From comments: hacking the patriarchy

The last linkspam has a comments thread about the difficulties geeky women can have exploring, explaining, attacking or changing sexist patterns in geekdom due to not having ready access to feminist or anti-oppression ideas and language.


Whenever I read about tech conference incidents which involve using the sexual objectification of women to teach technology to men, I find that the bloggers who protest have a lot of difficulty expressing themselves and articulating why it’s wrong. They often complain about the “sex” or “half-naked women”, and the terms “sexual objectification” or “dehumanization” are not in their vocabulary. Commenters then accuse them of being prudish and against sex, and the point is lost.

I think the problem is that many women in tech are not versed in feminist vocabulary…


That is in fact one of the main reasons (in terms of personal motivation) why I set up the GF wiki — because I wanted to improve my feminist vocab and wanted somewhere to record and share what I learnt ;) Learning feminism 101 concepts etc has been really important to me these last couple of years. I find it almost funny when people assume that I have a degree in women’s studies or something. Nope, I just read and take notes and practice.

Skud again:

I think part of it is also disciplinary — that geek women are less likely to have taken the sort of studies at university that would give them the tools to think about this stuff… I’m not just talking about women’s studies, but also things like media studies, sociology, etc — most of which have pretty low prestige in geek circles.

This seems front page worthy! What tools has feminism given you, when did you pick them up and where are you putting them to use in geek feminism? Did geek intellectual hierarchies stand in your way at some point?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

14 thoughts on “From comments: hacking the patriarchy

  1. spider

    I’ve found that even when I do explain my objections to images that objectify women in terms of “objectification”, my (male) geek friends still think that my problem is being prudish / anti-sex. The challenge is not only to learn this vocabulary ourselves, but be able to teach it quickly to others. A lot of my (generally progressive) male geek friends genuinely don’t understand why pictures of porn are offensive – if they understand that these images are offensive at all, they think it’s simply because of nudity, or because real-life women are upset that the women in the pictures are more beautiful than they are. I have asked male friends “how do you think it would feel to be constantly judged, not according your ideas and abilities, but according to how you look?”, and received the response “that would be great!” The stupidity of this boggles the mind, but it really does show that many men have absolutely no clue what objectification is, or how damaging it is to be treated as a body first and a person second.

    I hasten to add that not all geek men are idiots, some are very wonderful and clued-up about this sort of thing.

    1. jonquil

      In my experience, “how would you feel if…” is always ineffective with geeks who need Fem101. They project their own context immediately and then go deaf. You are better off explaining your own context than appealing to theirs. I once got significant traction in a work debate by describing my daughter ‘s harassment at a bus stop and how that shaped her attitude toward being alone in public. Many but not all guys in the thread got it.

      1. Restructure!

        Yes. What’s also ineffective is explaining sexism with a racism analogy, when the person you’re trying to convince is white. They won’t see anything wrong with the racism example, either. (One the other hand, if the person you’re trying to convince is a man of colour, then you shouldn’t use a racism analogy if you’re white.)

        Actually, I think analogies are really bad tools to convince geeks in general, because arguments by analogy are not logical in structure. (They look like hand-wavy, figurative associations that are all a matter of interpretation.) It’s better to work on explaining your own context with clear, logical language.

  2. Restructure!

    I picked up feminist ideas by chance: I lived with roommates who were in the social sciences, and they had a huge influence on me. I’m a woman of colour, and my roommates were older women of colour who were more advanced than me academically, so they were like role models. They were more experienced about the world (and with being women of colour), and they were also academically brilliant.

    Since then, I kept learning on my own.

    Thank you for the GF wiki and blog, by the way! I feel like this GF project fills a hole in my life. (I found it via Brinstar.) I find that mainstream (non-geek) feminists are hostile to geeks (among other groups) and geek interests. (And mainstream geek communities are hostile to women.)

  3. jonquil

    The single most important concept theory — not just feminist theory — has given me is intersectionality. It’s not just women. It’s people of color. It’s gay people. It’s everybody else who is one step down in the kyriarchy. I’m a lousy feminist if all I can see is the problems of women. I’m a lousy feminist if somebody tells me about what’s happened to them in CS and I say “Yeah, but look what happened to WOMEN” instead of saying “Wow, that is wrong and sucks.”

    CS’s barriers to entry, and to be taken seriously, don’t just affect women.

    1. Dorothea Salo

      Yes. This. I will add only that it was GF that taught me the term “kyriarchy.” I kinda-sorta had the concept, but I didn’t have a word for it. Now I do. Thank you GF!

  4. Anne Wayman


    I’m now 67 and was part of the original feminist movement… or at least the one conservatives refer to now as the feminist movement. It’s been an issue forever, but that’s another story.

    My generation has not done a good job explaining to our daughters the difficulties we overcame. For instance, I played half-court basketball in high school – the only bb available to “girls;” it never occurred to my daughter she couldn’t run track if she was willing to work for it. I’m not sure she knows today about the blessing Title 9 gave her or how tenuous our rights are even today.

    That said, and a whole lot unsaid, I’m not sure it’s vocabulary women need as much as what I might call moxy.

