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More TRUCEConf

This is a guest post by Meagan Waller. Meagan Waller is a Ruby developer and resident apprentice at 8th Light. She tweets at @meaganewaller and blogs at Meaganwaller.com

TRUCEConf is a two-day conference with the purpose of setting aside differences and creating an inclusive and open place where we can put an end to the gender war in tech. TRUCE stands for trust, respect, unity, compassion, and equality, which are elements to a healthy community.

http://truceconf.com/

I really don’t doubt that the Truceconf organisers have good intentions, however I think that when you think of feminism in tech as a war between the genders you’re missing the point. It’s not a war, and it’s not right to pit the two sides against each other like there is an equal playing field and like we can just talk it out.

Frankly, I’m insulted by the conference. The organizers need to reconsider: whether that is changing the scope of project, bringing on people who actually have experience and education in dealing with this, and can we please talk about how the people who are most educated on this are saying this is terrible, and the majority of the people who are on board with this are male. I don’t ever want my activism to make my oppressors comfortable, and I’m not sorry about that. And like I said, I’m sure Elizabeth and the organizers have good intentions, I have no doubt that they do, but this screams “White-Lean-In-Feminism” that caters to the patriarchy instead of dismantling it, it’s “fuck you, I got mine” feminism, and it’s toxic and harmful. However, good intentions don’t always yield positive results, as we’ve seen.

Starting with the Tone Arguments and the way TruceConf’s message statement, and their writing on their page seems to trivialize the importance of this. They continue talk about anger and how we’re striving to have conversations without anger, and even how dangerous anger is. Justified anger isn’t dangerous, and yes, it makes people uncomfortable, it makes people aware of their privilege and it’s hard, but ignoring that and even saying it’s bad is just the straw man angry feminist argument that gets thrown in our faces, and it’s so frustrating. Criticizing people who are working for equality, who get angry sometimes, how can you look around and not be angry? I’m pissed off constantly, I am tired and fed up of being kicked when I’m already down and being told I’m lucky for the experience. This is tone argument derailing 101, and it distracts from the real issue, it really does.

TruceConf, however good intentioned it is, trivializes and dismisses the work that’s been done, it’s insulting to me because they think I’ve failed because of how I’ve gone about it. As if no one has ever thought of just being nice, as if we could just talk this out and everything would be okay. If it wasn’t for Ashe Dryden and Julie Pagano’s and many other of the influential feminists in the tech world I would’ve never became a feminist. I felt uncomfortable by their anger, and I remember even unfollowing both of them within a week when I first started following them because of all my unexamined white privilege, but I’m fundamentally changed now, and anger, real justified anger, did that.

When we set this up like it’s a war, we are missing the entire point. That’s a false equivalence, a space with abusive victims and abusers and abuse apologists, and a space with rapist apologist, and rape victims, and maybe even rapists, does not make for a safe space. To say that those who speak out against oppression, and rapists, and abusive have equal platforms, and should have an equal voice in the discussion as those who work to perpetuate and do the harassing, and abusing, and raping is wrong. Plain and simple. How can you say that speaking out against abuse is the same as abusing? How can you say they should have an equal voice in that discussion.

There is no way that will go okay. I am SCARED for this to happen, I am scared for this to become a thing. I am scared that the organizers won’t listen to the feedback from those who actively work to dismantle the current structure. This isn’t a war between two equal, consenting sides, this is about the systematic oppression of women, PoC, LGBTQIA folks, disabled, and all the intersections that exist in those realms. Why would the people with privilege sit down and talk it out, and just agree to give up their privilege? The culture is purely invested in maintaining the status quo, and this conference doesn’t break any barriers, it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, or anything that society doesn’t already do. This conference caters to the status quo, this conference is something the patriarchy can (and has) gotten behind.

When we don’t acknowledge this systematic and institutionalized imbalance we are just a cog in the machine. The idea of a truce isn’t realistic, as awesome as that could be. The only way to rid tech of sexism, racism, ageism, ableism is to dismantle the system that’s stacked against equality.

On TRUCEConf

This is a guest post by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. Jacob is the co-BDFL of Django and Director of Security at Heroku. Jacob helped create Django while working at the Lawrence Journal-World, a family owned newspaper in Lawrence, KS. He lives outside of Lawrence and spends his weekends playing at being a farmer.

This post originally appeared on Jacob’s blog.

Friday brought news of TRUCEConf.

It’s a terrible, dangerous and insulting idea. The organizers should reconsider, either canceling the event or changing its scope and mission radically. I have no doubts that the organizers have good intentions, but good intention don’t always yield positive results. As is, TRUCEConf’s very existence runs counter to the vision of equality in tech.

Tone arguments and trivialization

It’s hard to read the verbiage on TRUCEConf‘s home page as anything other than an extended tone argument. The page continually talks “anger”: citing the need for “discussions without… anger”, or the danger of continuing “on the path of anger”.

It’s hard to read this as anything other than buying into the myth of the “angry feminist”, criticizing people working for equality who have the temerity to occasionally get angry. This is a classic tone argument at its best: distracting from the actual issue at hand by focusing on the tone.

Here’s the thing, though: as Melissa McEwan points out, “to a subjugated person… anger is perfectly rational.” Indeed, “how can you look at a cultural landscape of institutionalized inequality and not be angry… because you know that the opposite of anger, for a progressive, is complacence.”

TRUCEConf, on the very face of it, trivializes and dismisses the work that’s already been done, implying that the reason it failed is because it was somehow done wrong. That’s incredibly insulting to everyone who’s been working on this problem.

What exactly are “both sides”?

TRUCEConf continually mentions “both sides”. What exactly are these two sides? (Spoiler alert: they don’t exist.)

Men and women?

Maybe they mean “men” and “women”? If so:

  • It ignores the fact that some men are as uncomfortable with the status quo, as well as the sad truth that some women have a deep investment in keeping the system in place.
  • This buys into the myth of the gender binary, sweeping trans*, gender questioning, and gender nonconforming people under the rug.
  • Indeed, it implies that the only problems facing tech is sexism, when in fact our community is also racist, ableist, ageist, etc. etc. etc.

All of this comes down to a lack of understanding of intersectionalism – the way different forms of oppression interlock and interrelate. There’s not “two sides”; there’s a deep and complex interlocking set of oppressions. Put succinctly:

When you enter a feminist space and you are only concerned with sexism, you are missing the full story. It’s like listening to music but only hearing the melody…without the harmony, percussion, and bass line, you aren’t actually hearing the song.

(From Intersectionalism 101. Read the rest of it, please!)

Sexists” and “non-sexists”?

OK, maybe they don’t mean “men” and “women”; maybe they mean “sexists” and “non-sexists”?

If so, that’s even worse. We’re not talking about two equal groups here; one “side” is comprised of harassers, abusers, and rapists. Take a moment to peruse the history of sexist incidents in tech. Is TRUCEConf seriously suggesting that we invite people from “both sides” of those events?

