Tag Archives: guest post

A tsunami of testimonies: assaults in the Swedish larp community

Warning: this post details sexual violence.

This is a guest post by Kristin Nilsdotter Isaksson. It originally appeared in Swedish and in English on Spelkult. The English translation is by Charlie Charlotta Haldén.

Editor’s note: “larp” is live-action role play.

We’re talking about sexual harassment in the world of larp. Molestation, groping, assault and rape of participants who are asleep or intoxicated, aggravated rape with violent abuse, and even attempted murder.

On June 17, 2014, a new Facebook group was created for Swedish-speaking larpers who identify wholly or partially as women. The group quickly drew many members, and now comprises 580 larpers of varying ages and backgrounds. The idea was to create a sanctuary for discussions about different aspects of being a female larper. There are discussion threads about portraying female antagonists, about dealing with menstruation during larps, about sewing tricks, creating characters, organising larps. Small questions, big questions, and questions of vital importance.

It’s so important that we talk about our experiences. About how common this is, and that it’s not OK. About our right to say no, and that it’s never, ever, acceptable for someone not to listen. Everybody knows a victim, but nobody knows a perpetrator, and it’s time to take a stand now. — anonymous

A lot of times, I am personally skeptical of gender separated forums and arenas. I think spaces that are open for all tend to support a broader sharing of experiences. But I have realised that there are exceptions.

Lately, a darker subject has crept into the discussion threads, and during the past few weeks, a tsunami of voices has swept over us. Post after post, comment after comment, telling stories of painful experiences. We’re talking about sexual assault. At larps, or in larping circles. Over a thousand posts detailing experiences, sharing thoughts, discussing preventive measures, and not least, holding out hands in support.

There are a lot of perpetrators, and a lot of victims. The threads almost exclusively tell of assaults perpetrated by men towards women. There have been instances of sexual harassment, molestation, groping, assault and rape of sleeping or intoxicated larpers, aggravated rape with violent abuse, and even attempted murder. Some of these incidents have been reported, but a large amount of them have not reached the police, or even the larp organisers. Until now.

I was almost completely out of it, and I couldn’t do much of anything to stop it, because I hardly understood what was happening. He raped me, and in the morning I was ashamed and just left the camp, because it felt like it was my own fault. — anonymous

A lot of cases involve young people, 15-16-year-olds who are offered alcohol and harassed by older boys or men, and then things get out of hand during the night. In other cases, the acts are meticulously planned and perpetrated over a long period of time.

I was always supposed to play a submissive role at the larps, a servant to the group, to his friends. I was thrown around like a handbag. But I felt so worthless, so I reckoned I should be happy to get any attention. Then it got worse, the mental stuff turned into physical abuse… — anonymous

Many people ask themselves how this can happen. Shouldn’t larping be a safe arena, with a lot of eyes and ears that can react if something seems to be going wrong?

Most probably, it can happen because the people around let it happen. Partly because larpers are not really any different from other people in society, partly because the setting of a lot of larps actually makes sexual harassment more acceptable. Sociology calls this “habitus”, a series of codes that underlie a person’s behaviour. A lot of larps, especially in the fantasy genre, are stereotypical. Gender roles are clear and coded with different behaviours.

Male players will often choose a warrior character with a macho attitude, an acceptance for sexualising women and literally taking what he wants. This is a behaviour that would not be at all OK in normal society, but one that is seen a lot at different larps.

In the same way, female characters are often coded to be submissive, service-minded, soft, madonna-whores, or defenceless. Given that context, it can seem perfectly reasonable if a male player is upset about new rules suddenly being enforced that forbid playing on rape, since he had planned that his character should be an active rapist during the larp. When female characters are coded as submissive, the more dominant aspects of the male characters are intensified.

I was 13 years old, going to my very first larp together with a friend. None of us had any experience, and we didn’t know anyone except each other. The larp begins, and everything goes pretty well until the second day, when we are handed a note. The note says that the two older men in the tent across from ours want to meet us, because they want to find wives. This made me extremely uncomfortable, and I ended up hiding in the woods for the remaining days. — anonymous

Another contributing factor in several stories is that the victim has been separated from her group and placed in a new situation where she hardly knows the other players. Her safety net is gone.

Note that I didn’t know ONE SINGLE person in Sverok (The Swedish Gaming Federation) then. I had gone there all alone, representing my organisation, and had never met anyone else, so I didn’t have a single person there to talk to or seek support from. — anonymous

Some of the stories shared tell of incidents where larpers have lost their way in the middle of the night and been offered a place to sleep in exchange for sexual favours, or woken up with an unknown person’s hands all over their body. Because the victim has few contacts in the new group, she automatically becomes dependent on the perpetrator, and her scope for action is restricted.

Suddenly, I notice someone lying down next to me and starting to touch me, moving their hands under my clothes. I was really gone, but I realise that it’s the guy from before, and that makes me feel I can’t say no, because he might have thought I wanted to. So I let him keep on, and I just wanted to go to sleep so I didn’t have to experience this. We never talked again, and I never told anyone. — anonymous

In many of the cases, shame or fear of retribution has kept the people involved from telling anyone about the incidents. Moreover, the perpetrator usually has a larger amount of social capital than the victim does. They may be much older and more experienced, perhaps an organiser or someone with a lot of contacts in the larping world – as one person wrote, “someone you could trust”. If the person who was assaulted would report it to the police, or involve an organiser, there is almost always a legitimate fear that she would tarnish more people than the perpetrator – their friends, their network, the larp event – by diminishing the perpetrator’s power and social standing. This very strong group mechanism can often cause many people to initially take the perpetrator’s side and turn against the victim. There may be accusations saying that she put herself in the situation, that she behaved like a slut, that she was drunk and provocative and “corrupted” the perpetrator. There are numerous examples of this. The Bjästa case in Sweden and the Steubenville rape in the US are just two well-known examples outside the larping world.

I walked homewards, ice cold and freezing. It was dark, I couldn’t even see the path. Almost knocked myself out. I just wanted to get home so I could sleep. This guy was friends with the organisers, with my friends, everybody. Nobody would believe me, and that’s why I just kept quiet. — anonymous

This ongoing conversation has already resulted in some practical measures: Several organisers have taken action against alleged perpetrators, and suggestions for preventive efforts have been put forth, such as larps providing safety hosts and safe sleeping quarters. And people are talking, and processing. Some who have not dared go to a larp for several years because of fear have now felt safe enough to sign up again, and many larp organisers are working hard to ensure that larp is not a lawless haven for perpetrators to hide in.

