Tag Archives: research

Meritocracy? Might want to re-think how you define merit.

Rock on!
You might think if you put together a lot of smart people, you’d get a smart group, but new research into group intelligence shows that’s not always the case. (For those of you who don’t have access to online journal subscriptions through your local library or university, there are more details in the Carnegie Mellon University press release.)

What we found is that the intelligence of the team members was not significantly related to the collective intelligence, either positively or negatively.


Our first observation and the one that surprised us the most was that the proportion of females in the group seemed to be strongly predictive of the collective intelligence of the group.

However, when they looked more closely they realised that it wasn’t the gender that mattered, but rather the social sensitivity of the group members (previous studies had shown that women tend to score more highly in social sensitivity).

It’s not the intelligence of the group members that matters; it’s their social sensitivity.

So the more your group members were socially sensitive, the better the group performed in measures of collective intelligence. The key here was that group members need to collaborate, and to do that they needed those social skills to help them work together. This includes some different conversational patterns: groups where one or two people dominated conversations exhibited low collective intelligence, while groups where more people contributed had higher collective intelligence.

This scientific research is potentially a big blow to the standard “meritocracy works” theory often espoused in open source and computing groups. Standard meritocracy rules say you do clever things and you get accepted, and this will make for perfectly good teams. But given that there’s often bias that dismisses “soft skills,” it turns out that folk may actually be using typical geek meritocracy rules to weed out some of the people we need to make the group most effective as a whole.

Some of my female colleagues would like to conclude that you simply just need to hire more women. While that might be easier, what it really suggests is that you need to pay attention to what people refer to as these “softer skills” and thinking about who’s going to be a good team player, not necessarily focused solely on individual achievement, individual accomplishments.

So if you want to claim that the best way to build tech teams is meritocracy… you might want to think more carefully about how you define merit.

Rock show DS

The quotes in this article are drawn from Bob McDonald’s conversation with Dr. Anita Williams Woolley, the lead author, on the Quirks and Quarks interview aired October 9. You can download the podcast of the segment on collective intelligence here.

She Geek: Women and Self-Labeling in Online Geek Communities

Courtney is an MA student studying Victorian science fiction at Texas A&M University. She blogs about feminism, geekery, and academia at From Austin to A&M.

This post originally appeared at From Austin to A&M.

My intent in this project was to examine the labeling of female-oriented geek spaces on the internet. What I found was that self-labeling of geek women often defeats the potentially subversive act of creating a female-oriented geek community.

I would argue that the mere creation or and participation in geek communities labeled “for women” are aggressive acts towards male-dominated geek culture. One of the reasons we can see these communities as a challenge to mainstream geek culture is the still-prevailing myth of internet neutrality.

This myth argues that since we are “disembodied” on the internet, everyone begins on equal ground.

Bodies don’t matter in cyberspace. This is not how it works in real life, however, particularly in geek spaces. It is true that until you mark yourself as Other than the privileged class—male, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled, middle-class, and white—you will be assumed to be those things. However, this will not protect you from hate speech or sexist, racist, and homophobic “jokes,” since geek communities often engage in these forms of discourse. Even objecting to these discursive acts, without revealing the state of one’s own body, will immediately mark you as Other, and leave you vulnerable to harassment and denigration. By labeling their spaces as for women, female geeks challenge the neutrality myth, by making their female bodies conspicuous and by demonstrating a need for safe cyberspaces for women.

In a study of the language of male gamers playing within a Quake server, Natasha Christensen claims that

Even though the world of cyberspace allows for the possibility that gender can be transformed, men in Jeff’s Quake Server continue to relate to each other in ways which support male dominance and heterosexual male superiority. […] In the bodiless realm of cyberspace, it is fascinating to note that men who are able to create an alternate world where masculinity is defined differently do not take this opportunity. Instead, real life is mimicked not only by taking on the physical attributes of strength, but also by using ways of talk that emphasize aggression and sexual dominance.


Therefore, in the same way that sports and war help to perpetuate the concept of male dominance through physical strength, the Quake server also promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence. […] Sports and war games became a way for white middle class men to fight their fears of social feminization. At the turn of this century, online computer games are being used in the same manner. Computer geeks who are especially vulnerable to the accusations of being less than manly are able both through the actions and discourse on Quake to demonstrate the qualities required of hegemonic masculinity. Emphasis is placed on the strength of the masculine body while discourse sets the players apart from anything that is feminine.

