Tag Archives: feminism 101

Re-post: When you are the expert in the room

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, I’m reposting some of my writing from 2010, for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on the 4th October 2010.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

This a “what should we do” question, but a fairly specific one.

Recent discussions, particularly Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language , have left me thinking “this still doesn’t say what it would be helpful for people like me (white male with computing experience starting early) to actually do about it”. Just saying to avoid the viewpoint that this reflects enthusiasm or innate ability isn’t very specific, but the discussion seemed to finish around that point.

The answers will probably be different in different contexts. For example, how about in class? The best I can think of is “don’t be eager to answer the lecturer’s questions to the class, but let someone else go first”. Would that help? Is that enough, in that context? But if you give the lecturer the impression you’re not knowledgeable, but then do well in the written exam, you can invite suspicion of cheating in the exam (this definitely happens). Or should you even make deliberate wrong answers, to lower your apparent expertise? I’d find that horribly condescending if I knew someone was doing it towards me.

And in a professional context, if you know the answer to a colleague’s question (or on a mailing list, to any question), but you hold back on it to let someone else answer, you’re holding back the asker from getting on with whatever raised the question. But is that less important than letting others answer? (I suspect it depends on the group or list concerned.)

And a branch of that one, relevant in my present job, in which part of my role in the team is specifically to be the experienced programmer who can answer people’s questions, how is it best to handle that?

And in a seminar, should you hold back in a discussion if you have advanced ideas, so as not to scare the less confident? But then, you’re not making your best technical contribution.

The most extreme suggestion I’ve seen (only once, I think) is that geeky men should get out of computing altogether, to make it more comfortable for others to get in. In which case, a big source of potential mentors would be lost.

And do the same suggestions apply to female experts?

So, I’m stumped on this and can’t contribute any significant answers, but I hope the questions are useful for discussion.

There was some discussion among the cob-loggers about whether and how to answer this question. But there was always lots of confusion about this on the LinuxChix lists while I was subscribed (I haven’t been for a few years now), men who genuinely wanted to in some way to address gender issues in computing but the only strength they saw in themselves was their expertise, and when it was suggested to them that displaying this at every opportunity was at best annoying and at worst harmful they were completely at a loss. So I think an answer is genuinely useful.

Important note: this answer is aimed at privileged people (in this context, generally men with a good technical background) hoping to check their privilege and keep it on a short leash. If you are a woman reading this, it’s entirely possible the reverse applies to you in geeky environments: you might be wanting to learn how to have more confidence in your expertise and how to inspire confidence in others. Some of these techniques might be useful to you at some times when you want to help others learn, but this answer isn’t really intended for you.

Important note 2: from here on, “you” refers to the general you, the person who want to encourage/support/etc women but is struggling to see how to do it without being dishonest about your own abilities, not necessarily “you” the person who asked this specific question. I’ve seen this a lot, so I want to try and address it in general. I’m generally going to assume that the relative expertise of the question asker is in fact a correct assessment but you should question whether you are really the expert or whether you’re partly benefiting from structural assumptions that you are.

Let me start by stating that there are at best misguided versions of this question: people who say “I want to share my expertise with women who want to get into computing! But now I’m not supposed to be intimidating. Fine then, I’ll take my expertise and go home. See how you like that, women in computing! Ahahahaha!” Don’t be one of those people. Your participation in technical and geeky groups, especially groups for learners, isn’t solely about you. If you insist on either being the top dog expert or going home… go home.

My beta reader for this suggested that much of the question is based around the assumption that in order to help build people up, you have to drag yourself down. There’s two problems with this: one is that this sort of thing isn’t a zero sum game, and the other is that not all women (or outsiders in general) are also beginners. They may be intimidated in spite of substantial ability and experience. So in many cases your role is less to try and hide your own excessive light under a bushel, and more to support the discovery of what’s already there.

When you’re the expert at work

In terms of your workplace, an approach I like is one that some activist groups make explicit: if you are the only person who knows how to do something that the organisation needs, you should make it your top priority to train at least one other person to do it. You could do some of the following:

  • presumably part of your role as designated expert, or something that you can make part of your role, is keeping a sort of list (mental or physical) of areas of expertise other programmers have, and referring questions to the other experts.
  • if something should be documented, ask the person who consults you if she can document it as she learns it. Then you can refer future questioners to that documentation, or get them to improve it. And you can credit its authors when you point people to it. And by having people teach others and write for others, you are turning them into experts.
  • if something should be automated (for example, you are consulting on a fiddly manual process) ask the person who consults you if she can automate it as she learns it.
  • when you get too busy (and this sounds like the sort of role where you are constantly in more demand than you can satisfy) decide that someone else needs to be the expert on some subset of the organisations knowledge base, and come up with some kind of handover process in collaboration with her, so that she is confident in being able to handle that set of problems and people know to go to her without even involving you.
  • consider that your own expertise is unlikely to be all-encompassing. If there’s a task that takes you half a day and a colleague half an hour, ask her for her help with it. (No need to go on and on about how she’s the expert here yay for her, just get her help.)