Do they really believe that the solution is to invite abusers and their victims to “work together in an open environment to solve our problems collaboratively”?

Both sides” implies false equivalence

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what these supposed “two sides” are. The very
discussion of these “two sides” sets up a damaging an untrue false equivalence
between bullies, abusers and rapists on one “side” and people speaking out
against harassment on the other.

This implies that speaking out about abuse is somehow equivalent to abuse itself.

It’s hard even to articulate how insulting and damaging this sort of false equivalence is.

This is an appropriation of the language of oppression by the oppressing class. Having your privilege challenged isn’t bullying. Saying that is the worst kind of privilege. If the worst thing that’s happened to you is having someone on Twitter call you sexist, well, you’ve lived a pretty incredibly lucky life so far, don’t you think?

This isn’t a war

Fundamentally, TRUCEConf fails because this isn’t a “war.” A “war” implies some sort of struggle, with equivalent atrocities on both sides. When it comes to our tech industry, nothing could be further from the truth.

This isn’t a “war” between equals; it’s the systematic oppression of women, people of color, LGBT folk, and other minorities. The people with privilege are not going to just sit down, talk it out, and suddenly agree to give up that privilege; there’s a massive culture deeply invested in maintaining the status quo.

Refusing to acknowledge this systemic imbalance implicitly endorses it. The concept of a “truce” is laughable; the only solution is to dismantle the system that’s so stacked against equality.

Why I Keep Coming Back to Mentor with TechWomen

This is a cross-post, written by Larissa Shapiro, from the TechWomen blog. Larissa Shapiro is the Head of Contributor Development at Mozilla.

TechWomen is an initiative of the US Department of State, administered by the Institute of International Education. TechWomen brings professional women in STEM fields from the Middle East and Africa to the SF Bay Area for month-long mentorships with women in industry and academia here. The “Emerging Leaders” are paired with a “professional” mentor (I have been honored to hold this role three times for the program) – who has the Emerging Leader with her at her workplace for a month, and a “cultural” mentor who shares the local culture and her own community and family life. The Emerging Leaders and their mentors also have the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC together in a delegation to the State Department and to other meetings with political and social movers and shakers in the capitol. Some mentors are also able to travel to the Middle East and Africa on delegations, as I was privileged to do in 2011 to Morocco. If any readers of Geek Feminism are interested in more information about the project, please visit the TechWomen page or reach out to me directly

I came across TechWomen by chance. A former colleague forwarded me a note from a local Women in Tech newsletter calling for mentors for a new State-Department-sponsored mentoring program. I thought… hmm…. am I ready for that? I’d gotten tremendous benefit from the mentors in my own life (I still do). I wanted to “give back” but felt terribly… green. I’d been in tech for about 15 years at the time, yet I felt unsure. I took a deep breath, filled in the application and sent it off, thinking there was no way I’d be accepted! In retrospect, I had Impostor Syndrome about becoming a mentor. What I did not realize then was how much mentoring would change my life, and change what I do with my life.

I was honored to be chosen for the first mentor cohort of TechWomen. I remember the first mentor meeting, and the incredible caliber of the women I met – I knew right away that this community of mentors would be a critical part of my TechWomen experience. Through mentoring, I have met and become friends with a network of amazing technical professional women with similar goals; all of us are dedicated to supporting each other and women in STEM around the world. Lifelong friendships have been built.

When my Emerging Leader arrived, I was impressed with her skills, talent, and intellect right away. It was not shocking – the women selected for this program are less than one out of ten of those applying. In 2013, 2000 women applied and 78 were selected. From the beginning I knew that I wanted to know every Emerging Leader well, and that we would never get enough time together.

Sanae and I dove into her mentorship, in which she studied project management techniques. We spent a lot of time at the French bakery down the road over coffee, learning how much we had in common. As much as I know I passed on wisdom to her about specific technical matters, she gave me her deep insights into my work relationships, and our friendship has continued. One of the biggest realizations for me in my first year as a mentor was that the technical mentorship is a container for work, but it is filled with deep international perspective, caring relationships, growth, and connection. The official “work” of the mentoring project turns out to not be the real “work” at all – not that it is not important.

As part of the program I was able to travel to both Washington, DC and to Morocco. Washington, DC was a wonderful trip – sharing both a city and a national heritage I love with new friends – that first year we happened to be in DC over the 4th of July and got to watch the fireworks from the top of the State Department. I felt like the luckiest American of all. Even more deeply meaningful for me was joining the TechWomen mentor delegation to Morocco – we travelled to Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat. One day we visited a house that provides care for girls who move to the city to attend secondary school – which they cannot do in their villages. The girls spoke mainly Berber, Arabic and French, but a few also spoke English and we talked with some of them. One told me of her determination to become a doctor and return to her village to improve healthcare for women and girls. At twelve years old, she spoke with an adult understanding of the world. I see the same fire in many girls who want to go into STEM – to change their circumstance – to change the world. She inspired me.

TechWomen moved into its second year, and expanded into more countries. I was thrilled to apply again – and my company wanted me to as well, having seen what an outstanding networking opportunity it was. I was matched with a brilliant emerging leader – an IT instructor from Tunisia. She chose a technical research project, studying the penetration of the IPv6 address protocol in Tunisia. She was also engaged in politics in her home country following its “Arab Spring” and taught me so much, giving me ever more respect for the work that goes into fighting for and building democracy.

I am now in my third year with TechWomen. I changed jobs during this year, and I was so determined to mentor again that I made my participation a criterion of my hire. I’m loving every minute with my newest Emerging Leader, Imen Rahal, who is very excited about the mission and projects of my present employer, Mozilla. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She has jumped in with both feet and is exceeding my expectations, taking on our modified Agile development process in the FirefoxOS project. I am very lucky that Imen’s Cultural Mentor is my friend (and Mentoring Process Architect) Katy Dickinson, and we have made cultural excursions together already, most recently to the redwoods near my Santa Cruz home.

Why do I mentor? Why wouldn’t I? For me, mentoring has become an emotional, networking, and perspective-building bank account where what I get back in “interest” is much more than what I put in. These women inspire me, bring my “game up” and become deeply cherished friends. If you have the chance to Mentor… I cannot recommend it enough.

Should Geek Girl Dinners be “Girly”?

This is a guest post by Hannah Little. Hannah is a PhD student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before moving full-time into academia, Hannah spent some time working in the UK in science communication for government initiatives aimed at getting more children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). She also has an academic interest in online engagement and the causes of gender inequality in STEM subjects. You can follow her on twitter: @hanachronism, or read more about her here.

First thing’s first, I don’t want anyone to think I’m writing this post as an attack. I realise a lot of articles about the topic of feminism are aimed at feminists who are “doing it wrong”, and I know that our effort and time is better spent targeting those not already convinced of our cause. Having said that, I thought the following worth writing as a cautionary tale for those organising events for women in technology, or as a way of instigating discussion of what events should and shouldn’t include.

