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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.


* 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).

Origin Stories

Here, at yatima’s request, is Geek Feminism Wiki’s own Bess Sadler‘s response to our current Book Club read, Coding Freedom. Normal Book Club posts will resume shortly!

The stories we tell ourselves about where we come from are the mechanism by which we continuously re-create our current understanding of reality. This is what makes origin stories so powerful: the shaping of the first part of the story determines the possibilities of the next chapter. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in her book “Writing a Woman’s Life,” argues eloquently and convincingly that the narratives of biographies and autobiographies, especially the stories we tell about women’s lives, have suppressed the truth in order to make the “written life” conform to society’s expectations of what life should be. “Writing a Woman’s Life” has been deeply influential on me in understanding my own life’s path, on a par with Virginia Woolf’s famous exploration of an imaginary sister for William Shakespeare in “A Room of One’s Own.” Judith Shakespeare’s reality is far removed from her brother’s, for ‘while William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending.’

I am currently reading “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.” It is a much needed ethnography of the F/OSS movement, and I’ve already ordered a stack of copies to give as gifts, but the lack of discussion about women in F/OSS is already bothering me. The first chapter of the book is devoted to “The Life of a Free Software Hacker,” and it attempts (although the author is careful to add a disclaimer about the inherent impossibility of writing about a “typical” life) to describe the sequence of life events that lead many people to the F/OSS movement. The author does recognize the gender skew in her sample population; Eschewing more gender-inclusive pronouns, Coleman instead qualifies her interviews with the statement “I use ‘he’ because most hackers are male.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but skimming ahead and checking the index, this seems to be the end of any discussion of women within the free software community. In the spirit of Carolyn Heilbrun and Virginia Woolf, then, here is my auto-ethnography of how I became involved in F/OSS. I think it offers some interesting contrasts to the narrative offered in “Coding Freedom.”

“He taught himself how to program [at a young age] in BASIC, and the parental unit expressed joyous approval with aplomb (‘look, look our little Fred is sooo smart’)”

She was exposed to BASIC and LOGO via experimental programs at her elementary school. She loved it and did well at the exercises in class. However, she did not have a computer to play with at home, nor anyone outside the classroom with whom to discuss what she had learned. Some of the boys in the class were constantly pushing the envelope (having skipped ahead by practicing at home) and her teachers tended to spend more time with them. She concluded, based on the evidence available to her, that she just wasn’t as good at this as they were.

“Thanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world”

Not having a computer until she was almost in college, she was excluded from the BBS culture she heard the boys in class discussing. Although the boys in her honors classes were in some ways her friends and allies, in other ways being a socially awkward female made her feel like the only person who was more stigmatized than the socially awkward males surrounding her. She read science fiction avidly, and had a few male friends who shared this passion, but she was not permitted to attend their after school activities. Reasons for this included parental (“good girls don’t go over to boy’s houses”) and peer (“adding girls would ruin our D&D group”). She did not have much in common with other girls her age and was not interested in their activities. She spent most of her time in libraries and bookstores.

“Many hackers did not awaken to a consciousness of their ‘hacker nature’ in a moment of joyful epiphany but instead acquired it imperceptibly. In some cases, certain books, texts, movies and place of interaction sparked this association.”

Every day after school she would join her younger sister in watching a worn out VCR cassette of “Sneakers.” She loved the power the characters in the movie wielded, and how idealistic they were. She loved that there was a woman in the movie who was as smart as all the men and sometimes had to explain math to them. She would reflect on their shared obsession with this movie many years later when her sister became a well respected security expert for the telecommunications industry.

