Tag Archives: gender essentialism

Quick hit: “Microsoft’s ‘Chuck Norris'” thinks trans people are liars

In a blog post from last December on the Microsoft Developer Network web site, Raymond Chen (described on another Microsoft site as “Microsoft’s Chuck Norris”) accuses people who change their names on their birth certificates of “lying”. (Content warning: cissexism and inquiry-resistant dialogue, particularly in the comments section.)

It’d be like asking the church to go update its registry to change your birth name. “Yes, I know that I was born with the name Amélie Bernadette, but please change your files so it says that I was born with the name Chloë Dominique. Thanks.”

The church isn’t going to do that because that would now be lying. You were born with the name Amélie Bernadette. You are welcome to change your name to Chloë Dominique, but that doesn’t change the fact that you were born with the name Amélie Bernadette.

First, in my country, the US, churches aren’t responsible for keeping track of vital records — state governments are.

Second, infants are not born with names; adults (usually their parents) assign them names. If I have a baby today and name hir “Dale”, my act of naming is not a logical proposition that can be true or false. The baby was not born “Dale”; I would be assigning that name to hir. It’s a speech act — it has effects in the world. As we know in the world of programming languages, we can’t apply the same reasoning to programs (or speech acts) that mutate state as we can to purely functional programs (or assertions of truth and falsity).

Third, calling people who amend their birth certificates “liars” disregards the very real burden of administrative confusion that people like me who have different forms of identification bearing different names deal with. This confusion steals time that we could be using to do productive things. Having a consistent name on all of one’s papers makes life easier. It’s easy for people whose lives have always been easy in this regard (which is to say, cis men who don’t face any need to change their names, aren’t expected to marry and take their spouse’s surname, and so on) to sneer at people who lack the privilege of having a single name that others recognize. That denial of one’s own privilege doesn’t change the truth, though, which is that social structures make it difficult to go through life with identification that carries a name that isn’t appropriate for you.

Fourth, I think we would all agree that it’s okay for people to amend their birth certificates to correct errors (for example, if your birth certificate says you were born on January 1, 1980 when it was actually January 1, 1979). Usually, it’s assumed that these errors are administrative. But giving a masculine-coded name to a girl, or a feminine-coded name to a boy, is effectively an error on the parents’ part. So why treat parental errors differently from bureaucratic ones?

Fifth, one can imagine a response to the third and fourth points saying: “I recognize incorrect birth certificates might be inconvenient, but it’s important for birth certificates to reflect the first name that a person was assigned and the first sex that a person was assigned. That’s more important to me than convenience.” Belief in and faith in the concept of an error-free historical record is a privilege. (And anyway, what historical record was ever free from errors? People make records.) The privilege here is the freedom to believe in an abstraction (that is, a certain construct of historical accuracy) so strongly that you put the ostensible purity of that abstraction ahead of the needs of real, living, breathing humans. Some of us don’t have the luxury of sacrificing our dignity and respect for the sake of an abstraction — we’re just trying to survive.

When you call people who amend their birth certificates “liars”, you’re calling those of us who are transsexual, transgender, and/or genderqueer liars, since we are a large percentage of people who need to amend their birth certificates (for reasons other than recording errors). And what you’re really doing when you say that is saying that cis people (people who were assigned the right sex at birth) are more honest and trustworthy than trans people — that the acts of naming that we perform on ourselves are somehow less true than the acts of naming that cis people perform on us without our consent. Thus, what you’re really doing is asserting power, but pretending you’re making a logically true or false statement.

While Chen doesn’t use the example of changing one’s sex marker to illustrate his point, the same reasoning applies, since a sex or gender marker is just another kind of name (one that happens to be shared by many people — but so are the names “John” and “Jane”). Like a person’s name, their sex is assigned; the difference is that no one has an inherent sense of what their name is, but many of us do have an inherent sense of what our sex is. Most people are assigned the correct sex at birth, and never need to think about it again — but sometimes, as with the people who assumed I was a baby girl when I was born, people make a mistake.