Note that those aren’t specific to women colleagues despite my choice of pronoun. The idea is to change the environment such that expertise is being built everywhere, not to go out of your way to make women into experts, unless you are in an environment specifically focussed on women (like LinuxChix is).

Similarly, in teaching roles, it is important to know when someone is thinking out loud on their way to the answer and when they are genuinely stumped and starting to get too frustrated to make progress. In the former case, just let them think and give them some time to put those thoughts into action.

When you’re the expert in class

Some of the question about classroom behaviour does seem a little excessively fearful. I guess there might be some classes that are structured as lectures and a final exam, but all my classes at university involved submitted assignments throughout the course in which you can demonstrate knowledge without taking up class time. A class in which people must ask questions to demonstrate their knowledge, as opposed to asking questions because they need the answer sounds like it must be terribly tedious for everyone involved. And they must be awfully small classes, or really long ones, if everyone who doesn’t regularly participate but still does well in the class is then investigated for cheating. In general, if you are required to demonstrate expertise solely in order to pass, see if you can do so in a way that isn’t public.

In terms of being part of classes or seminars, it is situation dependent. Is the class or seminar or discussion a bit introductory for you? Perhaps you should absent yourself or remain silent while the others get the hang of things, or at least wait for one-on-one approaches from other students for help rather than taking up teaching time demonstrating your knowledge. Is it genuinely challenging for you too? Well, make it visible that you’re being challenged. Be that wonderful person who asks the lecturer half way through the class “uh, I don’t think I really understood that first set of hypotheses, can we slow up?” when everyone else thought it was just them. Throw a few ideas against the wall before you think you have the answer. If someone else has a good idea, give them space to express it, thank them, and then see if you can extend it, especially in a collaborative way with the original proposer. Watch the tendency to try and set up a you-and-me-the-smart-ones dynamic with the teacher by speaking up only when you’re totally confident.

It may help periodically to actually try and measure (by making notes of who speaks when, assuming you can do it subtly) whether you are the most talkative person in the class. If you are, take a break from talking: it’s unlikely your ideas are so uniformly superior as to need that much airtime, and if they are, perhaps you need a more advanced class.

My beta reader also suggests that if you find a classroom is centred around you and other confident students and generally being a little self-congratulatory and that other students are floundering and suffering, that perhaps you should have a word to the teacher about how you feel the classroom environment is letting most of the students down.

When you’re the expert in a women-centred geek forum

In situations like mailing lists, at least places like LinuxChix which have a specific mission to be encouraging and a good place for learning, here’s some tips:

  • Have a look at the average turnaround time of the discussion. Is it common for someone to wait 24 hours to have a question answered? Well, people asking for help are probably aware that they may need to wait 24 hours (unless of course they say something like “ARGH HELP NOW DON’T DELAY FIRE FIRE FIRE IN THE THEATRE”). So make that your delay. Wait 24 hours (say), and see if they got a decent answer yet. If not, then post.
  • Very important: before you post an answer, read the other answers. It’s a common problem to have a self-appointed expert insist on re-explaining the whole thing from scratch, rather than seeing that Suzy already sorted out Jane’s compile error, so you just need to help Jane work out how to get the info she needs out of the core dump.
  • If an answer worked, but is missing a nuance, or isn’t precisely how you would have done it, consider carefully if you need to point that out. Is it actually harmful in the long run to do it the other suggested way or is it a matter of taste? Is this a good time and place to evangelise on matters of taste? It usually isn’t.

Note that none of this is denying your interest, expertise or talent: it’s not about pretending not to have it, it’s about genuinely putting it at the service of other people, and about developing similar expertise in other people.

I think it’s also important to interrogate your motivations in being the expert in women-centred groups. All of these approaches are not uncommon in tech groups with a lot of women:

  • assumptions that you, a man, must surely be the only expert in such-and-such who is part of the group, because, really, how likely is a woman to be a such-and-such expert? (There were certainly subscribers to the LinuxChix lists who believed that this was true of all of Linux systems administration, to the constant chagrin of women members who had spent 20 years in the field.)
  • assumptions that women geeks, unlike men geeks, will properly acknowledge you and respect you for your expertise, finally, the admiration you deserve!
  • the good ol’ not having enough women in your social circle thing, and being there to make friends.

The last one is tricky: here’s my take. Nothing wrong with having friends or wanting more! But, when you aren’t in a social group, attend to the mission of the group first, and the socialising a distant second.

“Why don’t you just hit him?”

Warning: this post and links from it discuss both harassment and violence, imagined and real.

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here’s why “hit him!” is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you’ll need to trust me on this. Your “jeez, guys like that are lucky they don’t get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!” joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn’t be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they’d just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren’t carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn’t afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…
  • NAR on LWN: I’ve read the blog about the assault – it’s absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars. (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: …you also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident.
  • crusoe on reddit: You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there. (As long as crusoe doesn’t have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses (“just ignore him”, “just spread the word”, “just yell at him”):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it’s not the victim’s job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim’s responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here’s a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!
Continue reading

Re-post: But women are an advanced social skill…

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, I’m reposting some of my writing from earlier in 2010, for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on the 3rd April 2010.