Those who read this blog are probably already aware of “Geek Girl Dinner” (GGD) events, but for those who aren’t, these are events aimed at women who work in “geeky” professions to meet and socialise over dinner or drinks. They give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment. To quote the Geek Girl Dinner “about us” section directly:

The Girl Geek Dinners were founded on the 16th August 2005 as a result of one girl geek who got frustrated about being one of the only females attending technical events and being asked to justify why she was there by her male counterparts. She decided that she wanted this to change and to be treated just the same as any other geek out there, gender and age aside. After all to be geeky is to be intelligent, have passion for a subject and to know that subject in depth. It’s not at all about being better than others, or about gender, race, religion or anything else. Those things just detract from the real fun stuff, the technology, the innovation and the spread of new ideas.

Geek Girl Dinners have taken off in a spectacular way, and now have a presence in 53 cities across the world, including the city where I live, Brussels. Geek Girl Dinners in Brussels (BGGD), and across Belgium, are usually fantastic, always free and, of the ones I have attended, have created a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. The most recent one however, was an event sponsored by Samsung with a focus on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. This event, which was first advertised on 11th October here, comes with the title “The Perfect Selfie” and features a hair and beauty session. My original comment in response to this event can be read below:

Am I the only one who finds this massively patronising?

Geek girl dinners are great, they give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment, at best the constant feeling of having to prove your worth, at worst outright sexism. I love geek girl dinners.

However, inviting women to a female-only event at a tech company where the main focus is on a hair and beauty session and taking “selfies” of oneself is incredibly patronising. It comes with the implicit assumption that the only reason women (and women who work in technology themselves) would be interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom would be to take photos of ourselves making ducky faces in the mirror.

Not only is this creating citable anecdata that the only way to attract women to be interested in tech is by making it all about hair and makeup, but it also excludes those women (and they do exist) who aren’t interested in having their hair done, they want to check out the tech, and aren’t they the people Geek Girls is trying to reach in the first place? This is just reinforcing archaic ideas of what women/girls want and is not putting us in the best position to be taken seriously in an industry where women are already often ridiculed.

I’m reminded once again of the European Commission’s disastrous “Science, It’s a girl thing” video, which caused the world’s scientific community to give a collective face-palm.

I usually love Geek Girl Dinner events, but I won’t be attending this one.

You can see my concerns directly relate to the kind of problems that Girl Geek Dinners were trying to address in the first place, namely that women in science and tech want to be treated just the same as any other geek, and not in a manner specified by their gender. The thing that all attendees of Geek Girl Dinners have in common specially is their interest in the technology, not their gender.

Since I posted the comment above, the organiser of the event has contacted me both on the original post and privately. It should be noted that the event idea was that of the BGGD organisers and not Samsung. For balance, I publish the organiser’s public response here:

These events are open and free, which means you can choose freely to join one or not. There have been a lot of Brussels Girl Geek Dinners, and there will be much more. Some are female only, others are mixed. Some are girly, others are not.

It’s also open in the sense that the BGGD network itself helps shape the events. So if you can help with e.g. making the upcoming event less patronising, … etc please do so! I don’t think I would have been able to keep these events free and open for over six years without the help and effort of the network itself.

I think where we end up talking past each other here is the place of the socially constructed idea of “girly” in Geek Girl events. Some women enjoy girly things, so is it ok to create an event aimed only at those women? I feel that is excluding exactly the kind of people Geek Girl Dinners was set up for in the first place; those people who want to talk about technology and be treated the same as any other geek regardless of gender. Brussels Geek Girl Dinners even state in their “about” section on their website that “Girl Geek Dinners are events for females who class themselves as girly and geeky”, which I feel directly contradicts the sentiments on the main Geek Girl Dinners page.

I am glad that the organisers show willingness to allow suggestions and collaboration to build events that everyone in the community can enjoy, which brings me on to my next issue. After I posted my first comment, I got a private message from the organiser of BGGD saying that Samsung were wondering if they should go ahead with the event, presumably having noticed its potential to turn into a PR car crash. I obviously didn’t want the outcome of my complaint to be a cancellation of the event, a lot of effort had already gone into its organisation, and these events are important to the women within the GGD communities, and so I suggested that a redesign of the event’s agenda would be a far more productive way for everybody to have the best possible outcome. I looked up the specs on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, and it turns out you can manually override the exposure time on the built in camera, so I suggested to instead do a workshop on light-painting, which the organisers thought was a great idea. I was obviously really happy with this knowing that my ideas had been heard, understood and acted upon.

However, when the final agenda appeared here, light trace photography had indeed been added as an activity, but the hair and beauty session remained. I know this was probably done as a well-meant compromise, but the beauty session’s sustained presence on the agenda has made me feel like my point was still not being heard. Events perpetuating archaic gender-specific ideas of what women want have no place in Girl Geek Dinners. All we want is tech!

Three red flags in a stiff breeze

I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community

This is a guest post by Julie. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and cares passionately about diversity. She co-organizes and teaches classes for the Pittsburgh chapter of Girl Develop It, an organization that helps teach women how to code. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her Roomba-powered cat army. If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear her screaming the catchphrase, “my technology will be intersectional or it will be BULLSHIT!” (inspired by the awesome @redlightvoices)

This post originally appeared on Julie’s Tumblr.

I have been feeling some burnout this year as a programmer. It’s not coming from my job, which I enjoy and is a great balance of challenging and supportive. No, it’s the rest of it. The community. The part that in theory is optional, but in reality helps build the relationships and knowledge that can be critical to one’s development and career.

It’s not just me. I see this in other programmers, both in person and online. There’s a whole group of us just barely making it. Regularly running on fumes, refueling just enough to stave off the burnout for another week. Every now and again, I see one leave the community (and sometimes programming altogether) because they ran out of energy.

This week, I think I finally figured out what it is. I noticed the symptoms – what some might refer to as “red flags.” I think we’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

How did we get here? Why is it this bad? Why are we staying?

There’s always been the microaggressions. I didn’t always notice them, but eventually they accumulated enough that I was buried. I couldn’t ignore them any more. Recently, a new symptom finally hit the point where I couldn’t pretend it isn’t there. Gaslighting (or at least something very akin to it).

Gaslighting is a symptom of emotional abuse, so it was a disturbing discovery. Out of curiosity, I looked up other symptoms of emotional abuse. An upsettingly long list of them were all too easy to identify with. Fuck.

Am I imagining things? Am I being hyperbolic? Have I finally lost it?

Blaming yourself and thinking you’re crazy is one of the symptoms of emotional abuse. The whole point of gaslighting is to convince the victim and those around them that the victim is irrational and making things up. Scary part is that it makes it hard to speak out and tell others what’s going on. You probably won’t believe me.

Do they belittle your accomplishments, your aspirations, your plans or even who you are? Do they have unrealistic expectations?

