Tag Archives: privilege

A Problem With Equality

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I’m going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I’m an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I’m not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don’t have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I’m writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I’ll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don’t feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don’t understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I’ve written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla (“Planet” from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community — both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers — who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: “The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members.” Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear — some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag “research”. My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don’t show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don’t read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This post appeared on Gerv’s personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I’ve only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don’t have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: “Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don’t expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election.” Another Homozilla member wrote, “Even at work, we’re not free from being reminded that some say we’re different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else”, which is something that I agree with and that I’ll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv’s post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I’ll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv’s must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla’s mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it’s really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla’s reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, “represents the views of individual community members” and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users’ understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that’s the responsibility of the interface designers — they should have made the interface less confusing — rather than the user’s fault. That’s because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they’re wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company’s values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I’ve written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is “universal marriage”) and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there’s so much that’s already been said about universal marriage that I don’t feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv’s post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that’s possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won’t talk much about Gerv’s original post. I don’t mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I’m going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression — systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries — were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word “oppression” is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla’s projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don’t just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software — and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me — because it is home to me, and I don’t have another home. If you’re still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire “free speech” policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask “In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?”

To some people, the language of “oppression”, “abuse”, and “victims” may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like “only words”, words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn’t make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don’t exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don’t intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you’re still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don’t intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I’m writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I’ve just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I’ve tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • “Why are you talking about power so much? I don’t have power over you.” Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • “How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?” Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • “Don’t you think it’s rather harsh, describing your pain as ‘oppression’? Isn’t that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?” Here’s what “oppression” means to me, and why I don’t see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • “Is it really that bad, what happened? Can’t you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you’re so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you’re saying?” These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • “No, really, is it that bad?” Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I’m inferior is painful, and I’ve tried to explain what that’s like.
  • “So what should we do about it?” I don’t have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • “What does all of this have to do with Mozilla’s mission? And why are you being so critical?” My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I’ve written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we’re stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad — if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself — isn’t there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are — based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on — is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do — engaging in anti-social behavior — is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they’re willing to observe community standards; to do what’s best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don’t see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I’m being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it’s no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I’m disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people’s objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I’m also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the “free speech” argument. The majority must not determine minority rights — that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn’t end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members’ contributions. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn’t see the leaders do that — instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who’s capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it’s their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one’s freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that’s legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer’s computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the “free speech” argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one’s speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be “everyone”, not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism — to be used as a last resort — for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn’t need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there’s no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who’s willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don’t get why we can’t build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we’re doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.

Privilege Denying Dude (Edman)

Male Programmer Privilege Checklist – now on the Geek Feminism Wiki

Over on the open thread, Tim Chevalier asked us to share this with you:

I’ve just moved over the Male Programmer Privilege Checklist, which I previously maintained, to the Geek Feminism wiki, so that, well, everyone can maintain it :-)

http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Male_Programmer_Privilege_Checklist

I’d like to see some editing action going on, since there are definitely places where the writing could be improved and made more consistent, and where more links could be added. As well as, of course, adding more entries (most of the existing list is based on either specific experiences that contributors to the list have had, or on incidents that are documented with URLs).

In general it hasn’t seemed to me like the geek feminism wiki has been a major vandalism target, but I’m slightly worried that the privilege checklist will attract vandalism, since there are definitely people who are unhappy about its existence and some of them have emailed me in the past. I plan to keep watching it regularly, though. And, I hope that the increased ease of adding new content will outweigh the potential risks of vandalism from people who don’t like to see privilege being discussed in public.

Thanks, Tim!

Linkspam made the top 10 (24th June, 2011)

  • Color Lines gives us The Ultimate 21st Century People of Color Sci-Fi List

    It seems that when it comes to sci-fi, cultural experiences of the melanin-inclined are merely reserved for exotic backdrop (ahem, “Stargate”) and half-assed tokenization (ahem, the horrible Mandarin in “Firefly”). […] This is for all the disappointed moviegoers who felt the title “Minority Report” was misleading.