This post is following on from Melissa’s post, and particularly inspired by a comment in moderation, which I am not sure whether she will approve or not, which defends “hardcore geeks” (presumed to never be women themselves, I gather) behaviour towards women on the basis of “INCREDIBLY limited socialization”.

This is all quite genuinely mystifying to me. Admittedly I’m relying on extensive anecdata rather than surveys, but self-identified geeks mostly go through a stage as teenagers and sometimes beyond, and often quite a hurtful stage, of at best social difficulties and at worst cruel bullying and social isolation. Many only find their people at university or cons or other places with a high geek density.

But this doesn’t translate to a life so obviously deprived of chances to interact with women that we are required to assume that all geek men are at least eighteen years behind their chronological age in exposure to women. It’s true that groups of women and mixed-gender groups have their own social norms. In fact women geeks can find these difficult to navigate too and some prefer for a while, or always, the social norms of male geek groups to those of women non-geeks (at the same time often encountering problems being a woman in said group as well). Admittedly my sample is biased because by definition I’m not friends with any geek who doesn’t have women friends, but after high school geeks seem to me to have roughly the same social success that others have, where “social success” is approximated by “has a social circle of the desired number of people, who you enjoy spending time with”. Possibly with different types of people, but similar numbers of them.

(Speaking of social success, a geeky tangent: Scott L. Feld’s Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do, see Satoshi Kanazawa’s write-up in Psychology Today if you don’t have access, although beware the horrible subtitle. ETA 2010-12-07: link to Kanazawa removed after comments.)

But even though I see lots of men geeks who are enough of a social success to make them happy, I find this notion of interacting with women being a graduate-level social skill to be quite seriously brought up by some of these same geeks. Even middle-aged men geeks who are in long-term heterosexual relationships or who have long-time women colleagues and collaborators. They maintain that the entry-level of dealing with women in general should not be close to their own skills, but a very very low bar in which outright sexual harassment ought to be treated as a forgivable faux pas and an opportunity for a gentle teaching moment, rather than a very justified cause of anger.

There are several related things going on. One is that geek culture is not as uninfluenced by other cultures as some geeks would like to argue. Much of geek sexism is a geeky spin on plain old sexism, not a parallel form of sexism that’s accidentally developed as a result of innocent geek men’s social isolation. The second is that, as a consequence of many geekdoms being male dominated, they attract men who prefer not to interact with women, or at least not to interact with us in their leisure time. (To be clear here: I am not saying that all men geeks in a male dominated geekdom are there to get away from women. I’m saying that a subset of them are, and that they have a reason to push against including women.) I also notice an unfortunate tendency to believe that men are solely socialised by women: if a man, through no fault of his own, has ended up in a men-only social pocket, then it’s basically Lord of the Flies until a kind woman makes up for the failings of women past and helps him out.

There do seem to be a number of men who genuinely and sincerely believe that the single most acceptable way to interact with any woman is to be sure to inform her that they approve of her appearance, or, less often, her general civilising influence, and who get a horrible shock when someone is angry with them for it. But much of the rest of the “don’t expect too much of geeks when it comes to social decencies!” rhetoric seems self-serving and disingenuous.

Note: discussions of geeks and social skills can attract blanket statements about the skills of geeks with autism spectrum disorders. I haven’t addressed that in this post because I am neurotypical and have no especial expertise about autism spectrum disorders. I welcome informed comment on it here, but uninformed blanket statements won’t be approved; if you don’t know anything much about ASDs don’t make it up.

Some resources for people who want to be allies

This is a 101 post and all of the links here are fairly well known to ‘net feminists, but Noirin being assaulted has caused newcomers to wonder what they can do to help create a safer environment for women and others at risk of assault.

Newcomers: we welcome your help! Here’s some things you could look at.

The Con Anti-Harassment Project: is a grass-roots campaign designed to help make conventions safer for everyone. Our aims are to encourage fandom, geek community and other non-business conventions to establish, articulate and act upon anti-harassment policies, especially sexual harassment policies, and to encourage mutual respect among con-goers, guests and staff. They have a lot of material, see particularly their tips for conferences/conventions who want to create a policy and their FAQ. If you aren’t an organiser, you could make a point of requesting an enforced policy from conferences you attend, and thanking those that have them.

Check out the The Open Source Women Back Each Other Up Project & Gentlemen’s Auxiliary which is more informal: you can share stories of harassment, assault and successful backing each other up, organise meetups at cons you attend, and purchase gear.

Make it not okay, really not okay around you to say the kinds of things people said to and about Noirin. You, presumably, believe* that women can attend conferences and go to bars and have fun and have male friends and consensually touch people and have a romantic/sexual history and have photos of themselves online and be a feminist and have the absolute right to refuse consent to intimate social situations, to touching and to sexual activity. You, presumably, also believe people you personally despise, or aren’t your idea of fun, or who hold opinions you disagree with, or who have hurt you in some fashion, have the absolute right to refuse consent in the same way. You presumably believe that sexualised approaches to people, and sexualised interactions with them are harassment unless they are welcome. If you believe those, and you are around people who don’t, don’t let them believe that they are with allies, if and when you have the power for that to be safe.

