Tag Archives: programming

Let’s do the linkspam again (25 July 2014)

  • Why Captain America Should Stay Black Forever | E.Knight at Boxing With God (July 19): “Comic book fans born today should grow up knowing this is Captain America. There should be no doubt.  The idea that a black man could represent the ultimate patriot is only ironic if our society continues to insist that White is America’s default race.”
  • New Thor Will be a Woman! Five Other Heroines Who Have Taken Up a Man’s Title | Mey at Autostraddle (July 22): “Although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feminizing a name, there is a lot of clout that comes with the name Thor. By not adding “She-,” “Lady” or “Ms.” to the name, they are saying that this character isn’t a sidekick or partner to Thor, they’re saying that she isn’t “inspired by” Thor, they’re saying she simply is Thor. [...] While Thor is the most high-profile example of this, it’s not the first. Here are some of my favorite examples of this happening before.”
  • How Big of a Problem is Harassment at Comic Conventions? Very Big. | Janelle Asselin at bitchmedia (July 22)[warning for discussion of harassment] “It’s not difficult to see why conventions can be rife with harassment. People in my survey report being harassed by fans, journalists, publishing employees, and comics creators, so there are issues at every level of the industry. Conventions involve cramming a lot of people into one space where ideally everyone gets to move around. This means there are a lot of brush-by maneuvers, awkward running into people, and a lot of general closeness. [...] This is the first time ever that SDCC has made a specific anti-harassment policy so prominent and offered a clear course of action for fans who are harassed.”
  • Killing the Messenger at Mozilla | Tim Chevalier at Model View Culture (July 21) (disclosure: Tim Chevalier contributes to geekfeminism.org): “In 2012, it was nearly taboo at Mozilla to question the individualist narrative: the story that says that Eich, like any other employee, could spend his paycheck in whatever manner he chose. In 2014, Mozillans had no choice but to engage with a more structural narrative: that it’s impossible to lead a diverse organization when you have openly and obdurately expressed animus towards members of a protected class. [...] If we take [the Mozilla leaders] at face value, they did not understand why anyone would think that queer people’s rights were relevant to an open-source software project — surely they must have been aware that LGBTQ people worked for them.”
  • WisCon…This is How You Fail | The Angry Black Woman (July 20): “Race, gender, and class have all been issues at various points for me at WisCon. Most incidents fall into microaggression territory, and as a personal philosophy I tend not to let those dissuade me from things I want to do. That is an eminently personal choice, and should not be construed as telling anyone else what to do or how to feel. If my friends stop going, then so will I.”
  • The Pay-for-Performance Myth | Eric Chemi and Ariana Giorgi at Bllomberg Business Week (July 22): “An analysis of compensation data publicly released by Equilar shows little correlation between CEO pay and company performance. Equilar ranked the salaries of 200 highly paid CEOs. When compared to metrics such as revenue, profitability, and stock return, the scattering of data looks pretty random, as though performance doesn’t matter. The comparison makes it look as if there is zero relationship between pay and performance.”
  • Coder livetweets sexist remarks allegedly made by IBM executives | Aja Romano at The Daily Dot (July 22): “Note to IBM executives: If you’re going to openly discuss why you think young women make bad hires in the tech industry, you might want to make sure you’re not having lunch next to a young mom who’s also a coder. [...] According to [Lyndsay] Kirkham, the executives listed off a number of women who are currently employed at IBM, all of whom apparently have kids, and listed the amount of time the women were expected to take off in the next few years for anticipated pregnancies.”
  • #iamdoingprogramming made me feel more alienated from the tech community | Christina Truong at Medium (July 21): “In the eight years that I’ve been in the tech industry, I’ve worked with one Black person that was in a tech role and a handful in non-tech roles (project managers) and that’s a damn shame. [...] Diversity doesn’t mean pushing those that are already there out of the group. It simply means making space for different kinds of people, different opinions and opening up the culture instead of spotlighting and finding the same kind of person over and over again. It’s about showing people that there are different ways to be successful in this industry. It’s about telling everyone’s story.”
  • Numbers are not enough: Why I will only attend conferences with explicitly enforceable Codes of Conduct and a commitment to accessibility | Jennie Rose Halperin (July 22): “I recently had a bad experience at a programming workshop where I was the only woman in attendance and eventually had to leave early out of concern for my safety. [...] What happened could have been prevented: each participant signed a “Code of Conduct” that was buried in the payment for the workshop, but there was no method of enforcement and nowhere to turn when issues arose.”

