Tag Archives: sexism

A closeup photograph of an open lipstick, with a blurry laptop in the background (by Aih)

The Ladycoders Project, Interviewing and Career Advice

This is a guest post by Addie. Addie is a software engineer specializing in web applications in the Portland, OR area. She’s actively involved in the Portland tech community, including the local women-in-tech group Code N Splode.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

Last fall, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and had a transformative experience. Over those two days of sessions and networking, I felt like I reconnected with every aspect of myself that has existed throughout my 12 years writing code, and this had a way of healing some old career wounds in a way nothing else really has. GHC is interesting because it brings together women from all stages of the computing pipeline – academics, industry veterans and novices alike, and students – so many students.

Many of the conference’s sessions focused on career development, and rightly so. Many of the students in attendance were on the cusp of starting their careers in industry, and the conference provided some crucial guidance. Some sessions were tuned to issues female developers tend to grapple with more than male developers – Impostor Syndrome and other crises of low confidence, for instance. In one of the most personally powerful moments of the conference, the woman who was my only female teammate on a team of 30+ men in my first job out of college sat down next to me during a “Confidence Building Tricks” session. This woman has been my role model both personally and professionally in the six years since I met her, and this was the first time I’d seen her since leaving that job. At the behest of the workshop organizers, she turned to me and bragged, “I run the Internet” (and she does!) in her best Schwarzenegger voice, and I felt elated.

The final session I attended at GHC involved an informal, rotating panel of women in industry giving career advice to women just about to launch their careers. Everybody had different stories, and the hour of discussion that followed was really eye-opening. I learned that I hadn’t been the only person who’d cried during my first job interview. I learned that I wasn’t the only person to find my college’s career center training to be mostly insufficient when it came to technical interviewing, because technical interviews often reduce a person to their skills and can feel very dehumanizing when you’ve been trained to expect something entirely different. I heard about a variety of industry experiences very different from my own, and reconnected with the nervousness that is standing on the cusp of the unknown as a college graduate-to-be.

After the session, one of the college-age women pulled me aside and said she wanted more advice about interviewing, specifically technical interviews. I reiterated that she should take traditional interview training with a grain of salt, because technical interviews rely so heavily on problem-solving and proving technical skill. I recommended that she investigate the wide array of websites that post sample technical interview questions and problems to solve, and to practice working through the solutions to those problems not only on her own but out loud and with others – to get comfortable “working on the whiteboard”. I told her that the technical content in interviews varies substantially depending on the company – and even the interviewer!, and that she should expect to occasionally deal with problems that are intentionally difficult and not easy to solve. I wrapped up by telling her that it’s easy to feel discouraged and frustrated with oneself after dealing with the rigor of some technical interviews, but that’s a normal response and to not think she wasn’t cut out for this if she has a bad interview or practice session. Once you get the hang of it, I said, technical interviews can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grace Hopper conference was interacting with women who approached the “gender in tech” issue from a different angle than me. Many of the goodies in the Expo Hall celebrated being a coder in the same breath as stereotypical girliness in a way that I find quite problematic. But I also saw college women who loved the problematic swag and was reminded that, a decade ago, seizing upon my girliness as part of my identity as developer was an act of rebellion.

I squirmed when women – especially industry women, and especially those on stage, in panels – made gender essentialist claims (implying that women were superior in certain skilled areas). I wished these women wouldn’t make such claims in front of a room full of students who looked to them as authorities, but I also remembered the times in my past where cheap gender essentialism helped me feel a lot better during times of low confidence.

When I explored the discomfort that surfaced while witnessing others coping with the women-in-tech issue in ways I found problematic, I saw so much of my younger, less experienced self. I empathized strongly with the coping mechanisms we all employ to make the difficult journey as a female or other minority developer. Like all coping mechanisms, some work better than others. One of the big questions I grappled with in light of this, and still grapple with, is this: being well-versed in women-in-tech issues is something that requires education and lived experience just like any other specialty. As we’re learning, we’re going to accidentally hurt people along the way. How do we correct problematic behavior when we see it, without alienating? How do we learn, and encourage participation, along all steps of our journey, and cope with the inevitable cases where someone says something that isn’t quite clueful and steps on some toes?