Why am I writing about this here? Because it illustrates the kinds of microaggressions that those of us who aren’t cissexual, heterosexual men have to endure every day when working in the tech industry. We can’t even read an innocent-looking technical blog post without being unexpectedly told that our lives are lies.

Thanks to Sumana and Liz for their comments!

Edited to add: I’ll be deleting any comments concerning Chen’s intent. If you’re inclined to make such a comment, consider how you would feel if you were told that somebody didn’t mean to dehumanize you — you just weren’t important enough for them to even bother to think about the effect of their speech on you.

He can only be defeated via his weakness for linkspam (23rd May, 2011)

  • Win a Scholarship to National Computer Camp: GamingAngels.com and National Computer Camp (NCC) are offering a scholarship for NCC’s June/July 2011 enrollment valued at $985 to a female student (ages 8-18) for one week.” ‘National’ in this context seems to mean ‘USA’. Applications due June 8.
  • (Warning: porny presentation image shown.) It’s the Small Things That Count: Everyone likes to say — gasp, oh noes, there are mostly men here! how horrible, something should be done!!!1! But nothing ever seems to be consciously done by the organizers… to address this. Instead, all these little things seem to slip by under the radar which scream at women: it is not normal nor expected for you to be here.
  • (Note: images of nudity at link.) Company Only Hires Naked Female Web Coders. Our submitter writes I *SO* wish I coded because I would apply here. I would happily strip off all my clothing to see their reaction at a 400 lb disabled woman naked in front of them. I'm sure they only want thin, pretty women.
  • Prime World: “Nival is taking a huge gamble on the idea of tying players’ real-life gender into their game experience… Male and female players have different heroes available to them at the beginning of the game, with female heroes skewing more toward support roles and male heroes tending to be front-line fighters.” How about FUCK NO?!
  • Futurity.org – Wanted: Gender-free job ads: Words like competitive and dominant (male) versus compassionate and nurturing (female) can signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. Both men and women show a preference for job descriptions matching their gender—women more strongly so.Surely part of this phenomenon is that gendered language could indicate a strongly-gendered environment? What woman wants to walk into a locker-room-fest?
  • Fanboy: Alexander Chee on losing ground to the kyriarchy in mainstream comics.
  • (Warning: account of harassment.) How I Deal With Sexual Discrimination in a Positive Way: This past week I was banned from one of my favorite conferences because I wouldn’t have sex with one of the organizers. Given that this is the third time a similar situation has happened in a year’s time, I’m learning how to swallow this pill of injustice without throwing up every time.

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

But he’s really a nice linkspam (24th February, 2011)

  • Ada Lovelace Day, the once a year blogswarm highlighting women in technology will be held on October 7 (unlike the previous two years when it was held in March).
  • More keynoters in the open source space: Runa Bhattacharjee and Lydia Pintscher are two of the three keynotes for conf.kde.in 2011.
  • My mom has a PhD in Math” – fighting back against gendered advertising.
  • @victoriajanssen tweets: “FIVE of the SIX Nebula nominations for novel were written by WOMEN!!!” as well as 4 women nominees for short story. (via @skud)
  • Top Secret Rosies is a documentary made last year about the computers of WWII, “when computers were human and women were underestimated.”
  • Hillary Rosner writes about learning that she really did like science after all.

One year I took an introductory genetics class (“genes for jocks”), just to confirm that science still sucked, and when I earned a C+ I retreated, satisfied, to the comfort of literature, politics, and cultural theory.

And then a strange thing happened. Several years into my journalism career, I became captivated by stories about the environment. I couldn’t read enough of them.

  • Cordelia Fine of “Delusions of Gender” fame writes about sexist speeches by former Harvard Presidents, and straw-feminists [trigger warning for discussion of essentialism].

