I think the issue of why adults seem more willing to support young female (or, possibly, just CAFAB) geeks while (for example) criticizing programming events for teenage or adult women as being "exclusionary" also relates to the issue of ownership that I talked about yesterday. A five-year-old who wants to take a Star Wars water bottle to school isn't a threat to adult male geeks' turf. She's not competing with them for jobs, and she's also not doing the same work as them and (in their minds) lowering its status by making it work that a woman could do. She's just a cute kid. Talking about the structural factors that exclude young adults and adults from working in tech and being part of geek culture (where the latter is often necessary for the former) if they happen to be socially placed as female is harder. It's less comfortable; it's more threatening to the systems that reinforce some men's notions of their value and worth, as well as giving them unearned advantages, like getting paid more than women for doing the same work. It's also hard to talk about how endemic sexual harassment and sexual assault are in supposedly "professional" spaces in the tech industry -- an issue that (we'd at least like to think) is not so looming for kindergartners. It's hard because talking about it honestly means beginning to acknowledge that rape and abuse happen because all of us get taught to accept and sometimes even encourage them; not because a few aberrant individuals are monsters.
Changing minds -- even just creating a space where we don't stop encouraging everyone who's not cis and male the minute they turn 11 -- is long, hard work. The Ada Initiative is doing that work, and if you support them, you'll be helping with it. And if you let me know, you'll be helping me get 8 more people -- for a total of 20 -- to donate for my 0x20th birthday! By doing so, you can join the ranks of the fantastic miang, yam, cidney, nentuaby, leilazilles, pseudomonas, davidcarr_2001, and pastwatcher! (Just to name the people who donated non-anonymously, in the past 24 hours.)
Even so, I decided to donate to The Ada Initiative (TAI) this year, which is a non-profit organization that works to increase the representation of women in open-source software as well as other open culture projects (like Wikipedia). I've donated to TAI before, but this time I donated at the Ada's Angel level. Partly, the timing was because TAI just completed a successful fundraising drive and while I wasn't able to be part of helping them reach their goal, I wanted to get in on the tail end of that (and snag a totally sweet T-shirt); partly, it was because I just got my quarterly bonus at work. Given that I make my living writing open-source code, donating 10% of my net bonus to TAI seemed more than fair.
I donated to TAI because I benefit from sexism, and I donated to TAI because I benefit from having a more inclusive and more egalitarian work environment. Paradoxical? Not if you're familiar with intersectionality. Because I'm male, and have conditional cis privilege (that is, it's rare for people to question or invalidate my sex and gender unless I choose to mention that I have a transsexual body), unearned privilege accrues to me that makes my life and, particularly, my career easier. Other guys in my industry recognize me as "one of us". It wasn't always that way for me, so I know what the difference can be between being seen as a man and being seen as a woman. Maybe because I was never seen as a typical woman (whatever that means!), I avoided a lot of the worst of sexism and harassment. But I know that it's easier to work in software now that I'm being seen as who I am; fortunately, being seen as who I am also makes me happier than pretending to be someone I'm not. It's easier to interact with colleagues when they don't make joking comments about how they hope your spouse doesn't mind them going to lunch with you. It's easier to form social connections when you're not seen as useless because you're perceived as neither male nor available for sex. It's easier to work when people are willing to talk to you behind closed doors, because they don't see you as a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. I enjoy those benefits now not because I work harder than women, or because I'm smarter than they are, but simply because men recognize me as being like themselves. Donating money hardly makes up for having that unearned privilege, but it's a start towards leveling the playing field.
The other side of it is that I'm a queer man and a trans man, and a man who's not comfortable being in environments that subordinate women. I find homogeneous groups to be toxic. While TAI doesn't focus specifically on addressing homophobia and transphobia in open-source, what makes the environment safer for women is frequently also what makes the environment safer for queer men, trans men, and non-binary-identified people as well. The same kinds of "humor", "jokes", and political comments that get used to mark a space as unsafe for women are also used to marginalize those who are seen as men who aren't doing masculinity well enough: queer men. While some of the details are different, as a queer man I want the same thing that women in my industry do: to be seen as an equal partner and to be able to get through the day without hearing casual reminders that the people around me see me as inferior. So while it's easier for me to work in tech than it is for many women, I would still be more comfortable if it wasn't the case that my comfort comes at the expense of somebody else.
