Tag Archives: code of conduct

I’ll Make Him A Linkspam He Can’t Refuse (24 February 2016)

  • Only 88 tech startups are run by black women | Sara Ashley O’Brien at CNN Money (17 February): “There are a paltry number of black women running tech startups. And there’s an incredible dearth of money flowing to the few who are.
    That’s according to #ProjectDiane, a new study that examines the state of black female entrepreneurship. While big tech firms have pledged to be more transparent about their diversity stats — releasing annual reports to benchmark their progress — that same transparency is still rare in the venture capital world.”
  • What Shipping Richonne Taught Me About Racism | The Black Feminist Geek (22 February): “Last night on The Walking Dead, Rick and Michonne finally got together […] the suggestion of a Rick/Michonne power couple has been met with confusion and incredulity, not to mention outright animosity at times. And during all these years of shipping Richonne, I’ve learned an awful lot about racism as it manifests itself in fandom.”
  • Wikimedia timeline of recent events | Molly White (22 February):”The Wikimedia Foundation has recently suffered from lack of communication with the editing community, poor transparency, and sudden loss of staff members. Some of these issues center around the recent Wikimedia Discovery efforts, some seem to stem from senior leadership. Unrest and discontent has been visible both within the editing community and the Wikimedia Foundation itself. This timeline […] will be updated as more events unfold or come to light.”
  • The Signpost: Shit I cannot believe we had to fucking write this month | Emily Temple-Wood at Wikipedia (17 February): “Welcome to this new column, which highlights awesome articles and other content created or expanded to fight systemic bias in the previous month! This first column will highlight content created in the first two months of 2016, because why the fuck not. People wrote some great stuff: This month in systemic bias, we had to write a whole bunch of shit that should have been written forever ago and generally made the world a better place. Go read these articles and learn about some badass people.”
  • Does The Design Industry Need A Women-Only Platform To Promote Equality? | Diana Budds at Co.Design (3 February): “Tech and finance are frequently cited as the most notorious culprits, but virtually every industry suffers from gender inequality. Design is no exception. A recent poll from O’Reilly found that women in the design industry earned $14,000 less on average than their male counterparts, and the U.S. Census found that female architects earned about 20% less than male architects. To combat the problem, Malmö, Sweden–based Terese Alstin established No Sir, an e-commerce platform built to promote the work of female designers.”
  • Ruby, Codes of Conduct, and Integrity | Betsy Haibel (17 February): “Whenever an event or a community adopts a CoC, there’s tension between the need to respect existing work and the need to build something organic. Strong codes of conduct codify community norms; a copypastaed CoC that doesn’t reflect community leaders’ actual values will inevitably be poorly and/or unevenly enforced, which makes communities less safe.”
  • Mark Oshiro’s post about the “persistent and pervasive racial and sexual abuse/harassment [he] was the victim of at ConQuesT” [warning for discussion of racism, sexual harassment, abuse]
    • Facebook post by Mark Does Stuff (21 February): “Over the past nine months or so, the events of my weekend at ConQuesT 46 have haunted me, and recent events inspired me to finally talk about my experience.”
    • Expect More From Your Regional ConCom | K Tempest Bradford (21 February): “There are so many conversations going on right now sparked by Mark Oshiro’s report[1] detailing what happened to him at last year’s ConQuesT convention that it’s hard to just focus in on one aspect to talk about[2]. There is one thing I want to jump in and speak about right away, which is what should be expected of con staff and ConComs.”

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, 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.

Creating just online social spaces

Aria Stewart is a programmer living in Boston working on open source, Unschooler, former owner of an Internet service provider in Colorado, a hiker, lover of science fiction, and studies networks (both social and computer) online interaction and social structures as a matter of habit.

The last two months have seen two Slack chats start to support marginalized groups in the technology field, LGBTQ* Technology and Women in Technology, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about how to run the spaces effectively, not just being a place for those who it says on the tin, but to support, encourage and not be terrible to people who are marginalized in other ways than the one the particular group is trying to represent.

This is a sort of how-to guide for creating a social Slack that is inclusive and just, and a lot of of this will apply to other styles and mediums for interaction.

