Tag Archives: tokenism

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

Being Visible

Being a member of an under-represented group in a technical field can be very isolating. There is often pressure to be the best possible representative of your group, so that others like you are given a chance down the line. And when networking occurs through channels you aren’t privy to, discussions include background you don’t share, and other people’s best-intentioned advice assumes you are just like them, it can get very lonely very quickly.

But there’s a weird corollary to this, which is once a workplace, department, or project realizes it doesn’t have as many women/minorities/outsiders as it perhaps ought to, there is often a push to make the under-represented groups more visible. This might be for recruitment purposes, when a workplace reasons that maybe if they show that there are women already present, they will be able to attract more. Or, to create more inclusive management practices, maybe if an executive committee makes decisions for a department, its racial makeup should reflect that of the department. And the intention—to give the under-represented group more sway or more face time—is laudable; while it’s not the only needed step, it can help significantly. However, if most group members are white and male, these efforts mean that women and minorities may be tapped disproportionately to do outreach and governance work.

On the one hand, this can be great if outreach and governance are things you, the individual group member, are interested in doing. There certainly is a kind of soft power there, to shape your project environment, or to affect the sort of people attracted to it. But often, those tasks aren’t directly rewarded as much as the same time spent doing the actual project work would be. This means that the people asked to do more of what is effectively volunteer work are at a disadvantage for actual job advancement. Even if you want one woman on every governance committee, asking the same one or two women to shoulder that burden when it outstrips the burdens of their male colleagues is unfair. In fact, it’s especially unfair considering that women are already pressured to set fewer boundaries on their time and be more available to volunteer work for free than men are.

What’s more, there is a peculiar disparity in being the only minority in the room for most meetings, while being almost omnipresent in publicity videos and images. If the makeup of an organization is 90% white men, but they tune their outreach to imply otherwise, what does that say? Is it likely to help draw under-represented groups into technical fields, even though it does nothing to address the pipeline or the experiences of those who are already there? Is it misleading, since it doesn’t represent the actual state of the organization or the environment that new recruits enter into? Or is it an acceptable deception to tweak the numbers so that people realize that white men are not the only scientists, programmers, or engineers out there?

It’s good when an organization is aware of representation issues and cares enough to make efforts to address them. However, these efforts sometimes cause issues for the individual members of under-represented groups, by placing extra demands on their time and by asking them to be more visible than everyone else. And not everyone wants to be visible in the first place! But for those who do, the key is to give the time you have to spare while guarding the rest. And if you know of other women or minorities who may be willing to contribute to outreach or governance, you can see if they’ll help split the load. It can be isolating in technical fields when you are thrust into the spotlight, but you aren’t necessarily alone.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Sugar and spice, and everything linkspam (31st July, 2011)

  • 18 year old German woman Lisa Sauermann has just won the International Mathematics Olympiad (contested between talented high school students) with a perfect score of 42. This is Sauermann’s fifth medal, four of them gold and one silver, the best series of performances ever. (Some sources say she’s the first recipient of four golds, there have actually been two others.)
  • BU Today reviews Project Artmesis, a five week summer computing program for high school girls that has just wound up.
  • Please Sir, I Want Some More: LGBTQs need more and deserve more. We need escapism just like our cis straight brothers and sisters. We need to be portrayed in roles we wouldn’t be expected to be in. (See comments for why this link was removed.) (For that matter, new to this linkspammer: the Gay YA site where this appeared.)
  • Help Us Find These 1970s AT&T Engineers: In this 1975 AT&T film, five female AT&T engineers are profiled. The film starts with male attitudes towards women working as engineers. There are no surprises there… What’s most interesting, though, is that AT&T apparently cannot locate any of these five — they (and I) would like to ask followup questions and learn how things have changed since 1975.
  • Open Source Community, Simplified: The Bugzilla community’s secrets. Not specifically feminist advice, but advice that will help create a woman-friendly coding space.
  • Erase me: And, basically, it comes down to authors wanting either something exotic or inclusion cookies without putting in any real effort or respect into their characters or having any awareness of the tropes and stereotypes they are tapping into… So I’ve finally come down on saying – stop. Erase me. No, really. I’d much rather be erased than tokenised or stereotyped.
  • Girls Go Geek… Again! and Normalizing Female Computer Programmers in the ’60s: This article appeared in a 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan and quotes computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the field, discussing why programming is a perfect fit for women — by drawing partly on gender stereotypes by assuming women are naturals at programming because they’re patient and pay attention to details…