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; 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.

Linkspam and a bag of chips (18 February 2014)

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on PinboardDelicious or Diigo; 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.

To my daughter’s high school programming teacher

This is a guest post / cross-post from Rikki Endsley who tweets as @rikkiends and is community manager for USENIX in addition to being a tech writer. See also the original post for other comments and the follow-up: What could possibly go wrong?

Trigger Warning: mentions of threats violence and rape

Dear sir,

I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages (Visual Basic? Seriously??) or about the A my daughter earned in your class. And, actually, my daughter had no specific complaints about you as a teacher. I, on the other hand, have plenty of feedback for you.

First, a little background. I’ve worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She’s been a beta tester (and bug finder) for Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope release), and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro. (I know, I know … kids today.)

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for “spring break”, attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC ’12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter’s Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May — two years early — and is now attending high school in India as her “gap year” before heading off to college.

So what’s the problem?

During the first semester of my daughter’s junior/senior year, she took her first programming class. She knew I’d be thrilled, but she did it anyway.

When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. “Well, I’m the only girl in class,” she said. Fortunately, that didn’t bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys in class. My daughter said that you noticed and apologized to her because she was the only girl in class. And when the lessons started (Visual Basic? Seriously??), my daughter flew through the assigments. After she finished, she’d help classmates who were behind or struggling in class.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC ’12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men boys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

My September 8, 2010 post, Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall, discussed illegal gender discrimination in tech. The next day, comments started popping up on the post. Sure, the sandwich comments were easy enough to shrug off at first, but within a few minutes, the comments increased in numbers and intensity. And then the threats of violence started: “The author of this article is a whiny bitch and needs a good beating to be put in her place.” Ten minutes later, the rape threats began, and I shut down our comments site-wide. And then the emails started…

So, you see, I was all too familiar with what my daughter was going through, but I was unprepared for the harassment to start in high school, in her programming class.

I consulted with friends — female developers — and talked to my daughter about how to handle the situation in class. I suggested that she talk to you. I offered to talk to you. I offered to come talk to the class. I offered to send one of my male friends, perhaps a well-known local programmer, to go talk to the class. Finally, my daughter decided to plow through, finish the class, and avoid all her classmates. I hate to think what less-confident girls would have done in the same situation.

My daughter has no interest in taking another programming class, and really, who can blame her.

For her entire life, I’d encouraged my daughter to explore computer programming. I told her about the cool projects, the amazing career potential, the grants and programs to help girls and women get started, the wonderful people she’d get to work with, and the demand for diversity in IT. I took her with me to tech conferences and introduced her to some of the brightest, most inspiring and encouraging women and men I’ve ever met.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you, sir, created a horrible one for girls in computer programming.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

I’m no teacher, so forgive me if you think I’m out of place when it comes to telling you how to do your job. But I am a mother, and I’ve spent years encouraging girls and women in IT, so perhaps my perspective will help you. After all, you didn’t mean to create a brogrammer-to-be environment, did you?

