Tag Archives: feminism 101

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.

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 2

Welcome to round 2 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.

101 (introductory) questions about feminism are OK, but look at Finally Feminism 101′s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first, as we’re unlikely to re-hash things that are already written up at those sites. (Questions do not have to be about feminism at all though. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…)

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.

Beginning a feminist journey

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question. (See the status of this project, also.)

I am a girl geek in a relationship with a guy geek, and this guy geek was raised by his mom and his aunt to hate men and hate himself for being a man. In puberty he rejected that and swung a bit in the opposite direction, and now he’s in a place where he believes in the equality of the sexes but he has internalized stereotypes and vitriolic messages about both sexes. He recognizes that and he wants me to help him learn about feminism. Well, that’s great! But I haven’t got the foggiest where to start. We tried reading the Feminism 101 sites together, but it’s too unstructured. Do you know of anyplace else I could find an approach to teaching feminism to men, specifically, or have any advice for helping him confront the internalized hated?

I’ll be interested in the Hive’s thoughts too, but to be honest I’m not sure you can provide structure in this quest, ultimately. It’s a big messy pile of issues, and one person’s structured look at it will be another person’s incoherent mystery.

I wanted to post this after the linkspam put up the lists to the latest round of self-education posts, because he needs to accept responsibility for his own education. If he’s not willing to do a lot of listening and doubting and struggling to understand and looking back at his six-months-ago self and being embarrassed at his lack of clue, you can’t make him and we can’t make him.

Let me talk about myself for a bit. I’m very privileged, and I’ve spent a few years now reading about intersectionality issues and oppressions other than patriarchal ones. I don’t get an ally cookie and reading the social justice blogosphere is far and away not the only thing an ally can or should do. But here’s what’s worked for me:

  • reading a lot of things, mostly in my case blogs, with stories in them about oppression playing out in people’s lives;
  • thinking privileged things like “surely that’s an exaggeration” “but I’m not like that” “but my friends aren’t like that” “but I’ve never heard of anything like that” “I think your point would be better made if you…” and so on;
  • (at least sometimes) noticing myself thinking those things and keeping them inside my own head; and
  • (sometimes) noticing oppression that isn’t happening to me personally and thinking “that’s fucked up” and (sometimes) analysing, criticising, or trying to end it.

Not a direct answer to your question, but perhaps your partner does need to ask himself what it is he needs structured for him and why.

For others, were there any resources that provided you with some structure to your early feminist or anti-oppression thinking, even if they later turned out to be incomplete or problematic in and of themselves? If you’re a male feminist/feminist ally, how did you start out learning and what are you learning at the moment?

Note: discussions of what one can do to learn about or further social justice can themselves end up ableist and classist among other things. There are many types of activism and the types that can be done or are preferred by conventionally educated abled folk with leisure time aren’t the only kind. Be careful with your ‘must’s.

Macho, macho ‘spam, I want to be a macho ‘spam (8th April, 2010)

  • jesstess at Stemming wants to motivate programming for a twelve year old girl. Head on over and give her ideas.
  • There’s discussion following on from Cath Elliott’s admiration of The Lord of the Rings in The Guardian (linkspammed here):
    • Tolkien’s Ladies: Is Geek Culture Female-Friendly? Anna N doesn’t think feminists need an “excuse” to like things, but also doesn’t think Eowyn alone makes LOTR especially feminist.
    • Feminism vs geek culture?: liliacsigil notes that Anna N is talking about commercially produced geek media, and that geek culture is not monolithic and has many women and feminists, and returns to the issue of “strong women characters” in geek media.
  • Study: Pay, Promotion Limits Lead Women to Exit Engineering: ‘What’s for sure is that “it’s not about math or getting your hands dirty,” says Hunt. “It’s not because these women mistakenly wandered into engineering.’”. (Also, WTF at ad inserted into the article: “See iPhone apps for new moms.”)
  • Girls abandon dolls for Web-based toys: an anecdote-driven story about possible new play styles among girls.
  • Being Inclusive vs Not Being Exclusive: ‘A group of people put on some creative project, and someone notices that there’s a lack of representation of X Minority for whatever reason, sometimes noting that they themselves are in the minority. The people organising the project get defensive and say “But we’re not excluding anyone! We are open to everybody! They just need to sign on!†There is a huge difference between not being exclusive and being inclusive.’ (Via FWD.)
  • Five+ Ways Being Transgender in Fandom Really Sucks, and Why I Stick With It Anyway: iambic writes about his experiences as a trans fan.
  • Research Conversations: Munmun De Choudhury writes about her computer science research on homophily in social networks, that is, similar people forming connections.
  • In Australia the Victorian Department of Transport is offering $10 000 Women in Transport Scholarships to female, full-time or part-time students starting or completing postgraduate studies in transport-related fields.
  • Carnivals: Feminist Blog Carnival No. 16 and 23rd Down Under Feminist Carnival

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. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Women and geek prestige

This an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. I have some comments on this one at the bottom, but not a real answer.