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Always check behind you for linkspams when out after dark (March 19th, 2011)

  • BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, and IBM are pleased to announce a new annual event, the BCS Karen Spärck Jones Lecture honouring women in computing research. Fran Allen will give the first lecture on 24 May 2011 at the BCS London office.
  • The GNOME Outreach Program for Women internships are open for another round, from May 23 through August 22, 2011 with applications closing April 8. That round coincides with Google Summer of Code and GNOME enourages women interested to apply for both programs.
  • [Trigger warning for tokenism] On Being Feminism’s “Ms. Nigga”: Latoya Peterson on tokenism, conferences and feminism. Some folks would call that an attempt at diversity – but it is a nefarious double bind for those of us who get the nod. To refuse to participate may mean that voice is never represented, that the voices are the underrepresented are once again unvoiced, unheard, and perhaps unknown. Unfortunately, absence can be interpreted as a reinforcement of the status quo… However, to accept the position also means to be pressed into the token spot.
  • Luciana Fuji Pontello, a GNOME Women’s Outreach participant and the Cheese webcam application developer responsible for the application’s camerabin port and gobject introspection support was interviewed for International Womens Day.
  • [Trigger Warning for implied violence and disregard for women] Tim Buckley of the ctrl-alt-del gaming comic criticises some of the “padding” quests in Dragon Age 2 which are… insidiously disturbed: [...] when I came across a sparkly pile of bones in Darktown labeled “Remains of (some woman whose name I can’t really remember), and upon looting got actual remains instead of treasure, I figured I’d started a quest at least worthy of a small cutscene about how this guy’s poor wife had been kidnapped by the slavers I’d just finished slaughtering, and how happy he was that he could now give her a proper burial. But nope. Instead it turned out to be just another schmuck who acted like he’d misplaced his fucking car keys or something. Maybe customs are different in Kirkwall, I don’t know.
  • [Trigger Warning for implied violence and disregard for women] For bonus failpoints, there are multiple quests that follow this script in the game. Fuck you, Bioware. Really. To quote one gamer friend: Baldur’s Gate II doesn’t mean you get away with this.
  • The Ladycomicsparty is back for another year: If you are a lady who is involved with comics, and you’ll be near NYC around the MoCCA fest, you should come to this!
  • Jeri Ellsworth devised a $10 version of a $5000 safety product and was accused of having set back the progress of women 100 years. Whaaaaat? As Cory Doctorow notes, Misogyny is alive and well in technology circles. An Ellsworth supporter retorts that The only way Jeri Ellsworth could set back women 100 years would be by developing a time machine in her guest room.
  • Ladyada on the front cover of Wired! (And doing it Rosie the Riveter style!) This is the first female engineer to appear WIRED’s cover.

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

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

On Influence, Lists, Women, and the Confluence Thereof

Shira Ovide over at the Wall Street Journal’s Venture Capital Dispatch wrote a blog post on Friday that’s got a few people in a tizzy over the visibility of women in tech. Ovide’s piece is specifically about the lack of women in tech start ups, but at one point ranges into some criticism of male-heavy tech conferences. Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar namechecks Techcrunch Disrupt in this light, which Michael Arrington took exception to.

Don Dodge also called the slight an unfair one (because TechCrunch’s CEO is a woman! Enough said, right? Yeah, the mansplaining over there is pungent.), but his post accidentally reveals one of the major aspects of the problem Ovide is talking about. In his post he says: “All the top women in tech get more invitations to speak than they can possibly handle.”

All? Really? That’s surprising. It’s been my experience as a person with multiple intersections of minority that in situations like this, all of the individuals that belong to the underrepresented faction of a group are not in the spotlight so much. More often a sub-section of the minority that gets called upon over and over and over — to the point where they cannot possibly say yes to everything — while many other deserving and qualified people go unnoticed.

This is not always a purposeful repression, but the result is the same, nonetheless.