All this may lead to people being named and shamed, and suffering reprisals such as being banned from larps and other social contexts. Whether this is justified or not is, of course, a matter of judgement. There is also a significant risk that those who have now dared to speak out might be accused and called into question.

My blood runs cold when I realise that I probably know several of the guys described here. People I have larped with, had fun with, and maybe been lucky enough not to end up alone with — anonymous

But this can also lead to a much safer larping experience with increased freedom of action for many players. The tolerance for this kind of behaviour may decrease as the spotlight is placed upon it. What might have been silently accepted earlier can now be pulled out into the open and questioned. Together, organisers and players develop new methods to ensure safer play for everyone, and that more women dare take up more space and choose among a broader array of characters.

The issues are now being discussed in other open larp forums too, and several players have called for more male voices in the conversation. Partly because this is not just about women’s experiences. There are not only male perpetrators. There are male victims too, and they may risk invisibility and stigmatisation. But there are also a lot of men who want to do something about this and show support. However, the question is if this massive sharing of experiences would ever have happened at all if the forum had been open to everyone. Most of the members of the Facebook group would probably say a resounding “no” to that question. Those who have been subjected to violations need a sanctuary in order to find the courage to start talking.

Our newsfeeds keep filling up. We keep talking. We discover connections. Someone who has felt desperately alone in her experience discovers, with hope and with horror, that there are many others out there who have been through similar things. This gives strength and breeds courage. The voices are powerful, and they will surely not quieten for a long, long time yet.

Background

The Facebook group referred to in the text is named LWU, Larp Women Unite. The group was started by Karin Edman after Linnea Risinger came up with the idea during the Summer of 2014.

The ”Prata om det” campaign (”Talk about it”, hashtag #prataomdet) was and is a movement consisting of writers, bloggers and tweeters, emanating from a Twitter discussion started by geek feminist Johanna Koljonen in 2010. This concerned sharing stories about grey areas in sexual situations, about when sex becomes violation. This campaign opened doors to conversations that had not previously been had on a larger scale in “geek culture”.

Cookie of the week*: men defending feminist space at PyCon

Cookie of the Week* is an occasional series highlighting action in the geek community to fight sexism, in order to show that fighting sexism is possible and happening.

This week’s winners, several men attending this year’s North American PyCon, we know of thanks to a guest post from Lisa Hewus Fresh. Lisa is a Python programmer living the good life in beautiful Portland, Oregon. You can follow her on Twitter @bugZPDX.

feminist hacker lounge at PyCon 2014

Liz Henry’s photo of several visitors to the feminist space at PyCon 2014, licensed CC BY-ND

For context: throughout the conference, open spaces were available for hacking and discussion. Geek feminists of all genders hung out in one of them, a feminist hacker space — a “a great place to go relax, decompress, and hang out with friends” and to “always find other women to hang with”. This year’s North American PyCon also featured 1/3 talks by women, a charity auction to benefit PyLadies, a talk by Naomi Ceder discussing her experiences as she transitioned from male to female while staying involved in the Python community, and a keynote by Python founder Guido van Rossum in which he chose to balance the playing field by only taking questions from women. In general, I believe women and feminism were more consistently visible at PyCon 2014 than at any previous North American PyCon.

Lisa’s story (Warning: contains one quoted ableist slur):

PyCon 2014 in Montréal was a first for me. As a person new to programming, Python, and even Portland, Oregon, I didn’t really know anyone in the community — famous or not. The point is that I didn’t personally know anyone involved in the discussion I am about to recount.

Six or seven of us PyCon attendees were sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt, late one night, discussing a multitude of subjects, such as which text editor is best, how best to name a Git repo, what talks we attended, and so on. I just happened to be the only female in the group and was really enjoying the friendly banter. Someone accurately described it as like being in IRC, but in person.

At some point, a couple of additional men wandered in and came over to our group. One of the men was really angry, and was saying how horrible PyCon was now and how much better it was before. He said that next year he was going to have a “Brospace” right next to the feminist space because “It’s just not right. Women have ruined PyCon!” He then looked at me and said, “No offense.” I’ve been in plenty of misogynistic situations, and as the only female in a group of unknown men I chose to keep my mouth shut and avoid danger.

Everyone else just sat there as well and let him talk a bit more. He went on about how Guido van Rossum, the inventor of Python, “doesn’t give a fuck about anything! Well, he cares about PSF [the Python Software Foundation] but nothing else!” and how unfair he thought these women are making things for men. One of the men in our group said something like, “Well, when you have been excluded from something for years, then you can complain, but you don’t know what that feels like because this environment has always been yours.” The guy responded, “Yeah OK but this is TOO much! Now they just want to take over the whole thing and push us men out!”

He went on to rant about someone who was banned from PyCon for two years. I am not clear on who this is or why they were banned, but the same member of our group firmly said, “Rules are rules. We all know what they are ahead of time and he violated the rules.” The angry man replied, “But he’s done SO much for this community! Yeah, what he did was stupid and wrong, but TWO years?!” The man in our group said, “So? The rules apply to everyone and it’s strictly against the rules so it doesn’t matter if he is a great guy and did a lot for Python and open source.­ That doesn’t give him permission to break the rules.”

The angry guy, who was getting angrier, started talking about a tweet that someone, who was in or near the feminist space, allegedly sent. He claimed that the content of the tweet berated a male who mistakenly entered the feminist space where he didn’t belong. How could this person be so mean to this poor man and exclude him? At this point, another man who had been lounging back on the couch, quietly typing on his laptop yet listening to every word, very calmly said to the angry guy, “Yeah, I guess that wasn’t very nice. But one instance doesn’t really concern me. Imagine if it were hundreds of instances of this type of behavior. This would be a problem and I’d be really concerned.”

I could see the pieces fall into place for the angry man as he realized that he was upset about the very thing that marginalized groups have been upset about for years.

Everyone was silent and then not­so­angry­anymore­man said, “I guess you are right. I’ve been thinking about this the wrong way. I’m going to go to bed before I say anything else that’s stupid.” And he left. Slayed with logic!

I was so incredibly proud of this group of men I didn’t know. My mind was completely blown that the conversation went the way it did. Thank you Honza Kral and Asheesh Laroia for being awesome. I didn’t know you then but I’m sure glad I know you now.