The problem begins thus: How do you keep a Slack started by a white gay cisgender man from reflecting only that as a core group? How do you keep a women in technology chat from being run entirely by white women of (relative) affluence afforded by tech industry positions, leaving women of color, trans women, people with disabilities out in the cold?

Making just social spaces is not a one time structural setup, though things like a good Code of Conduct is an important starting place, and there are difficult balances to strike.

Make sure there is sufficient representation. Social spaces grow from their seed members, and as it’s been studied, people’s social networks tend to be racially and genderwise insular; White members beget more white members; men bring more men, especially in technology as we’ve found. If a space is insufficiently representative of the diversity of experiences that should be there, people will leave, having seen yet another space that isn’t “for” them. So, too, power structures reflect the initial or core body of a social group, and a social group will tend to reflect the demographics of those in positions of power, creating a feedback cycle that will be hard to break without a lot of effort. Seed your network as broadly as you can, and put people without homogenous backgrounds in power.

Empower a broad group. A few admins can’t guide and create the shape of the space alone, so empower users to make positive change themselves.

Plan for timezones. If your chat starts off with US users, you will find that they will dominate the space during US waking hours. You may find an off-peak group in Europe, with an almost entirely separate culture. Bridging the gap with admins in other timezones to help consistently guide the shape of the group can be helpful.

Your users will have reactions to media posted. In particular, seizure disorders can be triggered by flashing animated GIFs. Building an awareness into your social space early can help make sure these are not posted or restricted to certain channels. Likewise, explicit imagery, upsetting news and articles can be marked or restricted, even without banning it entirely.

Plan for how to resolve conflicts. While outright malicious violation of a Code of Conduct can be solved by ejecting members, most cases of conflict are more nebulous, or not so extreme nor malicious that a first offense should involve removal from the space. Slack in particular has let the LGBTQ* Tech group practice a group form of conflict resolution. We created a #couldhavegonebetter channel. When a conversation strays off the rails, into vindictive, oppressive by a member of a relatively privileged group, or evangelizing views that make others uncomfortable, a strategy that has worked well is to end the conversation with “That #couldhavegonebetter”, force-invite the users involved into the channel, and start with a careful breakdown of how the discussion turned problematic. This gives a place to discuss that isn’t occupying the main space; those who care about conflict resolution can join the channel. It’s not super private, but it’s equivalent of taking someone aside in the hallway at a conference rather than calling them out in front of an auditorium full of their peers. De-escalation works wonderfully.

Keep meta-discussion from dominating all spaces. It’s a human tendency to navel-gaze, doubly so in a social space, where the intent of the members shapes the future of the space. That said, it can dominate discussion quickly, and so letting meta-discussion happen in channels separate from the thing it’s discussing can keep the original purpose of channels intact.

Allow the creation of exclusive spaces. Much of the time, especially socially, marginalized people need a place that isn’t dominated or doesn’t have the group who talks over them most: people of color need to escape white people, trans people need to escape cisgender people, people outside the US need space to be away from American-centric culture and assumptions, and not-men need to be able to have space that is not dominated by men. It has ended up being the least problematic to allow the creation of spaces that are exclusive of the dominant group, just to give breathing room. It feels weird, but like a slack focused on a marginalized group as a whole, sometimes even breaking things down further lets those at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression lighten the load a bit.

A chat system with a systemwide identity has different moderation needs than one that does not. A problem found on IRC is that channels are themselves the unit of social space allocation. There is no related space that is more or less intimate than the main group, and so conversations can’t be taken elsewhere, and channelization balkanizes the user group. With Slack, this is not true. Channels are cheap to create, and conversations can flow between channels thanks to hyperlinks.

Allow people to opt out generally, and in to uncomfortable or demanding situations. A great number of problems can be avoided by making it possible to opt out without major repercussions. Avoid lots of conversation in the must-be-present #general channel, howver it’s been renamed. (#announcements in one place, #meta in another). Default channels, auto-joined by new users should be kept accessible. Work-topical channels should be kept not-explicit, non-violent spaces, so they are broadly accessible. Leave explicit imagery in its own channels, let talk about the ills of the world be avoided. And keep the volume low in places people can’t leave if they’ll be in the Slack during their workday.

Good luck, and happy Slacking!