I’m reminded of all of this thanks to a discussion popping up in several of my social circles lately regarding the Ladycoders Project, a (now fully-funded) Kickstarter campaign and upcoming career-development seminar for women in technical careers. After learning about this project, most of the women in tech that I know were initially jazzed: we all love the idea of empowering women to succeed in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. Every female developer has a thing or two she’s learned the hard way that she would have preferred to see in a seminar like this one. Most of the initial discussion I saw was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

It didn’t take long, though, before some folks started investigating the Ladycoders site and found some content that disturbed them. That “good” and “bad” mock interview in the Kickstarter video didn’t sit right. The seminar opens with a session called “Skin Deep”, which focuses specifically on appearance. The outline to the “Certifications and Skills” session includes a bullet point on “why you have to be qualitatively better” (presumably, than your male peers). There’s language in the Kickstarter’s FAQ which has made LGBTQ individuals – who face many of the same issues (and more!) in industry as cisgendered women – uneasy. But the session that sticks out the most (and the worst) is “Men Aren’t the Enemy”, which posits:

Men don’t deliberately keep us out; it’s our job (for now) to be easily integrated into an all-male team, nonthreatening, and hyperskilled

This statement has (rightly) made many women in industry quite angry, myself included. Geek Feminism’s Timeline of Incidents catalogs an ever-growing list of sexist events across communities. People have (and will continue to) say that these exclusionary practices aren’t a “deliberate” attempt to keep women out, but anybody who has experienced the isolating chill of exclusionary behavior understands that it is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, and it does keep women out. (Further reading: Intent is Not Magic.) The rest of the sentence suggests a path of least resistance that relies heavily on performing stereotypical gendered behavior; I’m not the only person who detects a strong whiff of victim blaming in all of it.

Many of us who have been discussing this project feel incredibly torn here: we have serious problems with some of the content on the Ladycoders site, but we also think the project has an excellent goal. There’s a lot of good advice in the session outlines as well – in particular, I liked seeing bits about “the myth of the one-page resume” and building up a public code repository on a site like GitHub. There’s also emphasis on practicing whiteboard exercises and mock technical interviews. Since this project is just getting off the ground – the seminar hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know how the problematic stuff in the session outlines will translate to in-person education; the only information we can go from is what’s provided by the website and the Kickstarter. The problematic content inspires far more questions than answers.

Some of us are also torn because of a discussion a few weeks ago following a post called “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”; Skud’s post summarizes the scope of the discussion quite well. We’re still grappling with some difficult questions: if our feminism really isn’t about setting rules or hoops to jump through, how do we skillfully engage with problematic content? How do we take a stance on something when we all come from different perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds? How do we call out ignorant or hurtful statements while still showing compassion? While Ladycoders doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a feminist project, its goals (to increase the participation and representation of women in industry) match those of [geek] feminists. As individuals, we all draw our lines in different places when it comes to problematic content and behavior.

I can only speak for myself here. I think the problematic content in the Ladycoders outline has the potential to do tremendous harm, and ultimately drive women away from industry by delivering misleading information. That’s my beef with it.

Circling back to Grace Hopper here for a moment, I had the same feeling when I came out of Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote address. As I’ve said before, I really have trouble with Sandberg’s “inspiring” speeches to women because she places so much emphasis on women’s ambition and hard work, as if every obstacle constructed by institutional sexism can be overcome just by working a little harder or shedding a bit more blood. As a young person it is enormously empowering to feel like what’s possible is solely within the realm of one’s imagination and willpower. And there is some truth to that. But there are also so many systems at play, and when it comes to being a minority in any field, those systems can work very strongly against us.

The problem with not acknowledging the oppressive influence of the system in one’s approach is that it can be utterly heartbreaking once the system gets in the way. If I’ve been taught that my success in industry just comes down to my agreeability, my ambition, my skillfulness in not threatening my male peers – what happens when the problems that such behavior meant to solve arise anyhow? How do I cope in that situation – do I blame myself? Do I decide I’m just not cut out for this, and quit? What information could I have received about these inevitable obstacles that could have fostered resilience?

This is what I’m worried about when I hear Sandberg speak, or read about Ladycoders encouraging me to do all the work to integrate with my all-male team. It just doesn’t match up with the reality that I’ve lived. In fact, it would require an inhuman amount of energy and the emotional fortitude of a robot. One approach does not fit all situations.

I’d like to pivot back to the advice I gave that college student back at GHC, and some general sentiments about my own experience with interviewing and otherwise getting by in industry. There’s a lot we can do as developers to better ourselves – to make ourselves better candidates for a job, and outstanding employees once we’re on the job. But the onus shouldn’t just be on us. The tech industry is very young, and there are a lot of things it’s not doing well either. I have major criticisms about the general trend of software companies hiring for a very specific set of skills and experience rather than aptitude, and being unwilling to invest significant resources in training: I firmly believe this is damaging for all parties, and allows for the continued glorification of the stereotypical hacker type who spends all of their time on code, disadvantaging developers who prefer more balance. Peter Cappelli has been writing some great pieces about the skills gap myth that tie into his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It“. It encourages me to see a voice putting pressure on institutions instead of individuals for once. Needless to say, I have the same opinions about organizations with gender diversity issues: it is the organization’s job to proactively make themselves appealing to people of all identities; if the responsibility has been placed on the token person in that diverse group to point out what you’re doing wrong, you’re not doing it right. We absolutely need to work on improving ourselves as candidates and employees, but the pressure on systems and institutions to fix themselves up could be so much stronger, and that’s where my passion lies.