Thank you for the story, Lisa! I’d like to highlight a few things that I especially like about this story:

  • Men speaking up and using their privilege to argue with sexist speech, helping out when a woman chose to protect her own safety by remaining silent
  • The allies stood up for the conference’s code of conduct, late at night while in a hotel lobby technically outside the conference venue
  • So much better than that PyCon thing last year
  • They changed that guy’s mind! It can happen!

So, here’s that cookie:

Does anyone else have any cookies to spare this week?

* Disclaimer: cookies may not be baked weekly! This offer does not commit Geek Feminism, its bloggers, affiliates, sponsors, commenters or fans to a posting schedule.

Attack of the purse snatchers: gender and bag policies in U.S. comic book stores

This is a guest post by Kathryn Hemmann. Kathryn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University, where she teaches classes on Japanese literature, cinema, and popular culture. When she’s not reading comics, drawing comics, or writing about comics, she plays video games, thus enjoying a well-rounded lifestyle. Kathryn has a blog called Contemporary Japanese Literature, on which she posts feminist reviews of Japanese fiction in translation. Her favorite Sailor Scout is Sailor Mercury.

It was 2006, and I had recently moved to Philadelphia for a graduate program. A child of the South, to me the landscape of a large Northeastern city was both frightening and exciting. I was especially looking forward to my first trip to a comic book shop. The store I chose for my first outing was a block or two away from Philadelphia’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square district, the relative safety of which made me feel less anxious about venturing into the unknown. When I entered the store, I breathed in the perfume of old paper and glossy covers and felt at home – until I took a few more steps, at which point one of the clerks said something that shocked me enough to stop me in my tracks.

Fast forward to 2014. Now, as an early career academic, I travel all over the country for professional conferences and job interviews. In April I found myself in Seattle, a city known for its thriving independent comics culture and home to cutting-edge comics publishers such as Fantagraphics Books and Northwest Press. I decided to take advantage of my time in the Emerald City by visiting a comic store about a five minute walk away from the original Starbucks on Pike Place. I’ve been to comic book shops all around the world during the past eight years, and I was no longer nervous about entering a store I’d never visited before. I walked to the counter, eager to chat with the clerk about local microcomics – but then she said something that made me like a stupid kid all over again.

What could a clerk at a comic book store possibly say to a new female customer to make her feel as alien and unwelcome as possible? Would it be some sort of overtly sexist slur, or an inappropriate comment about her appearance? Or could it perhaps be something as presumably innocuous as:

“I’m going to need to take your bag before you go any further.”

The idea behind this policy, which I have encountered in comic book stores all across the United States, is presumably that store management has either personally witnessed or heard secondhand accounts of enough incidences of theft to employ a safeguard measure involving neither expensive surveillance technology nor paper-damaging anti-theft strips and stickers. Still, I can’t help but think that the stereotype of comic book theft at play here – little kids with grubby fingers sneaking a comic book out of a neighborhood corner store – is out of touch with contemporary cultures of online piracy and the collector’s market for pristine first editions.

When I’ve pressed clerks about this policy, most memorably at a store on a trendy street in New York’s East Village that wanted to confiscate a clutch purse not much bigger than my forearm, they’ve almost unanimously responded that they enforce it with everyone, and that it can’t possibly be sexist, as men have to surrender their bags as well.

Costumer Emily Finke’s essay Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture, posted on i09 roughly a year ago, acted as a catalyst for online debates on the topic of sexist attitudes women encounter in geek cultures centered around comic books in the United States. Heated discussions referencing the mythical “fake geek girl” have been popping up on various internet forums since the meme slithered out of 4chan in 2010, but the past year has seen numerous testimonies, confessions, and rants on relatively mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr.

To give an example, this past February Noelle Stevenson, creator of Lumberjanes and the webcomic Nimona, posted a comic on her personal Tumblr explaining why she had stopped going into comic books stores. Her post received over eighty thousand notes, generating responses both on her blog and on other Tumblr blogs. Some of these responses openly denounced her, while others encouraged women to visit comic book stores even if they shared Stevenson’s misgivings. In response to continued discussion of how best to reform misogynistic attitudes prevalent in U.S. comic book culture, The Mary Sue website recently launched a new column titled Pull It Together, which offers recommendations on feminist-friendly titles for conscientious comic buyers to add to personal pull lists at comic book stores. An entire Tumblr is devoted to Safe Spaces for Comics Fans, and male comics professionals such as journalist Sean Kleefeld are sharing stories of the subtle harassment women experience at comics conventions and inside comic book stores.

I’ve been following all this talk of gender, clothing, costuming, and sexist attitudes, waiting for someone to bring up the obvious, namely, the bag confiscation policy enforced by comic book stores in the United States. Claiming that this policy is not sexist because it applies to both male and female customers (and presumably people who identify as neither or somewhere in between) is a textbook illustration in false equivalence. Not only is it ridiculous and outdated, but it’s also insulting and contributes to the discomfort many female bloggers and social media users have reported feeling in comic book stores.

Of course, not all women carry purses. Still, mainstream women’s fashion makes it difficult for someone dressed in women’s clothing to keep the necessary accoutrements of daily life (such as wallets, cell phones, keys, glasses, bus tokens, subway pass cards, and so on) on her person without the aid of some sort of purse or briefcase. It’s one thing for a man to surrender a backpack or laptop case; he’s more than likely got his keys and wallet and cell phone in the pockets of his pants or jacket. It’s another thing entirely for a woman to give up her purse or shoulder bag, which – to add insult to injury – generally isn’t even large to put a comic book in without folding it, which would defeat the purpose of going through the trouble of stealing it in the first place. There are only three other situations I can think of in which an individual is asked to surrender her wallet and cell phone to a complete stranger: airport security checkpoints, courthouse security checkpoints, and prison. The last time I checked, no one perceived any of these situations as particularly pleasant.

Aside from the false equivalence between the purses (and other personal articles) carried by women and those carried by men, another troubling aspect of bag confiscation policies has to do with the extreme discomfort they can engender. As the recent Daily Show segment The Fault in Our Schools aptly illustrates, many young women learn to go about “their whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace” and other threats, especially in spaces they perceive to be occupied primarily by men. One of the best self-defense tactics is being able to make a quick exit, and it’s always good to be able to call (or pretend to call) someone or to brandish pepper spray if that doesn’t work. I would like to assume that comic book stores are not prime locations for assault, sexual or otherwise, but it’s still nice to be able to leave an uncomfortable environment without having to ask for your bag, often from the people who have made you feel uncomfortable in the first place by pointedly ignoring you or making snide and judgmental comments about your presence.

