Tag Archives: research

Intersectional Types: a new mailing list for programming languages researchers and research-curious

This is a guest post by Chris Martens, a programming languages researcher who recently got her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University; she research-blogs at lambdamaphone.blogspot.com.

STEM academia falls behind the broader “women in tech” movements in several respects, most notably in the sense that we don’t have many spaces (i.e. backchannels) to discuss, organize, and seek advice in situations that are unique to academia, while still arising from the usual structural oppression systems. In recent years, the Lambda Ladies group for women in functional programming has been a great example of a group that serves this purpose for participation in industry and open source, which opened my eyes to what academia has been sorely missing.

Meanwhile, from where I stand within programming languages (PL) research, I am seeing more and more women showing up (though usually white, cis women), more trans people coming out, other queer people speaking up, and people of color (who sometimes inhabit several of those identities) struggling for a voice. While each of these groups and intersections faces their own challenges to integrating with a largely white/cishet/male academic community, I believe the time is ripe for us to organize and talk to each other about those challenges, to build a space of our own for social as well as research discussions.

As a starting point for our field, I started a mailing list back in May of this year, called Intersectional Types.

Currently, the mailing list traffic is very light (averaging less than one message per day), and thread topics have been things like approaching organizers of conferences about diversity issues, calls for participation and service on committees, dependently-typed programming, and favorite female role models.

In general, the list has the following purpose, as summarized at the above link:

In some ways, this list should be considered just another research list, such as the TYPES forum. This space can be used for research questions, literature guidance, starting collaborative efforts, introductions and updates to current research projects, open-ended philosophical questions about grand research visions, links to blog posts/papers, announcement of CFPs and job postings, announcements of achievements and breakthroughs.

In addition, this list is a response to a problem: that PL research communities have a really hard time attracting, retaining, and especially *valuing* people who are marginalized in society. This problem is in no way unique to PL, but the purpose of this list is to bring together folks with similar enough research interests that we can provide each other support that’s meaningful within the context of our specific field.

Some specific examples of activity we encourage, but don’t see on traditional research fora, are: requests for career mentorship and advice (especially along an academic career track); requests for feedback on papers and blog posts; giving (remote) practice talks; organizing local meetups and events; posting about mentorship programs, fellowships, summer schools, and other opportunities; venting about the ways our environments are unwelcoming and dysfunctional; and discussing how we ourselves can create more welcoming and supportive environments when we are in positions of leadership.

Other details, such as who’s welcome to join, moderator contact information, and the code of conduct, can be found on the list description page. In particular, we encourage new members who have some degree of experience with PL as a topic (e.g. a course or self-instruction) but may not work formally within the academic system, whether that’s a “not yet” situation or a “probably never” situation, especially if structural oppression systems influence that situation.

Finally, I want to add a call to other academic feminists to consider searching for and starting explicitly political backchannels like this one within your field. There may be more people out there who are like you, frustrated in the ways you are frustrated, or merely different in the ways that you are different. The first step toward change is often feeling less alone in wanting it.

Book Club: What should we read next?

Attention constant readers! It’s time to choose our next book!

Here are three candidates, two fiction novels and one research paper:

Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy

will be published 6 October 2015; 368 pages

I’ve pre-ordered this final book in the Ancillaryverse trilogy and will be eager to talk about it with other geek feminists starting, probably, on October 7th. Protagonist Breq used to be a starship, connected instantly to multiple bodies, and hasn’t quite gotten used to being singly embodied. I think the first book in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice, integrated fist-punching-related adventure with flashbacks and thinky conversations and interstellar intrigue and music really well. It’s about power and institutions, about the lived difference between true mutual aid and imperialism, and about how to be loyal to imperfect institutions and imperfect people. And explosions.

Ancillary Sword, the middle book, shifted settings to concentrate on one spaceship near one station orbiting one planet, helping us compare societies that are functional, dysfunctional, and broken. Leckie compares othering, oppression, and possibilities for resistance across urban and plantation settings. And I utterly bawled at one character’s soliloquy on the way to her doom, and at tiny hopeful steps of mutual understanding and community empowerment. Also, again, explosions.

Here’s the first chapter of book three, and in case that’s not enough, here’s some fanfic based on books one and two.

The Ancillaryverse is scifi that argues with other scifi; you can see the Radchaai as Borg (ancillaries), or as Federation (per the “root beer” and Eddington/Maquis critiques from Deep Space Nine), and you can see Justice of Toren as literally the ship who sang (see the comments in Leckie’s post here, around the novels’ feminist lineage). I’m looking forward to seeing more of Leckie’s conversation with other speculative fiction, to more critiques, and more explosions.

Photo of Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle. Photo by jeanbaptisteparis, CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert, “Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete”

published 1991; about 31 pages

Sociologist, psychologist, and technology researcher Turkle authored this paper with constructionist education researcher Papert, and reading it gave me new language for thinking about me as a programmer:

Here we address sources of exclusion determined not by rules that keep women out, but by ways of thinking that make them reluctant to join in. Our central thesis is that equal access to even the most basic elements of computation requires an epistemological pluralism, accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking….

“Hard thinking” has been used to define logical thinking. And logical thinking has been given a privileged status that can be challenged only by developing a respectful understanding of other styles where logic is seen as a powerful instrument of thought but not as the “law of thought.” In this view, “logic is on tap, not on top.”….

The negotiational and contextual element, which we call bricolage….

Our culture tends to equate soft with feminine and feminine with unscientific and undisciplined. Why use a term, soft, that may begin the discussion of difference with a devaluation? Because to refuse the word would be to accept the devaluation. Soft is a good word for a flexible and nonhierarchical style, open to the experience of a close connection with the object of study. Using it goes along with insisting on negotiation, relationship, and attachment as cognitive virtues….

I appreciated the case studies of programmers and their approaches and frustrations, the frameworks analyzed and suggested (e.g., relational and environmental), and the connections to other feminist researchers such as Carol Gilligan. If you feel like your approach to engineering makes you countercultural, you might like this piece too. Here’s a plain HTML version of the paper, and here’s a PDF of the paper as originally typeset and footnoted.

Cover of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown

published 1 September 2015; 384 pages

Author Zen Cho’s speculative and historical fiction foregrounds the perspective of women of color, specifically the Malaysian diaspora; she has non-US-centric views on diversity which I find both disorienting and refreshing to read! You can read the first chapter of her first novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, for free online. It’s a fast-moving period fantasy with a bunch of women and people of color. The blurb:

Zacharias Wythe, England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, is contending with attempts to depose him, rumours that he murdered his predecessor, and an alarming decline in England’s magical stocks. But his troubles are multiplied when he encounters runaway orphan Prunella Gentleman, who has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries.

