A comment over on the Geek Feminism wiki asked whether we aren’t damaging the community by documenting sexism. I don’t want to get too 101 on our fine blog, but I do want to talk about why I consider our pretty long list of sexist incidents in geekdom a success.
My first geek feminist forum, and still the one I participated longest in and therefore in many ways most influential on me, was LinuxChix. Things I learned over there included the reasons why having men dominate conversations can be anti-feminist, via the discussion around the document now available as behaviour in technical forums, which was originally a response by Valerie Aurora to a problem where the LinuxChix techtalk list was seeing fewer and fewer posts by women and was generally perceived as scary and hardcore.
We also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities. I can’t speak for the community, but what I remember feeling about those discussions was a major unease. There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t. There was social, peer and societal pressure on young women considering science and technical careers or even on developing those skills… probably? Again, some women had stories, some didn’t.
Had you asked me in 2003 for troublesome incidents in Free Softwareâ€”are we doing anything wrong, or is this a problem we’ve inherited from other people who did things wrong, or is this just a thing about women, that they don’t like to be too nerdy in their spare time?â€”I don’t know that I would have been able to give you examples of anyone doing anything much wrong. A few unfortunate comments about cooking and babies at LUGs, perhaps. Things started to change my awareness slowly. Valerie’s 2002 HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux dug up some incidents at LUGs. In 2005 LinuxChix itself got some attention from (trigger warning) the troll Skud posted about. I was personally present at a sexualised presentation, the Acme::Playmate presentation at the Open Source Developers Conference in 2006. And in 2007, very soon after I had seen Kathy Sierra keynote linux.conf.au 2007, she was scared out of her work writing about technology by (trigger warning) online harrassment and for the first time, I personally saw the Internet explode over the issue of active, virulent sexism against women in technology.
I do not in fact find writing the wiki documentation of incidents in geekdom very satisfying. The comment linked at the beginning of the post compared the descriptions to a rope tying geekdom to the past. Sometimes being known as a wiki editor and pursued around IRC with endless links to yet another anonymous commenter or well-known developer advising women to shut up and take it and write some damned code anyway is like a rope tying me to the bottom of the ocean.
But what makes it worth it for me is that when people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development, did maybe something bad actually happen, that women have answers. It’s not the only answer, there’s still all that social, peer and societal pressure, the shorter leisure hours, and so on, after all. And there’s no level of harrassment or cruelty that won’t find someone, plenty of someones, prepared to immediately argue that it’s really no big deal, what are you doing here, giving up? Letting them win? But now if when I’m asked about whether geek women have problems and why there aren’t more of us, I’m not left fumbling to explain it even to myself.
I don’t know what the Mary of 1999 (my watershed geek year wasn’t 1998, in fact) would have done if she’d come across that page in more or less the condition the wiki comment described, “the girl entering the community without any predispositions”, the woman vulnerable to being misled into thinking that geekdom is full of scoundrels (or, we might argue, not entirely misled). Maybe she would have run, I can’t say for sure that she wouldn’t have. But what woman is without baggage? In 1999 as a teenage girl with hair flowing down to my waist (I tell you what, short hair has cut my street harrassment down nearly as much as it cut my grooming routine down) I walked down the street to the steady beat of rape threats from passing vehicles. At least I would have found that geek women were talking about it and had got together and got each other’s back.