The same patriarchal standards that put women at a disadvantage also disadvantage computer and other geeks. Often, geeks cite an experience of growing up with bullying and teasing, precisely because they do not live up to hegemonic masculinity. Instead of using cyberspace to fight against hegemonic masculinity, however, geek men often use it to buttress those standards and fulfill them discursively instead of physically. This is precisely why geek women find online geek spaces—necessarily discursive spaces—to be so unwelcoming and hostile. And it is through alternative discourse, whether blogging or forum writing or fanfiction, that women challenge this culture of hypermasculinity.

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Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

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Fashion and The Female Geek – First Steps

This is part of “Ask a Geek Feminist” series! Questions are still being taken at the Ask A Geek Feminist post – so ask away!

I’ve got some general questions regarding dress code…

I’ve never been terribly observant regarding fashion matters, but it seems to me that male geeks can get away with a much sloppier wardrobe than female geeks. Is that just my impression or have others noticed anything similar?

What’s considered a suitable professional wardrobe for front-line geek feminists trying to be taken seriously?

“…I suggest that manners and etiquette, like language and fashion, are fundamental means of communication and self-expression. And, as with language and fashion, manners and etiquette adapt effortlessly to social change.” John Morgan, introduction to Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, 2001.

On the heels (no pun intended) of my post about girls, stereotyping and the colour pink (‘Does It Mean A Thing If It ‘Ain’t Got Pink Bling? Gender Differences, Toys And The Psychology Of Color‘) – apparently Barbie’s now an engineer? Sign Of The Times: Barbie’s A Tech Geek:

Mattel put the selection of Barbie’s 125th career in the hands of online voters for the first time… To create an authentic look for techie Barbie, designers worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for the doll. She wears a binary code patterned T-shirt and is equipped with the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset and laptop travel bag.

It’s interesting that they have the endorsement of the Society of Women Engineers and National Academy of Engineering in the creation (as I look at the doll, I notice that the article forgot to also mention the vibrant pink high-heels, laptop-logo and glasses – what, no contact lenses?).

I guess I’m in favor of changes to a doll which has traditionally perpetuated a rather narrow-portrayal of women – and yet it’s still limited by its portrayal of ‘geek-chic’. The blog post title says ‘Barbie as Tech-Geek’ – why not Barbie as educated or technical-savvy? Why is one of the most popular dolls on the planet (arguably, the most popular) – still posed on her toes and biologically impossible?

And what on earth does it mean to be ‘geek-chic’ anyway? Apart from sounding rather nifty when you say it aloud?

I’m going to see if, by responding to this question by a reader, I can address not only how to be taken seriously as a ‘front-line geek feminist’ – but also how to maintain a standard of comfort that is (quite frankly) essential to a woman who has plenty of ‘geeky’ passions that occupy her time and keep her on her biologically-accurate toes.

Despite the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ – we do. Some companies do have a written dress code, some rules are unwritten and we follow the lead of senior management when considering building our wardrobe.

We’re not dolls. But we’re can’t ignore that there are eyes upon us that ponder ‘Maybe I can be like her one day – and doesn’t it look fine to be her?’

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Stompy Boots Linkspam, 12 February 2010

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Linkspam may learn math anxiety, 8 February 2010

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Quick hit: open source leadership survey

Yesterday at ApacheCon I met Yeliz Eseryel, a researcher from Groningen University who’s looking into leadership in open source projects. If you’re involved in any open source project and have a few minutes to spare, please take her survey.

The survey asks you to pick any one project you know of, and talk about the leadership of it. If you pick a project with women in leadership roles, please comment below and let us know about it. If they’re not already on the GF wiki’s list of women in free and open source software, please add them. (Yes, anyone can edit!)

You can find out more about Yeliz and her group’s research at floss.syr.edu. I noticed this on the page:

NOTE: Want to have us do research on Open Source that can contribute back to your community? Email me at yeliz2002@gmail.com and suggest areas (or questions) of Open Source that we should study. YOUR input is important.

I’ll point her at this list of research ideas from a couple of months back. If you’ve got any others please let her know!