I’d love to discuss themes in this feminist Malaysian-British author’s work with other geek feminists. In her postcolonial historical romance novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, her short story collection Spirits Abroad, and in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho depicts adventurous, mercenary, or blasé women who use, disregard, or otherwise play with expectations of femininity. She illustrates how both mundane and magical institutions use gatekeeping to prop up their own status hierarchies, and how that affects people trying to make their way in. Intersectionality, diaspora and immigration, the culture of British education, and queer relationships also appear in Cho’s stories over and over.

if you read The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo then you might be forewarned of the kind of genre switchup Cho is doing — I definitely see Prunella Gentleman prefigured in Jade Yeo. I particularly like that, in Sorcerer to the Crown, Cho writes in a genre that often has kind of a slow tempo, and moves the speed up so there are more exciting plot developments per page, and adds more Wodehouse-y shenanigans and off-the-rails conversations, without ever sliding into unbelievable-silly-farce-romp or territory. And there’s a spoiler I badly want to talk about with other people of color!

Something else altogether

You tell me! Let’s try to wrap up voting by Wednesday October 7th.

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

Feminist tech demos: menstruation, harassment, an erotic wearable, and more

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

On Friday, I interviewed feminist technologists at a demo showcase in New York City. (Thanks to NYC Media Lab (a higher education-city government-industry partnership) for giving me a press pass to their 2015 annual summit.)

Patchworked Venus

Joelle Fleurantin presented Patchworked Venus, “A wearable exploring how computing has given birth to a new form of sexual intimacy”. See the embedded video below for a demo.

Patchworked Venus: Erotic Haptic Device Preview from Joelle F. on Vimeo.

Ms. Fleurantin, (MPS ’15, NYU ITP), discussed her design with me, explaining that instead of being a phallic accessory like a lot of other erotic devices, Patchworked Venus emphasizes other erogenous zones. Her artist’s statement asks:

How can an erotic device become a tool for body modification: an extension of the user rather than a facsimile of an external, imagined person? And what then becomes of this augmented wearer, specifically when her body is not raceless like those present in dominant representations of the cyborg?

Patchworked Venus explores these questions by casting an intimate experience within the context of dress as performance.

The garment, in contrast to conventional vibrators, is meant to be worn, and uses heat, compression, and touch on the wearer’s back, inner thighs, and nipples. A warm circuit provides heat over the breast, motors like those used for haptic response in mobile phones give the user a sensation of touch on the back and the inner thighs, and an inflatable jacket and hood literally embrace the wearer with a pneumatic actuating system, providing a pleasant feeling of compression and constriction. She “designed and milled breakout boards for use with the Adafruit Flora” (from her “About” page). Ms. Fleurantin also considered using soft robotics and lithography to give the wearer a sensation of breath on the skin, but decided against it since that approach would require a large, loud air compressor.

A close-up of some circuitry on the Patchworked Venus garment.

A close-up of some circuitry on the Patchworked Venus garment.

Check out her ten-minute thesis presentation for more on the Erotic Haptic Device and Patchworked Venus. In it, Ms. Fleurantin discusses her influences and process, including her upbringing as a black woman, learning from her mother how important self-presentation, grooming, and clothing were. I noted down some names and links from that presentation and from my conversation with her on Friday:

(I had previously known Ms. Fleurantin because of her work on user research for the Mozilla wiki; I’ll be curious to see her next project as well!)


I spoke with Lucy M. Bonner and tried out her immersive harassment simulator “Compliment”. Ms. Bonner (MFA Design and Technology ’16, Parsons the New School for Design) developed “Compliment,” a virtual reality experience using the Oculus Rift, and you can see a demo video on YouTube if you sign in.

From her artist’s statement:

Compliment is an immersive experience of street harassment designed and created for the Oculus Rift. It demonstrates the fact that harassment creates an atmosphere of intimidation and tension for women on a daily basis, that it is not ok, and that it is not a compliment. Compliment conveys the forceful intrusion and violation of space and attention that makes a woman feel vulnerable, angry, and silenced in order to raise awareness and effect change.

Ms. Bonner received much more street harassment when she moved from Houston to New York City, and used those catcalls she heard in real life to populate the set of harassing comments that simulated harassers say to the player. She appreciates how virtual reality lets her offer, say, a 6-foot-2-inches man a way to experience the world as a shorter, more vulnerable person. “Many of the harassers in the experience are much larger than the player, which creates part of the sense of danger and intrusion in confrontations.” Also: “Players are unable to respond, as in the real world with concern for safety, and are forced to constantly hear and dodge unwanted attention.”

I mentioned to Ms. Bonner a truism I’ve heard (via Adria Richards or Lukas Blakk, I believe) that men tend to use augmented reality experiences like Google Glass to more powerfully navigate the world, while women tend to use them to document their experience in the world. Ms. Bonner wouldn’t put “Compliment” in that latter category, and not just because VR and augmented reality are different approaches; she considers “Compliment” more outwardly focused, showing other people what her experience is like rather than concentrating on gathering proof of the experience itself. “Compliment” conveys, as she puts it, the “cumulative atmosphere of silencing and objectification”.

Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth present d.Bot

Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth present d.Bot


I spoke with Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth about their quite different simulator, d.Bot. “Drawing from female experiences in online and offline dating, d.bot is a chatbot that simulates conversing with an unenlightened male.” Ms. Chin and Mr. Collinsworth (MFA in Design & Technology ’16, The New School) used JavaScript, socket.io, and Parse to develop d.Bot, and made it partially to test out a theory about a different approach to artificial intelligence than you often see. Rather than aiming for a predictive response, d.Bot is trying to stimulate a particular response in the human user. You can try it out at http://bit.ly/dBot.

A demo session with d.Bot

A demo session with d.Bot

Ms. Chin said that it’s been nice to be able to use things guys have said to her, and that hearing or seeing new annoying messages, she figures, it’s going into the pot. (This includes a comment a guy said to her during fair setup, just before I arrived.) You can also click the “Feed Me” button to add something a guy has said to you, if you’d like to add more quotes to the database.

Mr. Collinsworth hopes d.Bot will help men experience what women experience, both online and in the physical world; any one guy saying uncreative things doesn’t experience what it’s like to hear those same comments frequently and en masse. In that vein, he suggested that perhaps Tinder could show users an originality score as they type messages to other users, flagging likely boring messages and discouraging users from sending them.