By taking a woman’s bag, a comic book store is essentially taking away her freedom to escape from harassment, as well as her sense of security. On top of this, she has just given her wallet and cell phone – and her sense of identity and agency along with them – to someone who has demonstrated distrust and antagonism by asking for them. How could she possibly feel completely comfortable browsing or engaging with the staff and other patrons?

Not every comic book shop in the United States maintains a bag confiscation policy, but enough do that I have collected a fair amount of experiences of being hurt and upset upon entering a previously unvisited store in a previously unvisited part of the country. After spending the past month in Tokyo, where women (and men!) carry not just purses and shoulder bags but rolling suitcases into comic shops without the staff batting an eye, I have decided that I am done with comic book stories in the U.S. If the staff of the offending stores think that I don’t need to my purse on me to feel comfortable buying comics, they’re absolutely correct – I don’t need a purse to buy comics online.

Some Questions For Brian Carderella and Wicked Good Ruby

This is an anonymous guest post.

Today, the organizers of Wicked Good Ruby decided to cancel the conference. One organizer, Brian Cardarella, posted to the BostonRB list to explain his reasoning.

I have some questions.

Why was there no code of conduct?

Increasing numbers of tech conferences, both within Ruby and otherwise, are adopting codes of conduct. Codes of conduct protect attendees, particularly attendees from marginalized groups, and are an important part of making conferences safer. Codes of conduct also protect conferences and their organizers; having defined policies in place for what to do when harassment happens make the on-the-ground decisions easier to make and more legally defensible after the fact.

Ashe Dryden and the Ada Initiative, among others, have written extensively on why codes of conduct are important and on how to effectively write and implement them. There’s no excuse any more for not having one. Because of this, increasing numbers of people have pledged to not attend events without a code of conduct. Some companies have even decided to not sponsor events without formal codes of conduct.

This may partly explain your speaker-recruitment and sponsorship woes.

Why wasn’t your outreach to female speakers sufficient?

I’m glad that you read the advice that direct outreach to female speakers is often necessary to establish gender balance. However, you make it clear in your posts explaining the cancellation that you were primarily seeking female speakers to avoid “drama,” to not “get destroyed publicly,” to avoid “how crazy everybody gets over the gender issue in Ruby.” Nowhere did you say anything about doing it because it’s the right thing.

I have to wonder: did you read the widely available advice for how to do outreach to female speakers properly? I’m wondering this for two reasons: first, the lack of a code of conduct makes it sound like you weren’t interested in meeting female speakers’ likely needs; this may have contributed to their lack of interest. Second, the way you characterize your outreach makes it sound like you emailed people saying “Hey, I need a woman so the internet doesn’t fall on my head, and you’ll do. Wanna speak at my conf?” That’s not nearly as appealing a prospect as, say, “I really admired your work on [gem]; do you want to talk about it at WGR?”

Maybe I’m being too harsh on you with that assumption. But, still, I wonder why you only asked twelve women, given that you were trying to fill 24-36 speaker slots. (Were you assuming they’d all say yes?) I wonder when you started your outreach process, given that popular speakers are often booked months and months in advance. I wonder why you didn’t even let your CFP hit its deadline before snappishly assuming no women would apply in the last week.

Why did you blame women for WGR’s cancellation?

By your own account, the biggest reason you cancelled WGR was a lack of sponsorships. Why did you throw that frankly bizarre paragraph about lacking talk proposals from women? It’s a nasty little pit of nastiness, and frankly seems pitched to incite the “drama” you claimed to want to avoid.

Why did you want to blame women, instead of the people with the money?

I leave the answer to that question as an exercise for the reader.

Why I’m ending my short experiment with Gittip, or: why we can’t have nice things, part 2,039

This is a guest post by Sky Croeser, which originally appeared on her blog.

I love doing teaching and research, but I also want to be doing more to engage and build communities outside of academia. Recently, I decided to start experimenting with Gittip as a way to support that. Gittip “is a way to give small weekly cash gifts to people you love and are inspired by. Gifts are weekly. The intention is for people to depend on money received through Gittip in order to pay their bills, and bills are recurring.” I like the idea, and I liked that the ‘top receivers’ shown on the front page included several activists working on diversity issues, which suggested that it wasn’t just a tool for programmers to use, and that it’s possible to make a decent (if far from extravagant) income doing public outreach and community-building work.

Then, someone on Hacker News criticised the site for supporting people who ‘yell on Twitter and demonize men’, saying the site had become ‘a joke dominated by professional victims’. Sadly, this is not unexpected. The level of daily vitriol directed at women who actively address sexism in tech culture (and in other spaces) is astounding. What was unfortunately is that Chad Whitacre, founder of Gittip, responded this comment by thanking the poster for his feedback.

When people called Whitacre out on this, he responded by saying that he was talking about the part of the comment that referred to the how ‘leaderboards’ were displayed: he was agreeing that perhaps the front page on Gittip shouldn’t focus so heavily on those who give and receive the most funds. I was hopeful that he’d follow this up with a simple and unequivocal statement along the lines of, “Of course we want diversity activists using Gittip! This is an excellent use for the tool and it’s important that we support them.”

Instead, Whitacre’s responses have both tacitly and explicitly supported the ongoing harassment that many of Gittip’s (previous) top users, including Shanley, Ashe Dryden, and Nóirín Plunkett face. Tacitly, by thanking misogynists for their feedback and not speaking up against misogyny, Whitacre supports a culture of harassment that pushes women out of geek communities:

gittippattingHNonthebackExplicitly, Whitacre has contributed to the ongoing harassment that women working on diversity issues in geek communities face by writing a blog post explicitly attacking Shanley, particularly for the tone of her criticisms of him. I am not going to link to the blog post. And just in case anyone wants to say that Whitacre would have responded better if only someone had explained it to him more politely, it’s clear that other people have been approaching these discussions in a gentler way, and haven’t managed to shift Whitacre’s approach. Also see Julie Pagano’s email to Whitacre.

In response to this, many of Gittip’s users have been leaving or are going to leave, including Shanley, Ashe Dryden, Steve Klabnik, Skud and probably many others that I’ve missed. For many, this comes at a huge cost: people like Ashe Dryden have spent a long time building up their support base on Gittip, and get a significant proportion of their income from the tool. This isn’t a decision taken lightly.

This is what builds homogenous communities. When privileged people fail to stand up for marginalised groups within their communities, those groups eventually understand that they’re not welcome and won’t be supported and leave. Initial shifts towards diversity are rapidly undone.