Valerie Aurora points out also that if you attend events where harassment and assaults are happening and the event organisers and atmosphere are ignoring or contributing to the problem, stop going if you can. Support spaces that are doing better.

Finally, because I couldn’t find this written up in one place in a bite-sized way, don’t tell people what they have to or should do about abuse or assault or harassment. Abuse, assault and harassment are about withholding power from someone, about denying them self-determination. They need, and have a right to, the power to decide how to respond. It may be appropriate, if you are a witness or a good friend or an event organiser or the person on the spot or otherwise one of the people most likely to be able to help them, to offer them help in getting home, finding a shelter, getting some money, finding a crisis counsellor, going to the police, getting ongoing counselling, speaking out, overcoming fear of the next event, getting the hell out, now or in the future, as seems appropriate at that moment. And then let them decide whether they want to do that or anything else, and whether they want your help. (A reference in forming this thinking was Karen Healey’s Snakes in the grass. tigtog also pointed me at unusualmusic’s linkspam: Why didn’t you call the police? Part One.)

* If you do not believe the things in that paragraph we don’t really need to know why not.

When you are the expert in the room

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

This a “what should we do” question, but a fairly specific one.

Recent discussions, particularly Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language , have left me thinking “this still doesn’t say what it would be helpful for people like me (white male with computing experience starting early) to actually do about it”. Just saying to avoid the viewpoint that this reflects enthusiasm or innate ability isn’t very specific, but the discussion seemed to finish around that point.

The answers will probably be different in different contexts. For example, how about in class? The best I can think of is “don’t be eager to answer the lecturer’s questions to the class, but let someone else go first”. Would that help? Is that enough, in that context? But if you give the lecturer the impression you’re not knowledgeable, but then do well in the written exam, you can invite suspicion of cheating in the exam (this definitely happens). Or should you even make deliberate wrong answers, to lower your apparent expertise? I’d find that horribly condescending if I knew someone was doing it towards me.

And in a professional context, if you know the answer to a colleague’s question (or on a mailing list, to any question), but you hold back on it to let someone else answer, you’re holding back the asker from getting on with whatever raised the question. But is that less important than letting others answer? (I suspect it depends on the group or list concerned.)

And a branch of that one, relevant in my present job, in which part of my role in the team is specifically to be the experienced programmer who can answer people’s questions, how is it best to handle that?

And in a seminar, should you hold back in a discussion if you have advanced ideas, so as not to scare the less confident? But then, you’re not making your best technical contribution.

The most extreme suggestion I’ve seen (only once, I think) is that geeky men should get out of computing altogether, to make it more comfortable for others to get in. In which case, a big source of potential mentors would be lost.

And do the same suggestions apply to female experts?

So, I’m stumped on this and can’t contribute any significant answers, but I hope the questions are useful for discussion.

There was some discussion among the cob-loggers about whether and how to answer this question. But there was always lots of confusion about this on the LinuxChix lists while I was subscribed (I haven’t been for a few years now), men who genuinely wanted to in some way to address gender issues in computing but the only strength they saW in themselves was their expertise, and when it was suggested to them that displaying this at every opportunity was at best annoying and at worst harmful they were completely at a loss. So I think an answer is genuinely useful.

Important note: this answer is aimed at privileged people (in this context, generally men with a good technical background) hoping to check their privilege and keep it on a short leash. If you are a woman reading this, it’s entirely possible the reverse applies to you in geeky environments: you might be wanting to learn how to have more confidence in your expertise and how to inspire confidence in others. Some of these techniques might be useful to you at some times when you want to help others learn, but this answer isn’t really intended for you.

Important note 2: from here on, “you” refers to the general you, the person who want to encourage/support/etc women but is struggling to see how to do it without being dishonest about your own abilities, not necessarily “you” the person who asked this specific question. I’ve seen this a lot, so I want to try and address it in general. I’m generally going to assume that the relative expertise of the question asker is in fact a correct assessment but you should question whether you are really the expert or whether you’re partly benefiting from structural assumptions that you are.

Let me start by stating that there are at best misguided versions of this question: people who say “I want to share my expertise with women who want to get into computing! But now I’m not supposed to be intimidating. Fine then, I’ll take my expertise and go home. See how you like that, women in computing! Ahahahaha!” Don’t be one of those people. Your participation in technical and geeky groups, especially groups for learners, isn’t solely about you. If you insist on either being the top dog expert or going home… go home.

My beta reader for this suggested that much of the question is based around the assumption that in order to help build people up, you have to drag yourself down. There’s two problems with this: one is that this sort of thing isn’t a zero sum game, and the other is that not all women (or outsiders in general) are also beginners. They may be intimidated in spite of substantial ability and experience. So in many cases your role is less to try and hide your own excessive light under a bushel, and more to support the discovery of what’s already there.