Ms. Chin said that she’s seen other critique of boring or harassing men (street harassers and OKCupid and Tinder users) that’s more in a name-and-shame mode, and that she wonders whether a critique in the form of humor around originality and creativity would be more likely to change the player’s behavior, as opposed to dinging a user and saying “you’re a bad person”. For her and for other d.Bot users, the bot is also a fun way to vent — she said she’s seen women happy to finally have a chance to talk back to these messages in a safe, consequence-free sandbox.

I asked for her thoughts on feminist dating apps like Bumble, and we discussed the possibility that Bumble (in which women can and men cannot initiate conversation) is just moving the problem a little further down the road; instead of screening out men at the stage of initial online conversation, het women might find that they go on more dates with men who don’t interact well.


Monica Raffaelli presenting SHVRK

Monica Raffaelli presenting SHVRK

Monica Raffaelli presented “SHVRK”: “Surf the crimson wave with fewer fatalities”. Users can sign up to get text message alerts of their friends’ menstrual cycles. Below is her SHVRK v1.0 demo video.

Ms. Raffaelli (MS Integrated Digital Media ’16, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering) and I spoke a little on Friday, and then she answered my questions on SHVRK, her influences, and her feminism via email:

There are apps for women to track women’s cycles, and there are apps for men to track what they don’t like about women’s cycles. The former often have pastel palettes, cute logos, and an emphasis on fertility and pregnancy. The latter have a handful of angry responses from the feminist community.

As long as bodily fluids and excretions are taboo, periods will be taboo. The app was never meant to change anybody’s views of leftover uterine lining. That said, the divisive nature of the current apps on the market doesn’t offer many people the opportunity to level the playing field. What we need is an app with an interface with universal appeal. We need an app that doesn’t perpetuate traditional stereotypes, but educates and facilitates. We need an app that makes the monthly inconvenience a little more convenient.

I’ve tried apps with features I didn’t need. I don’t need help getting pregnant, I don’t need to share my uterine woes with a community of empathetic blood sisters, and I don’t need cute puppies to guide me through reminders to hydrate. What I do need is an app that alerts my man to the state of my hormones. What about the men who don’t care about the difference between pads and tampons, ovulation versus menstruation, or what PMS really stands for? Well, I don’t blame them­­I’m not sure I would care for the details either if I didn’t go through it monthly.

The first steps were figuring out what would make a man WANT to use the same period app as a woman. My favorite answers were from the “make me a sandwich” types of guys. If this could get you laid, would you use the app? But of course.

Who is this app for? This is for women who like men, men who like women, and women who like women. This is for the monogamous and polyamorous. This is for the people with a sense of humor. This app is for those who say “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die.” This is for anybody who has ever been cockblocked by a period.

“…why you made SHVRK (including your dissatisfactions with other services and apps)…”

My shark week isn’t a big deal. In fact, I usually forget about it, and that’s why I started to use the apps. These would give me a heads up, and I realized, you know who else could use these updates? My boyfriend. When the conversation comes up, he tries to either be understanding or a comedian. He cares, but he’ll never really get it. Why not give him just the information he needs without framing it in etiquette and small talk?

My research showed that there were tons of apps for men. They seemed to have exploded between 2008 and 2010, and most of them enraged the feminist community. Could it be possible to make one app that could appeal to those menstruating as well as those not menstruating?

“…what technologies you used to make it…”

The graphite pencil. Illustrator, After Effects, and the rest of the Adobe suite. Started playing around with a bit of this and that for the final product, from PHP to Swift… This is a lot of learning as I go.

“…what some next steps are…”

Step 1: iOS or Android? Step 2: Launch.

“…your feminism and the ways in which the project is feminist…”

Feminism can be a scary word. Every female in this society develops a relationship with it, and that makes it a weighty, frustrating, and complex matter. Feminism is a spectrum. We might avoid it all costs, or we embrace our own definition, or we embody someone else’s interpretation without realizing it. That’s about all I can say about ‘feminism’.

I want to bid farewell to man­bashing and figurative bra­burning. There are too many women in the world with no access to proper hygiene products and women who are cast out of their homes during that time of the month, but there are also too many man­bashers and bra­burners here fighting a fight that’s been fought here. What if we take another approach to understanding the difference between men and women in the little world of people with smartphones and access to clean running water?

In April, Leslee Udwin visited NYU for a special screening of her film ​India’s Daughter. There are two relevant memorable moments from that night. The first was when Leslee Udwin said she set out to answer ‘why men rape’. The second was when I asked if she had found her answer, and she responded that she expected the men she interviewed to be monsters. She expected them to be textbook psychopaths. What she found was that they were just humans like you and me. They were not ‘bad apples’ spoiling the barrel. The barrel was bad.

There are bad apple feminists the same way there are bad apple chauvinists. SHVRK is not about redefining ‘man’ or ‘woman’, but about leveling the playing field between unique individuals like you and me, ​so we don’t have to hear “Are you PMSing? Are you on your period?”

“…​and what or who some of your influences are.​”

Leslee Udwin is pretty amazing, but here I have to officially say Happenstance. Nothing goes up on a pedestal like happenstance. Letting the cards fall as they may is magical and always a little mysterious. Let it lead the way.

And more

I concentrated in this piece on discussing demos from the summit that particularly spoke to me on a feminist level, but I saw women technologists presenting many projects you might find interesting for other reasons. StackedUp uses AI for investigative reporting. NEW YOARK is an augmented reality mobile app that emphasizes the diversity of languages spoken in New York City. Bullet Pointe Lab designs and makes innovative clothes for ballet dancers, such as shorts with heating elements to help warm hips so they can open more fully. I saw multiple more clothing-related apps, natural language processing research, a tool to help you analyze your own social media activity, and a Twitter bot and collaborative storytelling and coding project telling the stories of people incarcerated at the Rikers Island correctional facility. On my way out the door, I spoke to one of the event staffers, a woman who’s working on Haveyouseenthem.org, a project to use the web and stickers on milk cartons to raise awareness of missing Central American and Mexican migrants.

Thanks again to NYC Media Lab and to the innovators who spoke with me.

Let’s Talk to the Men This Time: Combating Online Harassment

Today we’re featuring two separate guest posts, both about online harassment. Stay tuned for the second one!

This is a guest post from Alice Marwick, PhD. Dr. Marwick is the Director of the McGannon Center for Communication Research and is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

Over the last two years, gendered online harassment has finally been recognized as a significant issue. High-profile cases of women doxed, attacked, or shamed in public, often those speaking out about sexism, highlight the ways in which the technical affordances of the internet enable systemic persecution. The same technologies which allow for positive collaboration and creativity can—and are—used to threaten, provoke, and hector journalists, bloggers, software developers, activists, or even just random people online with disturbing regularity.