Personally, I love talking about interviews and general career advice. There’s a lot of things I’ve gotten right and many more I’ve gotten wrong. I’m an excellent interviewer, and getting a job has never been difficult for me. I’ve still had some interviews that I would have conducted differently if given the chance to do them again. On the job, things have been a bit more challenging for me – I’ve spent more time as a “new employee” than not, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at being “new”. I’m not very good at asking lots of questions in lieu of reading documentation, motivating myself to jump into a foreign code base, or warming up to a new development team. I’d like to be a more focused and organized worker, and I’d like to spend more time on skill development than I currently do. So I have plenty that I’m still working on.

I asked some other female developers about their experiences interviewing women, and learned some interesting things. I want to wrap this up by passing on some advice I think is useful and trends women-or-minority-specific, but a bit more constructive than the problematic bits in the Ladycoders outline.

  • Learn about terms like Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat, and microaggressions as soon as possible. It’s normal to encounter one, if not all, of these at some point. Being able to put a name to that uncomfortable feeling will help you feel less alone in your experience, and will help you communicate your needs more precisely.
  • The most important component of a technical interview is being able to problem-solve on your feet. Try doing this with both easy and hard problems; examine the way you react when you don’t know how to solve a problem, and consider more constructive ways to engage with it. Asking for clarification or additional information is totally okay. Give as much information as possible while you’re thinking through an answer; it’s okay to say “I know this isn’t the optimal solution, but here’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Technical interviews can actually be a whole lot of fun once you get the hang of these things.
  • One of the benefits of switching jobs regularly is more frequent interview experience. If you’re looking for a new job after a few years away from interviewing, realize that you’ll probably be a bit less polished. Take some time to review potential interview questions and practice with a friend. I know some people that regularly interview between jobs even if they aren’t actually looking; this doesn’t work for everybody, but it does help the practice stay fresh.
  • Appearance and personality mean so much less during a technical interview than they do any other interview, and this can be disorienting for people who have been trained on non-technical interviews. I typically interview in jeans and a sweater (and also a nose ring and candy-colored hair – YMMV, but this hasn’t been a problem for me), and I incorporate things like my motivations and values into my narrative about my career history, technologies I’ve worked on, etc. With time, you’ll find ways to make responses to questions about past experience both informative and personally insightful.
  • Yes, women tend to express less confidence and more doubt in their abilities. I am absolutely one of those folks. At the same time, I’ve found most interviewers find it refreshing that I’m admitting what I don’t know instead of pretending that I have everything figured out, since so many other interviews can feel like trying to smoke out the candidates who are faking their expertise (an unfortunate side effect of this industry’s stereotypically hyper-masculine culture: braggadocio). I try to reframe my deficits in a positive way: “I haven’t worked with that – but I’d like to learn it,” or “That’s not in my skillset, but given my experience with x, I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.” There is a way to be honest about one’s limitations while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Being personable in a technical interview is really about showing excitement and passion for a particular technical topic or field of study; figure out what you’re enthusiastic about ahead of time and feeling engaged with your interviewer will be a lot easier. When you’re researching the company you’re interviewing, what aspects of their work seem the most interesting to you?
  • Interviews are a two-way street. You are always interviewing the company, too. If they do something that doesn’t impress you, that’s important data and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t be so fixated on your own performance that you miss warning signs. Think about what you’ve liked and didn’t like about past jobs you’ve worked, and questions you could have asked to get information about those components of the job in the interview. Sometimes your mind will go blank when an interviewer asks if you have any questions – if you know this happens to you, come with a list!
  • Curate your online presence. If you have a unique-to-the-Internet full name like me, this is a lesson you learned a long time ago – we of the unique names are really easy to find on Google (right down to the Tamagotchi haiku I wrote as a 13-year-old that wasn’t really a haiku). Make sure you have a web presence that conveys an accurate picture of who you are both as a developer and an individual. Personally, it’s important to me that my web presence is authentic and not sterile – think of how you want to present yourself to someone doing a web search on your name in a variety of career contexts (future employer, future coworker, collaborator on an open source project, peer in your local tech community, etc.), and decide what you can do to get yourself to that point. (This was a big topic at GHC and I think it’s going to become increasingly important. You can use your presence on the Internet to your advantage!)
  • Talking about past negative experiences is a tricky road, but if you avoid the issue altogether in interviews, don’t be surprised if those issues re-emerge after you get the job. This is the one I’m doing the most work with right now. I’ve been harassed and bullied on the job, so now I ask about company harassment policies in interviews; I’ve had neglectful managers and a void of performance feedback, so I ask about the frequency of performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, and the organization’s managerial philosophy. The big one that I’ve just started doing – and it scares me a lot – is being public about my priorities as a geek feminist and my interest in improving experiences for minorities in tech while I’m in an interview. I’ve realized that I’m no longer willing to work for companies that haven’t even done the most basic research on the issues facing women in tech, so if they react poorly to my disclosure, that’s important data. Yes, this has terrified me, but so far it’s led to positive results.  I’m still figuring out the right questions to ask in that department, and I’m learning as I go.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links that have emerged while my peers have been discussing Ladycoders and constructive career advice for tech minorities.