Let’s do the linkspam again (25 July 2014)

  • Why Captain America Should Stay Black Forever | E.Knight at Boxing With God (July 19): “Comic book fans born today should grow up knowing this is Captain America. There should be no doubt.  The idea that a black man could represent the ultimate patriot is only ironic if our society continues to insist that White is America’s default race.”
  • New Thor Will be a Woman! Five Other Heroines Who Have Taken Up a Man’s Title | Mey at Autostraddle (July 22): “Although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feminizing a name, there is a lot of clout that comes with the name Thor. By not adding “She-,” “Lady” or “Ms.” to the name, they are saying that this character isn’t a sidekick or partner to Thor, they’re saying that she isn’t “inspired by” Thor, they’re saying she simply is Thor. […] While Thor is the most high-profile example of this, it’s not the first. Here are some of my favorite examples of this happening before.”
  • How Big of a Problem is Harassment at Comic Conventions? Very Big. | Janelle Asselin at bitchmedia (July 22)[warning for discussion of harassment] “It’s not difficult to see why conventions can be rife with harassment. People in my survey report being harassed by fans, journalists, publishing employees, and comics creators, so there are issues at every level of the industry. Conventions involve cramming a lot of people into one space where ideally everyone gets to move around. This means there are a lot of brush-by maneuvers, awkward running into people, and a lot of general closeness. […] This is the first time ever that SDCC has made a specific anti-harassment policy so prominent and offered a clear course of action for fans who are harassed.”
  • Killing the Messenger at Mozilla | Tim Chevalier at Model View Culture (July 21) (disclosure: Tim Chevalier contributes to geekfeminism.org): “In 2012, it was nearly taboo at Mozilla to question the individualist narrative: the story that says that Eich, like any other employee, could spend his paycheck in whatever manner he chose. In 2014, Mozillans had no choice but to engage with a more structural narrative: that it’s impossible to lead a diverse organization when you have openly and obdurately expressed animus towards members of a protected class. […] If we take [the Mozilla leaders] at face value, they did not understand why anyone would think that queer people’s rights were relevant to an open-source software project — surely they must have been aware that LGBTQ people worked for them.”
  • WisCon…This is How You Fail | The Angry Black Woman (July 20): “Race, gender, and class have all been issues at various points for me at WisCon. Most incidents fall into microaggression territory, and as a personal philosophy I tend not to let those dissuade me from things I want to do. That is an eminently personal choice, and should not be construed as telling anyone else what to do or how to feel. If my friends stop going, then so will I.”
  • The Pay-for-Performance Myth | Eric Chemi and Ariana Giorgi at Bllomberg Business Week (July 22): “An analysis of compensation data publicly released by Equilar shows little correlation between CEO pay and company performance. Equilar ranked the salaries of 200 highly paid CEOs. When compared to metrics such as revenue, profitability, and stock return, the scattering of data looks pretty random, as though performance doesn’t matter. The comparison makes it look as if there is zero relationship between pay and performance.”
  • Coder livetweets sexist remarks allegedly made by IBM executives | Aja Romano at The Daily Dot (July 22): “Note to IBM executives: If you’re going to openly discuss why you think young women make bad hires in the tech industry, you might want to make sure you’re not having lunch next to a young mom who’s also a coder. […] According to [Lyndsay] Kirkham, the executives listed off a number of women who are currently employed at IBM, all of whom apparently have kids, and listed the amount of time the women were expected to take off in the next few years for anticipated pregnancies.”
  • #iamdoingprogramming made me feel more alienated from the tech community | Christina Truong at Medium (July 21): “In the eight years that I’ve been in the tech industry, I’ve worked with one Black person that was in a tech role and a handful in non-tech roles (project managers) and that’s a damn shame. […] Diversity doesn’t mean pushing those that are already there out of the group. It simply means making space for different kinds of people, different opinions and opening up the culture instead of spotlighting and finding the same kind of person over and over again. It’s about showing people that there are different ways to be successful in this industry. It’s about telling everyone’s story.”
  • Numbers are not enough: Why I will only attend conferences with explicitly enforceable Codes of Conduct and a commitment to accessibility | Jennie Rose Halperin (July 22): “I recently had a bad experience at a programming workshop where I was the only woman in attendance and eventually had to leave early out of concern for my safety. […] What happened could have been prevented: each participant signed a “Code of Conduct” that was buried in the payment for the workshop, but there was no method of enforcement and nowhere to turn when issues arose.”