  • Forbes lists The 10 Most Powerful Women Authors The list only counts living authors, but includes both Pulitzer-Prize winners and bestsellers
  • on privilege denial within disability: If the only time you bring up being not abled is when someone calls you out on being ableist, this may apply to you.
  • An Open Letter to Courtney Martin, an Editor at Feministing.Com: To offer a review on a feminist Web site of Octavia Butler’s work without discussing, in depth, her contribution to feminism in general and black feminism specifically is to do the legacy of Octavia Butler a tremendous disservice.
  • (Warning: extensive anti-women/feminist statements quoted, some advocating violence.) How to choose the absolutely wrong person to write about girls and D&D — the title really says it all. The article in question has since been removed.
  • On Geekdom and Privilege: Sympathy For The “Pretty’?: All of which is not to say that celebrities or hot people can never be members of the community. In calling herself a history geek, Campanella herself seems to fit the definition of a geek ally: she has some geeky interests, and she believes in evolution (thank goodness), but it’s not like she chose to cosplay Wonder Woman for the swimsuit competition, either.
  • Ann Leckie: Wiscon-Related Thoughts pt 1: But we still do it, ourselves. Some portions of the eternal what’s really science fiction debate seem focused on excluding pears and oranges from our basket on the grounds that they’re not really fruit. Except no definition that excludes oranges and pears will also include every sort of apple.

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Quick hit: Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect

I’m going to admit, I haven’t played Mass Effect 2, but I’ve definitely been hearing good things about playing the main character as a woman. There’s lots of good reasons your leading lady may be awesome, but I was particularly taken by this description of how privilege plays a role in making this fun and maybe a little subversive:

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there.

In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

Read the whole post at Two Whole Cakes. (Seriously, do. Otherwise you’re missing out on the tale of how default animations make Lady Shep in a dress either odd or awesome, or how getting drunk has an entirely different context. Contains spoilers, no doubt, but nothing too specific.)

Magical linkspam sparkles (26th May, 2011)

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Death before linkspam (3rd April, 2011)

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

The plight of the Straight, Male Gamer

If you’re not a gamer, perhaps you haven’t seen this post entitled Bioware Neglected Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer which complains about the romance options in Dragon Age II. [Warning: minor spoilers for Dragon Age II about which characters are romance options.]

In every previous BioWare game, I always felt that almost every companion in the game was designed for the male gamer in mind. Every female love interest was always written as a male friend type support character. In Dragon Age 2, I felt like most of the companions were designed to appeal to other groups foremost, Anders and Fenris for gays and Aveline for women given the lack of strong women in games, and that for the straight male gamer, a secondary concern. It makes things very awkward when your male companions keep making passes at you. The fact that a “No Homosexuality” option, which could have been easily implemented, is omitted just proves my point. I know there are some straight male gamers out there who did not mind it at and I respect that.

When I say BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer, I don’t mean that they ignored male gamers. The romance options, Isabella and Merrill, were clearly designed for the straight male gamers in mind. Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call “exotic” choices. They appeal to a subset of male gamers and while its true you can’t make a romance option everyone will love, with Isabella and Merrill it seems like they weren’t even going for an option most males will like. And the fact is, they could have. They had the resources to add another romance option, but instead chose to implement a gay romance with Anders.

When I saw this, I was torn between horrible gleeful schadenfreude at how hurt this guy was over not getting his preferred romance options… and wishing that *life* came with options whereupon I could flip a switch and not have people who I found sexually unattractive hit on me ever again. (In my case, the switch would specify “no otaku/japanophiles”) Oh, and wondering if I counted as an “exotic” choice in real life (again, see “no otaku”).

And then there’s the twitter commentary from @sparkyclarkson:

Man, I hope Duke Nukem has an option to turn heterosexual content off.