This is a difficult problem to solve. The desire to harass women is not a virus spread by the internet that strikes individuals at random. Instead, it’s fueled by very real, and very complicated, underpinnings of structural misogyny (and, often, racism, homophobia, and classism as well) that affect who gets harassed. During the panic over cyberbullying a few years ago, LGBT activists implored the press to remember that implementing anti-bullying campaigns without addressing larger issues of trans- and homophobia ignored the underlying issues. I’m currently working to do something similar with gendered online harassment.

Many well-meaning people are proposing a host of legal and technical solutions, from eliminating online anonymity, to reinforcing anti-harassment statutes currently on the books, to increasing moderation in online communities. Some of these solutions may work, and some may not. But I share the EFF’s concerns; we shouldn’t use gendered online harassment, as awful as it is, to chip away at protections for online speech. Online anonymity is frequently used by activists, domestic violence survivors, and sexual minorities as a protective tactic. And companies like Facebook and Reddit, who are not legally required to actively patrol harassment on their platforms, have shown themselves unwilling to invest in greater moderation or content regulation.

Even given all these suggestions, we still have very little information both about why people choose to harass others—and, more broadly—why men adopt, adhere to, and spread sexist and misogynist views. You’d think the latter would have been extensively researched in the 1970s, but it seems to have been barely studied at all. I (and two PhD-level research assistants) have been unable to find any major studies identifying motivations for men adopting sexist views, let alone motivations for harassing women, whether that be sexual harassment, street harassment, or online harassment. (I would be extremely happy if you could comment with any studies you may know of and I can be proven wrong). But this is the missing piece. Without understanding why people are harassing others online, we cannot accurately solve this problem.

So I’m posting this to ask for a favor. A project I’m involved with is currently up for a People’s Choice Award in the fifth Digital Media and Learning grant competition (called the Trust Challenge). Together with another professor at Fordham, Gregory Donovan—who’s worked extensively with diverse groups of young people in NYC on other participatory research projects—we’re hoping to study harassers with the collaboration of young women who’ve been harassed. We think it’s extremely important to involve victims of online harassment to avoid the paternalism that often comes into play when creating solutions to help young women. The information and expertise provided by a focus group of young, diverse New York City area women will help us understand where this harassment takes place, what it looks like, and how to combat it. It will also inform the second half of the project. We hope to identify, contact, and interview people online who have harassed others. From these people, we want to understand motivations. Is it for the lulz? Do they identify as trolls? Is it because they subscribe to a Men’s Rights ideology? Is it a way to let out aggression? With the information we learn from both groups, we hope to create best practices for tech companies and legislators to design any strategies to combat harassment. We hope to include not solely harassment for being feminist, but harassment for merely existing as a woman online—especially a woman of color, a queer woman, or someone with an intersectional perspective.

Please vote for our project on the DML website. It takes a second—just click the heart—and it gets us one step closer to getting this project fully funded. We’re asking for money to support summer funding for both of us, a semester off for Gregory so he can devote himself to the project, incentives for our participants, and a grad student to help out with the project. We hope that you’ll agree that this project is worth funding.

(We also encourage you to check out FemTechNet’s project which focuses on creating educational content to combat harassment of feminists specifically).

Quick hit: Simply Secure, a new nonprofit promoting usable security, is hiring a research director and an operations manager

Simply Secure is a new non-profit that focuses on helping the open source community do a better job at security. Their focus is on adding usable security technology on top of existing, already-widely-adopted platforms and services, and their advisory board includes Wendy Seltzer, Cory Doctorow, and Angela Sasse, among others. (Full disclosure: I went to college with the executive director and founder, Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody.)

They are hiring for two full-time positions right now: a research director/associate director with some mix of practical experience and formal education in security and UX design (sufficient experience compensates for a lesser degree of formal education), and an operations manager who will write grants and manage finances. Simply Secure strongly encourages applications from populations under-represented in the technology industry. For both positions, experience with and/or enthusiasm for open source is desirable but not required. Simply Secure is located in the US in Philadelphia and is actively recruiting candidates who work remotely.

To apply, visit their jobs page!

Linkspam is the mind-killer (1 July 2014)

Facebook’s emotion study and research ethics:

  • Facebook Manipulated 689,003 Users’ Emotions For Science | Kashmir Hill at Forbes (June 28): “Facebook’s data scientists manipulated the News Feeds of 689,003 users, removing either all of the positive posts or all of the negative posts to see how it affected their moods. If there was a week in January 2012 where you were only seeing photos of dead dogs or incredibly cute babies, you may have been part of the study. Now that the experiment is public, people’s mood about the study itself would best be described as ‘disturbed.'”
  • Facebook unethical experiment : It made news feeds happier or sadder to manipulate people’s emotions. | Katy Waldman at Slate (June 28): “Facebook’s methodology raises serious ethical questions… ‘If you are exposing people to something that causes changes in psychological status, that’s experimentation,’ says James Grimmelmann, a professor of technology and the law at the University of Maryland. ‘This is the kind of thing that would require informed consent.'”
  • Facebook and Engineering the Public | Zeynep Tufecki at Medium (June 29): “I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as ‘the world we live in’. That is the key strength of independent academia: we can speak up in spite of corporate or government interests.”
  • Did Facebook and PNAS violate human research protections in an unethical experiment? | David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine (June 30): “As tempting of a resource as Facebook’s huge amounts of data might be to social scientists interested in studying online social networks, social scientists need to remember that Facebook’s primary goal is to sell advertising, and therefore any collaboration they strike up with Facebook information scientists will be designed to help Facebook accomplish that goal. That might make it legal for Facebook to dodge human subjects protection guidelines, but it certainly doesn’t make it ethical.”

Spammy spam:

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.