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.

Please mind the linkspam (25 June 2014)

  • Applications for MotherCoders Fall 2014 Opens! | Tina Lee at mothercoders (June 20): “We are committed to creating a more dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive economy by on-ramping moms to careers in technology. Those who are interested in being considered for our Fall 2014 session must complete this survey by midnight on Sunday, July 13, 2014.”
  • ‘Cards Against Humanity’ Co-Creator Publicly Apologizes for Transphobic Card | Jessica Roy at Fusion (June 18): “”We were writing jokes for ourselves and we weren’t really thinking about how it would affect other people,” Temkin [a creator of the game] said. “But when you have something that starts to be part of pop culture, you can’t help but see how it makes people feel and feel some sense of responsibility for that.” […] “We talk about the idea of ‘punching up, not punching down’ all the time,” Temkin said. “It’s something that we stand behind: making fun of those power structures, because they’re already powerful.””
  • Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity | Eric Brown at International Business Times (June 17): “In the end, the problem rests on the shoulders of both Unicode and third parties. Third parties have the option of illustrating emoji however they wish, but universally stick to white as a default. Unicode, meanwhile, has the option of introducing more characters that would push Apple and Twitter to move beyond its majority-white character base. At this point, both need to take responsibility and introduce more inclusive emoji.”
  • Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of the super fibre Kevlar, dies at 90 | The Guardian (June 21): “Stephanie Kwolek, the American chemist who invented the super-strong fibre Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests, has died at age 90.”
  • Editor’s blog: I am sexist | Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer (Jun 19)[warning for discussion of violence against women] “It’s really hard to talk about sexism (in games or otherwise) when a large proportion of your audience hasn’t realised it is sexist, whether subtly or profoundly. […] I don’t think they come from a place of actual misogyny. I think they are just a byproduct of the kind of casual ignorance I have personally embodied for pretty much all of my sexist life. […]  I am writing this because I hope that if I stand up and admit that I am sexist, have always been sexist and will probably always have to rebel against this bit of programming in my head whenever it is triggered, one or two people will realise that they can relate to what I’m saying, and that will give them a bit of courage to try to do something about it as well.”
  • Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School? | sarah Kendzior at Vitae (June 16): “Pregnant graduate students pose a problem to an academic culture that values “fit” above all else. While pregnancy may feel to the pregnant like bodily subservience, it is often viewed in academia as an unwelcome declaration of autonomy.”
  • Lake Scene | Manfeels Park (June 18): [comic]
  • What the Internet’s Most Infamous Trolls Tell Us About Online Feminism | Fruzsina Eördögh at Motherbaord (June 20): “The 4chan ruse ended last Friday […] but not before a silver lining had revealed itself: Feminists of color had very publicly become such an integral part of the feminist movement that trolls thought they were the vehicle to end all feminism online.”
  • Inside the Mirrortocracy | Carlos Bueno (June 2014): “We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.”
  • Major Ed-Tech Event Overhauls Code of Conduct After Troubling Accusations | Benjamin Herold at Education Week (June 19)[warning for discussion of harassment and rape] “The policy changes made by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, focus on explicitly outlining unacceptable and harassing behaviors, clearly delineating protocols for addressing such behaviors when they occur, and identifying specific consequences for violations. Such guidelines have been adopted in recent years by other conferences and events in the broader U.S. technology sector, where problems of sexism and sexual harassment have been widely reported and documented.” This article takes a perhaps sceptical tone at times, but is interesting as an examination of a particular field in the technology industry.

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.

Note: this linkspam title has been changed; we apologize for having missed the racist history of the song we used for the week’s punny title.