We’re often accused of whining on the internet, of not doing enough. How dare we ask for diversity unless we’re willing to fix it? Our attemps to do so are never enough.

Many work for free trying to help, missing out on the income they so desperately need to live and thrive, but it’s not enough. Many try to help with the pipeline problem by teaching, but it’s not enough. Others provide support and mentorship, but it’s not enough. Others help with outreach, but it’s not enough. We speak at conferences, but not enough of them, even though the travel and expenses can be quite costly.

On top of this, we have to be great programmers – average just won’t do. We’re expected to do ALL THE THINGS, but even when we try, we are belittled. We can seemingly never do enough to get an equal seat at the table.

A guy suggests doing something many have been doing for years and receives support and accolates.

Do they constantly correct or chastise you because your behavior is “inappropriate?”

If we had a dollar for every time someone told us our behavior was inappropriate, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this. We’d be so rich we’d never have to work again. We could buy our own private island and sail away. Sadly, nobody pays us for this. They just ignore our comments and chastise us for saying things in a way that many others get away with.

“If only you were nicer.” “This isn’t how you talk to your ‘allies’.” “Stop being a bitch.”

Do they continually have “boundary violations” and disrespect your valid requests? Do they try to turn everyone against you?

Just recently, friends and I had someone in a position of power ignore our boundaries. Despite requests to the contrary, this person insisted on attempting to talk about something I had explicitly made off limits. Going so far as telling mutual acquaintances about the situation in an attempt to get their assistance in forcing the discussion. Going so far as telling others the story in an attempt to paint us in a negative light.

It didn’t stop when we asked for it to. My understanding is it only eventually stopped because a male friend asked. Our boundaries don’t count until someone else asserts them for us.

Do you feel helpless, like you’re trapped in the relationship? Do they limit your access to work, money or material resources?

As I said before, the community is theoretically optional. However, the reality is that it can be critical for networking, learning, finding resources, and attaining jobs. Many feel obligated to stay for our careers – terrified of speaking up for fear of retribution. Most feel they don’t have the skills to leave and find a job in a different field. They’re trapped in this emotionally abusive relationship. Leaving would mean giving up their livelihood.

Do they have trouble apologizing? When you complain do they say that “it was just a joke” and that you are too sensitive? Do they treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see? Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m not going to elaborate on all these for the sake of brevity and my tired brain.

Are they physically abusive?

Sometimes, yes. The community often protects physical abusers and sexual assaulters in our communities. The information is often hard to find because part of the emotional abuse is feeling unsafe discussing it.

Why am I so tired all the time? How much longer can I do this? What’s the price I’ll have to pay?

I am making the hard decision to remove myself from as much of the situation as I can. I plan to focus my time and efforts largely on my awesome job and my work on Girl Develop It. I’d love to speak a few times next year, but I will be limiting myself to conferences that are committed to encouraging diversity and include policies that create a safe space. I’ll be avoiding ones that continually include toxic people and behaviors.

I’m not advocating this as the right decision for everyone in this situation. It’s just what I feel is needed right now for me. My only recommendations are to find the support you need and make sure to prioritize self care.

I’m sad I have to pull back, to do less, but my health and sanity is more important than networking and my cred with the community. This is the price, and it is too high.

Comments are moderated on this post. If this angers you, you’re part of the problem. If you’re sad about what you read and have the energy, please try to shape the community into a space that looks different. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Note: As I’ve indicated on twitter, this is not a criticism of the conference I was at this weekend – the timing is unfortunate. The organizers hosted a lovely conference, and I was honored to speak at it. They did an awesome job at having a great diverse lineup (my fave is still the 11 year old young woman who loves ruby and dancing) and a code of conduct.

A group photo of about 30 people, with the banner "trans* hackers code it better" in front

Trans*H4ck 1.0 – Trans* coders make (their own) history

This is a guest post by Naomi Ceder, who has been active in the Linux and Python communities since… well… for a long time. She has taught programming and Python online, in high schools, at Linux Fests, and in the Chicago Python Workshop, and is the author of The Quick Python Book, 2nd ed. from Manning Publications. She is vastly relieved to have finally transitioned to female after half a lifetime stuck “undercover as a man”. She speaks and blogs both about Python and about her experiences with gender transition in the tech community.

In mid-September of 2013 in a small art gallery in Oakland, something wildly improbable (to say the least) happened. Some 40 people – trans*, gender variant, queer, cisgender – came together for Trans*H4ck, the very first hackathon dedicated to helping the trans* community. Hackathons for various causes are common enough these days, but for many of us Trans*H4ck was truly special – in spite of trans* people being relatively common (if you can use the word “common” for us at all) in the tech community, there had never before been a hackathon devoted to trans* issues. Not one.

[Author's note: trans* is used with the intention of including gender variant and gender queer. I know that's not ideal, but it does make things less cumbersome to type and read.]

A banner with the text "Trans*H4CK Oakland"

TransHack banner

On the evening of September 13, under the leadership and vision of Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler (one of the inaugural Trans 100) that changed. The first evening was spent getting acquainted with the some of the issues and with each other. Janet Mock, Sarah Prager (of Quist App), and Micha Cardenas spoke via Google hangouts and Kortney briefly recapped some of the all too depressing statistics relating to being trans* – high rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence, and suicide and low rates of income, access to health care, and basic human rights.

We all introduced ourselves and spoke of our backgrounds, our goals for the hackathon, and, yes, our preferred pronouns. It was clearly the first time some of the cisgender folks had ever been asked that particular question.

By the end of the evening teams had formed and work continued on through the night and into the next day, when things paused at noon for a panel discussing being trans* in tech, featuring Enne Walker, Dana McCallum, Naomi Ceder (me), Jack Aponte, and Nadia Morris and moderated by Fresh! White. The discussion ranged from using open source projects and GitHub to build a professional portfolio to finding a champion at work to how to take care of yourself in the face of the inevitable stress.

After the panel, the hacking resumed and the teams sprinted towards a submission deadline of noon on Sunday, with the demos and judging to follow.

The judging and exhibition took place at the New Parkway, which is a cross between a theater and the coolest family room ever. The judges were Monica “The Transgriot” Roberts, Erin Armstrong, and Benji Delgadillo. Even having seen the projects in development I found the presentations impressive, and ones I’m looking forward to using as they gain traction. The winners were:

In first place, Trans*ResourceUS, an ambitious effort by the largest team. Trans*ResourceUS is a user editable database of services for trans* people – giving location aware listings for health care, mental health, social, restrooms, employment and housing resources. Right now the submitter is the only one allowed to enter ratings on things like accessibility and trans friendliness, but that is slated to change. One very cool thing about this service is that it is also accessible via SMS on a flip phone, so even users with limited resources can take advantage.

The second place winner was Dottify.me, a social micro survey site. Here the idea is that to collect any reliable information on trans* people it needs to be both very easy to interact with and preserve anonymity as much as possible. Dottify.me does this by collecting only a zip code for now and the displaying that zip code as a pin placed at a random spot in the zip code on a map. Future enhancements are planned.