When exposed to the free software movement, it “seemed to describe his personal experiences with technology in a sophisticated yet accessible language”

When exposed to the free software movement as a teenager, via conversations at a radical bookstore about how we might imagine a more just society, it was couched in language like “liberating the means of production.” F/OSS as a system of production seemed to challenge in an immediate and concrete way the assumption that we must be alienated from our own labor. “The external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.” (Marx and Engels as quoted in “Coding Freedom”, p. 15)

“As he grew older and more financially independent (thanks to lucrative information technology jobs as a programmer or system administrator that gave him the financial freedom, the ‘free time’, to code for volunteer projects) […] he consistently interacted with other geeks at work”

In high school and college, financial independence was on her mind. She had been raised around culturally conservative and religious women who were financially dependent on men. She knew that the cruel things she heard about women like her, her weight, her lack of grace, her inability to engage with the sphere of traditional womanhood, were said out of love and concern, because snaring and keeping a husband was the only way many people around her could imagine that a woman could live comfortably. She had never been interested in the trappings of femininity, nor particularly eager to join a traditional marriage. She had seen many women forced to choose between staying with an abusive man or living in poverty, and she was determined never to have to make such a choice. She really liked her part-time job in the bookstore, and thought that if she learned how to run the computer inventory system the bookstore might give her a full-time job and she’d be able to support herself, so she sat down and taught herself database administration from a book during her night shifts.

“The conference is culturally significant because it allows hackers to collectively enact, make visible, and subsequently celebrate many elements of their quotidian technological lifeworld” (p. 28) and “most everyone arrives on an equal footing, ready to contribute their part” (p. 48)

During college she entered the phase during which a larval hacker typically “drink[s] himself silly with information” (p. 26), absorbing as much knowledge and skills as she could. Aided in this by women-run technology groups like “Grrls with Modems,” she embraced geek culture whole-heartedly. She loved the spirit of F/OSS conferences, and if the language was sometimes exclusionary, or if some of the men there seemed to be threatened by her presence, she tried not to let it distract her from what was great there. She encountered a new problem, though: She was no longer sexually invisible. She grew very tired of being the only woman at many of the events she attended, and she grew VERY tired of being seen more as a sexual prospect than as a peer. A few times men got angry and even threatening with her for rejecting their advances, and she did not react to this well. It seemed to actually make her sick, although she could not understand why or how. She had not yet heard the phrase “post traumatic stress disorder.” She knew she had been raped at age 12 by a camp counsellor and at age 17 by one of her high school teachers, but she did not yet have the ability to call this rape, except in her innermost secret thoughts, and she was sure it had not really affected her. She created a public persona guaranteed to avoid the issue, adopting masculine clothing, refusing to shave her legs, and adorning herself with the regalia of the gay rights movement. Now when she faced harassment it was more often couched in the language of homophobia, which at least gave her a community to call on for support.

“Developers who were self-employed or working in a small tech company that had few or no managers powered everything on free software, crediting the success of the company to solid technology as well as the money saved on software”

She has had a relatively successful upward career trajectory managing technology for bookstores, libraries, and human rights agencies, none of whom had much money but all of whom embraced the “the moral message of software freedom” (p. 38).  She became a DBA, then a unix sys admin, then a software developer. She contributed to, and later helped to start, open source software projects that focused on the problems confronting cultural institutions. She also decided that if F/OSS was going to be truly revolutionary it was going to need to be more inclusive, and she started trying to find ways to make it a more welcoming place for women and gender minorities.

David Notkin

Remembering a geek feminist ally: David Notkin, 1955-2013

This is a guest post by Debbie Notkin, who is the chair of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award motherboard, a co-organizer of WisCon, and a science fiction and fantasy editor and reviewer. She is also the writer (with Laurie Toby Edison) of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and (with Laurie Toby Edison and Richard F. Dutcher) of Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. She blogs at Body Impolitic and on Dreamwidth.

No marginalized group can move forward without allies, and all of us have the opportunity to be allies as well as need allies. So it behooves us to look at what high-integrity, committed ally work looks like. And that’s why I want to tell you about my brother.

When David Notkin’s son Akiva was about two years old, he was fascinated by all games played with balls. (At 15, he still is.) We were on a family vacation together when David and I walked with the toddler past a ping-pong table, and Akiva instantly wanted to see what was up. I asked David why he thought Akiva was so much more interested in balls and ball games than his older sister Emma. David said, “I don’t know. We treated them exactly the same; it must just be something about him.” Having heard this from dozens of parents over the years, and rarely finding a productive response, I just let it go.