How does this stuff happen? I think it starts with lists. In Dodge’s post, he helpfully lists 30 Top Women in Tech, including Twitter lists. But his numbers are sad when compared to Engadget’s recent Who Should I Follow? focusing on women in tech, which includes over 70 women (including myself, I say proudly). There’s some crossover, and Engadget’s list includes many writers/journalists, but I still feel like Dodge doesn’t go deep enough.

Then there are lists that aren’t about gender but more about overall influence in the tech world, like this piece on the 25 Most Influential People in Mobile Tech at Laptop Magazine. Of the 25, there are just 2 women, which struck me as complete bollocks the moment I noticed it.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “But K, didn’t you have something to do with…” and I would stop you and say: Yes, but for a lot of silly reasons I didn’t notice this until it was too late.

It’s not as if there wasn’t awareness that there should be women on that list, and perhaps that there should be more. But when measuring the nebulous concept of “influence” a lot of gut decisions are made that have more to do with personal perceptions than other factors.

I feel like that’s what’s happening on a larger scale in the continuing conversation around women in tech and getting more of them in the field. Yes, we need more, we always need more. But you know what else we need? Some extra acknowledgment for those of us already here.

Part of the solution is lists.

I see merit in having a TEDWomen conference, though I do understand why some people take exception to these types of events. I feel the same about lists. I’m glad that there are lists that highlight women specifically, but we need more balance in lists that have nothing to do with gender. It’ll be several months before Laptop Magazine puts together their Most Influential list again, but that’s no reason not to start building a list of women to include in it right now. Who would you suggest?

I’d love for the list to include some of the start-up stars we don’t hear much from, but who have great ideas nonetheless. Not just in this one instance, but across the media.

Addressing tokenism

This question came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions.

How do you determine if a person has been invited to participate (conference speaker, lead a workshop, blog, etc.) as a token of diversity rather than on their merits?

And, if it is tokenism, what would you do?

I’m going to talk about being a token woman in this post, because that’s what I feel familiar with, hopefully commenters can share their thoughts on being a token representative of other (or multiple) groups.

First, a wee bit of 101. The response to this kind of discussion is sometimes: “Wait, you want more women. But we shouldn’t be selecting women just because they’re women. Feminism is hard, eleventy one 1!11!!1 I quit!”

Yeah, feminism is hard. That’s why we’re still here and frankly expect to be for a long time. Yes, we’d advocate that you have women taking prominent roles in your geekdom in similar proportions to their participation. And this may be a hard thing to do: much harder than having a criteria for a single event that says “at least three women speakers, please, this year for sure.” Likewise for diversity in general. You do this the hard way: organically. You should be striving for diversity everywhere, not just in venues where people are likely to notice and criticise your lack of diversity. You shouldn’t be having to select a woman speaker just because she’s a woman: if there are women in your geekdom at all, there should be women in your candidate pool and then you select some of them as part of your usual process.

Of course, that means keeping in mind that it’s harder to select women even when you have access to women candidates, because essentially everyone (so, me, you) has a set of biases about women that influence how we see individual women. Try and consciously correct for these biases. As an example: she seems inexperienced as an speaker. But on the other hand, we regularly select men on no more evidence than the fact that they asked, don’t we? Are we applying the same standards to women?

As regards bias, once you have your selection pool, at the time of selection, there are various approaches. Blinding the selection process is very effective: if you can hide names, appearances, and everything else that you can aside from the person’s proposal or skill, this is something of the gold standard approach. This is famously true for orchestral auditions. Otherwise, all you can do is try and be very conscious about your choices and remember that you have inherited biases towards privileged groups, and towards people like yourself, from your surroundings.

On to the question itself: someone appears to be a token women. What to do about it?

This is complicated precisely because tokenism isn’t a binary thing, token or not-a-token. When in a sufficient numerical minority particularly, as women are in a lot of geekdoms, I think it’s unlikely that no attention at all was paid to a woman’s gender and its effect on gender balance and diversity when she was selected for a role. It might have come up explicitly in the selection, it might have occurred to individuals privately, it might have influenced them subconsciously, but to some extent she was likely chosen as partly “the person who can best do this task” and partly as “a woman”.

I think there are some indicative but not definitive signs of problematic tokenisation. They include:

  • being the only woman selected among many men;
  • being part of a repeating pattern in which a single woman or the same number of women are selected time after time (eg, a few too many tech conferences currently seem to have a pattern of having exactly one woman selected to give one of the keynotes year after year); and
  • being selected to represent the female side of however the local gender binary fractal divides the space, especially where this is a repeated pattern.