I’ve shut down my account, too. I don’t want to work to build support through a platform where key communities members are not only unwilling to support their top users, but are also willing to actively attack them.

There’s now a page up about this on the Geek Feminism Wiki: Gittip crisis. I’m hoping that in coming days there’ll also be resources compiled around alternatives to Gittip, and about how people can support people who’ve stopped using Gittip.

Editor’s note: such pages are welcome on the wiki, for existing ones, see: Gittip transfers for users who have transferred elsewhere, Fundraising mechanisms for activists and a (not yet filled out) Feminist reviews of payment processors. All pages are in early draft, please help out by filling them in and adding related pages.

Proposed guidelines for the ethical use of Twitter data

Background to this article: Twitter is releasing its historical archive of public tweets to selected researchers. See Introducing Twitter Data Grants and Twitter #DataGrants selections.

Scientific American says “A trove of billions of tweets will be a research boon and an ethical dilemma.” Indeed. We’re thus reproducing part of Caitlin M. Rivers and Bryan L. Lewis’s article Ethical research standards in a world of big data for comment.

Proposed guidelines for the ethical use of Twitter data

The objectives, methodologies, and data handling practices of the project are transparent and easily accessible

This information should be published in manuscripts, published on the web for the public to access, and provided to IRB (when relevant). Going forward, collaboration between the research community and Twitter to provide information to users about ongoing research and relevant results may also be beneficial. Transparency regarding uses of Internet data for research purposes is needed for fostering ‘privacy literacy’ so that the users can make informed decisions about participating in Twitter.

Study design and analyses respect the context in which a tweet was sent

A tweet author discussing his mental health, for example, does not do so with the intention of sharing that data with researchers; he does it to communicate with his digital community. Qualitatively analyzing these communications as if they are offered for research consumption does not align with the context in which the tweets were created. Twitter participants can reasonably expect to rely on some anonymity of the crowd to manage privacy.

The anonymity of tweet authors is protected, ensuring that subjects should not be identifiable in any way

To preserve source anonymity, direct quotes or screen names are not publishable, nor are any details that could be used to identify a subject. Any and all information that could be entered into a search engine to trace back to a human source should be protected. A composite of multiple example tweets may instead be used for illustrative purpose. Geolocations in particular should be scaled to a larger geographic area in order to avoid violating the privacy of those tweet authors. The Title 13 of the Data Protection and Privacy Policy, the federal law under which the Census Bureau is regulated, expressly forbids publishing GPS coordinates; researchers should adhere to this guideline as well.

Tweet data are not used to harvest additional information from other sources

Focused collection is also important for preserving anonymity. It is possible to use data collected from Twitter to discern the identities of tweet authors, which can then be used to find and collect additional information from additional sources. For example an author’s username, identifying details provided in tweet texts, or geolocations could all be used to collect data about that individual from other sources like Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, or public records.

Twitter users’ efforts to control their personal data are honored

Researchers may not follow a user on Twitter in order to gain access to a protected account. Doing so would violate that user’s efforts to control his or her personal data.

Researchers work collaboratively with IRB just as they would for any other human subject data collection

There is not currently an expectation that researchers engaging in research using Twitter will interface with their IRB. As discussed above, studies that could be conceived as individual-based should require IRB approval, whereas research designs that use data in aggregate (e.g. counts of keywords) may proceed without explicit consent. In turn, review boards should keep abreast of social network mining methodologies and corresponding ethical considerations in order provide informed guidance to researchers.

Geek Feminism readers: what do you think?

Article source, licencing and citation notes:

This post is an excerpt of Ethical research standards in a world of big data by Caitlin M. Rivers and Bryan L. Lewis as allowed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence. We suggest that anyone quoting or reproducing this article copy from the original source to ensure accuracy.

The original article can be cited as: Rivers CM and Lewis BL (2014) Ethical research standards in a world of big data [v1; ref status: approved with reservations 1, http://f1000r.es/2wq] F1000Research 2014, 3:38 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.3-38.v1)

Ally Smells: Boundaries

This is a guest post from Julie Pagano. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and user experience. When she’s not working at her day job, she focuses on championing diversity in tech and building the Pittsburgh tech community. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her army of feminist firebees. This post is crossposted to her blog.

This post frankly discusses issues related to boundary violations. It may be difficult to read. I recommend reviewing the content warnings below before deciding to proceed.

Content warnings: boundary violations, predatory behavior, ableism, *ist language, sexual assault, and possibly others

I recently covered a bunch of “bad ally” behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a “code smell”. They’re not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are. I am working on exploring some of these “ally smells” in more detail.

Today I am digging into a pretty sensitive topic: boundaries. This can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. In this post, I am going to focus on boundary violations from people who want to be or claim to be allies. Additional discussions of boundary issues are important, but that’s another post for another day.

Do you push or disrespect their boundaries (e.g. continuing a conversation when asked to stop, touching someone without permission)?

Some of the content of this post may make you upset or angry. I strongly recommend giving yourself some time to sit and think on it. If you want to be a good ally, learning to respect boundaries is critical.

Boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.

Boundaries can be small or huge. Seemingly inconsequential or horrifyingly important. They all matter to the people who set them. They all should be respected, when possible**.

It does not matter if a boundary makes sense to you. It does not matter if it seems inconsequential to you. Boundaries are the prerogative of the person who sets them. You do not know that person’s story, and they are not obligated to justify their boundaries to you. That touch that seems insignificant to you may be uncomfortably intimate for someone else. That interaction that is fine with others may trigger someone’s PTSD. You do not know more about someone than they know about themselves. Trust that they know what they are doing when they set a boundary with you, even if you do not understand why.

When someone sets a boundary with you they are saying “no.” No means no. Do not push people on their boundaries or ask for explanations that are not readily given. Doing these things indicates that you do not respect their boundaries. For many people, saying “no” once, setting a boundary, is difficult enough. Do not put them in a position where they must repeatedly do so. No means no the first time. Pushing them on it suggests a hope that you can wear them down, which is problematic at best and predatory at worst. No means no.

** I say “when possible” here because there will be situations where you cannot avoid violating a boundary (e.g. you trip and accidentally touch someone without permission). However this should be the exception, not the rule. Do not use this language to try to rules lawyer your way around respecting boundaries.