Years later, unprompted (if I recall correctly), David told me that he was no longer sure that was true. He had started to spend time with and pay attention to the serious feminists who advocate for more women in technology and the STEM fields, and he had done some listening and some reading. He said, “I think it’s perfectly possible that we responded to Akiva’s interest in balls differently than we would have if it had been Emma.” I had, and still have, very little experience with anyone changing their mind on these topics.

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville differentiates between what she calls the “Fixed State Ally Model” and the “Process Model,”

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

The kind of shift that David made about his son’s interest in ball games is as good a step into the Process Model as any.

In this flash talk, given at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Summit in Chicago in May of 2012, we see more commitment to process in ally work.

In this talk, David says nothing about what women want, how to bring women into the field, or really anything about anyone except David. Instead, he describes the reasons to take another step on an ally’s journey, and advocates a way for teachers and professors to take that step, by voluntarily stepping into a learning situation where they are in the minority. As he says in the opening frame, he’s in a room full of brilliant women. As he doesn’t say, he knows he has nothing to tell them about being female, or being female in the computer science world, or anything else about their lives. What he can share is his own efforts to understand what it’s like to be marginalized, without taking on the mantle of the marginalized.

The NCWIT talk came in a deceptively optimistic period for David; he had spent the end of 2010 and virtually all of 2011 in cancer treatment, and his scans were clean … until June. In February of 2013, a few months after David’s cancer had spread and he had been given a terminal diagnosis, his department held a celebration event for him. Notkinfest was a splendor of tie-dye, laughter, and professional and personal commemoration. I hadn’t really followed his trajectory as an ally and mentor to women and people of color, and I was amazed at how many of the speakers talked about his role in making space for marginalized groups.

Anne Condon, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia told a longer story about Mary Lou Soffa, (Department of Computer Science, University of Michigan), who couldn’t be there. Dr. Condon said,

Mary Lou is a very prestigious researcher in compilers and software engineering, and probably the most outspoken person I know. Once a senior officer from a very prominent computing organization proudly unveiled a video about opportunities in computer science. Now in this video, all of the people profiled were white males, except for one little girl.

Mary Lou in true fashion stood up and she did not mince words as she told this senior official what she thought of that video. When she was done, there was total silence in the room. And then one voice spoke up, questioned the choice of profiles in that video and spoke to the importance of diversity as part of the vision of this organization.

And that person was David Notkin.

The speaker list at Notkinfest, aside from Dr. Condon, included somewhat of a Who’s Who in increasing diversity in computer science, including:

  • Martha Pollack, soon to be Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, as well as Professor of Information and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, who has received the Sarah Goddard Power Award in recognition of her efforts to increase the representation of and climate for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
  • Tapan Parikh, Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the TR35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2007. (check out his TedX talk on representing your ethnic background).
  • Carla Ellis, member and past co-chair of CRA-W, CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research , past co-chair of the Academic Alliance of NCWIT. On her web page, Ellis says: “In my retirement, I will be pursuing two passions: (1) advocating for green computing and the role of computing in creating a sustainable society and (2) encouraging the participation of women in computing.”

Notkinfest was David’s next-to-last professional appearance. Here’s what he said at the open reception:

It’s important to remember that I’m a privileged guy. Debbie and – our parents, Isabell and Herbert, were children of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, and they were raised in the Depression and taught us the value of education and how to benefit from it.

Mom, especially, taught us the value of each and every person on earth. I still wake up and – You know, we have bad days, we have bad days, but we have plenty to eat and we have a substantive education, and we have to figure out how to give more back. Because anybody who thinks that we’re just here because we’re smart forgets that we’re also privileged, and we have to extend that farther. So we’ve got to educate and help every generation and we all have to keep it up in lots of ways.

When I spoke at his funeral, not three months after Notkinfest, the main thing I did was repeat that plea.