How Science-Geek Culture Discourages Female Science-Geeks

The majority of commenters agreed that women could not excel in math, due to biology and evolution. In Slashdot Science, the commenters were mostly grown men with science degrees. I was a nineteen-year-old girl with only a high school diploma and a love of science. They were more educated than me, and I wanted to learn from them.

Whenever I encountered a Slashdot article about science and gender, I read the comments, trying to learn more about myself. I felt sick to my stomach each time. I used mental gymnastics to reconcile my love of science with science-credentialed, male elders proclaiming with certainty that female brains were unfit for math and science. They were the experts, after all. I was only a young, female science student.

Math and science are hard. I worried that when I found something challenging in math or science, it was because I was a girl and lacked the mental machinery to understand it. (I thought of myself as a “girl”, because I was still technically a teenager.) I accepted evolution. Many times, I had panick attacks over the possibility that I had innate, hard-wired mental limitations. Before graduating with a science degree, I was unproven. There was no proof that I could be a science person, but I already saw mountains of scientific evidence suggesting that I could not be a science person. Unproven male geeks don’t struggle with science research telling them that they can’t do science when they start to try.

Only after I graduated with a science degree did I feel I had the authority to challenge Slashdotters. Only after I graduated did I feel like a real adult. After I graduated, I was livid, knowing that Slashdot commenters were merely conjecturing casually about my mental limitations, unwittingly crushing the self-esteem of my younger geek self.

Sexism on the Internet—especially discussion websites about science, computers, and math—are like guided missiles targeting and damaging the self-esteem of young female geeks. Female geeks are most likely to see male geeks discuss our alleged mental inferiority in math and science. Non-geek women are unlikely to see these comments, because they are not the ones reading Slashdot, Digg, reddit, Hacker News, techcrunch, or Ars Technica.

For many male geeks, conjecturing about women’s mental and career potential is just an intellectual exercise, and stating personal and scientific hypotheses about women as if they are scientific facts is harmless. For us, it is personal and disturbing.

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

Life, the Universe and Linkspam (29th May, 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.

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

Linkspammmmm (18th May, 2012)

Enjoy!

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.

Learn 2.0 taken by Aaron Schmidt

Why WotC’s Sexism in Gaming Art Article Made Me Happy

Eva Schiffer is a Computer Scientist and a second generation tabletop gamer. This guest post is cross-posted from her blog.

WotC recently published a post titled Sexism in Fantasy that’s caused a lot of mixed reactions. I want to talk about why the article, if not it’s content, made me happy.

I see myself as a feminist. I know by putting that out there at the beginning I’m raising a lot of expectations about what I care about, how I react to things, and what I’m likely to defend. I’m also a relatively laid back person, despite some of my blog rants, and I’ve been through a long journey trying to understand sexism and feminism. For me this journey was many small cycles of “not getting it” punctuated by bursts of insight as I incorporated new ideas into my worldview. I grew up in the gaming world and for a long time I was so used to how things are that the roots and implications of the many traditions were invisible to me.

I’ve also watched many of my friends go through various cycles of getting and not getting aspects of sexism, racism, and other -isms. I’m not going to claim to be super enlightened… I mess up on ableism issues all the time… but I’ve reached a point where that cycle is familiar to me.

When I read WotC’s article what I saw was Jon Schindehette going through one of the early cycles of trying to understand sexism. He was “not quite getting it” and honestly if he’s just starting to struggle with these issues, I can’t blame him for not understanding them all at once. I’ve been there and I’ve fallen in the same pitfalls. I wish he had gotten further along before he wrote a public article… but he has my empathy as to why getting there takes time.