The Curious Incident of the Linkspam in the Night-time (18 June 2014)

Story telling in games, movies, and books:


  • San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War | danah boyd at Medium (May 13): “San Francisco is in the middle of a class war. It’s not the first or last city to have heart-wrenching inequality tear at its fabric, challenge its values, test its support structures. But what’s jaw-dropping to me is how openly, defensively, and critically technology folks demean those who are struggling. The tech industry has a sickening obsession with meritocracy. Far too many geeks and entrepreneurs worship at the altar of zeros and ones, believing that outputs can be boiled down to a simple equation based on inputs.”
  • The growing gap between millennial men and women’s wages | Suzanne McGee at The Guardian (June 12): “The bank didn’t set out to study the gender pay gap or anything specific: they just wanted to figure out how to better pitch their products and services to millennials, who are a big and potentially profitable new market. En route to that goal, surveying more than 1,600 millennials, Wells Fargo stumbled over some data that no one expected – least of all Karen Wimbish, director of retail retirement at the bank.”
  • Managing Silicon Spoons | Anonymous Author (June 9): “If your employee chooses to reveal to you that they live with a chronic condition or have a disability, the only thing you should ask is what reasonable accommodation they would like to receive to do their job.”
  • Why We had a Code of Conduct  | Brad Colbow at Medium (June 11): “How [we] usually work is we group up, discuss the problem, and usually come to a consensus before taking action. The day of the conference there isn’t time to do that. Having the policy in place was one less thing we had to worry about. It was just good planning.”
  • [Warning for discussion of sexual assault and trauma] Notallmen/Yesallwomen, secondary trauma and relearning everything for the sake of not killing each other | Sarah at All the things, all mixed up (May 29): “If you are a man who is becoming upset/depressed/overwhelmed/hopeless/defensive when you listen to the women in the world/your life talk about their experiences, you need to talk about it.  With another man.”
  • We Can Finally Talk About Sexism in Tech – So Let’s Be Honest | Divya Manian at Time (May 31): “it finally seems to me as if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. For the longest time, discrimination-racial or otherwise – was something we didn’t acknowledge at all.”
  • LG_T | Isaac Z. Schlueter at blog.izs.me (June 11):”My home is technology.  This is My Culture, rotten though it can be at times. As a privileged and visible person in it, I feel obligated to try to make it a little better in the ways I can.  That’s why I’ve decided to publicly tell this story, so that my presence can add weight to the claim that bisexual men exist.”

Calls for Participation:

  • Diverse Inclusive Open Source Workshop 2014 | Ohio LinuxFest 2014: “If you want Free and Open Source Software communities to become more diverse and inclusive, and want to meet others who are working toward the same goal, then come to the Diverse Inclusive Open Source workshop! The workshop is accepting submissions for short talks, artwork, videos, and more. The deadline for proposals is July 26, 2014.”
  • “Women are too hard to animate” jam | NoorStudios at itch.io (June 12): “Women are too hard to animate, or so they (Ubisoft) say. So anyone up for the challenge? Any game with female lead qualifies, even a game you made before.” Submissions due by 30 June.

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.

The linkspam is a harsh mistress (19 March 2014)

Super spam today folks!

Kicking off with our traditional can of miscellaneous linkspam:

The Mythology edition of Model View Culture is out, and its entire table of contents is of interest! This spammer couldn’t trim it down!

Look out for an interview with Model View Culture founders Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane on Geek Feminism tomorrow!

And finally, Julie Ann Horvath left Github, describing harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour. Some coverage and responses include:

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.

How is linkspam formed? (9 July 2013)

Special issue on conference harassment!

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious 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.

Structure and Justice

A few months ago, I attended a talk at Mozilla by Ted Nyman (of Github) titled “Scaling Happiness”. The video is freely available.

Nyman argued that companies with minimal formal structure are better for workers (specifically, better at maximizing workers’ happiness) than more traditional companies. Whenever someone asks whether something is “better”, I ask “better for whom?” Whose happiness was Nyman talking about? He didn’t say, but when I think about happiness, I ask what’s best for women, for people in GRSMs (gender, romantic and sexual minorities), for disabled people, and for people of color, since not too many people seem to think about what’s best for people in these groups. (For the record, I’m in the second and third of those groups, though I’m usually not perceived that way in one case, and often not perceived that way in the other.) Happiness for the dominant cadre in the software industry — that of people who have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, and heterosexual privilege, and who lack visible disabilities — is not the same as happiness for everybody.

I don’t mean to say that happiness is a zero-sum game, that when abled white cis men are happy, that inherently takes away some of the limited pool of happiness from disabled trans women of color. Rather, part of the problem is that people who have privilege perceive happiness as a zero-sum game; part of their happiness comes from seeing themselves as better than others.