That's why, even though I didn't have a lot of money to spare right now, I donated to TAI as an investment in continuing to be able to work, continuing to be able to use the skills I've spent a lot of time developing. There's not much point in saving money if a month or a year or three years from now, I'm no longer able to work because the stress of being in a marginalized minority group gets to be too much for me. I trust Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner, who lead TAI, to choose the right priorities to change the culture. Already, TAI has had a significant effect in encouraging open/tech conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies. Making it possible for a woman to attend a technical conference without being afraid she'll get groped is hardly all that needs to be done to make the field open to everyone, but it's a necessary step along the way.
With that said, I think it's important for the voices of trans women, women with disabilities, and women of color to be heard more often and in greater numbers when determining our priorities. The movement to include women in tech shouldn't just be for white, abled, cis women. I think that there needs to be way more diversity even within the group of women interested in pushing for greater inclusion and equality. Women facing intersecting oppressions have issues that women whose only axis of oppression is gender either don't face, or don't face as severely, and only they can say what their own liberation would look like. And if "include women in tech" actually means "you have to be white, cis and abled to be a woman in tech", that isn't really inclusion at all, because it means there's a restrictive standard that women have to meet to get included that men aren't subject to. So I think there's change that needs to happen in this department, but that isn't a reason not to support organizations that exist right now.
My inner concern troll, which is harder to ignore than any real-life concern troll on the Internet, says, "With so many bad things in the world, why support women in tech, who are already privileged enough to have gotten the training required to even consider entering the field?" But that's a false choice: it falsely frames an unjust distribution of resources as genuine and inevitable scarcity. Justice for one group of people doesn't inherently come at the cost of justice for another group. Really, a better question is "when privileged men in tech enjoy so much status, why shouldn't women have the same opportunities?" It's awful to use the suffering of some "other" (whether that's people in another country, in another social class, or whatever) as a distraction because you're terrified that you might lose your privilege if more people have access to it. It's also awful to suggest that women should be satisfied with having enough food, where white, cis, hetero men in developed nations consider themselves entitled to far more than that.
The fact is that almost every issue in the world is less important than something else. Perhaps every issue, because how can you come up with a total order that ranks all problems by importance? Such an ordering would inevitably be biased to one person's, or one group's, priorities. I believe that no one is going to look out for my survival as a queer trans man if I don't, and by investing in my own ability to continue to make a living as a queer trans man in the world, I'm just doing what anyone who is obligated to be responsible for their own survival would do.
You can derail with "many bad things in the world" all you want -- deciding on the most important thing is a great way to stop people from doing anything -- but the fact remains that a world in which the best jobs are unavailable to women is not a just world. And a world where women can only have these jobs if they're ten times better than the average man and willing to undergo humiliation is not a just world either. Saying I should support "starving people" (othering!) instead is saying that everyone should settle for less. It's deflecting attention from what the most privileged people have in order to urge us to accept whatever standard of living is slightly higher than the lowest possible one. All we're asking, after all, is for people to have the same opportunities regardless of the gender they're socially placed in.
If you're someone who has enjoyed the privilege of working in the tech industry, particularly in open source, and particular if you haven't had to fight exclusion because of your social placement, I encourage you to give back just a little bit of what you've reaped by donating to the Ada Initiative. That is, at least, if you think everybody should have the same opportunities that you had.
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.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been told the following: “I have no problem with you people dressing however you want, and I’ll even call you ‘she’ if that’s what you want, but if you go around hitting on guys, don’t be surprised when you get what you deserve.” The threat of violence there is implied in only the loosest sense; no rational person in the threatened group would interpret that as anything but a threat. At the very least, it is condoning it as deserved.-- Autumn Nicole Bradley, "Larry King is why L, G, B, and T are together"
Go ahead and call it abuse. Call it assault. Call it rape. If you've done a whole lot of waffling about your experience with not-very-niceness, it probably was whatever you don't want to call it. It'll give you a sense of legitimacy when you feel hurt or angry. It'll give you, and the people you disclose to, a cue to take your experiences and their impact on your life seriously. It doesn't "cheapen" anything--do you think it's wrong to call influenza "illness" because really ill people have cancer oh my god don't cheapen the I-word like that? And it'll stop you doubting or devaluing your own emotions. If you survived something painful, you're a survivor, and it's not drama but simple fact to say "I'm a survivor."-- The Pervocracy, "Survivor"
And the comments. Oh, the comments. It's amazing how many women have ugly, aesthetically un-pleasing surnames and how many men have beautiful, mellifluous surnames. Also how many women have boring, common surnames and how many men have special unique surnames. Do all these people come from some subculture where families give different surnames to their sons than to their daughters? (No, I don't think any of them are Icelandic.) Or do surnames just become that much more alluring when they appear on a man's driver's license? Someone who just doesn't like their assigned-at-birth name or their family of origin can choose from thousands, perhaps millions of surnames that are not the surname of their intended spouse -- and yet, they rarely seem to, any more than very many straight men say "I just don't like my name!" or "I don't want to maintain a connection with my father."