Third place went to the Trans Health Access Wiki, a wiki to collect information on how to take the fullest advantage of the health coverages available and mandated for trans* people, state by state. While it is starting with California, Oregon and Vermont, the creator (a one-woman team at the hackathon) is already working on expanding it.

A couple of the other very cool projects created at Trans*H4ck were Know Your Transgender Rights an interactive map of trans* rights in all 50 states and ClothesR4ck (still in development) a clothing exchange aimed at helping people get quality used clothing to trans* people going through transition who might not be able to afford it.

What Trans*H4ck means to us

The apps and content marshaled during Trans*h4ck were pretty amazing for such a small group of people in just a little more than 36 hours. That all of the efforts were so immediately useful speaks both to the developers’ vision and skills as well as to the lack of digital resources for the the trans* community. Those few teams in those few hours have probably advanced trans* friendly resources by years.

But the outstanding thing about Trans*H4ck to those of us who were there was not the applications, as useful as they are, so much as the community spirit of the weekend. Even though we were from all across the gender spectrum, of different ages and backgrounds, and even (gasp!) preferred different programming languages, there was a true sense of cooperation instead of competition, and an atmosphere of acceptance, support, and affirmation.

For many of us it was a rare respite from feeling different and alone and a special chance to stand together as a community and take action to help our own. For all of us it was a precious moment of unity and, corny as it may sound, joy.

So was Trans*H4ck a success? As one hacker put it, “we did, we can, and we will make history.” Indeed.

A group photo of about 30 people, with the banner "trans* hackers code it better" in front

This is what a community of trans* hackers looks like.

For more information on Trans*H4ck, see the Trans*H4ck home page or look on Twitter or Facebook for the #transh4ck hashtag or contact the author.

Increasing diversity in tech

This is a guest post by Ashe Dryden, a programmer and conference organizer living in Madison, WI. She is passionate about increasing diversity within the tech community.

As a queer woman programmer, it’s not difficulty to see the lack of diversity in the tech industry. In the past 12 years I’ve worked with only one other woman and have never worked with any people of color. Conferences and other events are sadly not much better. I’ve experienced my fair share of discrimination and harassment and have worked on raising awareness around these all of these issues because they are connected.

Historically, I’ve spoken about the intersection of the tech industry and social justice; I’ve educated those with power and privilege in our communities about intersectionality, discrimination, and bias. I’d spent the majority of my time attempting to help people understand the issues affecting marginalized people within the industry, but I was growing fatigued of progress that felt like a small drop in the bucket. One-on-one and 101 education require a lot of patience and time; I needed a way to scale up my efforts.

It wasn’t until last fall when a Ruby conference was cancelled after its homogeneity that I decided to do more about it. I decided to shift my focus slightly to community and conference organizers, businesses and hiring managers, while remaining accessible to the community as a whole. This would allow me to connect with people that have the amount of power to begin enacting change immediately and influencing the people below them. It’s like a pyramid scheme, but for good instead of evil!

What followed were months of various projects, including a month’s worth of google hangouts with conference organizers that resulted in one of my more popular resources on increasing diversity at conferences. Following that, I began contacting every new programming or design conference I came across and offered to do hangouts with them to talk about things like codes of conduct, inclusive language in their marketing materials, accessible venues, t-shirts for people of all genders and body types, as well as offering scholarships. The next project was a series of about 100 interviews with businesses, hiring managers, and marginalized people to find out why companies in our industry aren’t as diverse as they should be. What I’d expected to be a blog post turned into a full length book that provides a toolkit for businesses to change their culture, outreach, and hiring processes to prepare for and increase lasting diversity. The book is currently in progress and will be released soon.

Meanwhile, I was still writing and speaking online quite a bit about what could be done to increase diversity through attraction, access, and retention. I worked to highlight the efforts of organizations that taught girls, women, people of color, and other marginalized people how to program. I spoke with people about their frustrations and connected them to people that could help them change their communities. I directed attention and donations toward the work that non-profits like the Ada Initiative and NCWiT were doing.

By this point, conferences had started reaching out to me asking if I would be interested in speaking, so I started doing that as well. Before I knew it, more and more of my time was being dedicated toward education and outreach work and less toward my paying client work. Since many conferences can’t afford to cover travel expenses for speakers, I was in a tight spot. I wanted to continue the speaking I was doing; after all, many people won’t seek out this information on their own if they don’t believe it affects them. I found that meeting people where they were at, giving them both scientific research and anecdotes I’d heard from my hundreds of interviews and my own personal experiences were what was helping to shift the attitudes of a lot of people. Being able to have these conversations with them face-to-face made it more accessible for them to ask questions they wouldn’t have otherwise. But if I was doing far less client work, how could I afford all of this travel?

Recently a conference organizer suggested I put together an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for travel. The money would also allow me to create a
resource site that could help people continue to learn about the issues and what they and organizations they belong to can do to encourage positive change.

Near immediately I began receiving donations and being contacted about what I do. While the majority of feedback has been positive, thoughtful, and energizing, I’ve also experienced a fair share of the negative. I’ve received death and rape threats, harassment both on my campaign as well as on my blog, and comments about my appearance and worth. It’s sad to feel that this is to be expected from anyone engaging in this movement, but I know this is a symptom of a problem we’re trying to solve.

Overall, I’ve been overwhelmed with the response I’ve gotten. People have been donating for some of my silly perks, like choosing my hair color for a month or a personalized vine mini-movie on a topic of their choosing. I raised the amount I was asking for within 12 hours and doubled that within 36. People began asking if I had stretch goals and I had to think bigger than I thought I’d have to. Some friends and I came up with the idea of putting together a video series on different aspects of diversity in tech. Our larger goal is to raise enough to put on a diversity summit that would bring together activists, educators, businesses, conference organizers, and other community members to find ways to integrate our efforts better and make the movement more visible.

I would love to see the campaign reach this larger stretch goal; I’ve been a conference organizer for 10 years and it would be great to have an event that could contribute so much to the progress of equality in the industry.

If you or your organization are interested in contributing, you can do so on indiegogo.

Lastly, I’d like to continue this work through the employment of a company within the industry. I’m still searching for a company that is as passionate about this as I am. A good fit that would allow me to write, speak, and teach about the importance of diversity, as well as offering me time to work on open source software and helping more marginalized people to contribute to OSS as well. You can contact me about opportunities at ashedryden@gmail.com.

Scary raccoon in my toilet in the middle of the night

I live in a house with wild animals (And I really have to pee.)

This is a guest post by Ashe Dryden, a programmer and conference organizer living in Madison, WI. She is passionate about increasing diversity within the tech community.

This post originally appeared on Ashe’s blog.

The thing that shocks them the most is the fact that I live with wild animals.