I’ve seen various mention of trying to increase the respect given for non-coding activities, such as documentation and testing, which seem have a better gender ratio than coding, as a way of increasing acknowledged female involvement in FLOSS. But, while we definitely should give more recognition to non-coding involvement, it seems to me that allocation of respect / recognition simply does naturally concentrate on that which has the longest and steepest learning curves (just as I guess that in running there’s a hierarchy of jogger – runner – marathon runner – hypermarathon runner), and that this route will risk perpetuating a division into “womens’ work” and “men’s work”, with the traditional difference in public valuation. Is this a risk? Is it happening? And if so, what can we do about it?

And likewise, I get a similar impression about scripting vs compiled languages — that, statistically, women (more so than men) tend to prefer languages like python, rather than the languages that they’re implemented in (typically C). Is this a real divide? And does it have risks of getting more female involvement in FLOSS but in a way that some [male geeks] will dismiss as “not the real thing”?

Something I think is worth considering about this question is whether or not the hierarchy the questioner gives is objective. I’d argue that it largely isn’t. The learning curve for coding can be long and steep, yes. But consider documentation, for example. Writing well is a really difficult skill. It’s sometimes not as obvious that you’re acquiring it, precisely because it’s such a very long process and it involves doing a lot of reading and practising other forms of communication as well. A baseline level of skill in writing is also more common than a baseline level of skill in coding, but a high level of skill is no easier — I’d actually guess much harder at the very extremes — to achieve.So we need to be very wary of accepting this hierarchy at face value, both because it buys into the existing undervaluation of certain skills and because it risks continuing a nasty pattern: “if women can do it, it must be easier than we thought, let’s look for something currently mostly done by men and value that instead.”

That said, coding is fun and useful. (Well, for me. But that’s enough!) So is nuclear physics, pure mathematics, electrical engineering, hard SF and many other “male” halves of the gender binary fractal. So we don’t want to cede those to men.

For more of my own thoughts on this, see “Girl stuff” in Free Software, a post from last year from the point-of-view of deciding what to work on as a woman. What do you think? Where’s the balance between creating and properly valuing roles more suited for women’s existing socialisation and more women entering male-dominated and currently highly valued roles?

But women are an advanced social skill…

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.)

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.

Being an ally to a “OMG hot girl!1!!!!”

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

This questioner asked us not to quote the exact context, but was involved in one of those scenarios where a woman got involved in a technical discussion with a man and he very quickly diverted into a “by the way, hot geek girl whoa, will you marry me???!?” tangent. (Incidentally, if you’ve done this recently and you’re sure we’re talking about you… sadly we probably aren’t as it happens all the time.) The questioner writes:

I felt I should say something, but didn’t really know what… So, what would you have hoped I’d say when involved in something like that?

What do you think a man should say if he disapproves of this kind of thing, and it’s a fast-paced discussion (IRC, chat, Twitter, Facebook, emails flying around, that kind of thing)?

Addressing tokenism

This question came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions.

How do you determine if a person has been invited to participate (conference speaker, lead a workshop, blog, etc.) as a token of diversity rather than on their merits?

And, if it is tokenism, what would you do?

I’m going to talk about being a token woman in this post, because that’s what I feel familiar with, hopefully commenters can share their thoughts on being a token representative of other (or multiple) groups.

First, a wee bit of 101. The response to this kind of discussion is sometimes: “Wait, you want more women. But we shouldn’t be selecting women just because they’re women. Feminism is hard, eleventy one 1!11!!1 I quit!”

Yeah, feminism is hard. That’s why we’re still here and frankly expect to be for a long time. Yes, we’d advocate that you have women taking prominent roles in your geekdom in similar proportions to their participation. And this may be a hard thing to do: much harder than having a criteria for a single event that says “at least three women speakers, please, this year for sure.” Likewise for diversity in general. You do this the hard way: organically. You should be striving for diversity everywhere, not just in venues where people are likely to notice and criticise your lack of diversity. You shouldn’t be having to select a woman speaker just because she’s a woman: if there are women in your geekdom at all, there should be women in your candidate pool and then you select some of them as part of your usual process.

Of course, that means keeping in mind that it’s harder to select women even when you have access to women candidates, because essentially everyone (so, me, you) has a set of biases about women that influence how we see individual women. Try and consciously correct for these biases. As an example: she seems inexperienced as an speaker. But on the other hand, we regularly select men on no more evidence than the fact that they asked, don’t we? Are we applying the same standards to women?

As regards bias, once you have your selection pool, at the time of selection, there are various approaches. Blinding the selection process is very effective: if you can hide names, appearances, and everything else that you can aside from the person’s proposal or skill, this is something of the gold standard approach. This is famously true for orchestral auditions. Otherwise, all you can do is try and be very conscious about your choices and remember that you have inherited biases towards privileged groups, and towards people like yourself, from your surroundings.

On to the question itself: someone appears to be a token women. What to do about it?

This is complicated precisely because tokenism isn’t a binary thing, token or not-a-token. When in a sufficient numerical minority particularly, as women are in a lot of geekdoms, I think it’s unlikely that no attention at all was paid to a woman’s gender and its effect on gender balance and diversity when she was selected for a role. It might have come up explicitly in the selection, it might have occurred to individuals privately, it might have influenced them subconsciously, but to some extent she was likely chosen as partly “the person who can best do this task” and partly as “a woman”.