The question doesn’t specify about what to do if you think you yourself are a token, or if you think someone else is. I’ll answer the easier part first: if you think someone else is.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to point this out with respect to an individual woman. Tokenism is a double-bind: tokenism should be challenged, but ‘token’ is a very damaging and hurtful label to apply to someone and this is regularly used as a weapon against women. Calling someone a token woman is a good way of dismissing her and giving other people ammunition to dismiss both her and other women who are in a numerical minority. (Much love to my first year computer science tutor who greeted my appearance in his tutorial with: “ah, of course, our token woman!”)

It’s pretty rare for a woman to be explicitly identified as a token by the people who selected her as one, in these situations where diversity is being genuinely sought. (In the case where people feel diversity is being forced upon them, they often take it out on the tokenised person.) Generally they realise that “we selected Mary to be our woman speaker this year, that’s an infinite improvement on last year” is an admission that their approach to diversity is fairly shallow.

So you don’t often know for sure, and speculating on an individual woman’s selection as a token is a problem in and of itself. Instead, the system needs to be redesigned at a lower level. This is very much a place in which allies in positions of power need to do work. Work hard on having access to diversity through your networks. The idea is that when someone is seeking a speaker, writer, teacher, leader or so on, it shouldn’t be only men’s names that spring to mind. This is the long hard way. Essentially what you need to do is make your diversity efforts an ongoing, continual process. Claire Light wrote about doing this as a fulltime job in Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!. Allowing for the number of hours you have available, this is how you should be approaching your geek network when you have power over other people’s prominence. You should be seeking to tunnel for hidden gold all the time, not just keeping to the same old (male, etc) names. It shouldn’t just be your events that are diverse, it should be your personal network. Also have a look at Skud’s ten tips for getting more women speakers and think about analogies in all situations where you are choosing to make someone prominent.

If you do the above, you won’t be stuck at the last minute trying to make sure you have one single woman to desperately avoid looking undiverse.

What if you think you yourself are a token? I don’t think that you have an obligation to challenge what’s going on: requiring that women who’ve been put in a difficult spot do all the work of changing assumptions and practices is a bad approach. We all should, and the more powerful should be addressing their own privileges in proportion to their power. You might decide that the best thing to do is keep your head down this time.

But let’s say that in this instance, you want to challenge the tokenism of your selection. There are a bunch of options:

  • refuse with a reason. Say that you believe you’re only being included in order to have a woman speaker or prize recipient or whatever. Probably this is only going to happen when you have been somehow informed that you’ve been selected explicitly and only as a token, not in the far more common case where you aren’t sure or you’re partly a token.
  • if you’re been included in a way that is below your capabilities: you could either point this out and refuse, or demand a role commensurate with your status and abilities. For example, if you believe your expertise and speaking skills merit keynote slots, ask for them when being offered normal speaking slots.
  • if you feel your offer has been too feminised, ask to change it. For example: “I haven’t done game artwork for the last few years, I’m much more familiar with game design state-of-the-art. I would rather run a workshop on that and I notice that there isn’t one in the program.”
  • use your prominence to promote other women, or other people who you believe aren’t getting enough exposure. Invite them to your workshop, suggest them as alternative speakers, suggest that a journalist speak to them instead, and so on.
  • try and leverage your token slot into a role with power. Ask to be on the organising or selection committee next year. Then you can try and make a more organic approach to diversity right from the start.

If you’re worried you’re a token, it’s also worth keeping in mind that women are trained to underestimate their own worth and significance. Don’t neglect to consider the possibility that your work is just as good as or quite likely better than the required level for the role you’ve been offered. You also do not need to be The Universe’s Single Leading Expert on anything in order to publicly opine, teach or lead it. The fact that you can think of someone who would be better does not mean that you are not suitable. Tokenism exists, but it does not mean that everything you are offered is unearned or depriving someone more worthy.

For commenters: have you been tokenised? Were you able to tell for sure? Did you decide to do anything about it, and if so, what? Have you any experience of the explicit and deliberate tokenisation of someone else?

And again, this post focused on women being tokenised, but have you been included as a token member of another group, or at the intersection of more than one? Do you have any thoughts specific to that?