Interdisciplinary computer science at Mills College

This is a guest post by Ellen Spertus, who is a professor of computer science at Mills College and a senior research scientist at Google. She has been active in geek feminism since 1991, when she released a widely distributed report on women in computer science. Her many publications include a chapter in She’s Such a Geek, and she has contributed to several open source projects, including the software behind the Systers mailing list and App Inventor. She is perhaps best known, however, for being named Sexiest Geek Alive in 2001.

Everyone knows that the computer science pipeline leaks women. Once a young woman decides not to take computer science courses in high school or in college, it is hard for her to reenter the pipeline, and earning a PhD in computer science after a bachelor’s degree in sociology, for example, might seem impossible, even though an interdisciplinary background might make someone a better computer scientist.

In 1984, department head Lenore Blum (who has continued to be a leader in women and computer science) founded the New Horizons certificate program at Mills for women and men with bachelor’s degrees in other fields. (The graduate programs at Mills are coed.) It consists of eight undergraduate computer science courses and prepares students for either careers in industry or for graduate study in computer science. Certificate students have been admitted to computer science PhD programs at MIT, University of Virginia, University of Washington, and other schools.

The more revolutionary program, however, is the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Computer Science (ICS), founded a few years later, which aims to build on students’ past background and not just supplant it with computer science. In addition to more demanding coursework, ICS students need to complete an interdisciplinary thesis that combines computer science with another field, usually their prior one. For example, Erica Rios, who had a background in political activism, developed a technology-enhanced community organizing model to raise consciousness among Latinas over the value of their unpaid household work. Jeri Countryman developed and deployed a computer science curriculum for middle-school girls and went on to work for Techbridge and Iridescent on tech outreach programs for girls. Amy Dewey, whose undergraduate degree was in dance, developed a database to preserve swing dance moves and routines. Whenever a student proposes a thesis topic, I always ask two questions: First, what is the computer science content? Second, what about it couldn’t be done by someone trained only in computer science, like myself? I like to make the point that, rather than being deficient for not having an undergraduate CS background, their diverse experience enables them to accomplish things impossible for a more traditional computer scientist.

Appropriately, the Mills motto is “One destination, many paths”. Students have entered the program through various means and at various stages of life. Constance Conner had partied her way through college, ending up in low-paying dead-end secretarial jobs, where she became the expert on the dedicated word processing machine and early spreadsheets and databases. After a cocktail party conversation with a Mills graduate at age 30, she entered the ICS program part-time. Her first summer internship paid more than twice what she was making at her secretarial job ($15/hour vs. $7/hour). After graduating, she had five industry job interviews and got five offers. She accepted one, which paid well but that she found “uninspiring”. When an ICS alumnus, Allan Miller, remembered an interest she had once expressed in teaching and let her know about a part-time teaching position at College of San Mateo, she jumped at the chance to teach, something she had always wanted to do. In 1995, with the help of another ICS alumna, Dana Bass, she began working full-time at City College of San Francisco, one of the country’s largest community colleges, where she’s taught computer programming to an estimated 400 students/year.

One of Constance’s students, Karina Ivanetich was working in a bike shop after earning a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Sociology from the University of Virginia and pursuing her goal of mountain biking for a few years. She was planning to just learn programming but was so inspired by the material—especially compilers, which Constance frequently mentioned in the introductory programming class—that she entered the ICS program. ICS led to opportunities for her to participate in machine translation research at the University of Pittsburgh and to intern at Google and Wind River, where she implemented an instruction scheduler for their compiler. She is now a Senior Engineer in their compiler team.

Lisa Cowan learned to program as a kid and found it “super fun” but majored in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, not taking any computer science classes but “noodling around” on the pre-web Internet via dial-up. She found work at a start-up and realized she wanted a career in computing, so she entered the ICS program, where she appreciated the small class size and the camaraderie among the students — very different from Berkeley. After Mills, Lisa earned a PhD in computer science at UCSD, applying her anthropology background to studying mobile social media and human-computer interaction.