While schadenfreude might be fun, it’s hardly something to be proud of, much less something I’d feel a need to crow about here. What makes this a story worth posting about is actually the response from Bioware’s David Gaider:

The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.

[…]
And if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as “political correctness” if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They’re so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don’t see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what’s everyone’s fuss all about? That’s the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want.

[…]
And the person who says that the only way to please them is to restrict options for others is, if you ask me, the one who deserves it least. And that’s my opinion, expressed as politely as possible.

You can scroll down on the forum post to read his full response. Given that we get so many stories about how game companies are just pandering to their supposed straight young male market, it’s really nice to see a company standing up for their choice to make a game that appeals to a wider audience, even at risk of alienating a few of the “majority” in the process.

More commentary here: “Straight Male Gamer” told to “get over it’ by BioWare.

The Fourteen Not Forgotten and Sexist Posters at Waterloo

This is a guest post from Christine Cheng. She is a research fellow in politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. In a previous life, she studied systems design engineering and was student government president at the University of Waterloo. This post was originally published at her blog.

(Trigger Warning for survivors of the École Polytechnique Massacre and survivors of campus threats against women)

A photograph of Marie Curie has an image of a mushroom cloud next to it. It is titled 'The Truth'. The caption at the bottom of the poster says, ''The brightest Woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie. The Mother of the Nuclear Bomb. You tell me if the plan of Women leading Men is still a good idea !'

Photo source: Canadian University Press

This post is in honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th).

Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, have left a bad taste in my mouth. In mid-February, in the middle of student government elections, someone covered up the posters of female candidates with an image of Marie Curie, a nuclear explosion and the following slogan “The brightest woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie, The mother of the nuclear bomb. You tell me if the plan of women leading men is still a good idea!” A poster with the same image was also put up with similarly alarming text: Kill 250 000 innocent Japanese in WW2 and is given 2 Nobel Prizes. Expose the defective Moral Intelligence of Womankind and it is called Sexism. It had the caption: “Marie Curie = evil”.

Later on, this person sent out a fake email purporting to be Feridun Hamdullahpur, the University of Waterloo’s President. In this mass email, the message railed against “against women in leadership and women attending university“.

This was followed up by a Facebook profile, presumably from the same person:

When a bad idea comes to this Earth it always hides behind The Shield of Vulnerability. This way it is immune from being attacked in the open. Radioactive Technology was hiding behind the vulnerable looking mask of Marie Curie and this is why no one caught it in advance. They figured that if a female was pushing it then it was harmless. They figured wrong. The truth is that overeducated women are truly dangerous. If they don’t know right from wrong they will nuke the whole Planet and call it the latest fashion from Holt Renfrew. This is the truth. The world is in trouble today because the higher moral intelligence of men is not in charge anymore. How long will you let this continue? The choice is in your hands. I didn’t leave posters on your campus because I am a fool. I left them because I am your father who is concerned about where your education is ultimately going. You are being taught the virtues of gender equality when gender equality is nowhere in the Orginial Plan of Creation. Queen Elizabeth is leading you astray and charging you big money for this evil favour. When you graduate from here you will have a degree but no real intelligence. This is the truth.

There have been at least two stories in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the case, an article posted on the Maclean’s website, and now, an article on Jezebel. The UW campus police are investigating: “forensic analysis of the posters; review of closed-circuit television footage; and collaboration with computer specialists to track the identity of the individual who sent [the] impersonating email fraudulently.”

These are the facts that I have been able to cobble together. While I am loathe to give any legitimacy to the person who has done all of this, I felt that it was more important to post these comments so that readers can get a better sense of why I was alarmed. It may be the case that this person was just trolling and stirring up trouble. But if you take these sentiments at face value, this person comes across as off-balance and in need of counselling.