Jon tried to approach the problem logically and understand what sexism is and what it’s doing to gaming. He fell short on three fronts. One is that he didn’t do enough research on discussion that’s already taking place in the online community. Blogs like Go Make Me a Sandwich contain lots of resources that include frank discussion of the sort he’s trying to elicit. Tumblrs like Women Fighters In Reasonable Armor include loads of beautiful examples of art that’s attractive and pretty while presenting characters who look like people rather than toys. The fact that Jon didn’t bring up any of these resources makes me suspicious that he didn’t do this kind of research. He tried to start from square one by himself and he suffered for it. It’s a lot easier if you build on the work others have already done. ;)

The second problem Jon ran into was that he got into his logical investigation and backed off when he was starting to get somewhere. The definition of sexism he found, which seems quite reasonable to me, was, “Sexism is defined as having an attitude, condition, or behavior that promotes stereotyping of social roles based upon one’s gender.” That’s a good start. After talking about it for a bit he failed to take the next step and investigate gender roles.

To start understanding how sexism could promote stereotyping, you need to ask: “what gender roles might we be perpetuating?” Wikipedia has a good overview of historical gender roles. However, in the last 30 years, gender roles have changed. The “perfect submissive wife” ideal is not what our societal norms think women should be anymore. Unfortunately, there are still some very damaging gender roles out there for men and women.

One of the ones that hurts women the most is the idea that they must always be physically attractive and sexually available for men. This is sometimes called the Beauty Myth, and it’s the big problem one Jon missed. The Beauty Myth says a woman can be a brilliant rocket scientist, but if she isn’t also pretty, she’s not really worthwhile as a woman and no one will love her.

One of the roles that hurts men the most is the idea that they can only succeed financially and aren’t particularly physically attractive to women. This is also called the Success Myth. This is rather insidious because the Success Myth says that an average man needs to find a high paying job if he wants any hope of attracting a woman. If he suffers setbacks in his career or prefers to do something that is low paying, then he’s worthless and no one will love him.

Here’s a good summary of these two roles and how they hurt us from a male perspective.

The twin roles define a lot of our popular culture and they bleed into our fantasy as well. The Beauty Myth is why people fixate on making female characters beautiful even when “beautiful” crosses the line into impractical and unrealistic. The Success Myth is why we’re still unbelievably stuck on the “guy succeeds and then guy gets the girl” story plot.

Back to Jon… the third thing that I think went wrong for him is that he stumbled into some very basic fallacies talking about an -ism. This is a pretty common mistake and while embarrassing, isn’t all that surprising. Fallacy one is to assume that whatever went before is ok by virtue of being tradition. This was mostly justified by “market forces” in the article. If all tradition was free of -isms life would be sunshine and kittens and I wouldn’t have to write any blog posts in the ‘feminism’ category. :)

More seriously, a lot of people think “feminism happened, sexism is done now, right?” and sadly the answer is no. It takes a long time to change culture and there’s a lot of momentum. That’s not to say we need to flip out and throw all of our traditions out the window tomorrow. We can start by calmly taking a step back and making a few rational changes at a time towards a better, less -ism filled world.

The second fallacy Jon made was while talking about his three images. He got a bit muddy because he couldn’t see the modern roles affecting them and drifted into the “it’s really all opinion, anyway” argument. There is some opinion in everything, I agree. Sadly the existence of a systemic problem in media and in gaming media specifically isn’t really up for debate. It’s been discussed at length by a lot of people, especially authors. You can’t use the fact that some people can’t identify prejudice to justify prejudice not existing at all… that’s downright Paranoia levels of circular logic.

I want to be clear: being a bit blind to sexism doesn’t mean you’re some sort of horrible misogynistic asshole who’s running around saying terrible things all the time, it just means you haven’t quite figured out how to see sexism hidden in the world around you. All of us have been there, you don’t need to be ashamed of it, just do your best to keep an open mind and learn. :)

The final fallacy that Jon fell into was the “a few people complained, but lots of people like it, so everything must be great!” The argument “lots of people agree with me, therefore I’m right!” is not meaningful, especially when you’re talking about -isms. It’s an appeal to base social pressure and has no bearing on the correctness of your argument.

I suppose at this point you’re probably wondering how I’m going to justify the title of this post. Well, to be totally honest, as much as parts of the article irritated me, Jon redeemed himself in my eyes by taking the initiative to write about something as scary as sexism in the first place, making an honest (if flawed) attempt to learn, and asking for our input.

I can remember the first time that I tried to write up a post on a feminist topic. I think my hand was actually shaking when I pressed the “Publish” button. It’s scary putting yourself out there to talk about any issue of prejudice, because we all know our culture is so ready to throw a firestorm back in your face if you get anything “wrong.” I appreciate and respect that Jon was willing to try and that WotC was willing to let him.