Studies show that women evolved to linkspam (23rd September 2009)

Gender and Ohloh.net

While I was at Wikimania last week I was talking to a sociologist who is researching open source contributions. Turned out he’d never heard of Ohloh.net so I was glad to be able to introduce him to it. Ohloh, if you’re not familiar, is a site that reports on contributions to a wide range of open source projects over time, by scraping information from version control repositories. It has over 300k projects listed and almost 400k contributors.

Yesterday, when looking at Ohloh, I wondered whether we could guess anything about the gender of contributors from their user profiles there. So I set up a little experiment. Using the Ohloh API, I extracted a bunch of account data, then grabbed a small sample (100 accounts) to mess around with. (I didn’t worry too much about real randomness at this point, as it was just a proof of concept.)

Next I created a Mechanical Turk job where I asked participants to look at Ohloh profile pages and see if they could figure out the gender of the user based on username, avatar, or any other means. I got three people to look at each profile, paying 5c each, so the cost to me was 100 * 15c = $15, plus Amazon’s fee brought it to $16.50.

The results came back in about an hour. I downloaded them and ran them through a quick little Perl script. In any case where at least two of the Mech Turk workers had agreed on “Male” or “Female”, I counted the user as that gender. If the workers couldn’t agree or couldn’t tell, I counted the user as “unknown”.

My results for the test batch of 100 users:

6 female
23 male
71 unknown

Turns out it’s hard to tell gender from Ohloh profiles! Some of them are truly impossible — usernames that are just initials, for instance, and profile pages not filled out at all. And sometimes my MT workers just seemed to have odd opinions, or didn’t know much about names. For example, they all marked someone named Didier Durand as “?” although that is a common French masculine name. Similarly, someone named Pavel Shiryaev also came through as unknown, with two “?” and one “M” though Pavel is the Russian version of the masculine name “Paul”. dianelamb320 got a vote each way for “M”, “F”, and “?”, also resulting in “unknown”, though I would have guessed female. On the other hand, svpavani came through as female (two “F”, one “?”) and I can’t for the life of me figure out why, as there is nothing on the profile page to indicate it.

So… with 71% unknown, I don’t really feel this was successful enough to extend to a wider sample, given that it costs real money to do so. But I do think it was interesting that in the small and not-particularly-random sample I used, 5% were clearly feminine usernames (that is, 6% minus “svpavani”). This is considerably higher than the 1.5% of female contributors usually cited from the FLOSSPOLS survey.

What do you think? Would it be worth trying again with a larger sample? Do you have any ideas for how to get fewer “unknown” responses without compromising the data? Any other ideas on how we could mine Ohloh’s account information to learn things about gender?

Who wants to play Evolutionary Neuro Cognitive Research FAIL?

Let’s all imagine that we’re cognitive neuroscientists and we want to do some “research” about fanfic (why fanfic? nobody knows!) and see if we can get a bunch of womengurlz to support our pet theories about “the unified fabric of human desire” (whatever that is — ilithiana says plaid). Because you can totally tell stuff about brain function from hacked-together surveys on Appspot.

What will we put on our survey? Here are my questions.

1. What sex are you?
a) Man. 100% manly man. GRRR.  
b) Female. *teehee*  
c) Confused.

2. Which statement do you agree with? Choose one:
a) I love cock!
b) All men are heterosexual.
c) One day my prince will come, and he will be Edward Cullen.

3. Which best represents your fanfic reading habits?
a) I fulfil my personal fantasies by inserting myself into fictional scenarios.
b) Because of my sexual inexperience, I read fanfic as research about boys.
c) I read fanfic because I am into depraved kinks like homosexuality and bandom.

Jonquil (who, incidentally, is kicking bottoms and taking names on this one — check recent entries on her journal) suggested via IM:

4. Will you please tell me about your sexual practices? With pictures?

If you need inspiration, check out this transcription of the 70-question survey. Remember, nothing you suggest will ever be reviewed by an IRB, so you can ask anything.

See also: Ten steps to a perfect fanstorm at Hoyden About Town, unfunnybusiness roundup, linkspam roundup on DW, high-larious Ogi/Sai badfic slash (NSFW).

Photo credit: innocentsmith @ dreamwidth

Credit: innocentsmith @ dreamwidth

In conclusion: fandom, I love you. You are smart and funny and don’t take shit from anyone — especially not cave-dwelling neanderthals posing as scientists.