Alison Huml had planned to major in science at UC Berkeley but got off to a discouraging start. On the first day of her honors chemistry class, she was the only woman in the section. Before she could take a seat, the TA tried to redirect her to the general chemistry class down the hall. Alison stayed in the course but decided to major in English instead, graduating summa cum laude. She worked as a tech writer during the Internet boom but knew that she wouldn’t go far without an understanding of computer science, so she entered the ICS program. She has since co-authored books on the Java programming language and led writing and product management teams at Google, where she is now employed.

Other graduates (and drop-outs) of the program have gone on to work at Apple, Disney, Google, IBM Research, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Splunk, as well as many smaller companies. Marianne Marck is currently Senior VP of Software Engineering for Starbucks. It is tremendously rewarding as a faculty member to help students go from unfulfilling jobs to creative, high-paying ones, even if their starting salary sometimes exceeds mine as a

My ulterior motive in writing this guest post is to reach Geek Feminism readers and their friends who might be interested in entering the program or applying for our visiting industry faculty position. I can honestly say that feminism is front and center at Mills, a women’s college. Most of the Mills administrators and faculty, including the president, provost, and all of the full-time computer science faculty are women (by happenstance, not design); male faculty are equally committed to women’s advancement. The school is diverse in race, national origin, and sexual orientation, and has a growing awareness of issues faced by transgender and gender non-conforming students and advocacy for their full inclusion. (Editor’s note: Current students at Mills who have questioned administrators about policy have alleged that Mills continues to have an unofficial policy of rejecting women undergraduate applicants whose government-issued identification documents have a male gender marker. Updated to add 5 September 2014: In August 2014, Mills published a written policy making it the first officially trans-inclusive women’s college in the U.S.) Our biggest problems are (1) finding potential students, since they don’t know that a program like ours exists and (2) keeping them after they get great job offers before finishing the program.

not a beard

This is a guest post by Mari Huertas (@marihuertas).  She is an Obama for America Technology (#ofatech) alumna and instructor at the University of Chicago. She currently is working on an idea to shift self-publishing with fellow OFA alum Nick Leeper (@lucky33). She lives in Chicago with her husband, bossy cat, and an ever-rotating supply of tea. This post originally appeared on her blog.

It was a tongue-in-cheek joke on the campaign trail, and I smiled about it for a while – the recurring meme about the “bearded” Obama Technology team, a group of dudes who wore flannels and didn’t shave and didn’t care at all about either, thankyouverymuch. I smiled about it because it was true, to a point, and I felt we were a family, and family made jokes like that, even if not everyone was into it.

Then came the post-election press, some of which picked up the “beards” gag and, fawning over its delicious cleverness, wrapped it into numerous mentions of the Technology team’s accomplishments. Andrew Sullivan even wrote a post that referred to the Technology team as “Obama’s Bears”.

Now, let us be clear about a few things:

  1. I was on that team.
  2. I’m not at all bearded.
  3. I’m definitely not a bear.
  4. Nerdy? Sure. I’ll own that one.

And other women were on that Technology team, too – smart, savvy women. One managed the creation of an incredible system that our vendor integration and other technology components all could hit so we could operate as synced as possible (Carol Davidsen). One trained an entire digital SWAT team of interns and volunteers to handle Dashboard support (Brady Kriss). One spearheaded the development of our voter outreach and GOTV technologies (Winnie Lam). One reached into the tech community and rallied volunteers to help us build certain pieces of our infrastructure (Catherine Bracy).

Yet some articles skipped mentioning women almost entirely. Rolling Stonenamed one; Mother Jones listed zero before backpedaling under scrutiny and adding a handful at the bottom of the article. Both were chided and scorned for it. It was surprising but not unexpected that so few of my sex were included in articles about winning the election – recognizing women has been a historical, long-standing problem. But these women in particular had done outstanding, difficult work – they had just re-elected a president, for heaven’s sake – so if not now, when should they expect to be recognized for their contributions?