When you’re the expert at work

In terms of your workplace, an approach I like is one that some activist groups make explicit: if you are the only person who knows how to do something that the organisation needs, you should make it your top priority to train at least one other person to do it. You could do some of the following:

  • presumably part of your role as designated expert, or something that you can make part of your role, is keeping a sort of list (mental or physical) of areas of expertise other programmers have, and referring questions to the other experts.
  • if something should be documented, ask the person who consults you if she can document it as she learns it. Then you can refer future questioners to that documentation, or get them to improve it. And you can credit its authors when you point people to it. And by having people teach others and write for others, you are turning them into experts.
  • if something should be automated (for example, you are consulting on a fiddly manual process) ask the person who consults you if she can automate it as she learns it.
  • when you get too busy (and this sounds like the sort of role where you are constantly in more demand than you can satisfy) decide that someone else needs to be the expert on some subset of the organisations knowledge base, and come up with some kind of handover process in collaboration with her, so that she is confident in being able to handle that set of problems and people know to go to her without even involving you.
  • consider that your own expertise is unlikely to be all-encompassing. If there’s a task that takes you half a day and a colleague half an hour, ask her for her help with it. (No need to go on and on about how she’s the expert here yay for her, just get her help.)

Note that those aren’t specific to women colleagues despite my choice of pronoun. The idea is to change the environment such that expertise is being built everywhere, not to go out of your way to make women into experts, unless you are in an environment specifically focussed on women (like LinuxChix is).

Similarly, in teaching roles, it is important to know when someone is thinking out loud on their way to the answer and when they are genuinely stumped and starting to get too frustrated to make progress. In the former case, just let them think and give them some time to put those thoughts into action.

When you’re the expert in class

Some of the question about classroom behaviour does seem a little excessively fearful. I guess there might be some classes that are structured as lectures and a final exam, but all my classes at university involved submitted assignments throughout the course in which you can demonstrate knowledge without taking up class time. A class in which people must ask questions to demonstrate their knowledge, as opposed to asking questions because they need the answer sounds like it must be terribly tedious for everyone involved. And they must be awfully small classes, or really long ones, if everyone who doesn’t regularly participate but still does well in the class is then investigated for cheating. In general, if you are required to demonstrate expertise solely in order to pass, see if you can do so in a way that isn’t public.

In terms of being part of classes or seminars, it is situation dependent. Is the class or seminar or discussion a bit introductory for you? Perhaps you should absent yourself or remain silent while the others get the hang of things, or at least wait for one-on-one approaches from other students for help rather than taking up teaching time demonstrating your knowledge. Is it genuinely challenging for you too? Well, make it visible that you’re being challenged. Be that wonderful person who asks the lecturer half way through the class “uh, I don’t think I really understood that first set of hypotheses, can we slow up?” when everyone else thought it was just them. Throw a few ideas against the wall before you think you have the answer. If someone else has a good idea, give them space to express it, thank them, and then see if you can extend it, especially in a collaborative way with the original proposer. Watch the tendency to try and set up a you-and-me-the-smart-ones dynamic with the teacher by speaking up only when you’re totally confident.

It may help periodically to actually try and measure (by making notes of who speaks when, assuming you can do it subtly) whether you are the most talkative person in the class. If you are, take a break from talking: it’s unlikely your ideas are so uniformly superior as to need that much airtime, and if they are, perhaps you need a more advanced class.

My beta reader also suggests that if you find a classroom is centred around you and other confident students and generally being a little self-congratulatory and that other students are floundering and suffering, that perhaps you should have a word to the teacher about how you feel the classroom environment is letting most of the students down.

When you’re the expert in a women-centred geek forum

In situations like mailing lists, at least places like LinuxChix which have a specific mission to be encouraging and a good place for learning, here’s some tips:

  • Have a look at the average turnaround time of the discussion. Is it common for someone to wait 24 hours to have a question answered? Well, people asking for help are probably aware that they may need to wait 24 hours (unless of course they say something like “ARGH HELP NOW DON’T DELAY FIRE FIRE FIRE IN THE THEATRE”). So make that your delay. Wait 24 hours (say), and see if they got a decent answer yet. If not, then post.
  • Very important: before you post an answer, read the other answers. It’s a common problem to have a self-appointed expert insist on re-explaining the whole thing from scratch, rather than seeing that Suzy already sorted out Jane’s compile error, so you just need to help Jane work out how to get the info she needs out of the core dump.
  • If an answer worked, but is missing a nuance, or isn’t precisely how you would have done it, consider carefully if you need to point that out. Is it actually harmful in the long run to do it the other suggested way or is it a matter of taste? Is this a good time and place to evangelise on matters of taste? It usually isn’t.

Note that none of this is denying your interest, expertise or talent: it’s not about pretending not to have it, it’s about genuinely putting it at the service of other people, and about developing similar expertise in other people.

I think it’s also important to interrogate your motivations in being the expert in women-centred groups. All of these approaches are not uncommon in tech groups with a lot of women:

  • assumptions that you, a man, must surely be the only expert in such-and-such who is part of the group, because, really, how likely is a woman to be a such-and-such expert? (There were certainly subscribers to the LinuxChix lists who believed that this was true of all of Linux systems administration, to the constant chagrin of women members who had spent 20 years in the field.)
  • assumptions that women geeks, unlike men geeks, will properly acknowledge you and respect you for your expertise, finally, the admiration you deserve!
  • the good ol’ not having enough women in your social circle thing, and being there to make friends.