Here are seven suggestions for teaching high school computer programming:

  1. Recruit students to take your class. Why was my daughter the only girl in your class? According to her, she only took the class because I encouraged it. My daughter said she wouldn’t have known about the programming class, otherwise. (I’m adding this to my “parenting win” page in the baby book.) Have you considered hanging up signs in the school to promote your class? Have you asked the school counselors to reach out to kids as they plan their semesters? Have you spoken to other classes, clubs, or fellow teachers to tell them about why programming is exciting and how programming fits into our daily lives? Have you asked the journalism students to write a feature on the amazing career opportunities for programmers or the fun projects they could work on? Have you asked current students to spread the word and tell their friends to try your class?
  2. Set the tone. On the first day of class, talk about the low numbers of women and lack of diversity in IT, why this is a problem, and how students can help increase diversity in programming. Tell students about imposter syndrome and how to help classmates overcome it. Create an inclusive, friendly, safe learning environment from day one. I thought this was a no brainer, but obviously, it’s not.
  3. Outline, explain, and enforce an anti-harassment policy.
  4. Don’t be boring and out-of-date. Visual Basic? Seriously?? Yes, I know I said I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages, even though I’m still scratching my head on this one. The reason I mention your choice is that it doesn’t help you make a good first impression on new programmers. I have no idea what my teen learned in your class because she wasn’t excited about it. Without touching your minuscule class budget, you can offer a range of instruction with real-world applications. With resources like Codecademy, for example, students could try a variety of programming languages, or focus on ones they find interesting. Have you considered showing kids how to develop a phone app? Program a Raspberry Pi? Create a computer game? Build a website? Good grief, man — how were you even able to make programming boring?
  5. Pay attention. I don’t know what you were doing during class, but you weren’t paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed that my daughter was isolated and being harassed. Do you expect girls to come tell you when they are being harassed? Well, don’t count on it. Instead, they pull away, get depressed, or drop out completely, just like they do in IT careers. You want to know what happens when women speak up about verbal abuse or report harassment? Backlash, and it’s ugly. Best case, she’ll get shunned by classmates or colleagues. And hopefully she won’t read any online comments…ever. But it can get much worse, with the vulgar emails and phone calls, and home addresses posted online, and threats of violence. Sadly, this isn’t rare; this happens all the time, from high school on up into our careers. Don’t believe me? That’s because you aren’t paying attention.
  6. Check in. Talk to your students in private to see how class is going for them. Talk to other teachers or school counselors. Had you talked to my daughter’s counselor, for example, you would have known how class was going. The counselor worked closely with my daughter to help her graduate early, and she would have had no problem getting an honest answer about my daughter’s unpleasant experience in your brogramming class. Did you expect me to call you? Believe me, I wanted to, but I also respected my daughter’s request to let her handle the situation. And see number 5. Had I told you how class was going for my daughter, her situation would not have improved, and might have gotten even worse.
  7. Follow up. At the end of the semester, take a survey. Allow students to submit anonymous online answers to questions about the class material, your teaching methods, and their experience with other students. Allowing anonymity will help you get honest answers and, hopefully, you can improve your programming class for your next round of students.

Look, you don’t have to tell me how hard your job is or how underpaid and overstressed you are as a high school teacher. I’m a single mother working in tech publishing — believe me, I get it. I like to think what I do is important, but what teachers do has the potential to change the world. No article I write will ever do that, but the daughter I raise might.

I spent 16 years raising a daughter who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of my years of encouragement.

I always told my daughter that high school isn’t real life. Unfortunately, your programming class proved otherwise. In one semester, my daughter learned why there are so few women in IT, and no amount of encouragement from me is going to change that.

EDIT: Rikki has posted this update:
As I said, my daughter is in India for a year, so she didn’t see this article until Wednesday, September 11. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about me sharing her story and all the attention it received. Luckily, my daughter thanked me for writing about her experience. I asked her whether she had any corrections for the article. “Um, maybe tell them that I did actually talk to the teacher and I tried to tell the guys to quit being jerks,” she said. “He told the principal, and it was really embarrassing, which is probably why I didn’t tell you. And I gave up after that,” she explained. My daughter said that, after bringing the problem to the teacher’s attention several times, she finally asked him whether she could talk to the entire class about sexual harassment, he told her he’d think about it, and that’s when he reported the situation to the principal. “And a couple days later I was in the principal’s office being explained to that it wasn’t my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears.” Before my daughter signed off our online chat, she asked me why I wrote about her story now. I told her about Alexandra, the nine-year-old girl who presented her app at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and the titstare app developers who shared the same stage. “Well, I’m sorry that crap happened … to both of us,” she said. I am, too.