Obviously, this is not representative of how the larger UW community feels about female scientists, female students, and female leaders. The University of Waterloo as an institution, in my experience, has been quite sensitive to gender issues on campus (though Prof Shannon Dea eloquently disagrees with me in her post on this issue). Having assertive and capable female leaders at all levels of the institution has helped.

Yet this is not just about the misogynistic acts that have been committed, but it is also about how the larger community chooses to respond to these acts. Sadly, in addition to the many constructive conversations that have taken place as a result of these incidents, other comments have been less than helpful, to say the least. For example, Bill Li, a current UW computer science student had this to say in response to a female student who was extremely upset about the events:

Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let’s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn’t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try “Bryn Mawr College”.

You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.

I have seen similarly insensitive posts on other sites. Bill seems to agree that these incidents were wrong, but he fails to grasp that his comments contribute to making women in his program feel unwelcome. Women like me graduated from computer science and engineering despite sentiments like these, which thankfully, were extremely rare in my corner of UW.

Part of the reason that I’m posting about this is because it feels like I could just as easily have been the target of these incidents. I studied systems design engineering at Waterloo in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by amazing, accomplished female classmates. One third of my class was female (and none of us dropped out). I also ran for and became president of my student government at Waterloo. Those posters could just as easily have been mine.

There is also a larger social and historical context to this story that should not be forgotten. Twenty-two years ago, on December 6th, 1989, Marc Lépine, walked into the École Polytechnique (part of the engineering school at the Université de Montréal), then shot and killed fourteen female students, and wounded ten other women and four men. If you read the coroner’s report about how the men and women were systematically separated before the women were all shot in the name of feminism, or watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Polytechnique about the Montreal Massacre, a chill will run down your spine. This event casts a long shadow over incidents like those at UW.

In 1998, during my last year as an engineering student at Waterloo, I organized the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorial. I exchanged emails with Chris Redmond, the editor of UW’s daily newsletter, about why the memorial was important in spite of the fact that gender didn’t seem to be much of an issue with my cohort. He posted part of our exchange online. I don’t completely agree with everything that was said by my 23 year-old self anymore, but I do think the issues I raised back then are still relevant thirteen years later. Here is an excerpt:

I understood [when I was 14] that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? [Chris and I] talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

[Marc Lépine] committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination [are] not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. [Women] are valued [equally] in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be.

I know that these recent events were “isolated incidents”, but I think that they still raise broader issues of gender equality that are worth discussing. Comments on other sites also suggest that while gender was never an issue for me at UW, it has been an issue for other women.

While I hope that this is just a trolling incident that has gotten out of hand, there is a distinct possibility that there is worse to come. In light of the Montreal Massacre and my previous comments on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the power of political rhetoric, this conversation about women’s equality is clearly one that needs to continue.

* * *
For more constructive commentary on these incidents, E. Cain suggests some concrete measures for improving campus safety, Maclean’s discussed the importance of hate crime legislation, and UW campus leaders gathered to discuss the problem. Shannon Dea has a thought-provoking piece in Hook and Eye.  Also check out the commentary following the Jezebel article.

Sidenote: On the accuracy of the claims about Marie Curie, see Luke Bovard’s piece: the honest truth: Marie Curie.

Update: Bill Xin Li took down his post on this topic but before he did so, he decided to troll someone who sent him an unfavourable response. Preferring not to do further damage to this person’s reputation by providing another link to what was written, suffice it to say that it was rude and inappropriate. Let’s keep this clean and constructive.

“Creepy” means something different for men and women.

Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

– via Mary Dickson’s A Woman’s Worst Nightmare (trigger warning on link for description / discussion of violence against women)

Male IT geeks tend to think they are “low status” males.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Why are male IT geeks less successful in attracting women than other males, on average? Why are there few women in IT?

Among male geeks, a popular explanation for both these phenomena is that women avoid “low status” males, because women are programmed by evolution to have sex with men in exchange for men’s material resources.

the average person in the United States with an IT career makes $0.13. the average American household makes $0.096.

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