The last one is tricky: here’s my take. Nothing wrong with having friends or wanting more! But, when you aren’t in a social group, attend to the mission of the group first, and the socialising a distant second.

Social problems in Computer Science

This is a guest post by Jessica Hamrick. Jessica Hamrick is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a bent towards artificial intelligence. She is is the current Chair of MIT’s computer club (SIPB), and when she is not busy managing that, enjoys hacking/coding, photography, knitting, and blogging at Artificial Awareness

This entry is cross-posted with some edits.

This morning, I read a blog post about women in computer science which was quite compelling. It reminded me, of course, of another article about women in CS, and I began thinking about about what my own opinion is on the subject. Sexism in CS and similarly technical fields is certainly a problem. But why? And how have I encountered it?

It struck me that I am incredibly lucky to be a student at MIT, where I have never actually encountered blatant sexism. No one has ever groped me, or told me I was incompetent because I was a woman (nor have I ever felt that was the case). I was elected SIPB Chair, but it was not that people thought I was sexy or that I slept with anyone, but that I was the right person for the job. When I ask more experienced hackers technical questions, they don’t try to gloss over the details or tell me that I won’t understand–they explain it the same way they would to anyone else. Really, I couldn’t ask for a better environment.

However, it still didn’t feel quite like sexism (or something like it) it was entirely absent. After thinking a while longer, I realized what the problem was:

The tech environment walks a fine line between being elitist and being a meritocracy, and often manages to slip back into elitism.

It’s not so much a problem of sexism as it is a problem of general attitude. Becoming good at dealing with computers takes a lot of hands-on experience. There aren’t any classes that will teach you how to debug NetworkManager or how to reconfigure your X configuration so that gdm doesn’t fail. So those of us who like figuring out the answers to such problems have only a handful of options: 1) learn everything using Google, 2) learn everything by asking an expert, 3) both 1 and 2, or 4) give up. Sometimes, if the problem is specialized enough, 2 and 4 are really the only options. Unfortunately, it is often the case when asking an experienced hacker that they will give a harsh, unhelpful, and/or elitist response. Here’s an example.

Person A: I need to reinstall this computer with Debian, but I don’t have a CD or DVD burner or any flash media. I’m not sure if I have any other options. Could you help me?

Person B: I don’t have time. Just use PXE.

A (thinking): PXE, what’s that? I guess I’ll Google it. Hmm, well, Wikipedia says it’s a way of booting your computer over the network. I guess sort of like a livecd, except over the network? That’s kind of cool. How do I do it? This site seems to give some links. Looks like the Debian link is broken, so I’ll use the Red Hat link and see if I can just change the relevant things.

[an hour passes]

A (frustrated): This isn’t working. How am I supposed to install my computer over the internet if I have to install stuff to the computer to begin with? I don’t understand how this works!
B: … what the hell are you doing? You just choose the “netboot” option in your BIOS, like you would choose to boot from CD-ROM or hard drive, etc.

Do you see what Person B did wrong, here? Person A was asking for help, and clearly does not know about netbooting (or they wouldn’t have asked). Person B assumes they know what PXE is and that they know how to use it, or at least that they can figure it out for themselves. Unfortunately, the documentation on PXE is unhelpful and misleading and never mentions needing to change a setting in your BIOS. Person A tried to figure it out themselves using the vague information given to them by Person B, but only managed to waste an hour and become even more confused! Furthermore, when Person A comes back for more help, Person B acts like they are incapable of learning for being ignorant and confused, and treats them with disdain. It would have been so much nicer, faster, and easier for Person B to simply say in the first place “try using the netboot option in your BIOS to boot into the installer over the internet”.

In my experience, the sort of attitude taken by Person B, either intentionally or unintentionally, is the most formidable obstacle facing new tech-oriented people. In particular, I have noticed that men tend to be better at muscling their way through this “barrier of newbie shame”. Many studies have shown that women tend to be less confident and less assertive than men, and when the environment is such that you have to be assertive and confident in order to get anywhere, it is no wonder that many choose to give up and choose a different path. Being ignorant of a topic does not mean you are incapable of learning it, but many people in CS act like it does.

There is no reason why the tech environment should be so elitist. I heartily agree that it must retain a degree of meritocracy: you need to earn your respect as a hacker. However, everyone has to start somewhere; no one is born with awesome hacking abilities, and not everybody is as able to figure out how things work without a few pointers. Wouldn’t it be so much better to have more skilled people in computer science, to fix even more bugs and create even more brilliant pieces of software? I believe that if we could tone down the elitism, such a world would become a reality.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just recognizing what the problem is. Being elitist is not always a conscious or deliberate action (most people are not so much of an ass to say “I won’t be helpful because I am better than you”) — it is usually just the easy way out. Becoming a hacker in an elitist environment makes it all too simple to just assume that that is the correct way of doing things. It is easy to fall into the mindset of “I had to deal with and stand up to that sort of bullshit when I was new, so why shouldn’t everyone else?”. It is easy to find yourself too busy to really help, so you just brush them off with a short, unhelpful answer or tell them to RTFM. It is easy to forget that you were once the confused, ignorant newbie who didn’t have the background that you now do.