Below are some examples of boundaries. All of the items below have happened to myself or people I know (often repeatedly) from people who claimed to be or wanted to be allies. They are not theoreticals. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Examples: Physical

  • Hugging someone without permission (many people give close friends implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in potentially intimate locations (e.g. small of the back, leg, neck) without permission.
  • Touching someone intimately without permission (many people give their partners implicit permission).
  • Touching someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that form of touch is normal for others (e.g. handshakes, hugs).
  • Touching someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to touch someone when they have asked you to stop.
  • Invading someone’s personal space. A common case is standing very close to someone (appropriate distance may vary by situation and cultural background).
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a physical boundary with you.

Examples: Language (verbal or in text format)

  • Saying sexually suggestive things to or about someone unless you have a relationship where that is considered appropriate.
  • Speaking to someone in a way they have explicitly asked you not to, even if that type of speech is normal for others (e.g. rape jokes, sexist/racist/ableist/*ist language).
  • Speaking to someone in a way that causes them to be visibly or audibly uncomfortable, even if they do not explicitly ask you to stop. (Note: subtle cues may be difficult for some non-neurotypical people to pick up on.)
  • Continuing to engage with someone on a specific topic when they have asked you to stop.
  • Continuing to engage with someone when they have asked you to cease contact.
  • Asking someone you do not know very well about sensitive or private information (e.g. genitalia, sexual assault). This includes digging for details when they provide some high level information on a sensitive topic.
  • Using slurs directed at a group that person is a member of.
  • Being verbally abusive and/or threating to someone.
  • Bringing up private information about someone, such as where they live. This can easily be perceived as a threat.
  • Disclosing private information about someone without their permission.
  • Trying to make someone feel bad for setting a language boundary with you.

Examples: Third Parties

  • Sending a third party to speak to someone after they have asked you to stop speaking with them.
  • Contacting someone’s friends and acquaintances to try to get them to speak with you when they have asked you to cease direct contact with them.
  • Encouraging third parties to push boundaries someone has set with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from setting boundaries with you.
  • Encouraging third parties to discourage someone from calling out boundaries you have violated.
  • Attempting to discredit someone to others for setting boundaries with you.
  • Trying to get third parties to make someone feel bad for setting a boundary with you.

Examples: Potentially Subtle Boundaries

  • Interrupting a semi-private conversation between people you do not know well, particularly when they are discussing a sensitive topic. This works in person and online. Yes, they are in a public space, but that doesn’t mean you are invited if you don’t have a context with the people involved.
  • Regularly contacting someone who never engages with you. This is common on places like social networks and email. If you contact someone with great regularity and they never (or almost never) respond to you, there is a good chance you are pushing a boundary, and they are trying to ignore you.
  • Fixating on someone who you do not have a close relationship with (e.g. writing blog posts about them without asking first, regularly mentioning them on social media).
  • Asking someone if they’re talking about you when they say something vague. Most of the time, if someone wanted to call you out specifically, they would have done so. Vagueness is usually intentional and pushing someone to be explicit is often pushing a boundary.
  • Complaining about spaces you are not allowed at or attempting to enter those spaces anyway.

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a huge part of pushing boundaries. Boundaries are often different when power imbalances are involved. When you have a position of power over someone, it is more difficult for them to set clear boundaries with you or reassert those boundaries when they are crossed for fear of repercussions. If you care about respecting the boundaries of others, it is critical for you to pay attention to and be aware of power dynamics. This is especially critical for you to be sensitive to when you are more likely to be in a position of power. As an ally, there is very likely to be a power differential because you are in a privileged position.

Below are some examples of power dynamics. Some power dynamics are obvious and explicit. Others are less clear. They all are important and matter. Predators often prey on more subtle power dynamics because they are easier to get away with. Take the steps to draw a clear distinction between yourself and them by paying closer attention to these dynamics. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Note: many of the examples below mention the potential for harm. The power dynamic exists because you could do those things, even if you think it is clear that you would not.

Examples: Work & School

Do you have an explicit position of power over them codified in your work/school relationship?

  • You are their boss, their boss’s boss, or even higher up the chain of command at their job. You directly have the power to punish or fire them.
  • You are a professor, teacher, or other educator and they are a student. You directly have the power to negatively impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have a position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are their team lead, supervisor, mentor, or something similar at their job. You are not their boss, but you have the ability to negatively impact their work environment. You may be close with their boss (or higher ups) and be able to indirectly impact their chances of being punished or fired.
  • You are a teaching assistant, mentor, or something similar in an academic/educational environment. You cannot directly impact their achievement and performance, but you can negatively impact the environment for them. You may be close with their professor, teacher, or others with more direct power over the student and be able to indirectly impact their academic/educational achievement and performance.

Do you have an implicit position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

  • You are a colleague, peer, or something similar at their job. Your power over them may come from things like seniority at the workplace, more years of experience, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their work environment.
  • You are another student or colleague in an academic/educational environment. Your power over them may come from things like higher achievement, seniority in school, or a social relationship with others in a position of power. You have the ability to indirectly impact their academic/educational environment.

Examples: Community

Do you have an explicit position of power?

  • You are a known organizer of a conference, user group, open source project, or other community group. You have the ability to make someone unwelcome at these groups or even explicitly ban them.

Do you have an implicit position of power?

  • You are a speaker at a conference, user group, or other event. You have the ability to use your platform and celebrity to make events uncomfortable or unwelcoming for someone.
  • You are a well known member of a community through work, speaking, open source contributions, or other means. You have the ability to use your celebrity to discredit others or make them uncomfortable.

Examples: Characteristics

Do you have any characteristics that may give you a position of power?

  • Are you much larger and stronger than the other person?
  • Are you a member of a privileged group that has historically oppressed a group the other person is a member of?
  • Are you a member of a group that is in the majority in your work or academic environment while the other person is a member of group that is in the minority?
  • Are you a member of a group that is statistically likely to harm the other person?

Why Is It Important?

You may be asking yourself why are boundaries so critical? Why am I making such a big deal about this? In the opening of this post, I mentioned that boundary violations can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. Boundary violations are a big deal, even when they are small, because they are often a sign of things to come. A symptom of something more sinister than an accident. A red flag.

Am I saying that everyone who violates a boundary is a dangerous predator? No, I am not. Definitely not. Plenty of good people I know and trust have made mistakes with boundaries. I have made mistakes with boundaries. Not all people who violate boundaries are predators, but all predators violate boundaries. It is often impossible for the person on the receiving end of the violation to tell the difference and guessing wrong can have dire consequences.

Predators often start with small boundary violations that might seem inconsequential in isolation. Seeing what they can get away with. Slowly escalating. Others have referred to this as The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation. This is why even small mistakes can be seen as a red flag, particularly if they happen repeatedly.