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Responding to essentialism

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

Some of us are professional scientists, or are studying to become professional scientists (me), or like to read about science as a hobby, yes? How do we deal with the idea of biological essentialism (the idea that there are innate biological/psychological differences between the sexes)?

I started thinking about this after a particularly insulting pop-sci article. It’s worth noting that this article is insulting above and beyond the usual the “boys-trucks girls-barbies” dichotomy; this one never even considers the possibility of women having their own perspective. We’re just creatures with crazy brain chemistry that men must learn, so they can trick it into wanting them.

And what if there’s a grain of truth? Raven Kaldera’s essay discusses, in part, his experiences beginning testosterone supplements as part of transitioning, and he admits that he did notice changes in his psychology. Nothing that superseded his conscious thinking, but more than he expected. How do we objectively approach evidence of fundamental gender differences, however small? It frightens me a bit, both because it fuels some of the uncertainty I feel as a woman in a male-dominated field (irrational, I know, but still), and the related dread of others using such differences to justify inequality (I know that equality is not predicated on equivalency, but not everyone does.)

How do you respond to essentialism, evidence-based or otherwise?

Digging around from the Finally Feminism 101 FAQ But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? material may help.

Does anyone else have suggestions for accessible overviews of the actual findings of biology and psychology about sex and gender-linked traits in humans? Here’s some possibilities:

  • Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps — and What We Can Do About It about the neuroscience and behavioural findings about sex differences in young children, and the influences on them.
  • Anne Innis Dagg’s Love of Shopping is Not a Gene: exposing junk science and ideology in Darwinian Psychology. See Cory Doctorow’s review.

Male geeks reclaim masculinity at the expense of female geeks.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Most male geeks believe that they are subverting traditional masculinity by reclaiming and self-identifying with the term “geek”. For most male geeks, geek identity is defined partly as a rejection of the “jock” identity. According to the traditional high school male social hierarchy, jocks are high-status males and male geeks are low-status males; jocks are alpha males and male geeks are beta males; jocks are masculine and male geeks are “effeminate”. Thus, when a man proudly self-identifies as a “geek” in response, what he is doing is redefining what it is to be a man, redefining geek identity as masculine.

Continue reading

Hairy-legged bra-burning linkspam (17th June, 2010)

  • Open World Forum 2010 (Sep 30 to Oct 1, Paris) is having a Diversity Summit: Why women matter? relating to women in Free/Open Source Software. There’s an associated poll to gather data about women in FLOSS that anyone involved in FLOSS might be interested in taking.
  • Andrea Phillips is super-excited about Caitlin Burns and Jurassic Park Slope events.
  • Making games is hard: On the barriers that women face: … as someone whose life has been consumed by learning the ins and outs of game development for the past three years, I have to say that making a game is pretty damn hard. And I think that the complicated process of game development itself can be a barrier to women entering the field
  • Discussing sexism in geek communities is more important than discussing gender imbalance: Restructure! writes Ironically, when some female geeks use the capitalist discourse of increasing female representation in STEM fields as a structural strategy for reducing sexism and improving our personal autonomy / right to pursue our career of choice, many male geeks misunderstand these efforts as being anti-choice.
  • In light of Restructure!’s post, see Eric Ries, Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business): That’s why I care a lot about diversity: not for its own sake, but because it is a source of strength for teams that have it, and a symptom of dysfunction for those that don’t.
  • Women and Technology and Myth: Adriana Gardella interviews Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist. The article is a little bit on the "suck it up, buttercup" end of the spectrum, but has good points about critical mass and homophily.
  • Jessa Crispin has given up reading bad books about women: I had to give up on a pretty good book because halfway through I did a little equation: what was the probability that the two women in the book would turn out to be anything other than gold diggers and sluts. Not great! So: gone.
  • Isis the Scientist has more on John Tierney, bonus humorous pictures!
  • What I got wrong about women in science: Maggie Koerth-Baker writes Several hours after I hit “publish”, I realized that I’d managed to put together a panel on diversity made up of nothing but white people.
  • Her blogging about social justice doesn’t make Renee your on-tap free expert on womanism, anti-racism or social justice.