I think most people in the tech industry or in open-source or free culture communities know what I’m talking about when I say “structurelessness”. Perhaps you work at a “flat” company that encourages employees to make up wacky job titles to put on their business cards, calls everybody a “team member”, or renders everyone uncertain about who their boss is. Or maybe you’ve only worked at more structured, hierarchal organizations: ones with managers, a complicated organizational chart, ranks, and hierarchy. You probably know the distinction even if you’ve only been on one side of it.

Does structurelessness eliminate competition, abuses of power, and status hierarchies, or does it just drive them underground? To break down the question, let’s look at a few ideas about structurelessness, some of which are from Nyman’s talk and others are just things I keep hearing from people in the free/open-source software and culture world.

  • Authenticity: people are happier when they are able to be who they really are at work.
  • Informality: people are happier when they’re able to be informal at work, such as by wearing T-shirts with holes in them or saying “fuck” a lot.
  • Conduct: formal mechanisms for guiding behavior aren’t that important, since in a healthy organization, people will just be nice to each other.
  • Leadership: people whose job it is to manage aren’t necessary when people can just manage each other.
  • Accountability: formal goals and performance metrics just get in the way of getting a job done.

As a nod to structurelessness, I’ll take on these points in no particular order.


First, why would a feminist argue in favor of structure when structure so often means hierarchy, and hierarchy is deeply entwined with oppression?

It’s true, I’m not a big fan of hierarchies. Maybe they can be used for good, but I haven’t seen a lot of that in reality. At the same time, though, it’s also a fallacy to think that simply declaring we’re not going to have hierarchies makes hierarchy go away. Jo Freeman wrote about this in the ’70s, in her essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Based on her experiences in feminist organizing, she found that groups of people (like feminist consciousness-raising groups) that declared they weren’t going to have a formal structure devolved into unofficial hierarchies, which were much harder to challenge and hold accountable.


Do you trust people to see you for who you are? I mean the question in two senses: (1) Do you believe that it’s even possible for you to communicate who you are to others without a great deal of effort, and (2) Do you trust others, as a general rule, enough to assume they will behave cordially towards you once they know who you are?

In his talk, Nyman talked about how in typical companies, many relationships are inauthentic. That is, people don’t act towards each other in the ways that they would in the absence of a rigid, externally imposed set of relationships. At least stereotypically, people don’t behave towards their bosses, or to their subordinates at work, the way they behave with their friends. He argued that people are happier when they can present themselves authentically and have authentic relationships, and that a less structured organization fosters such relationships.

If you are queer, or trans, or have mental illness, or all of the above, you probably know something about the perils of presenting yourself as you really are. Dan-Savage-style coming-out narratives notwithstanding, many of us who are placed socially in these ways find that we cannot be completely authentic in all aspects of our lives. I definitely want to express myself, but I have to balance that against other needs, like being able to make a living in a capitalist society. If I dressed the way I’d prefer to, if I talked more openly about the times when my depression and anxiety prevent me from getting work done, I might find it harder to fit in, to stay attached to a professional group, to stay employed, than I already do. So instead, I wear T-shirts and cargo pants, and I let people think (at times) that I’m merely disorganized or not that committed to what I do.

In my opinion, it takes a lot of privilege to assume either that greater authenticity leads to greater happiness, or that the only reason you would leave who you are at the door when you step or roll into work is the formal, organizational structure of the place where you work.

Moreover, being your authentic self in front of somebody else requires trust, and outsiders have very good reasons not to trust insiders. For me, part of what I mean when I say I lack a certain amount of privilege is that every day at work, I make calculations about who is safe to interact with and who is unsafe. Of course, there are degrees of safety and it’s not a binary choice. For example, every time someone uses “crazy” as a pejorative — suggesting that what I am is also a label to insult an idea with — that decrements their “safety” score inside my head. Almost everyone uses this word in this way — even I still do, given that I’m not free of internalized ableism — which is why I say it’s not a binary property. If my company became totally flat and got rid of all structures, processes, and goals, I wouldn’t be able to have authentic interactions just because of that. I’d still have this calculus of safety I have to apply all the time.

And what about when who you are makes people uncomfortable? If you’re queer, trans, kinky, poly, disabled, you probably either have spent a lot of time trying to blend in, or you have stories about when people become uncomfortable upon realizing some aspect of who you really are, and having to comfort them. (Or both!)