There’s a popular post titled Schrödinger’s Rapist that explores some of these interactions.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Boundary violations are exhausting, especially for people at an increased risk of being targeted by predators. Dealing with these issues regularly means having to be on guard and evaluate safety most of the time. A constant white noise of evaluating risk and hoping your assessment is correct. Mental energy that could be spent elsewhere if boundaries were not regularly being violated. Allies can take on some of that load by being mindful and avoiding boundary violations.

Boundary violations can reduce comfort and access to certain resources and spaces for people. For example, someone may no longer feel comfortable attending events with someone who has violated their boundaries because they are concerned it will continue or escalate. Someone may lose a mentor who can help them professionally because they push boundaries, and it makes them uncomfortable. There can be very real personal and professional consequences of boundary violations.

Steps to Improve

Remember how I said at the beginning that this post may upset you? Your first step here is to sit with this. Give yourself some time to think on it. Maybe read it a few times. Push past the potential upset you have about this information. If you want to be a good ally, you need to work on respecting boundaries. It is ongoing work that is not necessarily easy, but is very important. This is something I try to work on regularly.

First off, recognize that you are going to fuck up. We all do. Take responsibility for your mistakes. See my post about making mistakes for suggestions on how to respond when called out on pushing or violating boundaries.

Be thoughtful. Be empathetic. If a little part of your brain says “this might be inappropriate” or “this might make someone uncomfortable,” err on the side of not doing that thing. Erring on the side of asking explicit permission is usually going to be better than erring on the side of violating someone’s boundaries. It can be awkward to ask if you’re not used to it, but practice makes perfect and people will appreciate the effort.

Be ok with hearing a “no.” Make it easy for people to tell you “no.” When you are told “no,” respect it. If possible, learn to pay attention to more subtle boundary setting from people who may have difficulty explicitly saying a clear “no.” If not possible to pick up on these cues, be clear with people that you need more explicit feedback. If someone’s boundaries are in conflict with your own boundaries, state your boundaries and, if possible, work with them to find a compromise that is amenable to both of you. If it’s not possible for you to respect someone’s stated boundaries, avoid them.

Lastly, if you have a problem with violating boundaries, decrease your access to situations where you are likely to violate them. It is your responsibility to decrease the problem, not of those on the receiving end to try to avoid it. If you find yourself regularly violating boundaries, get help. Consider getting help from a friend with a better understanding of boundaries. If you think it is a serious problem related to mental health concerns (e.g. addiction, social anxiety, being non-neurotypical), consider getting help from a mental health professional. They are trained to assist with these sorts of things and help you work on it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is committing yourself to improvement, so you do not harm others.

On being geeky, disabled, and also kinda smokin’

This is a guest post by Cecily Kane. a writer, business professional, and sci-fi and fantasy geek. She blogs at Manic Pixie Dream Worlds , where she reviews books, talks speculative fiction, and rants regarding intersectional feminism, sometimes even coherently.

I am a geek, and a writer, and was born with a mild disability — thumb hypoplasia, type II/III.

Effectively, on my right hand, I have five fingers and no thumb. I possess a digit that looks quite thumb-like but has no thenar muscles, no flexor tendons, and an undeveloped joint — in short, it is devoid of all of the manual characteristics that make our species more highly evolved than other mammals.

There are many jokes in my household about my primate status. I make most of them.

I am also right-handed. This makes life awkward at times.

I began to disclose my disability regularly about a year ago, with the new knowledge that birth defects which limit one’s physical functions are, in fact, disabilities. Medical professionals are always curious; this defect only occurs in about 1 out of every 100,000 live births, so meeting me is often their only opportunity to see it. This curiosity does not bother me. I compare myself and my gimpy hand to Nemo and his flappy fin.

When I disclose this disability to men who are not in the medical profession, however, I almost invariably get the exact same response:

“Well, you don’t look disabled. You’re very pretty.”

Given that most of the men in my social circles are other writers, you would think the existence of a writer who is physically unable to write longhand would merit a mention, that there is something more to discuss here than my aesthetic qualities.

You would even think, perhaps, that there’s a smidge of a heroine’s story in there, a narrative of someone who overcomes a serious roadblock in order to pursue her dreams and do what she loves, a protagonist who has a dragon to slay daily.

You would think that authors would pick up on this.

They don’t.

I realize there is some confusion about the difference between a disfiguring disability and one like mine, one that limits my body’s functionality but is invisible unless one knows to look for it. Not that disfiguring disabilities make someone unattractive; I grew up with a beauty pageant queen who was born with half a left arm and half a hand. But it’s easy to see how these well-intentioned dudes who say this exact same thing are trying to reassure me that I’m, you know, bangable or whatever.

For me, it’s brain-jarring. Level of physical ability and level of physical attractiveness are not in the same registers. A dude thinking I am good-looking — well, that’s nice to hear, especially on a day I’m feeling bloated, or when the humidity levels make my hair do strange and awkward things.

But it’s not a consolation for an inability to hold a coffee cup without discomfort, perform common household repairs, use sharp tools safely, write longhand…

And given that this aspect of my life typically arises during discussions of  writing  with other writers , this response — “You don’t look disabled. You’re pretty” — clearly manifests the male gaze, and derails the nature of the conversation:

I transform from subject, writer , to object, she whom  the writer finds pretty .

And it’s not like this agency-removing comment comes from the mouths of unapologetically sexist douchecannons that I’d be better off not knowing. It comes from colleagues, friends, a boss I had once who added “intelligent” to the mix, since I’d just found him a rather substantial tax credit for hiring the disabled. Several of them are even male feminists and allies. However, I’m pretty sure it’d take an entire Women’s Studies 101 class to give any of these dudes the beginning of a clue about why “You’re pretty” is a head-spinning non sequitur and not, despite its good intentions, an appropriate response to a disability disclosure.

And so my response to these guys is, likewise, always the same. I smile and say:

“Thank you.”

Quick hit: FOSS Outreach Program for Women internships

This guest post is from the Outreach Program for Women (OPW), and is edited from their outreach materials.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is software that gives the user the freedom to use, copy, study, change, and improve it. FOSS contributors believe that this is the best way to develop software because it benefits society, creates a fun collaborative community around a project, and allows anyone to make innovative changes that reach many people.