I don’t mean that I have a pet rabbit that I found along the road and nursed it back to health. I mean wild animals. Ones I didn’t invite in. For instance, there’s a a family of rats that has burrowed a hole through the insulation in the side of the house and I can hear them hissing and scritching when I try to fall asleep at night. The kitchen is home to a shiny black crow that is happily nesting on top of my refrigerator; I guess it’s kinda warm up there and offers the best vantage point. I think the most disconcerting to people, though, is the old raccoon that lives in the one tiny bathroom in my house; I keep the door closed to avoid run-ins with him because he’s a bit on the terrifying side.

Most people are pretty surprised by this. I mean, I seem like a pretty average person. Nothing super remarkable about me from the outside. I work most days, run errands, sing Beyonce songs louder than most people around me would like. It’s only once people start to hang around me that they realize that there is something a little off about me.

Quite a few of you were surprised to find that I even lived in your neighborhood. Some of you have even remarked that you haven’t seen me around before and didn’t realize that a person like me would either choose or (even be able) to live there.

I moved into the neighborhood late in the game, so my house cost a good deal more than yours even though ours are similar. Truth be told, you may think I live in the very same house: it’s single story and painted white some years ago, as evidenced by the chips that reveal the pale yellow beneath it. It’s got a handful of small, drafty windows and one of them overlooks the tiny strip of grass that people in cities wishfully call “front yards”. Sometimes in the summer the roof leaks, but all-in-all it’s not a terrible place to live.The inside has everything you’d expect from an old house like this: a living room that is awkwardly shaped by modern standards, yellowing linoleum on the floor of a kitchen that is a few decades past renovating, a boring square bedroom painted the expected off-white, and a bathroom that solves all of the problems you require out of a bathroom. Sounds pretty familiar, I’d assume.

It’s funny, because people will overhear me casually mention the small forest of animals sharing my house and they’ll think one of three things:

1. There is no way you live with wild animals. Oh, I do. I’ve lived with them for a while actually. Do you wanna come by and see? You should ask my buddy Jason: he took pictures of them the last time he came over to watch Doctor Who.

2. That must be amazing! You’re like a real-life Snow White! Do blue birds braid your hair in the morning? Nooot quite. I mean, it sometimes has its inadvertant perks, like the fact that the crow takes care of any bugs that might make it into the kitchen. Considering the fact that anything with more than six legs really creeps me out, that’s nice I guess?

3. That is fucking awful, why don’t you move or call animal control? How do you live? I tried the whole animal control thing. Two guys just out of college came and removed the rats. They couldn’t get anywhere near the raccoon to remove him (I call him Samuel L Jackson because he is a pretty bad ass dude) and the crow hid itself so well that they couldn’t find it. After a week the rats were back and angry. Plus I was out $350 and had to replace some of the siding on the house. Unfortunately all of the other houses in the areas I want to live are inhabited (seriously, I am waiting on people to just die at this point so I can hope to move) so there is nowhere to move. I either live here, or I have to move pretty far away and uproot my life. That just isn’t an option right now.

And “how do I live”? That’s a good question. I think the most amazing thing about my situation is that not too long after moving in, I kind of… got used to it. I learned quickly to not leave food out on the counter or the crow would get it (I lost many a loaf of bread in that war, let me tell you). The rats you can mostly ignore, but it’s pretty disconcerting to anyone who I’d invite to spend the night. Imagine trying to explain that one to a potential date. “So, before we, uh, go back to my place I need to tell you a thing. And I promise I’m not a serial killer. Wait, where are you going?”

And the raccoon? I basically dealt with that by quarantining it to the bathroom. Before you ask, I have no idea what it eats in there. I mean, raccoons supposedly eat everything, so I don’t even want to speculate (because ew). The bathroom is the smallest room in my house and I use it the least frequently, so for the most part it’s easy to ignore. I can avoid the bathroom to a certain degree: using the bathroom at work or in a restaurant before I come home, not drinking as much water once I am home. The only time I have to worry about it is when I shower. Thanks to wikipedia, I learned that raccoons are mostly nocturnal, so I only shower in the morning. The toilet, which he sleeps behind, is on the opposite wall of the shower so I can avoid close contact in general. After a few scary incidents in the shower that we don’t need to go into, I decided to always have a very thick bathrobe handy for quick escapes. By this point in time he only bothers me every couple days. The awkward part is maybe what you’d expect; thanks to poor planning or the occassional visit from the period fairy, I may sometimes have to actually use the bathroom.

Like, to pee.

Scary raccoon in my toilet in the middle of the night

Now, if you’ve never tried to use a toilet in a small bathroom in the middle of the night when an angry old racoon is hiding somewhere just out of sight, it’s probably hard to imagine. And if said raccoon has attacked you in the past and made you run screaming soggy and naked out of the bathroom as if you were in a horror movie, you can imagine the amount of anxiety I have about using this room in my house at all. As I’m also of the variety that has to actually sit on the toilet to use it, this creates some challenges. Let’s just say that the entire process entails wearing specialized sports equipment repurposed as raccoon armor (thanks, Goodwill!). It’s not pretty and it’s certainly not convenient to deal with at 3am when you’re woken up by a full bladder and your new bedmate wants to know why you’re putting on shin guards.

You probably wouldn’t want to be my roomate, but a number of acquaintances have definitely used my house as a fantasy tourist destination just so they have a shocking story to tell their friends. I’ve been unlucky enough to be around when they are doing a dramatic retelling of some random story I’ve told them and made it into something particularly dangeresque. I won’t lie, I kind of cringe. My life has become some sort of weird oddity that people want all of the gory details on, but at the same time they’d never venture a foot in my house.

Not only that, but the people who are my direct neighbors have actually called the city to try to have my house condemned because they think I enjoy living with potentially rabies-infected animals and are giving the neighborhood a bad name. I’ve tried to reason with them a number of times. I’ve told them that there’s not anything I can do about it. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’ve explained that having me thrown out of the neighborhood would mean that no one would shovel all of the sidewalks they conveniently “forget” to shovel before they go into work in the winter. I remind them that not only would I have nowhere to live, but their property values would decrease if a condemned house sat, slowly rotting on a lot in the center of their neighborhood.


The past few months I’ve been struggling with how to relate the situation that marginalized people in tech live with every day to people in the dominant majority. My goal has always been to educate and to create empathy; the more people who recognize what is going on, the more people we will have to fight against this problem.

I think it’s hard for people to understand that the way women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized people go through life every day in tech is just the way things always are and feel like they’ll always be. They aren’t always heinous roadblocks, but they definitely make our lives more difficult in a lot of ways.