In addition, I think that many people become rough and abrasive because they are all too often asked to fix things themselves as opposed to giving advice. Every tech person is all too familiar with friends, relatives, and acquaintances asking them to fix computers or install software, and most tech people I know hate it. It is especially frustrating when people who are nominally technically competent ask you to do things for them. The urge to say “no, go figure it out yourself!” is extremely strong, and it is easy to lump favor-seekers into the same category as advice-seekers. But it is important to make the distinction, and to actually be helpful when someone asks for advice.

So, how can we fix this problem? Recognizing that it is a problem is a first step, but it is not enough. Changing things will not be quick or easy, either. But, there are a few things we can try:

  1. If you are too busy to help, politely say so and apologize that you don’t have the time. Don’t give vague or cryptic answers.
  2. Don’t assume that they have the same background of knowledge that you do, because they probably don’t. Try to explain things at their level. That doesn’t mean &#8220skip the details”, but &#8220make sure to explain the details and include relevant pieces of knowledge that you have but they don’t”.;.
  3. Point them towards documentation which you know is helpful, instead of just throwing terminology around.
  4. Be polite, even if they are asking what seems like an unintelligent question or asking you to do something for them You can say “no, that’s not my job” or “no, I don’t have time right now” without being rude and abrasive.

From now on, I will try to point out this phenomenon of elitism to people I know in CS, and encourage them to be more conscientious of their interactions with aspiring hackers. I hope that you will, too! I’d also love to hear any other opinions on this matter. Have you encountered this elitist environment elsewhere? How have you dealt with it?

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 3

Welcome to round 3 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run in a couple of months. You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Geek men’s appearance, and related issues

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions, to the best of my knowledge this concludes posts answering questions from rounds 1 and 2. Round 3 will be in a few months.

We got a couple of questions from the same person about how comments about judging (geek) women’s appearances relates to judging geek men’s appearances, so I thought I’d bundle them together. Since they’re so lengthy, you might want to directly quote the part you are replying to, as well, if it’s going to be at all unclear.

The first question was submitted late for the previous round:

I can understand women (probably, particularly geek women) not liking comments / compliments about appearance. That fits well with my own geeky worldview: that substance is more important than style.

But I also sometimes see comments from geek women suggesting that geek men should take more care over their own appearance / presentation. That one I can follow as far as “don’t be smelly” and “don’t be scary”, but beyond that, I myself go back to the “substance, not style” viewpoint.

I don’t think that the combined message is “Men’s appearance matters to women, but women’s appearance should not matter to men”, but I’m a bit confused as to how these two strands fit together. Perhaps the unwelcome comments about women’s appearance are about intrinsic appearance (body shape etc) but what some women are suggesting male geeks should pay more attention to is non-intrinsic appearance (the clothes over the body)?

I’ll admit that as I’ve got older (and my ASD aspects have been diluted) I’ve upgraded my habitual appearance from “don’t-care geek” to “somewhat shabby provincial academic”; I think it’s partly so I can pass as non-geek when it’s useful to do so.

There also seems to be a less frequently-asked question going around, about mostly-male geeky groups being more accepting of female newcomers who dress more geekily or gender-neutrally; I get the impression that this is sometimes an issue for women who don’t normally dress gender-neutrally. (My own, privileged, take on this is that it’s a good tactic to make allowance for the group you’d like to join, typically by presenting a view that suggests that your presentation isn’t a big deal to you, is a good idea for the stage when they’re forming their impression of you, and once you’re “in” you can dress as you like and no-one will think of you as an outsider; the geeks I know are pretty loyal once they’ve decided that a newcomer is genuinely a geek. But I’m worried, venturing into feminist home territory, of putting that forward as a suggestion (even though it’s only about tactics, not ethics), as it might seem
quite oppressive to some.)

I do understand (or get an impression, I hope not a sexist one) that this may tie in with women’s self-esteem / self-efficacy being typically lower than men’s, and competence in managing appearance / presentation may be involved with counteracting this.

And a flippant end part to this question, as I try reversing “men” and “women” in the original question: On the few occasions when I do wear a suit etc, women compliment me on my appearance. Is it OK that I’m not offended? ;-)

This round’s question:

This isn’t really one specific question, but I’d be interested to hear what Geek Feminists have to say about geeks, gender, and personal appearance.

I can understand about women often not liking compliments about their attractiveness from male obvious geeks, particularly as such comments are usually part of a clumsy attempt at picking up a woman, just any woman even if almost a stranger.

But then, I’ve seen observations (and even an experiment [Cheryan 2009]) about geekiness of computer geeks and their stereotypical environment putting women off from entering computing. (Now I’m not convinced that the stereotype Cheryan used is actually representative; I’ve been in a lot of computing environments and none of them had any Trekkie stuff in them!) Victoria Kirst also has a different take on this study.