When I reached the end of his article I was overjoyed that he openly solicited our feedback and I was presented with a comment box to put my thoughts into. Wow, was I happy. I didn’t even realize how happy I was until I’d spent an hour skimming and “liking” other people’s comments. I wanted a chance to speak to WotC directly and he gave that to me, which I’m deeply grateful for. The number of people who posted ernest, well thought out comments, some with great links to resources, made me feel better about the community. It made me feel like other people believe I belong here. :)

A lot of the commenters were talking to Jon too and most were very civil. Some offered him links to resources (like some of the ones I posted above) and encouragement. I’m hoping he’s taken some of those links and moved forward on his own path to understanding.

So, thank you, Jon, and thank you, WotC. It had some issues, but I appreciated the outreach and the effort that went into it. Please keep learning and write more about sexism and other -isms in gaming in the future. :)

A photograph of luridly lit bookshelves surrounding a table and chairs

When your misdeeds are archived

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers. It’s the last for this round.

This one is actually from me, it’s related to some questions I’ve been asked by various people who will remain anonymous (and who didn’t formally write to Ask a Geek Feminist). I have my own thoughts on this, and I also think it can vary (helpful!)

What do you think people and groups should do about sexism in their “archives”? By this, I mean for example, older stuff on their blog, or Facebook postings from years ago, or similar? A lot of people have sexism in their past, varying from “I used to be a pretty committed sexist actually” to “um, I didn’t really think about it, and I wanted to fit in, and I went through a ‘Your Mom’ phase for a while there”. Things you do on the Internet are pretty long-lived now, and your sexism sticks to your name while it remains visible.

Assuming someone or someones have control of their content, and they have sexism they don’t like in there, and they have reason to think it’s going to hurt someone. Should they remove the content? Should they edit it with warnings and apologies?

Have you seen this in a real situation? What did they do? How did it work for them and for women near them/involved in their community?

At least for systemic stuff, I tend to be on the ‘edit’ side of the fence. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. even if you’ve totally changed and are ashamed and sorry, being a reformed sexist is something that may make people, women in particular, cautious about you. Living with that is part of the deal. You don’t get to get access to Has Always Been The Best Person Ever cred because you weren’t.
  2. it also serves as a guide to How To Do It, for other reforming sexists (or How Not To Do It, if you apologise but don’t actually change)

And while writing an apology that is short and not self-serving is a challenge, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.

On the other hand, I, in general, do wish that much informal discussion on the Internet yellowed and started to curl at the edges and be difficult to read as time passed, sometimes. I realise that the invention of writing was some considerable time ago now, but even so, having to stand by your casual thoughts for years is a big ask. I can’t see that one should make a special effort to preserve evidence of one’s sexism if that same set of archives is going to disappear in its entirety.

Closeup of a slide staged on a microscope stand

“Does sex sell?” is an empirical question

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

We keep hearing the old chestnut “sex sells”, and we hear it most especially when we complain about how some item of geek culture is sexist – video game bosoms or ridiculous outfits on superheroines, for example – as if that was some kind of excuse for objectification.

Does sex sell? Does sexism sell? Where’s the evidence for this? I’ve got moderately good Google-fu but haven’t been easily able to turn up much in the way of useful information or anything more rigorous than blog rants and newspaper opinion pieces. Can anyone answer this one, or point me to some useful resources? Where is the real, empirical evidence for this? Are advertisers and content providers (comic artists, game producers etc.) operating on an outdated or scientifically unjustified model?

I’ve read quite a lot of your basic feminist literature. I’d like some science, or at least some vaguely scientific numbers. Can anyone help?

What do you think?

Multiple small broken window panes, through which greenery outside can be seen.

Does the sexism in CS ever get better?

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

Dear Geek Feminists:
I have a little story for you, and then a group of related questions. About two years ago, I was miserable, isolated, and overwhelmed in my undergraduate computer science (CS) program at a male-dominated polytechnic institute. I went to my advisor, an accomplished woman professor who had taught and studied computer science at quite a few schools, and asked her if she had any advice about dealing with sexism in our discipline.

“It never gets better. Either you learn to deal with it, or you leave,” she said. I was crushed by this, and I believe her fatalistic assessment contributed to my failing out of that school in that semester.

My question, then, is in several parts.
1) If you’re a woman in CS, does it ever get better? If it got better for you, where and how did that happen?
2) If you’ve learned to deal with it, how?
3) If you left – as I left, as Skud left – would you go back? Did you go back?
4) If being ostracized and viewed as gross and weird for being feminist and female “never gets better,” why stay in CS?

What do you think?

Angry woman covered in dark paint, wearing a shirt reading 'freedom'

Re-post: “How could they not have known?!”

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from last year. This post originally appeared on February 16, 2011.

[Trigger Warning: this post discusses trolling behaviour. Many links contain screenshots of threats, insults, sexual harassment and general profanity.]