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.

The latest essentialism go-round: do we dare to discuss?

Showing up on our Linkspam radar this week is John Tierney’s article for The New York Times, Daring to Discuss Women in Science, which is another round of “I am going to challenge the groupthink and be the one person who dares to make gender essentialist arguments about women in technical fields [well, me and that army over there]”. It argues from a finding among very high performing high school students, the top 0.01 percent of the population as sorted by the SAT and ACT standardised tests in the US, from which the researchers concluded that there’s distinct gender differences among students with that sort of performance.

Tierney writes:

The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.

Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.â€

Here’s a roundup of feminist/women-in-science-o-sphere responses, many via SKM at Shakesville:

  • Anna N., 3 Problems With The “Women In Science” Debate: If boys and girls, men and women had truly equal opportunities, we might be able to conclude something about their “innate abilities” — or at least stop worrying about gender inequality in various fields. But we’re still very far from that point. Tierney finds fault with programs to eliminate bias at the university level, and says, female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants. But girls may be implicitly or explicitly discouraged from pursuing science long before they actually become scientists…
  • Caroline Simard, “Daring to Discuss Women in Science:” A Response to John Tierney: The problem with the biology argument that “boys are just more likely to be born good at math and science” isn’t that it’s not “politically correct” — it’s that it assumes that we can take away the power of societal influences, which have much more solid evidence than the biology hypothesis. Tierney makes the point himself in his article…
  • Christina Agapakis, Adventures of Women in Science: The irony here being that this article is a very clear example of some of the social biases women in science face every day, just one of the countless attacks and indignities that make it that much harder for women to get up and go to lab every day, to achieve great things in math and science.
  • Janet D. Stemwedel, John Tierney thinks he’s being daring: On the general subject of claims for which there does not does not exist relevant empirical evidence, are there any published studies (or any research projects currently underway) to explore the connection Tierney, Summers, et al. seem to assume between being in the extreme right tail of laboratory measures of mathematical and scientific aptitude (like the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and having the chops to to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university?
  • SKM, Daring to Discuss Women and… *Yawn*, which also includes several links from the Larry Summers debate and earlier: For that matter, I think the “daring” idea that women are innately inferior to men at various Important Things–and indeed the preposterous notion that the idea is “daring” to begin with–has been answered quite competently in the past
  • Gretchen Keller, Women in Science: 2+2=?: …one of my least favorite, yet thought-provoking questions is “How does it feel to be a woman in science?â€. Usually I reply that it feels the same as it does for a man: frustrating, time-consuming, invigorating and mostly like a bird flying repeatedly into a window desperately hoping that one of these times that pane of glass will turn into thin air.
  • Amy E. Slaton, Erring on the Side of…Exclusion: I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive. So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences.
  • Clara Raubertas, “daring” to draw unscientific conclusions from statistics: Of course, his conclusions aren’t very scientific. Here are a few of the unfounded assumptions he has to make to draw the conclusions he draws… The assumption that science is so hard that it’s really only suited for people with extremely high scores (in the top fraction of a percent among a group of students who are already in the top fraction of a percent among their peers)
  • Melissa, The never-ending discussion: biology or bias?: What I find most frustrating is that there are myriads of studies, and everyone can cite their favorite study to support their viewpoint — be it that bias is the dominant factor keeping women out of sciences or that biology accounts for the paucity of women… I found what may currently be the best, though still imperfect, antidote to the never-ending, go-nowhere discussion of this topic, namely Stephen Ceci and Wendy William’s book, The Mathematics of Sex: How biology and society conspire to limit talented women and girls.
  • FemaleScienceProfessor, But I Don’t Want to Write about John Tierney Again: Thanks for all the e-mails and comments with links to the New York Times commentary by John Tierney, but what he wrote is just more of the same of what he’s written before: i.e., many women don’t want to be scientists or engineers, others can’t because they aren’t as good at math as the guys. Oh yeah, and Larry Summers made some reasonable statements in a speech that was misunderstood by hysterical females.
  • Hannah (in reply to FemaleScienceProfessor), Daring to Discuss: While I do understand this fear, how else are we going to convince the scientific establishment, many of whom likely share Tierney’s views, that gender bias is real and actually does keep women from succeeding in science careers? Clearly, just waiting for the old guard to pass on isn’t working, because I’ve met plenty of young male scientists who are just as biased as the old ones: they just hide it better.