To take a completely different example, do you really want to encourage people to be “who they really are” when who they really are is a harassing creep? Maybe having to be a bit inauthentic at work serves an equalizing function, like a uniform. If you know what the rules are, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to follow them and less likely that you’ll be cast out for breaking a rule you didn’t know existed.

Informality and isolation

Usually, no one tells little kids on the playground who to play with and who not to play with. But even very little kids start forming hierarchies of exclusion when left to their own devices. Vivian Paley’s work, as documented in her book “You Can’t Say ‘You Can’t Play'” showed both that in groups of kindergarteners, leaders emerged who got to decide which kids got to play and which kids got excluded; and that a teacher could change that by imposing the simple rule that “you can’t say ‘you can’t play'”. And increasing the amount of inclusion in the group made the kids in it feel more accepted, on the whole. An advocate of structureless organizations might argue that Ms. Paley should have just let her pupils be their authentic selves and form their own social alliances. But at least according to Paley’s account, imposing the rules made the kids happier — contrary to Nyman’s claims about structurelessness and happiness.

Now, perhaps kids are just different from adults. I also don’t think it’s necessarily human nature to form hierarchies in the absence of formal rules. Fundamentally, I don’t care whether that’s because of nature or nurture. No matter what combination of nature or nurture it is, as human beings we have the latitude to choose what we will value. Personally, I value inclusion, and while I can’t prove logically to somebody else that this is something they should value too, I think there’s plenty of evidence that inclusion and the overall happiness of people in a group correlate. And, as Paley’s kindergarteners show, inclusion does not necessarily naturally arise from structurelessness.


Isolation is closely related to an insidious way in which people who believe themselves to be good can perpetuate oppression: the withholding of mentorship. In another context, that of law schools, Pamela J. Smith wrote about how even when Black women gain admission as law students, informal social barriers to the development of mentoring relationships with faculty members are a form of discrimination that is difficult to challenge (“Failing to Mentor Sapphire: The Actionability of Blocking Black Women from Initiating Mentoring Relationships”, reprinted in Critical Race Feminism, Adrien Katherine Wing ed.)

Informal mentoring between apparent peers is mediated by social power dynamics as well. In her book Leaving The Ivory Tower, Barbara Lovitts wrote about the importance of tacit knowledge in determining whether Ph.D students succeed or fail. Many graduate programs are quite structureless in a day-to-day way; despite having a clear hierarchy (tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, non-tenured instructors, postdocs, grad students), new graduate students must navigate a system with very little formal structure in order to learn the unwritten rules of the game. The difference between being a popular person and an unpopular one in grad student social groups can be the difference between academic success and failure. Would fewer grad students drop out because of isolation if there was a more formal process for initiating beginning students?

In my personal experience as someone who, earlier in my life, didn’t resemble most of my colleagues, lack of mentorship is a major structural barrier to success both as an academic computer scientist and as a software engineer. And I think lack of structure translates into lack of mechanisms to encourage formal mentoring relationships — something that has a disparate impact on women, people in gender, romantic, and sexual minorities, people of color, disabled people, and everybody else who may not feel comfortable approaching someone of higher social status to ask for support.

Likewise, people with disabilities that affect how they process tacit social cues — such as people who are on the autism spectrum — may have a much easier time contributing harmoniously when the rules are made clear than when they must access all resources by guessing at a system of unwritten rules. Since ability to write software isn’t contingent on being neurotypical, barriers to entry for neurodiverse people mean excluding a portion of the talent pool for no particular reason.

When a marginalized person joins an organization, in the absence of structure, isolation and lack of mentorship can combine to render them powerless and unable to ask for — or perhaps even express — what it is that they need. In such a situation, it’s easy for that person to then be labeled “unproductive” by the very community that has, without even knowing it, made it impossible for that person to learn and grow. Formal structures are one way to level the playing field and make sure that everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of whether senior folks in the organization find them initially easy to relate to or identity with.

Codes of conduct and diversity expectations

I don’t know how a structureless organization would maintain or enforce a code of conduct. Maybe in such an organization, everyone just likes each other so much that it’s not necessary to have one. But codes of conduct aren’t needed because people aren’t nice or because they don’t like each other; they’re needed because different people have different expectations about what kind of behavior is appropriate in which contexts. It doesn’t seem to me like getting rid of formal structure solves that problem.