From the Frag Dolls blog:

Less than a month ago, FatUglyorSlutty.com was just a twinkle in our #fragdolls IRC. […] The concept seemed simple enough. They wanted to make an easy image+caption blog dedicated to publicizing (and laughing at) the hilarious/disturbing messages that many female gamers receive while playing online games. The attention their site has gotten in the past week (including a front page on reddit.com, a feature on Kotaku, numerous blogs mentions, and hefty comment threads) proves that they created something more. Gaming culture at large is taking note, expressing appropriate shock and dismay. But I, in turn, am shocked by their reactions. I am fundamentally surprised that this is news. I keep asking myself “How could they not have known?!”

I first hit that question many years ago as a teenager on IRC. One of my male friends logged in on his mother’s account, and was horrified to discover the messages that “Sheila” was getting from complete strangers and mentioned so on our channel. The women of the channel shrugged: it was always like that for us. The men were horrified to know that under the surface, we’d been quietly ignoring pick up lines and harassment and just not mentioning it all this time. It’s not like we were intentionally hiding it, it’s more that it happened so often that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

I’ve been asking people “how could you not know?” a lot lately, too. I was sharing some of the choice comments I’d gotten on a recent geek feminism post at work, and my coworkers were totally appalled even though we were laughing over how appalling it was. They were horrified to hear that I still get this stuff fairly frequently while gaming, when writing online, while maintaining mailing lists or writing code. I’ve long since learned that it’s much more fun to treat them as hilarious and share them around for mockery, so that’s what we did, but I didn’t expect it to be such an educational moment for them.

Courtney Stanton took this to a new level when she gave an ignite talk about visualizing her troll data. Some of her insights are quite interesting. For example, 67% of comments were replies to other comments, but only 17% of troll comments were replies to others. And many people here who bemoan our commenting policies might be interested in one of her conclusions:

And so I have found that simultaneously allowing dissent while denying trolls an audience has led to more engagement. I’ve had multiple commenters say that they are not commenting anymore and in 24 hours they are back and generating more comments for people to respond to.

So stopping trolls (but not dissent) leads to some great discussion, but removing the troll commentary means that people don’t realise what’s going on under the surface, be it in games or in online discourse or wikipedia.

Geek Feminism isn’t a stranger to the “How could they not have known?!” problem: consider the Timeline of Incidents on the wiki. Mary blogged about why we document and one non-trivial reason is that people just aren’t aware, and don’t want to recognize this as a common occurrence without evidence. (Note that I can think of one recent debacle that isn’t yet on that timeline, if anyone’s got an itch to do some wiki editing…)

I expect it’s hard for someone not in the thick of things to know what’s going on. My coworkers don’t get the same comments I do, my male gamer buddies don’t have people freaking out or getting, er, excited when they speak on voice chat, my pure white friends don’t get told to go back to their home country (it’s this one, thanks) and we tend edit all the intentionally hurtful stuff we can out of our public environments so as not to give the hurtful folk the satisfaction of public attention but at the same time we render the problem invisible to outsiders. And then when we do talk about it, we’re met at first with incredulity because, well, how could they have known?

Despite the fact that women are much more visible in many geeky communities, there still seems to be an undercurrent of hatred from a small but loud segment of population. I wish I could suggest a solution that doesn’t winding up with just a set of variations on the unicorn law where it’s always up to women in the communities to bring this stuff up (and face the backlash from people who didn’t know and don’t want to believe). Perhaps the better question here is what advice can we suggest for potential allies who’ve just gotten broadsided by this and really could not have known? How can allies be better prepared for problems when they occur, and more aware of the undercurrents before something happens?

I’ll leave these as “ask a geek feminist” style questions for our commenters.

Angry Mob by Robert Couse-Baker

Yes, “Hate *Atheists*”

This is a guest post by Stephanie Zvan. It is cross-posted from her blog, Almost Diamonds.

So, Rebecca Watson once again pointed out what should be a no-brainer–only to have her point ignored by people who want to quibble with her wording. “Oh, noes! Rebecca titled her post, “Reddit Makes Me Hate Atheists“! Oh, noes! But this isn’t about atheists!”

Actually, yes, it is. Rebecca already made the connection in her post, in case you need reminding:

Why would she ever want to be a part of any atheist community, if that’s how she’s treated? The next time you look around your atheist events and wonder where all the women are, think of this and know that there are at least some of us who aren’t willing to just accept this culture without trying to change it.