I write this now, in the waning halo of winning the election, because in the past few months, I’ve come to see in a painfully clear light how important it remains to rally and recognize women working in technology. From the dearth of women as speakers and panel members to the lack of diversity on development, IT, and product teams, we have a serious listing that needs to be righted. As I wrote at the end of 2012, we need to elevate the profiles of successful women so that others will see them and want to work alongside them – so they will know what roles are available and what roles they can make.

I want other females, young and old, to feel encouraged by the women who worked on this re-election campaign and in technology, civics, and government as a whole. I want girls and young professionals to find their way by the determined wakes we leave. We’re doing important, satisfying, fun work – we should broaden and extend our purview so more can wade into the fray.

Now, I want to make this next point as clear as the glass ceiling beyond which many women in technology have yet to climb: I love, support, and cheer on my tech brethren, bearded or bare-faced, because they are completely, indisputably awesome and deserve every word of the recognition they receive. I have sat in the front row of the conferences at which they presented and beamed and clapped hard while they stood and spoke. I have touted them publicly on social channels and privately in emails and discussions with others. I wish them every success and am fantastically proud to call them friends and co-workers.

But equal consideration and recognition for the work, contributions, and fur-free faces of the ladies who rocked alongside them?

We need that – not just for this campaign or election, but for all we do. Let’s make that happen.


linux.conf.au 2007 speaker panel grouped on stage

Re-post: When sex and porn are on-topic at conferences: Keeping it women-friendly

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on October 1, 2012.

This is a cross-post from the Ada Initiative blog. Discussion is extremely welcome!

We’d like to start a discussion: How can the Ada Initiative extend the example anti-harassment conference policy to explicitly allow respectful, woman-positive discussion of topics like sex and pornography when it is on-topic, without creating loopholes for sexist and exclusionary behavior to creep back in?

First, let’s be clear: harassment and unwelcoming behavior at open tech/culture conferences are far from over. For example, one recent conference tried to “break the ice” using slides with sexual messages and/or animals mating and ended up getting racism and prison rape jokes (unsurprisingly – see this list of higher risk activities for conferences to avoid). That’s why the Ada Initiative’s advice on including pornography or sexual discussion at technology conferences is “don’t.”

A brief explanation of why pornography and sex are off-putting to women and LGBTQ people of any gender: Most pornography shown in this situation assumes that the audience is male and heterosexual, and sends the message that everyone who is not a heterosexual man is not the intended audience. Also, shifting people’s minds towards sex often triggers people to view women as sexual objects, in a context in which women want to be treated as humans with a shared interest.

Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop speaking

But showing pornography and talking about sex in public are not necessarily a “women not wanted” sign. Women are using open tech/culture to create erotica by and for women, and to have open discussions about sexuality in general.

For example, Archive of Our Own is a “fan-created, fan-run, non-profit, non-commercial archive for transformative fanworks,” designed and created by a majority women community, and hosts erotic fan fiction written by women among many other fan works. At the Open Video conference, Cindy Gallop talked about ways to change pornography to be more women-friendly, as well as more “open source” (and launched a startup actually doing it). for women in open tech/culture also need to speak about what keeps women out of their communities, which requires talking about pornography and sex.

Valerie Aurora speaking at AdaCamp DC

Valerie Aurora speaking at AdaCamp

What we want to do is support conferences that have organizers, speakers, and attendees who are sufficiently aware of sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of harassment in order to distinguish between, e.g., trying to “spice up” a presentation with a little off-topic pornography, and a discussion of ways to change pornography to be more women-positive. Our own AdaCamp is an example of a conference in which sex and pornography are on-topic.

The Ada Initiative’s current anti-harassment policy includes the following paragraph:

Exception: Discussion or images related to sex, pornography, discriminatory language, or similar is welcome if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) the organizers have specifically granted permission in writing, (b) it is necessary to the topic of discussion and no alternative exists, (c) it is presented in a respectful manner, especially towards women and LGBTQ people, (d) attendees are warned in advance in the program and respectfully given ample warning and opportunity to leave beforehand. This exception specifically does not allow use of gratuitous sexual images as attention-getting devices or unnecessary examples.