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part II: Codes of Value

In Part II of Coding Freedom, Biella begins the vital work of problematizing the meritocratic ideal.

“Hackers will publicly acknowledge… acts of “genius” and are thus fiercely meritocratic – in ideology and practice. Yet given that so much of hacker production is collective, a fact increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated in the ethical philosophy of F/OSS, a commitment to individualism, meritocracy, and independence is potentially subverted by the reality of as well as the desire to recognize their fundamental interdependence. The belief in the value of individuality coupled with the constant need for the help of other hackers points to a subtle paradox that textures their social world.”

Who among us picked up any technical skills whatsoever without the help of someone more skilled who helped us out just because, in the spirit of paying it forward? Patient friends, lucid documentation, gentle answers on mailing lists: these are the familiar stepping stones from n00b to basic competence. Depending on your point of view, they exist in dynamic tension with, or in stark contrast to, the Romantic hero, powered only by genius and Mountain Dew. You know, this guy:

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

There is for sure a seductive aspect to the idea of meritocracy, an aspect that’s maybe especially potent for adolescent people – or nations – who are trying to separate their identities from their progenitors in order to individuate and develop their potential. It’s understandable, but it shouldn’t survive contact with the real world, which is nothing if not More Complicated Than That.

“The United States is often thought of as a living embodiment of meritocracy: a nation where people are judged on their individual abilities alone. The system supposedly works so well because, as the media myth goes, the United States provides everyone with equal opportunity, usually through public education, to achieve their goals. As such, the hierarchies of difference that arise from one’s ability (usually to achieve wealth) are sanctioned by this moral order as legitimate.”

You’ve got to love the strategic deployment of qualifiers in the above passage, especially if, like me, you have come late in life to the conviction that meritocracy is bullshit. Yeah. I said it. The single biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is the proposition that there are people who are without merit. This is, to put it mildly, not the case.

The second biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is that it’s just a recursive modern gloss on the Divine Right of Kings. Leaders in the (ostensibly-meritocratic) open source community are entitled to exercise power because of their merit. The proof of their merit? Is their exercise of power. The word “meritocracy” is an ungainsayable defense of the status quo. It’s conservatism in a nutshell. As Alexander Pope once, infuriatingly, put it: “Whatever is, is right.”

This week, in which Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp advanced the revolutionary notion that programming could be carried on without ad hominem attacks, has added special piquancy to this passage from Biella’s book:

“When Torvalds and Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian, respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency. Participation was encouraged, and recognition was given where it was due. Accepting more contributions was also, of course, seen as a way to improve and encourage technical efficiency.”

Biella acknowledges that Linux and Debian grew up to be very different projects, and goes on to discuss Debian’s Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines and Constitution. She has some sharp observations on the fear within the Debian community that the “meritocracy” will be “corrupted.”

I’d like to propose that the notion of meritocracy is itself corrupt. Ideas may have, or lack, merit. People have worth, and every person is worth more than we can possibly imagine. Inclusive communities are likely to write the best software because in them, ideas can compete on their (yes!) merits; and because software written by the other communities has exclusion coded into its very DNA.

But, y’know, I’m not a kernel coder, so who the hell cares what I think? ;) More to the point, dear readers: what do you think?