Lost in La Linkspam (25th May, 2010)

Spoiler warning: the last part of this spam spoils a scene in a very recent Doctor Who. There thus might be spoilers in our comments too.

  • Two-wheel triumph: Armed with a netbook, medical supplies and a bicycle, Bangladesh’s InfoLadies are giving millions of poor people access to crucial information on their doorsteps that will improve their chances in life.
  • Regis Donovan has responses to a few of our recent links at nyt: why so few women in silicon valley and ssh and sexism.
  • Why women were shut out of Canada’s science-star search: Their report… finds no deliberate attempt to shut out women, but concludes the tight deadlines for the competition, the areas picked for research and a competition where candidates on the short list had only a 50 per cent chance of winning probably all worked against female candidates.
  • Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language: When someone proudly assures me that words like lame and dumb and r#tarded are never used to describe actual people with disabilities, I’m fairly certain I’m talking to one of the currently non-disabled. Currently non-disabled readers, I’m here to tell you: those words, and any similar words you think are archaic and not used anymore, are used all the time, as taunts and insults towards people with disabilities…
  • Punding: “Punding†refers to repetitive, purposeless, stereotypical behavior typically induced by prolonged use of amphetamines or cocaine or by some drug therapies… a good example of gendered behavior that can look purely biochemical but which also, the slightest reflection shows, has a large social component that can’t plausibly be thought to be innate.
  • (Spoilers be here…) Quixotess on unacknowledged sexual assault in Doctor Who: What happened at the end of Flesh and Stone was sexual assault: Q&A.

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.

Death by a thousand links (20th April, 2010)

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.

Quick hit: the gender binary fractal in geekdom

Unless you’ve been inexplicably failing to click on every link in our linkspams (you didn’t know that would be on the exam?… sorry), you read a fair bit of Sociological Images already. However, they get a Quick Hit because their recent post The Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary: Or Blue vs. Turquoise continues on a theme I discussed in one of my earliest posts here, “Girl stuff†in Free Software.

Lisa Wade writes thus:

The gender binary-that is, the rule that everything (oh animals, jobs, food, kleenex, housework, sound, games, deordorant, love and sex, candy, vitamins, etc) gets split into male and female-is fractal. That means that, for every male or female version of something (say sports versus dance), there is a further gendered split that can be made. If we take sports, we might divide it into the masculine football and the feminine swimming. If we take swimming, we could probably divide it down further. Take education (which is, arguably, feminized): we can split it into physical sciences (masculine) and social sciences (feminine). And we can split the physical sciences into biology (dominated these days by women) and physics (dominated by men). So the gender binary has a fractal character.

This strongly resonates with me. It doesn’t mean that I think this is how things should work, but I think it’s often part of how they do work. Do you find this in your geekdoms of choice? How does it split up your geekdom? Have you seen your area of the fractal shift over time and do you have any theories about why; for example, did the arrival of more women or more men make something more feminine or masculine? How explicit is it? (In Free Software it can be very explicit and essentialist. “Women are good at words and other people, so documentation is more feminine. Women are bad at maths — which is basically the same thing as computer programming right? — and at isolated work, so coding is more masculine. QED.”)

Update: Just a note that the question is not precisely “where do the women cluster in your geekdom?” (although that’s interesting too), but “which parts of your geekdom are considered more suitable for women/more womanly/less manly?”