We then add a blanket provision approving discussion about topics that are appropriate for the specific conference.

What do you think? Comments are open (but heavily moderated).

Food for discussion: A few examples of anti-harassment policies from conferences where sex and pornography are on-topic: BiCon, Open SF, and Open Video Conference.

Photograph of Estelle Weyl speaking, by David Calhoun

Wednesday Geek Woman: Estelle Weyl, expert web developer and standards evangelist

This is a guest post by Melanie Archer. It originally appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day..

Photograph of  Estelle Weyl speaking, by David Calhoun

Estelle Weyl, by David Calhoun

By late afternoon that day in September 2002, I was getting pretty grumpy. The sandwich at lunch had dissipated into low blood sugar; the files I’d placed on the server just moments before had disappeared (and we had neither backups nor version control); the room was stuffy on an uncharacteristically hot day in San Francisco. And here comes this woman from one of the rival teams in the hackathon, introducing herself, trying to make friends, or at least, acquaintances.

I don’t remember being very effusive. The day had been grueling-I was on a team of four, working feverishly to develop an an accessible, yet visually appealing, Web site in just a few hours here in the Mission High School computer lab. But we shook hands. I recognized this woman’s name from the discussion list for SFWoW, at the time indispensable for finding out about tech events like this one. I hadn’t known how to pronounce it.

“Estelle Weyl. Like ‘while,'” she said. Within moments we all learned how excited she was about CSS, a technique new to many people at the hackathon, which was just one day of the Accessible Internet Rally. At another gathering we’d learned about various accessibility techniques, such as supplying text alternatives to images, offering keyboard shortcuts, and using CSS for presentation. The last had been my M.O. for three years already-I was puzzled how slow acceptance of it was.

I’d recently left a job at a software company which assembled a bunch of open source superstars, both actual and self-proclaimed, and then hired some front-end types like me to rework the clumsy, visually unappealing interface for the superstars’ application into something more usable. The low status of front-end work became obvious to me upon my introduction to one of the engineers.

“Oh, one of the pixel people,” he sneered, then lumbered off, leaving me to read the absurd style guide the UI lead had delivered. CSS was too “unsupported,” the guide admonished. Use <FONT> and <CENTER> to render the design atrocities we build in the browser. I didn’t stay long at this pointless gig.

So Estelle’s bouncy enthusiasm for CSS didn’t seem infectious to me, but instead, rather naive. Do you really want to investigate a technique with near-universal applicability, great community support, a bright future?

Learn Perl. Yeah, that’s where it’s at.

Thank goodness she didn’t. Instead, Estelle dug into CSS to a level few of us do. She opened multiple browsers, on multiple operating systems, to ask one question: what happens when I do this?

The results are bookmarked by anybody who cares about cross-browser CSS, but not enough to commit these fugitive details to memory. I’ve placed I-don’t-know how many fancy list separators via li:after, but dang if I remember the ASCII code for them. Oh, look-Estelle’s catalogued them! Meanwhile, as WML gave way to near-complete HTML support in mobile browsers, Estelle was there, checking CSS support on an ungainly gamut of devices-so we didn’t have to.

Somewhere along the line Estelle decided to start talking about CSS. In just a couple years Estelle had attracted an audience. Soon there were few CSS-focused events that didn’t include at least one presentation by Estelle Weyl. And there were, increasingly, more CSS-focused events. It sounded like Estelle’s life was pretty much spent going from one glamorous conference to another.

These days she addresses standing-room-only crowds, many of whom include engineers like the one I met ten years back, now anxious to learn CSS to “keep current.” If Estelle’s story proves anything, it’s not the superiority of CSS, it’s the superiority of the person who uses passion, focus, and sheer dogged persistence to get somewhere. Pixel people or Perl people, we all stand to gain from such an example.

See also: Lorna Jane Mitchell’s post about Estelle Weyl.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.