Syntax error: unexpected linkspam (16 April 2013)

  • Science needs more women: “The bottom line is that many excellent female researchers across Australia do not encounter a set of sequential career rungs to be climbed, but rather need to navigate a complex game of snakes-and-ladders.”
  • Signs of Change: “Not everyone is on the same page, and there is still a lot of progress to go on all fronts, particularly with regard to the players themselves who congregate in gaming communities; it’s often these folks who will engage in the most abuse against advocacy for inclusivity, diversity, and equality. For the first time though, I feel that things are actually changing, that minds are being opened, and that the advocacy, the blogging, the speaking out that people have been doing for so many years-that all of this exhausting work is bearing fruit. There is a cultural shift happening in games, and I hope it continues to shift to a better place.”
  • ABA TechShow Has a Diversity Problem: “TechShow is a very good conference, even with all the white guys on stage. It is like a huge workshop, with something for lawyers who are still trying to use Word properly to lawyers trying to figure out how to gain an edge at trial. It would just be a lot better if there were a greater variety of voices on the presentation stages.”
  • Taking out tokenism: Why some people are changing their minds on quotas: “Lindy Stephens was convinced that quota systems were the wrong way to increase the number of women in positions of power. But three years after adopting a system of positive discrimination, the managing director of IT consultancy Thoughtworks Australia has changed her mind.”
  • MAKE | Where Are the Women?: “In our workshop, Hacking the Gender Gap, we present a brief overview of the published research on the gender gap and women’s history in computing. Then we pass out two different colors of large Post-Its and markers. On one color, we ask participants to write a story of a negative experience they’ve had with technology. On the other color, we ask them to write a positive experience… As a group, we read the stories and discuss the themes that emerge, and what could be done to encourage more of the positive experiences and prevent the negative ones.”
  • Girls Who Code: “The first GWC program launched in the summer of 2012 with 22 girls in New York City. Courses covered not only coding but pitching and presentation skills. At the outset, only one participant was considering a major in computer science; by the end, the entire class planned to major or minor in the subject.”
  • What we talk about, when we talk about fake fangirls: “The fake geek girl meme depends on the narrative of invasion. The particular battle at stake is women entering male space, and demanding that it change.”
  • The Last of Us Female Characters: “So here we see a pretty serious effect of how the assumption “women don’t play video games” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we assume that women don’t play, then we’ll never ask them what they think of a game, and it becomes far more likely that we’ll create a game that presents gender in a limited way, from a limited perspective, or even an offensive one. And then women will be less likely to enjoy playing our game, but that’s all right, because we know that women don’t play games anyway.”
  • Feminist Pax Enforcers: “My experience with PAX East enforcers is that they have created a self-perpetuating image: everybody believes that they’re competent and on top of things and so should be treated with respect, which allows them to be maximally friendly, calm, helpful, and communicative to attendees… which allows them to be completely on top of things, which means that everybody believes they are on top of things… and so on. So it does not surprise me one bit that some of them have gotten together, in the wake of a well publicized incident of a disruptive media attendee, to reassure female cosplayers and attendees that they’ve got your back. With a nerdy meme.”
  • Gail Simone Brings First Transgendered Character to DC Comics in Batgirl #19: “I’m sure it’s controversial on some level to some people, but honest to God, I just could not care less about that. If someone gets upset, so be it; there are a thousand other comics out there for those people.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious 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.

I prefer the fanon linkspam (12 April 2013)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious 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.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

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 September 17, 2012.

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
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By SomeDriftwood (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Re-post: What she really said: Fighting sexist jokes the geeky way!

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 March 19, 2012.

This is a guest post from Jessamyn Smith, an open source developer who tweets at @jessamynsmith and blogs at Dreamwidth. Read on to find out her technological solution to annoying sexist jokes.

I work at a startup, and most of the time, I enjoy it. Compared to most tech companies, and certainly most startups, we have quite a few people who are relatively clueful. There are relatively few moments of “brogrammer” culture. There is, however, one thing that has been bugging me for months, ever since it was introduced.