    I got here from a comment on Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women – – which echoes my experience as a tech headhunter back before the dot com bust. I was the only women hh in the office and I did better when I emulated the men, and my female candidates from the US always needed help with their resumes because they were so unwilling to take credit for things they knew or did.

    Women from India and China did not have that problem, yet neither country is a bastion of equality of any sort.

    Where does the moxy come from? No clue. I didn’t learn it from my own mom, but I have it now. My daughter may have learned some from me, at least in work areas. But why there should be such a difference between the U.S. and India and China? Tell me.

    Looking forward to the rest of this conversation.

  5. FoolishOwl

    When I was in college, the first time, I chose to take up a major in English literature, rather than computer science, as almost everyone expected me to do. Some of my reasons for this were foolish. One of the reasons, though, was my revulsion at the culture around the engineering and computer science fields. I didn’t really study the more “politicized” branches of literary theory, and my serious encounters with political thought came after I left college. Still, in the humanities, there was at least a general sense that bigotry was something to be conscious of and to oppose, and much of literature, and the study of it, was about examining individual identity and the construction of social roles, gender in particular.

    The split between the humanities and the sciences is all too familiar. As I’m trying to work my way into the tech field, I can’t help but be struck by the degree of contempt for the humanities and the social sciences among techies. A principal criticism — that humanities students are basicically bull%$#! artists in training, without real skills — is exaggerated, but not outright false. It’s quite easy to pretend to be socially conscious, to use the right jargon, without really caring about it.

    Lately, I’ve started following Slashdot — I actually started reading this blog regularly before I really explored Slashdot — and one thing I find unsettling is the bigotry in general and sexism in particular.

    My sense is that most techies have chosen a field in which there’s very little positive discussion of gender, race, class, etc., and so are, innocently, outside of the discourse of those subjects. There are, on the other hand, a lot of techies who chose the field because of the absence of that discourse. On Slashdot, for instance, when gender comes up, there are quite a lot of comments to the effect that some men are in IT because there aren’t many women in it, and they prefer to keep it that way.

    1. Dorothea Salo

      Slashdot is a total pit. I read Ars Technica, because the comment threads aren’t as poisonous and aren’t as VISIBLE, so I can easily avoid the poisonous ones.

  6. Brinstar

    I’ve had awareness of sexism since I was in high school, but like many people, I didn’t really have the tools to explain any of it coherently, either to myself or to others. It wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve become acquainted with feminism, intersectionality, kyriarchy, and the like, after being frustrated with the rampant sexism going on in mainstream gaming and geek blogs, and not finding the tools to describe what was going on. I happened to find some blogs that linked feminism and gaming together, and from there I started exploring general feminist, anti-racist, LGBT, etc. writings on th enet. Mostly I just read and paid attention to the sorts of discussions going on on those blogs, read 101 info, and absorbed it. So yeah, it was mainly born out of frustration with misogyny in geek/gamer culture, and looking for ways to understand it.

  7. Ames

    From struggling many years trying to explain the poison and injustice of sexism to men, I was liberated finally when I fully grasped the concept of privilege.

    And none are so privileged as the men in engineering, science, and technology fields. People who are masters of their own domains bow down especially to the men of IT in the working and academic worlds. IT men are assured daily of their master-of-the-universe status.

    Notice which men are willing to examine their privilege – this after actually stopping to learn what the concept means. There is a tiny percentage of human beings who will admit that they got where they did, not through their own brilliance, but because they were born with the right genitals, skin color, or the like.

    Even as a lesbian with all the status damage that brings in our culture, I still enjoy all kinds of privilege because of my upbringing, economic class, education, skin color, etc. The fact that I’m willing to examine that goes directly to the discrimination I’ve experienced.

    Most men in engineering, science, and technology fields have never experienced true discrimination and so have no reason to give a damn that it exists or that they benefit from its existence. Until they do get it, nothing much changes.

    1. jonquil

      If ever I saw a case of “born on third base and think they hit a triple”, it’s my otherwise-beloved co-workers. It’s hard to even convince them that they aren’t universal experts, that people with non-engineering jobs trained just as hard as they did, and that those people may actually know more about their jobs and how to do them.

      I was once asked what the downside of working for my wealthy, well-respected employer was.

      I replied, “If I never meet another 25-year-old Libertarian, that will be just fine with me.

      1. Ames

        Oh, wow, you said it all, jonquil.

        After years of working in IS/IT jobs, I went back and got my masters and entered the usability field, convinced that I could make a difference for users. For about 15 years I’ve fought on behalf of users, explaining to the masters of the universe just what you said, that maybe people know their own jobs better than outsiders do. I’m now completely burned out and cynical about whether the arrogance in the IT field will change anytime soon. It has been very rare for me to come across women in IT who act like users are idiots; in my experience, it’s always been men who see users that way.

        1. jonquil

          Oh, God, UI work. It’s so badly needed, and the Masters of The Universe insist on prioritizing their intuition over not only training but actual research.

          My sincere sympathies, and I really really REALLY wish, as a customer, that UI people had clout.

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