For those of you who didn’t have to do any literary criticism in high school, here are some Clif’s Notes:

  • The house symbolizes the belief that we all experience the same victories and struggles. That we’re basically all in this together and are connected in some way. People expect that their experiences are the same as yours and can’t imagine anything outside of what they themselves can observe.
  • The neighborhood represents the vocal members of the community who would rather not hear about systemic injustice, but worry about how it effects them. This can also include members of the marginalized group they are being vocal against (for instance, a woman can do this to another woman) for generally one of two reasons: 1. they have never personally experienced what a person coming forward has. They may want to believe that this could never happen to them. 2. they are one of the lucky few who have perservered through those experiences and don’t want anyone to rock the boat for them. This can be described as a “fuck you, got mine”, or being “one of the guys”. It’s difficult to not empathize with the latter reasoning because it is definitely a coping and survival mechanism.
  • The crow represents the people who are a nuisance, but provide some other value in a way that makes them hard to criticize. This can include people who are famous in the community or well-regarded in a company, but are also known for their destructive or dangerous behavior. Speaking out against them usually means others will chime in to remind you of all the “good” they provide you, and that you should be grateful.
  • The rats are less vocal members of a community or employees in a company that quietly detract from any progress made by someone or who harbor their issues with a group in relative quietude. These people make up the majority of the negative people in our communities. They only have real power as a large group that are able to infect others with their behavior. You can educate against this and hopefully create some empathetic allies, but this is tenuous. Many people relapse (though hopefully not permanently), and if they don’t there is someone else to take their place. This creates a lot of frustration.
  • The raccoon represents the blatant harassers, especially those that have a high standing in the community. They are tip-toed around and any altercation between yourself and them will result in people reminding you that you knew what you were in for, that this is their nature, the way they’ve always been, and they won’t be changing.
  • The entertained, yet horrified onlookers are just that. People who are fascinated by the car crash, but can never themselves imagine being in one. The stories of people being harassed, discriminated against, or worse are just that to them – stories; they don’t feel like tangible things that require action. A large portion of these people are journalists or prolific bloggers who are seeking attention through drama.

As a privileged person, can you have wild animals in your house? Certainly, but the chances of such are far less likely. This is the difference between building a house and an animal happening to wander in and a house being built where the walls enclose Bambi’s neighborhood. Most marginalized people know that they will have to deal with wild animals and find creative ways to work around them, but many eventually realize they can’t deal with living with that kind of stress and move to a place with hopefully fewer creatures.

Tech confidence vs. tech competence

This is a guest post from Alex, who is a volcanologist in their spare time. When not messing about with rocks in their underground lairlab, they can often be found shouting about trans (especially genderqueer) rights, earlier diagnosis of endometriosis, and books with dragons in.

Content notes: sexism, abuse

My dad was among the first cohorts to graduate in Computer Science at a prestigious university back when the course was introduced. Every single person I’ve been involved with long-term – and some of my major interests along the way – has been a computer scientist. Over the course of my life, I’ve frequently chosen to hang out with programmers; in my early-to-mid teens, I spent a slightly worrying amount of time on Netnews (yes, as distinct from Usenet). I grew up in the Silicon Fen. I half-joke that I was brought up by the Internet; I’ve just graduated with an MSci in physical sciences from a similarly prestigious institution.

And it wasn’t until 2012 that I first wrote code.[1]

Hello, everybody. My name’s kaberett, and I’m a Dreamwidth volunteer.

Code. It’s used in my field: it’s a vital component of modelling. I’ve spent my life surrounded by coders and design architects, by people whose reaction to “nothing exists that does what I want” is “okay, I’ll build one, then”; whose reaction to “I’m bored” is “what can I make?” And still: it was 2012 before I wrote any code.

Sadly, I think there’s a pretty obvious first-order explanation for this: I was assigned female at birth, and socialised accordingly. I spent my childhood being torn down by my computer-programmer father for “not having learned [that] yet,” or for answering questions “too slowly” at dinner, or being told I’d “never get a job if…” or being yelled at about how valuable his time-that-I-was-wasting was.

Does this mean I think all programmers are like him? No. Did it mean I was too scared to use the (theoretically) best resource available for me to learn from? Yep! And it landed me with a whole bunch of other issues. Asking for help with maths was right out – and so, really, was asking for help with anything. I’d acquired the conviction that I’d be belittled and torn to shreds, and that any information I did get would have more to do with building up my “instructor”‘s ego than my own knowledge base.

That experience is what I’m bringing to the table here. That, and a whole lot of reading, about the issues with diversity in FLOSS culture – and some more first-hand experience, this time with a place that is, by all accounts, doing it right.

And here’s what I suggest: in terms of getting high-quality code written by a diverse community, line-for-line my gut says that tech confidence is much more important than (perceived) tech competence.

Let’s pause a moment, while I define my terms. I use (perceived) tech competence to mean, broadly, the (perceived) ability to identify and fix a problem (without use of external resources). I use tech confidence to signify the belief that this is something that one can do – or learn to do, if one doesn’t know how to yet: it’s about trusting yourself to be able to figure it out, and trusting your community to help you rather than deride you if you ask questions.[2]

And that, right there, is where we stumble straight back into the issue of the meritocracy: the idea that a competitive environment – in terms of number of lines of code written, or features rolled out, or bugs squashed – is more important than one that values every contribution and every contributor.

Meritocracies are inherently broken, and competitiveness – while sometimes healthy – also erects an enormous barrier to beginning volunteers and coders. An ivory-towered culture of enthroned experts – one that enforces the idea that you must have a high level of technical knowledge to be worth talking or listening to – makes many people afraid to ask questions. This in turn makes learning slower and knowledge transmission harder, and leaves the group more likely to land in a situation where the only person who understands how to do what Sam does is, well, Sam. And that’s a problem – when Sam becomes ill, or they take a holiday, or they decide they don’t want to be involved any more, or sometimes they die. This is something that’s seen over and over again in, for example, the field of graptolite studies.


Let’s take a diversion, actually. Graptolites are an enormously important extinct species, most a couple of inches long at the outside, and they more-or-less resemble saws. Their diversity and steady morphological evolution – and the fact that they were found in all oceans on the planet – makes them superb for establishing relative ages of sedimentary rocks in the geological record. Problem is, there’s hundreds of species of the little sods, differing in such minutiae as how many thecae (saw teeth) they have per centimetre, the percentage overlap between thecae, the extent of curvature… which is all fascinating, except for the fact that the most recent illustrated catalogue of known species? Was published, as a serial, in 1901. (Want to know about some awesome scientists, incidentally? Look up Gertrude Lillian Elles and Ethel Mary Reader, née Wood.)

Do you know how many species have been reclassified since 1901?

Answer: a lot.

And so your best bet for identifying a particular graptolite is, if you’ve got one, to hunt down your local expert and get /them/ to do it for you.

And then, in the way of all flesh, they die – and you find yourself waiting for the next generation of experts to develop their eyes, because none of them write any of this down.


One of the things I’m spending a lot of my volunteer time on at the moment is encouraging Dreamwidth’s new volunteers (affectionately referred to as “babydevs”). This means, in practice, that I’m spending a lot of time writing documentation: how to do things that Everyone Knows, so that there isn’t the entry barrier of perceived “wasting senior devs’ time with trivialities”; so that we get consistency of explanation; so that we are more welcoming.