I think there are some indicative but not definitive signs of problematic tokenisation. They include:

  • being the only woman selected among many men;
  • being part of a repeating pattern in which a single woman or the same number of women are selected time after time (eg, a few too many tech conferences currently seem to have a pattern of having exactly one woman selected to give one of the keynotes year after year); and
  • being selected to represent the female side of however the local gender binary fractal divides the space, especially where this is a repeated pattern.

The question doesn’t specify about what to do if you think you yourself are a token, or if you think someone else is. I’ll answer the easier part first: if you think someone else is.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to point this out with respect to an individual woman. Tokenism is a double-bind: tokenism should be challenged, but ‘token’ is a very damaging and hurtful label to apply to someone and this is regularly used as a weapon against women. Calling someone a token woman is a good way of dismissing her and giving other people ammunition to dismiss both her and other women who are in a numerical minority. (Much love to my first year computer science tutor who greeted my appearance in his tutorial with: “ah, of course, our token woman!”)

It’s pretty rare for a woman to be explicitly identified as a token by the people who selected her as one, in these situations where diversity is being genuinely sought. (In the case where people feel diversity is being forced upon them, they often take it out on the tokenised person.) Generally they realise that “we selected Mary to be our woman speaker this year, that’s an infinite improvement on last year” is an admission that their approach to diversity is fairly shallow.

So you don’t often know for sure, and speculating on an individual woman’s selection as a token is a problem in and of itself. Instead, the system needs to be redesigned at a lower level. This is very much a place in which allies in positions of power need to do work. Work hard on having access to diversity through your networks. The idea is that when someone is seeking a speaker, writer, teacher, leader or so on, it shouldn’t be only men’s names that spring to mind. This is the long hard way. Essentially what you need to do is make your diversity efforts an ongoing, continual process. Claire Light wrote about doing this as a fulltime job in Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!. Allowing for the number of hours you have available, this is how you should be approaching your geek network when you have power over other people’s prominence. You should be seeking to tunnel for hidden gold all the time, not just keeping to the same old (male, etc) names. It shouldn’t just be your events that are diverse, it should be your personal network. Also have a look at Skud’s ten tips for getting more women speakers and think about analogies in all situations where you are choosing to make someone prominent.

If you do the above, you won’t be stuck at the last minute trying to make sure you have one single woman to desperately avoid looking undiverse.

What if you think you yourself are a token? I don’t think that you have an obligation to challenge what’s going on: requiring that women who’ve been put in a difficult spot do all the work of changing assumptions and practices is a bad approach. We all should, and the more powerful should be addressing their own privileges in proportion to their power. You might decide that the best thing to do is keep your head down this time.

But let’s say that in this instance, you want to challenge the tokenism of your selection. There are a bunch of options:

  • refuse with a reason. Say that you believe you’re only being included in order to have a woman speaker or prize recipient or whatever. Probably this is only going to happen when you have been somehow informed that you’ve been selected explicitly and only as a token, not in the far more common case where you aren’t sure or you’re partly a token.
  • if you’re been included in a way that is below your capabilities: you could either point this out and refuse, or demand a role commensurate with your status and abilities. For example, if you believe your expertise and speaking skills merit keynote slots, ask for them when being offered normal speaking slots.
  • if you feel your offer has been too feminised, ask to change it. For example: “I haven’t done game artwork for the last few years, I’m much more familiar with game design state-of-the-art. I would rather run a workshop on that and I notice that there isn’t one in the program.”
  • use your prominence to promote other women, or other people who you believe aren’t getting enough exposure. Invite them to your workshop, suggest them as alternative speakers, suggest that a journalist speak to them instead, and so on.
  • try and leverage your token slot into a role with power. Ask to be on the organising or selection committee next year. Then you can try and make a more organic approach to diversity right from the start.

If you’re worried you’re a token, it’s also worth keeping in mind that women are trained to underestimate their own worth and significance. Don’t neglect to consider the possibility that your work is just as good as or quite likely better than the required level for the role you’ve been offered. You also do not need to be The Universe’s Single Leading Expert on anything in order to publicly opine, teach or lead it. The fact that you can think of someone who would be better does not mean that you are not suitable. Tokenism exists, but it does not mean that everything you are offered is unearned or depriving someone more worthy.

For commenters: have you been tokenised? Were you able to tell for sure? Did you decide to do anything about it, and if so, what? Have you any experience of the explicit and deliberate tokenisation of someone else?

And again, this post focused on women being tokenised, but have you been included as a token member of another group, or at the intersection of more than one? Do you have any thoughts specific to that?

Ask a Geek Feminist

This is an experiment: if it goes well I will run it as an irregular feature.

“Ask a Geek Feminist” is now taking questions! 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.

101 (introductory) questions about feminism are OK for this post, but I suggest looking at Finally Feminism 101′s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first, as we’re unlikely to re-hash things that are already written up at those sites. (Questions do not have to be about feminism at all though. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…)