation. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You may also be interested in http://geekfeminism.org/2009/11/29/questioning-the-merit-of-meritocracy/ for thoughts on meritocracy in FLOSS.

… If you simply find any good product unstylish as soon as a certain proportion of the population starts to benefit from it, that strikes me as needlessly snobbish, and implies a misanthropy that will permanently be opposed to even the least controversial inclusivity initiatives.

We linkspammed Connor’s piece a few days ago, and commenter koipond noted:

I hear the sentiment, but it’s kind of missing the point. No one is saying “Diversity at all costs†where they want to force people in who don’t want to be there. It’s more a case of trying to break down the barriers that prevent people who might be interested but see a toxic morass and refuse to swim in the pool.

My comment was along similar lines:

When I read http://geekfeminism.org/ or the http://geekfeminism.wikia.com wiki, or listen to the women on the Systers mailing list, I don’t hear a general and undifferentiated “WE MUST GET MORE WOMEN INTO FLOSS†or tech agitprop agenda. I see lots of initiatives to help underrepresented groups — African-Americans, women, people from developing countries — get in on the joy and empowerment of hacking.

I think there is a separate argument to be made that everyone, of every gender and from every socioeconomic, ability and ethnic background, should be generally technically literate, which means being able to code a “hello world†in some decent language and feeling empowered to modify their computing environment a little. To extend the analogy, I know it ruined your [Connor's] enjoyment of Model UN when the teachers forced everyone to participate, but you’re not against the goal of everyone learning a little about how international politics works.

And because these sexist behaviors and attitudes keeping women out of high-status and high-paying professions are just now starting to fade, it’s important to take an extra look at seemingly innocuous traditional attitudes to make sure they don’t conceal yet more barriers and discouragement. As Kirrily Robert pointed out in her OSCON keynote, the community as a whole grows organically and benefits greatly from (voluntary, of course) women’s participation:


Like you, these advocates like helping people. Check out http://gnomejournal.org/article/88/the-un-scary-screwdriver for an example of the kind of noncoercive, entirely opt-in outreach that most advocates, well, advocate.

As I noted to Connor: Sure, coding, and open source work, are not really intrinsically appealing to lots of people. But because there are so very many external factors keeping interested girls and women away from tech careers and open source, I’m comfortable prioritizing breaking those down, so that maybe in fifty years people’s intrinsic interests will shine naturally through. And then we’ll talk and see what interesting patterns show up.

From comments: hacking the patriarchy

The last linkspam has a comments thread about the difficulties geeky women can have exploring, explaining, attacking or changing sexist patterns in geekdom due to not having ready access to feminist or anti-oppression ideas and language.


Whenever I read about tech conference incidents which involve using the sexual objectification of women to teach technology to men, I find that the bloggers who protest have a lot of difficulty expressing themselves and articulating why it’s wrong. They often complain about the “sex†or “half-naked womenâ€, and the terms “sexual objectification†or “dehumanization†are not in their vocabulary. Commenters then accuse them of being prudish and against sex, and the point is lost.

I think the problem is that many women in tech are not versed in feminist vocabulary…


That is in fact one of the main reasons (in terms of personal motivation) why I set up the GF wiki — because I wanted to improve my feminist vocab and wanted somewhere to record and share what I learnt ;) Learning feminism 101 concepts etc has been really important to me these last couple of years. I find it almost funny when people assume that I have a degree in women’s studies or something. Nope, I just read and take notes and practice.

Skud again:

I think part of it is also disciplinary — that geek women are less likely to have taken the sort of studies at university that would give them the tools to think about this stuff… I’m not just talking about women’s studies, but also things like media studies, sociology, etc — most of which have pretty low prestige in geek circles.

This seems front page worthy! What tools has feminism given you, when did you pick them up and where are you putting them to use in geek feminism? Did geek intellectual hierarchies stand in your way at some point?

The Mists of Linkspam (26th November, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Pink sparkly linkspam (November 16th, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Two more women-learning-python things

First up, via Nat at O’Reilly Radar, I found a link to Julie Learns Python, where Julie Steele is blogging her experiences learning the programming language.

She’s meeting regularly with a group who are working through an introductory Python book together, and her most recent post describes a recent programming effort, her trials and failures and eventual success, and what she came to realise:

The point is: it’s in me. I wasn’t sure that is was, and now I know—it is.

And what, exactly, is “it� It is the bug. It is the combination of native curiosity and stubbornness that made me play around with the code and take some wild guesses instead of running straight to Google (or choosing to stay within the bounds of the exercise). That might sound like a small thing, but I know it is not. I was determined to make the program do what I wanted it to do, I came up with a few guesses as to how to do that, and I kept trying different things until I succeeded (and then I felt thrilled).

As much as I have to learn, I know now that I really am hooked. And that I’ll get there.

Elsewhere, on Dreamwidth1, Elz, one of the lead programmers on the OTW’s Archive Of Our Own2, decided that there were some gaps in her education that she wanted to fill, and is drawing together a group who will study MIT’s Open Courseware Introduction to Computer Science over the next few months.

The course teaches basic CS concepts using the Python programming language, and doesn’t require any previous programming experience.

The community’s at intro-to-cs.dreamwidth.org. You’ll need a Dreamwidth account to join and post, but anyone’s welcome to follow along without signing up. If you want a DW invite code, let me know in comments — I’ve got a heap still to give away! I’ve signed up, because I’m sure my education’s got a lot of the same gaps.

I love hearing about women teaching themselves programming. Got any other links or stories like that to share?


No business like linkspam business (21st October, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

It comes up a lot in discussions of women in computer science, women who write code, women in open source. Eventually, someone brings up the fact that women score slightly lower on math tests. Clearly, they claim, this biological inferiority must explain why there are fewer women in math heavy fields.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

I’m a mathematician. I’ve looked at those numbers, I’ve read some papers. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn’t significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.