As I’ve said, pretty much my entire experience of volunteer work in the FLOSS world is at Dreamwidth, where I’ve been encouraged, throughout, to get started, to ask questions, and to seek help. Dreamwidth values my broader contributions to the project just as much as it values any code: I’m valued as much for tagging our incoming suggestions for features, adding to our volunteer wiki, putting together lists of easy-to-tackle bugs (“babydev bait”), and for end-user support, as I am for what coding I do. And that’s important: I got embedded in the volunteer culture well before I started trying to learn new skills, and the encouragement and support I got for that made me believe that I’d have the same level of encouragement and support if I attempted to branch out. It’s not just me this helps, or people who are new to coding: we also make space for people who already can code, but haven’t yet found time to contribute to any project due to other obligations. We’re always working on making public records of this: for example, our wiki entry on Things Real Dreamwidth Programmers Do is a relatively recent invention.

And all of this is crucial, not just to my own personal growth (which – obviously – I’m very grateful for!), but to Dreamwidth’s success as a FLOSS project. It is not focussing, first and foremost, on tech competence: instead, we work towards fostering tech confidence, through creating a culture where babydevs know that senior devs have their backs; a culture where people feel able to ask questions of the broader community, in public as well as in private; a culture where people learn how to test and debug and Not Give Up; a culture where our co-founders own their mistakes, and do so publicly, so that nobody has to feel alone. When people get discouraged, we give them pep talks. We remind people that it’s okay to learn visibly, instead of having to pretend to be entirely competent all of the time. Everyone can learn from the mistake that anyone makes – and mistakes are caught soon after they happen, so consequences can be minimised.

This is in stark contrast to communities where tech competence is valued above all else: where people feel they have to hide their mistakes. In such settings we routinely observe low volunteering rates from people in marginalised groups, with low retention from beginning volunteers, because people are too scared to ask for help or too scared to admit that they don’t know how things work. This isn’t unique to FLOSS cultures, of course – I’ve just finished a degree at a university regularly ranked in the top 5 globally, and I am appalled by the way in which this institution pushes people towards poorer understanding through militating against asking “basic” questions. It’s a habit that leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstandings lead to bugs, and it’s generally an all-round disaster, in which nobody wins.

So: please, if you want to promote diversity in your volunteer base, consider fostering an atmosphere conducive to tech confidence. It makes spaces more pleasant to occupy, and it produces real tech competence. Looking at things this way round? Well, I can’t see any losers.

[1] That’s not quite true – when I was 12 I spent a fair bit of time messing around with basic HTML and CSS to individualise Neopets profiles. But: it wasn’t standards-compliant; I wasn’t learning the languages as a whole, or even really their grammar; and it was a very structured sandboxed environment, where even very basic efforts were encouraged.

[2] Compare and contrast with the Perl virtues of laziness, impatience and hubris – except that “confidence” has the negative connotations of “arrogance”, because we are, in many cases, taught that it is bad and wrong to be able to accurately assess our capabilities and state them clearly – and it is especially wrong to reassess our abilities in the light of new information.

The protections of statehood and hacker armies

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

Lately, I’ve seen quite a few claims that hackers are persecuted minority floating through my streams. It’s not hard to believe, when we’ve seen the effects that the aggressive prosecution of Aaron Swartz had, that one of the hackers who helped to bring attention to the Steubenville rape case could end up with more jail time than the rapists, Barrett Brown remains in prison, Matthew Keys was threatened with 25 years in prison for aiding hackers, and more. Weev, one of the hackers currently imprisoned, has written a short essay comparing hackers to other persecuted minorities, including Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

In response to this persecution, weev writes:

Hackers need statehood. For self-preservation against ethnocidal states, for control of our destinies and for the liberties of billions. No nation now protects Internet speech, privacy, and commerce rights. If but a single well-armed nation did, those rights would be a VPN or SSH session away for the whole planet. General computation and the free Internet are as important advents in human rights as the abolition of slavery. Let our electronic freedoms not sway in the shifting whims of dying governments.

I’ve also seen this argument bouncing around Twitter a bit, the idea that hackers need statehood.

Obviously, what is being talked about here is not citizenship alone: most hackers already have that, unless they are stateless for other reasons. This also seems to move beyond a call for existing states to provide better protections for hackers (or cease their attacks) – this is not an appeal to Iceland or one of the other states which are currently being seen as potential havens for leakers, hackers, torrenters, etc. It’s a call for hackers to get a state of their own, and one with a powerful army.

I want to start by discussing this within the standard narrative around the liberal democratic state, which is based on the assumption that states are the legitimate protectors and upholders of human rights. What would it mean to have a state that was somehow ‘for hackers’ (rather than just be a state that protected human rights generally, including those of hackers)? The liberal democratic state, as an ideal (leaving alone the reality for now), doesn’t allow a whole society to be set up almost entirely to support one class of people. Who will be part of the army that protects hackers’ rights? Who will produce food? And more importantly, how will the political system retain protection hackers’ rights while simultaneously being based on democratic participation by all citizens? Given geek communities’ frequently-poor record on misogyny and racism* (including weev’s harassment of Kathy Sierra, who nevertheless supports attempts to free him), would a ‘hacker state’ really be a beacon of freedom and liberty for all? Israel, unfortunately, gives us a very good idea what a state might look like if it was set up primarily to protect a persecuted group, and how well the rights of those not in that group might be protected.

Even without the problems associated with trying to jam ‘statehood for hackers’ into the model of the ideal liberal democratic state, it’s worth questioning the assumption that the best way to build safe, just, communities is through the state. States are, unfortunately, frequently responsible for precisely the persecution we’re seeing today – as well as for attacks on women’s rights and bodily autonomy, massive rates of incarceration for marginalised communities (including people of colour in the US and Aboriginal people in Australia), and other such issues. In seeking an alternative, community-based attempts to build secure systems may be more useful than calling for a ‘hacker state’ (for more on this, read my post on Anarchism Today, and particularly the references to Rossdale’s work).

Calls for hackers to gain a statehood of their own is only one step up from the libertarian streak which runs through many tech communities. They fail to connect the struggles of hackers with those of other communities, fail to understand that the persecution hackers face is only a microcosm of broader problems, that other communities have suffered this and more for generations. There are, thankfully, people within geek communities who connect their struggles with those of others, who see themselves as embedded within broader systems. A better world for hackers can only come as part of a better world for others, including more marginalised groups.

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* I also remember reading other stories about more overt racism in tech communities (not necessarily hacker communities), but I’m having trouble finding them at the moment. Jamelle Boui’s article, linked above, is an excellent summary of some of the more subtle structures that exclude people of colour from tech (and other) communities. If you have recommendations for people writing from an excellent, informed, perspective on race and tech communities, please feel free to share in the links. I also don’t have a very good idea how well geeky communities do on other issues, like ableism and homophobia, so feel free to share links (including positive stories of awesomeness).