I took it for granted that everyone was familiar with the “That’s what she said,” joke, but a recent conversation with a consultant friend made me realize some industries don’t feature it on a daily basis. For those who haven’t heard it a million times, the idea is that when somebody says something that could remotely be turned into a sexual joke, e.g. “I’m trying to solve this problem but it’s really hard!” you say “That’s what SHE said,” in a lascivious tone.

Now, I admit to having made this joke myself, at times. Once in a while, I even find it funny. What I don’t find funny is a bot we have in our general IRC channel at work, that has some basic AI devoted to determining when to interject TWSS into the conversation.

I asked a number of times to have that bot function turned off, but got the usual combination of being ignored, being told it’s funny, and being told I should lighten up. I tried explaining once why it was objectionable, and managed to get the guys saying variations, e.g. “That’s what your DAD said,” for an evening, but that was about it.

Last Friday, the bot went a bit crazy and started throwing TWSS into the conversation with no apparent rhyme or reason. Finally, I had had enough. And then it came to me: I would write my OWN bot, that responded to TWSS with a quotation from a notable woman. If they are so keen on what she said, why don’t we get educated about what she really had to say. And so the “whatshereallysaid” bot was born. It might annoy the guys into shutting off the TWSS bot, or we might all learn about notable women. It’s a win either way, in my books!

I’d never written a bot, but how hard could it be? Python is my primary programming language these days, so I started searching for Python IRC bots. I tried a few different libraries before setting on twisted. I found a very nice example of a logging bot using twisted , and went from there.

Step 1: I copied the LogBot code into local files, and tried running it. Since the IRC channels I am normally in use SSL, I had to set up my own channel on a public IRC server for testing. It took a while to get the settings right, but finally I succeeded!

Step 2: I created a quotes file and put in a couple of my favorite quotes to test with. I created class to randomly select a quote from the file. I modified the log bot so that if you said its name, it would get a quote and post it to the channel.

Step 3: My ultimate goal was to put the bot in the work channel, so I needed it to support SSL. I found a stackoverflow thread about using a different connect function, one for SSL. Again, it took me some time to get the settings right, but eventually I got the bot to connect to the work IRC server.

Step 4: Now I needed more quotes! I found an excellent website of quotes by women and wrote a small script to scrape the quotes. I used the excellent python requests library. The script got the content of the main links page, and iterated over the links, using a regular expression to get the name and then following the link to the quotes page. Then it pulled the quotes out of the page content and stored them in a text file, one per line, with the woman’s name attached.

Step 5: I set up my own private channel and had my bot connect. I tested it to verify it was correctly noticing and responding to trigger phrases. Once I was confident of that, I tried in the general chat channel. Success!

Step 6: I cleaned up the code, removing everything unrelated to posting quotes, and adding a settings file. I made the trigger phrases configurable. I also added a virtualenv. I felt the project was now in good enough shape to post publicly, so I shared it on github.

Step 7: At this point, I was still running the bot on my own computer, which was clearly non-ideal. I wanted it to be in the channel all the time, not just when I was logged in! I found a python daemon implementation and made my bot run through that. Perfect! Now I could run it from one of the development servers at work.

Step 8: Unit tests, of course! No project is complete without them. I only have tests on the quote selector so far, but I am going to set up some mock tests on the bot logic.

Originally, I had called the project “whatshereallysaid”, but as I was working, I realized this could be much more broadly applied. Anyone could clone my github project and configure a bot to respond to whatever annoying comments they had to put up with. Inspired by “take back the night” and “hollaback”, I decided to rename the project “talkbackbot“.

I finished all this rather late on Friday night, so there was nobody around. I waited with anticipation to see what the response would be. To my surprise, many coworkers complimented me on creating the bot, including some I would never have guessed would appreciate it. Some people even retweeted my announcement that the bot was available on github.

It has been fascinating to watch the ongoing reactions. There have been complaints that we have too many bots in the channel now. There have been complaints about it spamming the channel. There were several “Make them shut up!” responses. These are not reactions I have seen the other bots elicit, certainly not with such intensity. One person even complained about the name being too long, though to his credit he realized right after he said that that several other people in the channel also have very long handles.