Codes of conduct are just one way to help a group become or remain diverse, by ensuring a safe environment for everyone and providing mechanisms to address breaches of that safety. Without formal structures, how does a company make and keep itself diverse? While the practice of affirmative action is often inaccurately derided as “quotas”, a few tech companies do go as far as to institute numerical quotas for hiring women. I would suspect that such a practice, and even more flexible affirmative action concepts, would conflict with informality. But how does a structureless organization avoid devolving simply into hiring friends?

In general, how do you make sure that an organization without structure doesn’t default to recreating the same power hierarchies that exist in its underlying society? I asked this question during the question and answer period at Nyman’s talk, but it got a little lost in translation. Nyman’s answer amounted to “we won’t hire racist or sexist people”. But that’s not good enough. Everyone raised in a white supremacist society has unconscious racism, and everyone raised in a patriarchy has unconscious sexism. It’s obviously inadequate to dismiss the possibility of recreating systematic oppression “because most of us are good ethical people”. Nyman himself admitted that Github is getting less diverse.


Unless it literally consists of a collection of people, each working alone — in which case you’d wonder what makes it an organization — in an organization without people formally titled “manager”, people will have to step up to manage each other at least sometimes and to some extent. How do you take initiative and assert power — in the absence of a structure that makes that power legitimate — when you’re already culturally oppressed and disempowered? If nobody is a manager, who will be most successful in, say, asking that their team institute a “run regression tests before committing code” policy: a tall, white, able-bodied, cis man; a short, Latina, disabled, cis woman; or a fat, Black, genderqueer person? When is it possible for people to really treat each other as equals, and when do they infer hierarchies when not given a formal hierarchy to look to?

What about when you’ve been punished in the past for trying to regulate others’ behavior instead of “knowing your place”? If you’re perceived as female, knowing that girls who assert power get called “bossy” and women who assert power get called worse, but also knowing that your leadership skills will eventually be called into question if you don’t assert power, structurelessness starts looking like a double bind.


Without goals and performance metrics, how do people get held accountable? I don’t just mean accountability for delivering on the promises one makes as part of doing one’s job. How about, for example, not finding a subtle way to fire somebody for discriminatory reasons and make it look like it was performance-related?

In his talk, Nyman acknowledged that more “formal” processes are necessary for handling harassment: he acknowledged, “you can’t just go to anyone” if you’ve been harassed. But what else, falling short of “harassment” as such, might require a formal process?

Summing up

I’ve been pretty negative about structureless organizations. But there might be positives. Are they more open than more traditional companies to people with less formal education, or whose biographies are otherwise non-traditional? (I don’t know.) Do they make it harder for entrenched managers to retain power by virtue of seniority? (Again, I don’t know.)

To be fair, there isn’t just one set of processes that could arise when an organization sets aside formal structure. The majority could end up ruling most of the time. Or an organization could make decisions based on consensus. Or it could be cloyingly called a “do-ocracy”, in which decisions get made by whoever has enough time and energy to implement the consequences of the decision. I still think there’s the risk of majority rule, though, and the problem with that is that decisions about basic rights, respect and dignity can’t and shouldn’t be made by a majority. Where do basic rights, respect, and dignity come into this discussion? The number of occupations that are at least potentially a route into the middle class, at least theoretically available to anyone who has acquired a certain skill set that is possible for anyone dedicated to acquire, is steadily decreasing. If you’re in a social class such that you need money to live, learning how to program isn’t a bad way to go. But that will only continue to be true if tech company jobs are open to any qualified candidate, without the hidden price tag of humiliation based on one’s race, gender, disabilities, or sexual orientation.

Majority rule is, then, a problem because majorities often opt to keep minorities in their place for the benefit of the majority. And yes, a group made up of entirely people who see themselves as good and ethical can and will deny basic rights, respect and dignity to people based on gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and other axes of oppression. The world might be different someday, but we can’t get there by pretending we are there.

Your thoughts, readers?

Thanks to Geek Feminism bloggers Sumana, Mary and Jessamyn for their comments.

The word LINKS spelt out in clips (safety pins)

Linkspam Of Unusual Size (22nd June, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious 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.