Message In A Linkspam (28 December 2013)

  •  Gender-based Citation Disparities | Abby Olena, The Scientist (12 Dec 2013): “Researchers have looked at citations across disciplines by gender and demonstrated that female scientists publish less and receive fewer citations than their male counterparts around the world. The analysis was published as a comment in Nature this week (December 11).”
  • The tech industry’s woman problem: Statistics show it’s worse than you think | Lauren Bacon, QUARTZ (7 Nov 2013): “One of the most frustrating things about the tech industry’s woman problem is the paucity of reliable data on the number of women working in technical roles. Now, thanks to a public Google spreadsheet created by Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, we have data on how many women engineers work at 84 different tech companies. […] The numbers, while preliminary, are revealing: tech companies employ an average of 12.33% women engineers.”
  • RobotsConf: The Future of Tech Events | Voodoo Tiki God (13 Dec 2013): “Most conference organizers complain that getting a single non-male speaker is “impossible”, especially for a first time event, but with RobotsConf I can confidently say that it is not impossible and to be honest not even that hard. We derived our speaker list through an open call for makers followed by a blind selection process and it was admittedly accidental that we came to the ratio we did.”
  • Paul Graham Says Women “Haven’t Been Hacking For the Past 10 Years” | Nitasha Tiku, VALLEYWAG (27 Dec 2013): “On display in an interview with Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham is the clearest picture of Silicon Valley’s unacknowledged sexism to ever find its way in print. […] Given a chance to defend himself and Y Combinator – an accelerator often credited alongside Stanford as a gravitational force in the startup ecosystem – Graham instead exposed hidden assumptions about women and technology shared by Silicon Valley’s priesthood.”
  • How a Developer Learned Not to Be Racist and Sexist | Epicodus (12 Dec 2013): “I’m a developer. A few years ago, I moved to a new city and met some new friends who talked about racism and sexism more than I had ever thought about before. At first I was uncomfortable and didn’t like a lot what they were saying – and I definitely didn’t like when they told me something I said was racist or sexist. Then I remembered that I’m a developer, and I’m good at figuring out unfamiliar systems.”

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Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Quick hit: Programming Languages Mentoring Workshop, January 2014

I don’t have the hard data at hand, but my impression of the field of computer science that I did my graduate work in and continue to apply in my career — programming languages — is that it’s unusually homogeneous, even for computer science. I’ve written before on this blog about some of the consequences of gender inequality in programming languages research; things are not much less dire with respect to racial and cultural diversity.

One upcoming opportunity to get help with getting started in the field, for both graduate students and serious undergraduate students, is the Programming Languages Mentoring Workshop (PLMW). In 2014, PLMW will be co-located with POPL (the ACM SIGPLAN-SIGACT Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages), in San Diego, California, USA in January. The deadline to register for PLMW is December 10, and the ACM is making some funding available for students to attend PLMW and POPL, including travel costs.

POPL is probably the most prestigious conference on programming language theory, and I can say from experience that many (if not most) of the talks at POPL tend to be not exactly geared to a novice audience. When I attended POPL 2008 in San Francisco, one of the custodians at the hotel where the conference was taking place asked me, out of the blue, “What’s this conference about? With most conferences that happen here, I can figure out what they’re talking about, but with this one I have no idea.”

So attending PLMW looks like a great opportunity to be reminded that you’re not the only one who doesn’t already know everything. I just wish it had existed back in the early 2000s when I could have benefited a lot from it!

A rickety-looking treehouse

Open Source, Closed Minds? A reflection on Joseph Reagle’s “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”

The GNU General Public License (GPL), Version 3

At the beginning of this year, First Monday (a longstanding, online-only academic journal) published Joseph Reagle’s article “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”. The article is the only comprehensive study I’ve seen so far of online discourse drawn from free and open-source software and data communities that focuses on attitudes towards gender and sexism.

In what follows, I examine Reagle’s presentation of two major themes: how dominant definitions of “geek identity” serve to keep communities homogeneous; and how ideologies held by open-source workers sometimes serve to justify mistreating people in the name of freedom of speech. Finally, I suggest another reason for open-source communities’ problems with diversity and equality: an economic one. I’ll use the terms “geek culture”, “open source culture”, and “hacker culture” roughly interchangeably. Not all geeks or hackers work on open-source projects, but open-source communities represent, to me, a highly valued position in the hierarchy of value subscribed to by many people who identify as geeks and/or hackers.


I had a visceral reaction to the “On being a geek” section of “Free as in sexist?” This section covers ground that is familiar to me: the obsessive, monomaniacal approach to programming that hacker culture valorizes; the relationship between this style of working and a confrontational, aggressive style of argumentation; and the relationship between geek identity and normative whiteness and maleness. (As I don’t have any special authority to speak about race or racism, I won’t discuss those issues in depth here; I recommend Mary Bucholtz’s paper “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” [PDF link], in which she argues that American nerd culture consitutes an explicit rejection by certain white youths of those aspects of American popular culture that arise from Black Americans.) Even so, the section affected me on more than just an intellectual level. As I read the quotations Reagle chose from sources such as Richard Stallman’s and Joseph Weizenbaum’s writings, as well as interviews with women studying computer science, I felt afraid and disappointed. I felt ready to get out of this field myself as fast as possible. Before I could help myself, my subconscious was already rushing ahead and reviewing the plans I’ve turned over in my head about jobs and careers that I could do that wouldn’t require me to be either a Toxic Open Source Guy, or an enabler for one.

When I was 15, sleeping in a lab and working for 20 or 30 hours at a stretch appealed to me. I wanted to lose myself in code, stop noticing my physical body because I was too engrossed in turning over abstractions in my mind. I think some part of me thought that if I got to be a competent programmer, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know how to form connections with other people or that my body was the wrong shape for me. I know now that escaping into work is not a helpful coping mechanism for me. Nowadays, I’ve exercised agency to make my body more comfortable for me; I see a therapist; and I have friends. I want to do my job reasonably well for eight hours a day and go home. I don’t want to run away from life outside the screen by immersing myself in work. I know most of the guys who do the sleep-in-the-lab, work-twenty-hours thing aren’t running away from what I was running away from. (I wonder what they are running away from.)

In Reagle’s article, I read, “Bente Rasmussen and Tove Hâpnes found female CS students who did not want be associated with the dominate [sic] identity of “key-pressers”, i.e., those who were not able to talk about anything beyond computers.” I thought — that’s me, too! I don’t want that either. I don’t think I have to quit being an open-source programmer if I want to have an identity that isn’t just about computers. But sometimes when I’m around people who do seem more like key-pressers than I am, I feel like that’s the way I have to be in order to fit in and be accepted.

Then I try to imagine what it would be like for me if on top of all of this, I felt like I had to conform to a vaguely woman-ish gender role. I didn’t know I wasn’t female until I was 18, and didn’t know I was male until I was 26, but I never felt much pressure to be what girls or women were supposed to be. On the other hand, if I was a cis woman, or even more so, if I was a trans woman (since trans women get expected to conform to gender stereotypes for women even more so than cis women are when their trans status is known), working in the industry I work in, I would have an almost impossible set of constraints to solve. As Reagle shows, success and status in open-source (and even in non-technical “free culture” communities like Wikipedia editing) are correlated with adopting a (superficially) overconfident, aggressive, argumentative persona. Women get to choose between being socially stigmatized for violating gender norms, or being ignored or mocked for violating open-source cultural norms. It’s a double bind.