Heather Walls, by Guillaume Paumier, CC BY-SA

Wednesday Geek Woman: Heather Walls, designing for connection on Wikipedia

This is a guest post by Siko Bouterse, Head of Community Fellowships, Wikimedia Foundation. It was originally published at the Wikimedia blog and is re-published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Heather Walls, photograph by Guillaume Paumier, CC BY-SA

Heather Walls, by Guillaume Paumier CC BY-SA

When Heather Walls designed the Wikipedia Teahouse, she was inspired by the name to create a space with “a sort of zen feeling” where new editors could relax, have a cup of tea, and get help learning the ropes from experienced Wikipedians. Her design for the Teahouse, which is full of gentle colors and images of people and nature, aims to create a “softer entry point to Wikipedia, where you can see there are other humans, and they’re the ones talking to you.”

When she’s asked about the project or about her work as a visual designer, Walls often comes back to the theme of human connection. “The Teahouse gives people a chance to see each other, to see that Wikipedia is other human beings,” she said. “I love watching the hosts give patient and supportive answers to all kinds of questions, and how thankful guests are in return.”

In the eight months since it was launched on English Wikipedia, new and experienced editors have come to enjoy the Teahouse’s warm atmosphere. “It’s surprising how relaxing the site design is,” said Teahouse host Writ Keeper. “I’m not an artsy type…so I never would’ve thought that site design would make such a difference, but it does.”

Walls says what she likes best about all the projects that she works on is the purpose and dedication of the people involved. “My hope is that as many people as possible can feel ownership of this mission.”

In 2011, Walls started contracting with the Wikimedia Foundation, creating outreach materials for hackathons and recruitment, and soon moved on to projects like Teahouse, Wikipedia mobile, a Funds Dissemination Committee portal, and a portal for new editors on Arabic Wikipedia. With a background in architecture and a degree from Harvard Graduate School of design, she has experience designing both real and virtual spaces. She’s also an active Wikipedia editor in her spare time, patrolling new pages and serving as a host in the Teahouse.

The WikiWomen’s Collaborative logo — which features an image of hands forming a “W” shape — is another one of Walls’s designs that focuses on people finding common ground. The WikiWomen’s Collaborative project supports women’s participation in the Wikimedia movement by celebrating inclusivity and diversity, and this ideal brought some challenges to the design process. “We were definitely going for not-pink,” says Walls, “though this logo can be any color and it doesn’t change the recognition.” The idea for the logo came from a photo taken at the WikiWomen’s lunch at Wikimania in 2012, where over 100 women from around the world gathered. “Looking through our hands creates a sort of window we share,” she said. “We do things with our hands, everyone around the world, we have that in common. The WikiWomen’s Collaborative is about women everywhere contributing to the voice of the world.”

Addressing Wikipedia’s gender gap is, at its core, about widening representation and incorporating more perspectives into the sum of human knowledge. Walls recognizes the unique perspective that she brings to her own design practice. “Every individual brings their experiences, and as a woman I do have a different viewpoint. My view and experience, the fact that I have learned to understand the importance of invitation, that is in what I do now, even if a project is not specifically aimed at women.”

Wikipedia Teahouse design palette, by Heather Walls CC BY-SA

Wikipedia Teahouse design palette, by Heather Walls CC BY-SA

Proving that a Wikimedian’s work is never done, Walls just completed a redesign of the Teahouse to make it even easier for guests to find the help they need. “As we added features and explanations to the main pages of the Teahouse over time, simplicity and some of the visibility of the Teahouse organization was lost.” Some editors were attached to her old design and initially opposed the updated version, and Walls said she also felt some nostalgia while rolling out the changes. Ultimately, thanks to lots of community input, the original colors and Teahouse logo were retained in the new design, because they play an important role in the emotional connection users have with these pages on Wikipedia.

Come stop by for a cup of wiki-tea in the newly revamped Teahouse on English Wikipedia, or visit the WikiWomen’s Collaborative on Facebook to continue the conversation. Heather Walls and other WikiWomen look forward to meeting you there!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.