Here’s the thing, boys and girls: I don’t get this crap anywhere else I choose to invest my time. I don’t get it from my friends, because those people don’t get the privilege of remaining my friend. I don’t get it at work, where they’ve gone well beyond the basic legal requirements in order to make it a place where women also have rewarding work and an opportunity for advancement. As a result, I’m surrounded by smart, confident people of various genders who take everybody seriously. There is the very rare sexist idiot, but the conspiracies we create to work around these people are open and supportive.

I don’t even get it in those legendary bastions of “social ineptitude,” fantasy and science fiction fandom and conventions. Don’t get me wrong. There are definitely still problems, but predators and discriminatory publishing practices are considered problems of the community, and the institutions that support the problems are rightly pressured (and aided) to fix themselves. This “we’re so helpless in the face of a few bad actors” nonsense doesn’t fly.

This is very much about atheism. It’s also about the more general skeptical community, of course, but atheism is a big part of that and getting bigger.

No, this is the community in which I get, “We have this female guest we’d like to have on the show. Would you care to interview her?” This is the community in which we get high-profile writers saying, “Piffle. I have no need to condemn the bad behavior of those people I was just joking around with.” This is the community in which a leader of an organization goes around telling people (all women that I’ve seen so far), “Oh, he’s a friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. I’m sure you’re just misinterpreting what he said,” or liking it on Facebook when someone complains that skeptical woman is being all emotional over a scientific issue. This is the community in which Rebecca’s cheerful acknowledging of a mistake is used to suggest her worth as a skeptic is zilch, while Brian Dunning’s stubborn embrace of DDT disinformation costs him nothing.

I write in this community about rape and issues of consent. I get MRAs in my comments, but they’re no big deal. Everyone can see them. I also get commenters who say, “Well, yes, MRA = bad. However, he had a point about this tricky legal question.” They get all butthurt when I say, “It’s nothing like tricky if it never happens. If you’re not sure you have consent, don’t have sex–unless you’re willing to be a rapist.” They’re just there for an intellectual conversation in which potential sexual partners have all the humanity of chess pieces. And people tell me I should be nicer to them.

I get links to those posts from skeptic and atheist forums, where someone is using them to try to counteract the victim blaming and doubting in the latest high-profile rape accusation. That means I get to see them completely ignored as our oh-so-rational friends pull hypotheticals out of their asses and cite the Duke Lacrosse team as though it were a legal precedent in order to make the case that the accuser is probably lying her pathetic little ass off. These are our forums, people. That’s what they look like.

I write about IQ and bad science. I’ve got a university professor, the guy who is best known in atheist circles for having his MySpace atheist group discriminated against, who shows up on every one of these posts to suggest I really shouldn’t be writing about the topic without more expertise. He can’t actually find anything wrong with what I write, but he knows these researchers are nice guys, and he, personally, finds their conclusions reasonable despite lousy methodology. So I need more expertise. Guess how many times he’s done the same thing to a guy–or been called on that bullshit.

Same guy, Bryan Pesta for the record, is the fellow who followed a link from one of my blog posts to someone outside this community. She was complaining about a guy who ignored her repeated insistence that she wasn’t online to get hit on. Bryan’s response? I paraphrase: “Now that you’ve dumped him, how about you and me? Huh?” When I asked him whether he also sexually harassed his students, his response was legalistic. The response of other commenters was to suggest he was joking. No shit, he was joking. He just found it perfectly acceptable to make her the target of his joke, and these other commenters apparently couldn’t figure out why this was a problem.

In addition to writing, I also do this little skeptical convention experience called Skepchickcon. That would be where I was in July, on my way to a panel in a room so full of F&SF geeks hungry for skepticism and science programming that there wasn’t even standing room left, when I heard about Dawkins comments about someone who “calls herself Skep’chick.'” I’d already noted, after another conference in January brought it up, that I can write those science posts or solid atheist reasoning and rabble-rousing posts like yesterday’s response to Massimo Pigliucci. I can do those conventions and reach the audiences we say we want to reach. But I really only get seen when I talk about “women’s issues,” and when I do, I now know the leaders and icons of the movement I’m working for have already decided I’m whining about trivialities.

Many people have also decided that when I’m writing about this bullshit, I’m only in it for the clicks. That reasoning, for the record, is about as sound as that of the people who say atheists aren’t responsible for the sexism Rebecca talked about in her post because the young woman in question made the front page of Reddit–after the pretty girl was voted up that far by atheists. These posts don’t get more clicks. My other posts on more traditionally male subject matter get fewer. If people clicked on those more, where would be the incentive to write about sexism?

Oh, right. I’m still a part of this community. I’m still volunteering my time, energy, and yes, expertise to this movement. And doing that–and making a difference–I still have to put up with all this crap. Rebecca is entirely right. I don’t have to like y’all in order to do it, just think it’s important. And right now, yes, I’m rather hating atheists. However, it’s only because you’re awful.