Reagle quotes a passage from Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse: “‘Scary’ and ‘afraid’ are words that recur again and again.” For me, these are emotions that recur again and again when dealing with open-source culture, and when recalling the memories that reading Reagle’s article brought to mind. What strikes me, though, is that I’m almost twice the age of some of the undergrad students who Margolis and Fisher describe. When I was those students’ age, CS culture seemed safe, not scary. It was the rest of the world that was scary to me. Now, something’s changed. I think part of it is that I’ve had too many conversations with colleagues about gender politics that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless. Those interactions leave me afraid of being dismissed, dehumanized, objectified, or belittled again if I speak up. I’m also afraid of the sinking feeling that, for me, comes from being silent when I witness something I know is wrong. After a while, just walking in the door to the office seems like an entire day’s work.

Another quotation (from a social psychology journal article by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues) that stood out to me was “The profoundness of this alienation is hinted at in a recent study that found even an ‘ambient environment’ of stereotypical geeky items in a room (e.g., science fiction memorabilia and junk food) depressed female undergraduate interest in computer science.” While looking for a new place to live near my workplace in Mountain View, Ca. recently, I was browsing through rentals on AirBnB, and found a post advertising a bunk in a “hacker fortress”. I think the feeling I had when imagining living in such a place might be akin to how the women in that study felt when they saw a roomful of Star Trek figurines and Mountain Dew Code Red bottles. At 15, the summer I was doing an unpaid programming internship and drinking Jolt in the mornings, living in a “hacker fortress” would have seemed like an exciting idea (never mind the potential rape and sexual harassment that someone who looked like I did at 15 would have experienced — I probably would have dismissed that risk at the time). Now, even contemplating having to live in a place with a name like that sends my stomach dropping through the floor.

This section of Reagle’s article is valuable for showing that what I and so many others have experienced is part of a pattern; it’s not a coincidence, nor is it due to some weakness of character that we all happen to share. Women who have been involved, or tried to be involved, in free culture encounter hostility, not as a universal rule but as a recurrent pattern. It’s certainly not that Joseph Reagle is the first person to point out that free culture is systematically hostile to women — women have been saying this for a long time. But the evidence he collects is one more persuasive tool to put in the toolbox for convincing the naïve that yes, geek culture has a sexism problem. In the long term, though, we won’t have made any progress if people in the dominant group only believe women’s experiences when a male academic documents them.

It’s not just women who have been saying it, either. What Reagle doesn’t mention is that queer, trans, and genderqueer people in open-source share many of the same experiences that women do. In my opinion, like most transphobia and homophobia, that’s collateral damage from a fundamental hatred of anyone perceived as departing from a constructed heterosexual, cis male ideal — and that includes cis and trans women, as well as queer men and genderqueer and gender-creative people. (The omission of queer and gender-non-conforming people’s experiences could be due to a lack of written sources documenting it; there are various reasons why people in gender, sexual and romantic minorities might talk about their stories in a forum that lacks a permanent record.)

What makes me sad about all of this is that I still want to be around intellectually curious and playful people who are passionate about learning and making things (though, ideally, ones who don’t limit their inquiry to a single narrow specialty). I still want to have peers who inspire me to be and do more. I still love nerd humor when it isn’t mixed up with brogrammer racism and sexism. But what keeps me out of spaces that attract people like this is that I’m tired of being erased, silenced, and talked over. When I say how uncomfortable I feel when someone is engaging in homophobic hate speech at my workplace, and I’m told that it’s not hate speech or that my reaction to it isn’t real or valid, that’s stressful for me. It makes me want to disengage from the whole community. I’m tired of my female friends and colleagues getting death threats. I’m tired of being told I have a victim complex if I talk back to the abuse that gets directed at me and my friends even if nineteen out of twenty times, I’m silent about it. (It’s actually when I’m acting the least like a victim — when I’m not passively accepting whatever abuse is directed my way — that other software people shame me for “playing the victim”.)

The Mythical Manarchist-Month

While “On being a geek” was an appreciated summary of ground familiar to me, I found the “Openness” section more novel. I was pleased to see that Reagle opened the section by referring to Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, because Freeman’s article resonates with me strongly in light of last year’s troubles at Mozilla.

In my opinion, though, Reagle leaves a few dots unconnected in his discussion of “‘bad apple[s]’ and ‘poisonous people'”. If it’s really a minority of the community that (quoting our own Terri Oda) “actively hinder women’s participation by trying to derail discussions, make contributions significantly more time-consuming, or send inappropriate or even violent private messages to contributors”, then why are they allowed to effectively dominate the community by putting pressure on women to leave whenever they feel like doing so? I think it would be doing a disservice to everyone to ignore the role of the majority of male contributors in the community, who stand back and watch, who fail to exercise effective moderation in discussion forums, who lack the courage to confront other men who are being actively sexist. It is also a disservice to everyone to ignore microaggressions. The ultimate effect of death threats or a constant stream of little reminders that no one feels obligated to include you (like co-workers addressing a mixed-gender group as “guys”) is to make out-group members feel like they’re just not wanted. “Good” people (people who think of themselves as tolerant, polite, and considerate), not just toxic “bad apples”, can engage in microaggressions. And even “good” people often get unnecessarily defensive when called on behavior they weren’t aware was a problem. There’s a fine line between recognizing the disproportionate power of a small number of belligerent people in the open-source community, and using that an excuse for other people to do nothing in response.

The section titled “Ideology” is perhaps the most challenging one to the cherished beliefs of open-source participants about themselves and their role in the political economy — Reagle tallies up a damning list of open-source idols (Stallman, Raymond, Wales…) and their Randian beliefs that would be amusing if we weren’t talking about men who so many people take seriously. Reagle’s insights on how an anarcho-libertarian ideology lends itself neatly to justifying the rightness of the existing gendered power structure are sorely needed. But again, I think he could have gone a bit further. The thing about freedom, at least the way it manifests today in open-source communities, is that it looks a lot like freedom from accountability, without freedom from the very real constraints that burden the many. It’s free as in freedom, not free as in beer, but I’ve started to hear “free as in free from consequences” when I hear open-source people use “free speech” as a reason to be abusive. It’s customary in both open-source and closed-source programming to use the legal mechanisms of licensing and copyright to absolve oneself of all consequences resulting from bugs in one’s software, as per the quotation from the GPL that I opened with. This is not where I want to debate the merits of that approach to the profession of engineering — I do want to ask what happens, though, when a programmer extends that approach to licensing into his personal life. What happens to a community when many of the individuals in it assert their right to “free speech” and thereby claim entitlement to shift responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Typically, when people feel entitled to make others pay the cost for their choices, the people who end up paying are people who the underlying social power structure places as subordinate. I’m using the pronoun “his” because people who are not socially recognized as men (specifically, white men) simply lack the power to do this.