In an effort to improve the gender diversity in FOSS, a number of organizations are offering Outreach Program for Women internships through a program organized by the GNOME Foundation. These internships are open to women (cis and trans) and genderqueer. The internships have the same structure, the same stipend and similar program dates. The application deadline for the Outreach Program for Women is March 19 and the program dates are May 19 to August 18. Unlike in Google Summer of Code, participants do not need to be students and non-coding projects are available. In addition to coding, projects include such tasks as graphic design, user experience design, documentation, bug triage and community engagement. Internships are typically remote and available worldwide. The stipend is $5500 (USD).

More information on the May to August 2014 round of OPW is available, including a list of participating organizations such as GNOME, Linux kernel, Wikimedia and OpenStack, and application instructions. Remember, applications close March 19, and you need to have made a contribution to a participating project before the application deadline.

In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

This is a guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess, a web developer and librarian in Anchorage, Alaska.
She blogs at sheldon-hess.org/coral and tweets as @web_kunoichi.

This post originally appeared on Coral’s blog.

I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, in between attending conference and binge-(re)watching Firefly.

It turns out, I have put a lot of time and effort—and, more importantly, thought—into creating and running a WiT group, so I have a lot to say on this topic. Also, Rebecca Stavick’s post isn’t the first anti-WiT-post I’ve read by a woman (great response to that one, here), never mind dealing with men’s arguments against these groups; so I’ve had time to think through a lot of these issues.

Myth #1 – Meeting as a group of women isn’t valuable in a male-dominated field.

Rosie the RiveterI really liked Eric Phetteplace’s response on Twitter, but I’m going to add a bit, since I have more than 280 characters to play with.

Networking is incredibly important to moving forward in one’s career, maybe especially so in tech circles, where everything moves so quickly and invitations to work on cool projects, or give important talks, depend so heavily on who knows you. So, on the surface, sure, it makes sense to get face time with male colleagues, and nobody is suggesting you shouldn’t.

But networking within a group of women is also incredibly valuable. Take the Merrill Lynch Four, who met and shared information and talked up one another’s work; they all ultimately ended up better off for it. Self-promotion can be hard for women, but promoting the work of other women? It’s easy to do, it’s never frowned upon, and it’s very effective! Also, it’s only possible if you can get into an environment where 1) you’re talking to other women, 2) about work-related stuff, and 3) you won’t be interrupted by men, who are, on average, better at self-promotion and are therefore likely to dominate the discussion.

Myth #2 – Learning with women is less valuable than learning in a gender-mixed group.

I think most people are aware that women have a lower level of confidence than equally competent men, in STEM subjects, as explored in the Fiorentine paper from 1988, comparing male and female medical students. (Short version: women consistently rated themselves lower on every attribute than their equally capable male colleagues.) You can find a bunch of respectable academic citations about differences in teacher behavior toward male and female students here, but I can also tell you, from six years’ worth of personal experience in male-dominated STEM classrooms: women get very little opportunity to talk, even if they are brave enough to do so. Which they aren’t, on average, due to the confidence gap: women report being afraid of asking stupid questions in front of their far more confident male peers, in part because they tend to misinterpret increased confidence as increased competence.

xkcd: How it works (Two male figures: "Wow you suck at math", male and female figure: "Wow girls suck at math")There is also a legitimate concern, when a woman is outnumbered by men in a STEM setting, that anything she does wrong will be extrapolated unfairly out to all women.

Women in a male-dominated environment, trying to learn about a field that’s generally viewed as male-dominated, also suffer from stereotype threat, which is made worse by prominent tech industry assholes (sorry, but he is) who make incorrect sweeping generalizations like “You have to have started programming at the age of 13 to be any good.” That is, as Philip Guo will tell you, total crap.

Do you know how you go about combating stereotype threat for women? Logic dictates—and now a study shows—that female role models are essential.

So, there it is: female-dominated classrooms, with female instructors, are an obvious win, for women learning technology concepts.

Myth #3 – These groups support gender stereotypes by using “dumbed-down language” and female-coded fonts/colors.

Anchorage Programming Workshop logoAt first, I was totally on board with the idea that pink is problematic, which is why we chose a nice, bright blue-green for Anchorage Programming Workshop, with a logo featuring the Venus mirror to try to emphasize the “for women” aspect. Neither of the hosts for the group is overly feminine in our manner or dress, and we didn’t want to risk excluding other women who don’t identify with pink and rounded fonts. “Our group is for all women!” – that was our intended message.

But you know what? We ended up with pissed off dudes approaching our booth at the Anchorage Maker Faire and parents lamenting that we wouldn’t teach their sons how to code. Until we changed our RSVP form, we got guys RSVPing for our events and then not showing up after receiving the email (that went to all participants) emphasizing that “men are welcome, provided they are the guests of female-identified participants.”

I don’t think we’d get as much of that if we had gone with pink. So… I actually kind of respect the other groups’ forethought, on that count.

As for the “dumbed down language” thing, you know what? “Dumbed down” is so very rarely applicable that I propose we strike it from the lexicon. Making something approachable and friendly, so it doesn’t frighten off someone with low confidence, is a good thing! It’s also really hard to do, so, PROTIP: people who have put a lot of effort into making something usable get really angry when you use a phrase that dismisses their efforts and implies that incomprehensibility is a good goal.

Anything written by a competent instructor for an audience of new people will look “dumbed down” (argh) to an expert; that’s sort of the point. If you go look at the intro video and first week of CS50x, a freshman-level CS class at Harvard and online, you’ll see the same kind of language, the same reassuring tone. Because that is the right way to approach an introduction to technology. It has nothing to do with gender.

We do agree on one thing, sort of:

WiT groups—actually, all technology groups—need to do everything they can to be open to people who aren’t “exactly the same” as one another. Most WiT groups are really good about using “female-identified” as their descriptor, rather than just “female,” which is code that they are LGBT-friendly. Most have codes of conduct, which help advertise their commitment to diversity. Some are explicitly for women of color. These are all great! (And already happening, just, you know, for the record…) That isn’t to say any given WiT group shouldn’t work harder to increase the diversity of its participants; I just disagree that gender is the only path to diversity.

I find anti-WiT rhetoric frustrating, because it’s coming from both sides: men feel left out and want to tell us all about it, and women feel compelled to share their knee-jerk reactions to the color pink. Nobody starts with the assumption “This is a valid approach, based on good research and careful plans,” even though that is, in fact, the case. The arguments against these programs are shallow and easily countered, with only a few minutes’ research, yet they just keep coming.

Fact: WiT groups are a benefit to women and to the technology community at large, and their pedagogy and branding are, for the most part, well thought out and well implemented. They are worthwhile, and they deserve support. If you think they can be improved, volunteer to help, instead of tearing them down with grumpy blog posts.