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It's usually a good thing when people talk about ways to increase women's participation in programming communities. I used to be active in the Haskell community, so normally, that the subject came up during the annual "Future of Haskell" discussion at this year's Haskell Symposium would be something for me to cheer about.

Sometimes, men talk about the gender disparity in tech communities as if there's some big mystery. I have to conclude that these guys haven't talked to women who currently work in computer science academia and the tech industry, or who did and then left. As someone who was perceived as a girl or woman doing computer science for 12 years, my solution to the lack of women in tech is:

Stop telling women that they aren't welcome and don't belong.



During the "Future of Haskell" discussion, Doaitse Swierstra (a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht), suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room and that this would be a good thing because it would "make the meetings more attractive".

In other words: he followed a call for more participation by women with exactly the kind of comment that tells women that a space is unsafe for them.

Suggesting that more women would be welcomed at a conference because they would make it "more attractive" is saying that women are valued for how they look, not for what they do. If you've ever heard the words "objectification" or "hypersexualization" and not known what they meant, well, look no further than this comment for an example. And because many women see spaces where they are targets for the male gaze as spaces where they will be targets for more than just men's gazes, it's a comment that carries the underlying message that the computer science conference under discussion is not, in fact, a place where a self-protecting woman ought to be. It's not that Prof. Swierstra said any of this outright, of course. He didn't have to. English-speaking academicians are part of that subset of the world in which everyone comes pre-installed with the cultural programming that means a few words about the "attractiveness" that more women participants would bring to the Haskell Symposium evoke a whole world of stereotypes -- ones that limit women's choices, careers, and lives.

Swierstra's remarks were also potentially alienating to any non-heterosexual men who were present, as they reflected an assumption that he was speaking to an audience of people who found women, and only women, "attractive". Finally, there is a tacit understanding when one talks about "attractive" women that one is talking about women who have cissexual bodies, are thin, aren't disabled, and are in a particular, narrow age range. So apparently, if you're a woman and not all of those descriptors apply to you, maybe you shouldn't think about learning Haskell, as your presence wouldn't make the Haskell Symposium more attractive (to heterosexual men).

So while Prof. Swierstra may have meant no harm -- may indeed have meant to do good by encouraging efforts to increase women's participation in the Haskell community -- what matters is not his intent, but the effect of his words. (Everyone who's ever written code knows that the compiler doesn't care about your intent; extend that to your interactions with other people, and you might find yourself behaving more fairly.) Any women who were in the room for the meeting (and when I have attended it in the past, there have always been at least a few) got the message that if they weren't there to be pretty, why were they there? And any women who watched the video of the discussion (relevant part begins around 32 minutes in) got the message that the Haskell community is a community that tolerates sexism.

When I watched the video, what I heard after Prof. Swierstra's comment about attractiveness was laughter. No one called him out; the discussion moved on. I might be wrong here, but the laughter didn't sound like the nervous laughter of people who have recognized that they've just heard something terrible, but don't know quite what to do about it, either (though I'm sure that was the reaction of some attendees). It sounded like the laughter of people who were amused by something funny.

It would have taken just one person to stand up at that moment and say, "That was sexist and it's not acceptable here." (That person would probably have to be a senior faculty member or researcher, someone of equal rank to Prof. Swierstra; challenging a male, senior researcher is not something a female grad student (or even maybe a male grad student) should be expected to do.) But nobody did. And that's what really disappoints me. Structural sexism persists not because of the few people who do and say blatantly bad things, but because of the majority who tolerate them. People say things like the things Prof. Swierstra said because they are socially rewarded for it: they can get a few laughs. Also, they can display their membership in a high-status group (heterosexual men). Take the reward away, and the comments and actions that exclude go away too.

I expected more from the people who attend the Haskell Symposium. I expected more because for years, I attended ICFP and the Haskell Symposium, and even in the days when I didn't identify as male and didn't usually challenge others' perception of me as a woman, I felt like I was in a community where I belonged when I was there. For the most part, I didn't feel like my perceived gender was called attention to, and I felt like I would be judged based on what I could contribute to a conversation rather than on whether a man would find my appearance pleasing. If my first Haskell Symposium as a twenty-year-old had been in 2012 instead of 2000, I wouldn't have come away with the same impression. And I don't know if I would have gone back.

I'm no longer in the community of people who attend ICFP, and I no longer work on Haskell projects. My academic career ended a year ago when I was told that I couldn't be a grad student if I didn't want to interact with another student I'd witnessed joking about raping a fellow student. I have a job that doesn't involve Haskell, and lack the privilege of having spare time and energy left to do programming projects when I'm done with paying work. There have been days when I've had regrets. Today is not one of them. If I'd continued doing functional programming research, I could have been an agent for change; sexism no longer affects me directly now that folks have to have it spelled out for them that I'm not a cis man. Still, I don't feel like a community that makes somebody feel like it's acceptable to say that women would add "attractiveness" to a professional meeting is a community that I belong in.

If you are a man in this community, please don't feel like you have no power. You actually have a lot of power: you can let people who make these comments know that sexism isn't okay. The Geek Feminism Wiki's "Resources for allies" page is one resource that can help; the wiki also has a page of good sexism comebacks. Some comebacks that might have helped in this situation are: "I don't think that sounds as funny as you want it to sound"; "Who let you think it would be okay to say something like that?"; "Excuse me? / "I'm sorry, I don't quite understand what you're trying to say. Could you state it more plainly?"; "It sounds like you are implying <sexist thing>. I'm sure you don't really think that. <change subject>"; "That was sexist"; and (if used by the moderator) "We're done" and "That was sexist, and that is not acceptable here." Of course, there are others. The most important thing you can do to be an ally is to listen to women, and people who are perceived as women, in your community. Don't lecture people about how to respond to difficulties you haven't faced; simply learn from their own self-reporting of their experiences. Of course, don't demand that others educate you without establishing trust, either.

Countering sexism requires courage and (in Samuel Delany's words) moral stamina. It is work that largely needs to be done by men, since men who tacitly believe that women aren't quite human are hardly going to listen to women's opinions on the subject. For men to do this work, of course, they have to believe that women belong in their communities, that women are more than just attractive bodies, and that their communities will benefit from the inclusion of women -- benefit in ways that are not about aesthetics. Whether from within or without, I hope that the Haskell community will include more men who have this courage and who believe these principles -- whether or not the presence of those men makes the community more attractive.


Addendum: If you're coming here from Reddit, please take the time to read four background pieces that are part of my earlier series of essays "A Problem With Equality": "Power and privilege", "Systems and individuals", "What oppression is", and "Emotional invalidation". Most criticisms of the piece you're reading have already been answered in one of these essays.

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Tim Chevalier

November 2014

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