One example of this freedom from consequences is the refrain that so many of us who speak out have heard, over and over, from our colleagues: “Have I offended you? Then the problem is that you’re so easily offended. Your feelings are your responsibility, and I have no obligation to not offend you. No one has the right to not be offended, and anyway, I’m an equal-opportunity offender, so if other people can take the heat, why can’t you? It must be because there’s something wrong with you. You really ought to lighten up, take a joke, get a sense of humor, not let those words have so much power over you, be less sensitive.” (The routine has become so standardized that Derailing for Dummies, as well as the Geek Feminism Wiki, catalog it.) How can these incantations of emotional blame-shifting be unrelated to the disclaimer of responsibility that appears in the GPL and other software licenses? If what characterizes the professional culture of software engineering is our refusal to own our work, what characterizes the after-hours culture of programmers is a refusal to own our words. It’s a culture of solipsism that makes minority group members into objects, designating people in the out-group as dumping grounds for the majority’s animus and need to mock the less powerful. Demanding that another person “be less sensitive” is rude, yet gets treated as polite. And because already-privileged people who make such demands get rewarded further (beginning with social acceptance), there’s little incentive for them to practice empathy.

The egocentrism I’m talking about isn’t just about dynamics between men and women. For example, Linus Torvalds’ public verbal abuse of Linux kernel contributors is an example of how open source culture also tolerates abuse directed by men at other men. (Sometimes it doesn’t just tolerate it, but even encourages it, as when bystanders comment “well, assholes get things done.”) Social hierarchies and displays of dominance are certainly alive and well in how men interact with each other; and because hackers often define themselves as beings of pure rationality and logic, they rationalize these hierarchies as “necessary” for “getting things done”. (I think we could also “get things done” if we recognized and accepted that as humans, we frequently act for emotional rather than purely “logical” reasons — and maybe even if we accepted that the dichotomy between emotion and reason is a false one.) That, however, does not mean that verbal abuse between men is just as intense for the recipient as verbal abuse directed at women by men. It doesn’t mean that verbal abuse between men gets excused as easily as abuse directed as women. And it doesn’t mean that there as just as many opportunities for a man to exploit another man’s vulnerabilities as for men to put women in their place. It could hardly be otherwise, given the wealth of experiences that women bring to interactions with men, of internalized messages that (even for those women who have worked hard to unlearn them) tell them that they deserve whatever abuse they get, that they really had it coming. It’s not that abuse is ever acceptable when directed at anyone of any gender. Rather, it’s that being punched in the face feels more intense than being tapped on the shoulder.

Ultimately, we have to ask whether the freedom to abuse people is one of the freedoms we value. Richard Stallman himself identified four freedoms when it comes to software: “the freedom to run the software, for any purpose”; “The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish”; “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor”; “The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.” (He notes that for the second and fourth freedoms, access to the source code is a prerequisite.) The freedom to be an asshole does not appear on this list. Rather, these values point to inclusivity (the freedom to run the software, as in: to be included in the community of people who get to use it) and altruism (helping your neighbor; helping the community by distributing a better version). (Perhaps the inclusivity part is a bit of a stretch — the freedom to participate does not explicitly appear, which may say something about what Stallman took for granted.)

Decades before, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about another set of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How often do you hear stereotypically privileged open-source guys talk about freedom from fear? As I’ve discussed, much of the dialogue that happens when hacker culture talks about diversity and inclusion is about laughing off the idea that anyone else’s fears might be reasonable. Likewise, techno-libertarianism has very little room for a discussion about freedom from want. There isn’t much time and space in hacker culture for freedom of worship, either — especially when you take a broad view of what “freedom of worship” means and interpret as freedom to believe in things that can’t be proven with logical rules from empirical facts (like the dignity and worth of each human being), without being punished for it through ostracism or in any other way.

In either case, “freedom to treat other people as if they don’t have feelings, or as if their feelings don’t matter” is not on the list. (Thanks to Leigh Honeywell for pointing out Stallman’s and Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and the parallels between them, to me.)

Diversity as Devaluation

I want to ask a question outright that Reagle at best hints at: Is the very nature of open-source, its fundamental ideologies and values, inherently bound up with the insulation of oneself from the collaborative social project of making progress towards equality?

Maybe the whole system by which people produce free and open-source software is designed to provide the same sort of cozy lifestyle that one can find by being a programmer writing proprietary software, but without all those nagging structures of accountability that one finds in the corporate world. Like policies against harassment and discrimination. It’s true that companies adopt those to protect themselves against lawsuits, not to be morally correct, but they do protect people. And open source is a world without that protection. Maybe comparing open-source and corporate proprietary software is the best experiment one can do to determine what measures attract or repel participation by women. We know that open-source projects have an even more lopsided gender balance, as a general rule, than proprietary projects mainly composed of people being paid by a corporation to work on them. Can that really be a coincidence?

In a community with no formal governing structures, it’s far easier for people to take advantage of whatever privilege and power they inherit from the underlying society. One form this power takes on is that of speech acts that dehumanize and objectify people, and appeals to “freedom of speech” to immunize the speaker from the consequences of their speech.

I think that the desire to make boob jokes with impunity is not the only reason why male open-source programmers would want to keep women out, though. After all, the sexist jokes and comments that tend to engage the “free speech” defense the most are rarely funny or interesting. I think sexist jokes and comments are actually a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We know that male-dominated professions tend to be more socially prestigious and more highly paid than female-dominated or even gender-balanced professions. This can’t be an accident; men’s social over-valuation and their disproportionate participation in work that people think of as important form a positive feedback loop. For example, consider doctors and nurses: no doubt, women originally got tracked into nursing since medicine wasn’t considered an appropriate profession for a woman (gotta keep that power out of the hands of women). But even now that women have been allowed to study medicine for quite some time, nursing continues to be a lower-paid and less-praised profession, in large part (as far as I can tell) due to the significant presence of women in it.