To me, all of this seems like typical geek behaviour: something is making them uncomfortable, and so they attack it on “rational” grounds. Most likely, they aren’t even aware of the gut reaction fueling their logic. Interestingly, the intensity of emotion seemed to carry over into subsequent discussions, including one about women in the Python community. For the most part, I have not responded to the comments. I did shorten the bot’s name to “twsrs”, and I pointed out that it’s trivially easy to have the bot not say anything: don’t say TWSS.

In any case, I feel that I have succeeded in constructively disrupting an aspect of my work culture that made me uncomfortable. This is the first personal project I’ve ever thought of, coded, and made public, and I am pretty excited about it! It makes me so happy every time the other bot says “that’s what she said,” and my bot responds with something like:

Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel. ~ Bella Abzug

One of the most hilarious responses was a guy saying he was going to say TWSS a lot more, so he could get more quotes! I decided to add another trigger phrase just for him, since the last thing I want to do is encourage *more* TWSS!

The Linkspam With Tribbles (4 December, 2012)

  • Reactions to women speakers: “Congratulations! You’ve managed to attract more women speakers to your conference. But, if you think your problems are over, you may be in for a surprise. If the experiences of Moose, the chair of Ohio LinuxFest 2012 are typical, instead of relaxing after your efforts, you may find yourself answering second-guessing from not-so-closet sexists.”
  • If Programming Language Articles Were People: “Imagine you’re a female developer and you read this article. What do you think reading it? Do you think “Ha ha. You’re right! Programming languages are totally like women”. Or do you think “Oh, right, thanks. I forgot for a second there that I’m not really one of the normal developers, I’m just a woman who happens to also write some code. Appreciate the reminder”.”
  • Gender Bias and the Sciences: Facing Reality: “It’s easy for science faculty members, convinced of their own high ethical standards, to assume that gender discrimination lies outside of their actions: earlier in the pipeline; in other fields; at other types of institutions. I found myself, as a former dean of natural sciences at a liberal arts college, reacting to these studies in just that way.”
  • Stacked: To be a woman and speak your mind: “But there is something particularly tricky in being a woman and expressing an opinion. It’s difficult to hold your ground, to push back against what other people tell you or suggest you should do or say or think or behave. It’s risky to be assertive and stand up for yourself. Because no matter what, your words and your actions are scrutinized on the basis of your being a woman. It’s not always obvious though. It’s incredibly subtle, and that’s why it’s so problematic. People who want to silence you don’t do so by wielding an ax. They do it by asking you to “keep quiet” so you don’t “cause trouble.” Code for, if you don’t say what’s on your mind, there won’t be any incident.”
  • Why It Sucks to Be a Woman in the Video Game Industry: “#1reasonwhy posters of both genders have done an admirable job of calling out how sexism makes it harder—and sometimes impossible—for women gamers to make games that they would want to play. A number of female engineers and artists noted that simply joining in on the hashtag and tweeting about the problem felt like a risky career move. But woman-repelling workplaces aren’t just bad for the game industry’s female employees; they are bad business, too. While the industry continues to cater to the supposed interests of teenage boys, those boys make up just 18 percent of the game-playing crowd—30 percent of gamers are adult women, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and they are the industry’s fastest-growing demographic.”
  • Solving the Pipeline Problem: “There’s a solution that addresses these issues: meritocratic selection. It’s not a game of quotas; it’s quite the opposite. Indeed, we picked the speakers we thought had the best stories and would be the most engaging presenters. We didn’t rule out any candidates for being white or men, and we didn’t favor women or people of color. Instead, we used a handful of principles to guide us: transparent process, blind selection, proactive outreach and enlisting help. Here’s how they played out.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious 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.

Elementary my dear linkspam (26 October, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious 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.