A link roundup without a bicycle (2nd October, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention.

HOWTO: Create an award for girls in tech

Emma Jane Hogbin is an open source nerd, crafty advocate and small town champion. She blogs at emmajane.net; this HOWTO was originally posted there.

This week I started an award at my former high school for a senior female student that has demonstrated creative use of technology. She doesn’t need to have the best marks, she doesn’t need to have sustained performance. She just needs to have shown a sliver of inspiration and interest in technology to be rewarded and encouraged. In the game of Alice’s Restaurant and World Domination, you have to start by doing one thing different. Here’s the FAQ on why I did it and how you can start your own award too.

Why a high school award?
Every November at West Hill Secodary School there’s an award ceremony. Kids who win awards get to stand up in front of their entire school and be recognized for something they’ve accomplished. The whole school claps. The award winner then gets a line on their resume that says they’ve won an award. It doesn’t matter how much money the award is, you still get to say that you’re an award winning student and that can be the difference between getting accepted into the program you want, and just being another faceless application.

Creative use of tech? Huh? What’s up with that?
This isn’t an award for being a nerd or being a jock. It’s an award for two words that hardly ever go together in high school: creativity and technology. That means an entire school full of students are going to be exposed to the idea of creative and technology going together. It comes with a small sum of money, which means some of the students will work towards achieving this award.

Why a senior student?
This is an award that students can work towards over the course of their four years in high school. Student projects in the junior grades (ought to be about) mastering specific techniques and tools, by their senior years students should have the skills they need to start expressing themselves with the tools they’ve learned. Of course there are some truly exceptional young technologists (Drupal has a 13 year old core developer who’s already been around for two or three years), but these geniuses are probably winning other awards too.

Why a female student?
Because I want to encourage girls to use technology in ways that interest them.

I am still working with West Hill to roll out the award, but it was remarkably easy to get the process started. Here’s how you too can start an award to encourage girls to stay engaged with technology.

  1. Phone up your alma mater (your old high school).
  2. Ask to speak with the guidance department. These folks know everything. Tell them you’re an alumni and that you want to sponsor an award. You will be redirected to the right department from here.
  3. When you redirected to the right department, start over. Explain that you want to sponsor an award.
  4. Choose your own criteria, but don’t be too specific. If you are too specific will be too difficult to match your award to a student (and they may not be able to actually give the award out). The school should work with you to come up with the exact language for the award criteria and the name of the award. Have some ideas before you phone.
  5. Make the amount of the award up to the value of one billable hour of your time. The award is not about the amount of money, it’s about (1) promoting technology (2) giving a student a line on their resume. It’s also about being sustainable. You want to make sure you can afford to give this award every year. In some cases you may be asked to set up a fund for an ongoing award. If you have the funds, go ahead and do that. If not, ask if you can sponsor a one-time award. In my case they didn’t ask for anything more than this year’s award. They will send me a form letter next year to remind me to send another cheque.
  6. Write a cheque to the appropriate school division. (Mine is made out to the school board.) You should be issued a tax receipt for your donation. Ask them about this if they don’t mention it.

And that’s it! One billable hour of your money (and a stamp and envelope for the cheque). 20 minutes of your time. And you have made a female student an award winning technologist. Now get out there and do it!

My second shift

I just read this post by seperis, i miss ship wars like so much, and I had to stop, blink, say “YEAH!” out loud, then IM it to yatima and Sumana.

I want to say this–I don’t know where I am getting the time to do this. I just don’t. This is worse than a twenty-four credit hour semester, because it never fucking ends, it’s every semester and I don’t even get to graduate and no one gives me a class schedule, it just shows up suddenly and I’m in for a sixteen week course where I have to guess at the reading material and sometimes, I’m not even sure what I’m studying. There are many things I’ve learned in fandom that I appreciate, but I have to draw a line somewhere, and I have no idea where, because on top of spending time researching things that are actually important to me as a human being, and writing, and enjoying fannish meta, and chatting with friends, and I don’t know, actually interacting with my source text, I have to figure out now if some researchers are using my people as fodder for a exploitative book.

I checked my timesheet–apparently I am creating hours from air for this, because the day is still twenty-four hours long, but my fannish life is taking thirty-six all on its own, and I still haven’t finished reading History of the Jewish State or found my copy of What If for creative writing, and there’s a small but growing pile of books at the foot of my bed that I have yet to get to and I’m two hundred behind on my flist. I mean, this isn’t bad time management here; my time management is a damn miracle. It is creating time from a vortex of not-time.

She’s talking about SurveyFail, but for me it’s been geek feminism (small g, small f). Ever since OSCON (or a bit before) I’ve had this enormous, amorphous thing eating my life. I get emails. People point me at articles. People ask me to opine on all kinds of stuff. And it’s important, so I try to find time to do it, and to do it thoughtfully and with understanding.

But god DAMN it, my life’s work so far has been ones and zeroes. I never studied gender theory, or sociology, or politics, or any of that. I’m playing catch-up. The only way I’m staying even remotely ahead of the game is to wikify anything I learn so I don’t have to look it up twice.

That LWN thread with Bruce Perens? That ate a day of my life. A whole day. I talked to some of the other women involved afterwards, and I’m not the only one. Between the anger and frustration, the difficulty of following the damn thread without a comments RSS feed, and having to express ourselves clearly and provide supporting documentation (over and over and over again), we lost perhaps hundreds of woman-hours that could otherwise have been spent, oh, I dunno, WRITING SOME DAMN SOFTWARE.

This? This is my second shift.