The thing about prestige-as-male-domination is that it’s fractal. For example, within medicine, it’s common knowledge that primary care providers are likely to be women, while doctors who work in the most prestigious and highly compensated specialties (e.g. neurosurgery) are more likely to be men. Likewise, within computer science and software engineering, both of which are male-dominated as a rule, it’s harder for women to gain entry into some fields than others. Anecdotally, those fields (within academic CS) are theoretical computer science, programming languages, and operating systems. Among non-academic programmers, open-source programming (especially systems programming) occupies the role that theory, PL, and systems do within academe: looked up to and highly valued. By contrast, self-styled expert programmers tend to disdain jobs in areas like Web development and quality assurance — that’s “women’s work”, to the extent that any software jobs are. Technical writing, as an occupation, is even more looked down on and even more open to women. Perhaps that devaluation is part of a more general distaste among programmers for documentation, which could allow outsiders to glean the in-group’s secrets. Writing documentation is also a form of teaching, which is also a traditionally female-coded profession, and also a profession that’s frequently looked down on. So that’s why it’s so important for men in the high-status subdisciplines to maintain their status by making sure women don’t enter and devalue their field. Keeping women out means keeping salaries high.

(Statistics backing up what I just claimed about medicine — at least for the US — are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges (PDF link): see table 3 on page 13, “Number and Percentage of Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2007”. The only specialty that’s majority-women is pediatrics; cardiovascular disease, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and a few other specialties are over 90% men. I don’t know of any similar reports about gender distribution (and salary distribution) within different areas of the software industry, so I don’t claim to be speaking any more than informally, based on what I’ve heard over the years.)

“It’s amazing the things women did to advance computing before it advanced to the point that we learned women don’t like computing.”
Garann Means

Before computers were machines, computers were women. Most of us know that part of the story. What I know less about, personally, was the specifics of the process by which men drove women out of the profession of computing as it, well, professionalized. I can guess that white middle-class dudes saw an easy desk job that potentially would pay well, and the rest is history. Without evidence (at least not any that I have handy right now), I claim that none of this was an accident. Expelling women from computing was essential to the historical process of the professionalization of software and hardware engineering. (I know that that’s roughly how it went down with the profession of medicine, as documented by Kristin Luker in her book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood: as “scientific” medicine arose, mostly-male doctors needed a way to push mostly-female midwives off the scene, and one of the ways they did that was by inventing the supposed immorality of abortion as a wedge issue.) For many men, a job just doesn’t have as much value if it’s a job that many women do too. And numbers don’t lie: jobs in male-dominated professions literally do have more financial value than jobs in more equal or female-dominated professions.

So arguably, open source is not just a different way to produce software. It’s also an experiment in building an alternative economy for status and peer review. At the same time as for-profit companies began to look harder at how to diversify themselves, how to create policies that would protect workers from sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination, the open source movement gained more and more momentum as a way to recreate all of the good bits of being a software engineer in industry (high social status, freedom, and money) without those annoying parts like human resources departments, processes, accountability, and rules (mostly rules to protect less-powerful members of the community). I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There’s one misinterpretation of this section that I’d like to head off before it starts. I’m not suggesting that some nefarious group of patriarchs got together, had a meeting about how to exclude women, and disseminated the memo in a lockstep, hierarchical fashion. That’s not how it works. There is no intelligent designer or invisible hand that makes sexist decisions — rather, sexism is an emergent and self-reinforcing pattern that arises from the choices of many individuals. Just as organisms in nature behave in predictable ways without there being any central evolution planning committee, people who study societies have observed that groups of humans often act out predictable patterns too. Of course, sociology and anthropology have different methods and different standards of evidence than biology and physics do, but the social sciences are the only tool we have for rigorously analyzing how groups of people operate. It would be silly and anti-intellectual to discard these disciplines in favor of nothing just because they aren’t like physics.

Finally, a note if you’re asking “where does the money come from in open source?”: more than a few businesses pay engineers (often quite well) to work on open-source software for either part or all of their working hours. (I work for one of them!) In addition, open-source work is frequently a gateway to lucrative jobs and to the kind of social connections that make it possible to found startups. “Free as in freedom” doesn’t mean people work for free, and seemingly more often than not, they do anything but.


Reagle ends his meticulously researched piece with a conclusion that appeals to me as an intersectional feminist: he says that to achieve the goals of openness of diversity, we can’t just focus on openness and diversity as goals (any more, I might add, than an individual can live a happy life by resolving to strive for happiness); we can’t make things better by focusing on a single axis. Just as severe gender imbalances are a symptom of a broken community, addressing root causes will increase diversity as a side effect. But we can’t ignore gender (or race, class, sexuality, or ability), either. Responding to Kat Walsh’s writing about Wikipedia, he says, “the language of being ‘more open and diverse in general’ is problematic. Seemingly, there is no ‘in general’ yet when it comes to notions such as ‘geekiness’, ‘openness’ and ‘freedom'”. I agree — during last year’s code of conduct discussions at Mozilla, some people protested the idea of what they saw as a bureaucratic document codifying standards of behavior with “Can’t we just all be nice to each other?” But being nice, as many people construe it, includes subtly undermining the value and place in society of women and people experiencing a variety of other intersecting oppressions. Likewise, the concepts of “geekiness”, “openness”, and “freedom” will not magically lose their gendered connotations — we have to actively work at it. We can’t build a world where gender doesn’t matter by pretending we’re already there.

Hacker culture is a personal topic for me, so my own conclusions can only be personal. When I was 16, I saw geek culture as something I had to become a part of because I didn’t know any other way to be the person I needed to be. Now that I’m 32, I’m increasingly afraid that it’s something I have to leave in order to be the person I need to be. I know now what I didn’t know when I was 16: that I can be free from constant misgendering, no matter what job I do. I also know what I didn’t know then: I need to be somebody who is kind, patient, willing to admit he’s wrong, and able to make space for other people to join in. I’m not sure if that’s compatible with being in the open-source community, while also having self-respect, dignity, and a place at the table.

Where this is more than just my personal dilemma, though, is that once, I wanted passionately to write open-source code, and now it’s a struggle for me to keep going; not because the nature of the work has changed (on the contrary, it’s gotten more fun as my understanding of it has deepened and my confidence has grown), but because either the culture has changed or I’ve become more aware of its shortcomings (or both). Wouldn’t you want to know about it if you were driving away potential contributors — or forcing them into impossible trade-offs? I don’t think anyone should have to choose between doing good work they love and feeling valued and respected as a human being.

Thanks to GF contributors Leigh, Skud, Sumana and Shiny; as well as Graydon Hoare, for their comments. Thanks to Debra “Teacake” for linking me to the statistics on gender distribution in medical specialties.

ETA Wed. Feb. 6th: Joseph Reagle posted a response to the responses, which is also worth reading.