But that only covers the “ambient belonging” factor of the rooms etc. I’ve also seen comments about the personal appearance of (male) geeks putting women off, and that’s the bit I really don’t understand. I have some very tentative ideas about it; for example, once (before feminism?), I think it may have been common for a woman’s social standing to be derived from the men she associated with (which might have just been father and brothers, and later her husband), and I suspect there are still people for whom this is true. Or, for a manipulative woman (and I take it that feminists, as egalitarians, will avoid manipulativeness, so again this is probably just addressing non-feminist women) it may be uncomfortable to have to interact with men whose psychological pressure points she doesn’t understand.

But any such things that I’ve come up with only cover small minorities of women, and don’t explain any general effect. Perhaps there isn’t a general effect? Perhaps (and I think there may be some truth in this) it’s mostly non-feminist women who have difficulty with non-mainstream men? And should geek men try to look non-geeky? Would it help with changing the gender balance?

And a smaller incidental question: are the women who’re uncomfortable with stereotypically geeky men also uncomfortable with stereotypically geeky women?

The questioner didn’t provide a full citation for [Cheryan 2009], but I’m assuming it’s:

Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P., & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical environments impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045-1060.

It is, unfortunately, paywalled. Most people know of Sapna Cheryan’s work through Lisa Grossman’s article Of Geeks and Girls and you can find a video of Cheryan talking about her work among the TEDx Seattle videos (direct links seem to be impossible).

Ask a geek feminist: But I don’t feel oppressed

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question.

This question may seem very 101 but I have yet been able to find or formulate a good response to a comment I recently received from another young woman and I was hoping someone could help me out?

I was talking about power dynamics between men and women and the respondent came back with “Western women aren’t oppressed. I don’t feel oppressed. We are able to vote.. etc etc.” and I was just flabbergasted and didn’t know how to respond. I suspect a lot of this was her personal response to acknowledging oppression making her seem weak or whiny. Although I could be wrong and she may really believe this and think it cancels out the feelings of any Western women who does acknowledge our ongoing oppression. Help?

It can be disorienting to be faced with this stance by someone who is a member of a class of people, and feels that they represent that class. You may disagree strongly with their position, and have very good reasons for it which you want to express. But you hesitate.

It could be that the situation is already tense and you don’t want to make things worse. Maybe you don’t know each other very well, and you’re not sure whether it’s a good idea to open this particular can of worms with them. Or, perhaps, you just don’t have the right words.

Finally, a Feminism 101 blog has a FAQ with a pretty good answer, which calls out the misconceptions underlying the question:

1. Even if women in your part of the world do have legal equality, what about women elsewhere? Feminists who fight for the rights of other women to have what they already have are justified in doing so.

2. Simple, basic legal equality regarding the right to own property, sign contracts or vote does not always translate into social equality in work, the community or the home.

(emphasis added. thanks to Mary for the reference)

However, the matter of how to respond to the person is perhaps more important than having an answer. Ideally, you’d like to engage with this person, and enter into a dialog where you can both learn something. Your mileage may vary, but I find that counterargument and psychoanalysis don’t always set us on that path.

Here’s what I try to do:

  • Validate their first-hand experience. Regardless of whether they represent a class, they are telling you something about their lived experience, and that is a subject on which they are an authority. Respect that, and acknowledge what they are telling you about themselves. You never know, and they may have been very fortunate. They are almost certainly fortunate compared to many other people, and recognizing that good fortune can be a sign of genuine humility. So, give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Integrate their position into a broader perspective. Other people (including you) have a different view: how can we reconcile that? If you don’t know, invite them to explore the question with you. What would have to be true in order for both views to be valid?
  • Explore their point of view. Now that you have some shared perspective, dig a little deeper and try to understand why they feel they way they do. How do their past and present experiences, their beliefs, and their personality influence their opinion? What can you learn from them?

How about you, readers? Tell us in the comments how you respond to this type of situation.

Ask a Geek Feminist: the definitive “women in CS/STEM” resource thread

Both rounds of “Ask a Geek Feminist” so far have contained some variant of “why are there so few women in computer science or software development, should we fix this, and how should we fix it?” I didn’t post it last time, but I suspect that it will keep coming up, and it would be good to have a link for this.

This is your thread for pointing out research articles, books and other literature on this issue and I’ll link to it from future ask a geek feminist rounds and from the wiki’s Resources page. Note, this is not a thread for your personal theories unless you have unusual expertise in the area (having read most of the stuff other people are suggesting would be a good start), it’s a thread to gather in one place a reasonable list of the accessible literature.

Related stuff on women in engineering, women in science (particularly sciences where they are a smallish minority), women in mathematics also welcome.

Update: There are comments in moderation recommending blog articles and pieces of journalism. I’m really looking for serious research here, such as books, journal articles and reports from studies, either academic or by industry groups. Nothing wrong with a good blog entry (ahem!) but the point here is that there’s plenty of research to turn to before you fire up the ol’ blogging engine.