Look, the problem with wanting to silence the whole name change debate is that if people would admit to reason number 10 being in effect, then there would be no debate. It's disingenuousness that's irritating, not what someone does with their name, because the latter is a private choice but the former is part of a larger pattern of denial of gender inequality.
But it's not really a private choice, anyway; the choice to be called a particular name only in the privacy of one's home by people intimate to oneself would never be called into question. What the article above barely addresses is that one person's choice to uphold patriarchal naming traditions now limits the choices of an unknown number of people later; traditions only survive when people like you and me choose to perpetuate them. We have agency. Making up a last name or picking one at random from the phone book would satisfy one's desire to rename oneself without foreclosing the choices of others.
I couldn't possibly disagree more.
Of all the issues currently up for debate, I see abortion rights as being a pretty simple one. Yes, it may be unclear just when life begins and how much we ought to consider granting any putative rights to fetuses. However, none of that matters. There is nothing that can possibly justify the evil of government forcing women to be pregnant when they don't want to be pregnant. Whatever the harm resulting from destroying fetuses, it cannot exceed the harm to women when the law tells them their bodies aren't their own.
That it even enters into our minds to consider that supposed fetal rights might justify forced pregnancy is evidence that Americans haven't really assimilated the first-class citizenship of women.
This is not to say that the choice to have an abortion, or not, isn't ever difficult for an individual woman. But that's not what the abortion debate is about. The debate is about whether women should have the choice in the first place. Being pro-choice is about respecting the difficulty of that question and acknowledging that all solutions other than leaving it up to the individual woman whose body is at stake are worse than anything that can come of respecting women's autonomy.
Relatedly, I'd love to hear people stop saying that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. What I'd like to see become rare is women ruining their lives, and quite possibly those of their future children, because the pro-forced-pregnancy movement guilted them into turning a single mistake into a lifetime burden. (And yes, I do believe that much of the supposed emotional ambivalence about abortion is manufactured; advertising can be very effective at manipulating emotions, and to acknowledge that that manipulation exists is not to downplay the intelligence of the manipulated.) Once that's rare, once nobody brings a child into the world out of guilt, maybe then we can work on making abortion rare. Then again, I'm not sure that wouldn't be putting the cart before the horse. Maybe we could work on creating the kind of world where women can carry condoms, or take birth control when they're not in a relationship, without being made to feel like "sluts", and then abortion rates would go down as a side effect. It's just a thought.
When I say that we ought not to concede "moral complexity", I don't mean to say that persuading the public to accept reproductive freedom is going to be simple -- not at all. But that's because persuading the public to accept that women are human beings has never been simple, and won't be simple for a very long time. It's not because whether to force women to give birth is a morally complex question.
If you agree, consider donating to the National Network of Abortion Funds, which -- if done via the link -- will go towards my goal of raising $290 for the NNAF by my birthday! (End of shameless plug. If you don't use Facebook, you can donate to them directly, and that'll be just great too.)
A friend linked to this post, from a woman talking about her experiences with constant, lifelong street harassment (and worse) from men. Reading it, I thought, "huh, this doesn't jibe with my experience having been perceived as female for 26 years." It's not that her experiences, or those of lots of women like her, are anything but real -- just, it's never been like this for me and I can't recall any of my female friends ever saying it was bad for them. Maybe I was just never attractive enough to appear on the radar of random male douchebags; sure, there was the time a guy at the beach told me he'd like to spend some time when me when I was 11 standing next to my mom, and the various guys who have driven by in cars while delivering shouted feedback about the amount of hair on my body, and the guy in a Pizza Hut parking lot in Baltimore who (when I was 16) asked me if I had a boyfriend, and when I said yes, asked if that meant I could still date someone else. But I have few enough of those stories that I can itemize them, and I've never feared for my physical safety whether while walking alone in Oakland at night or on a frat house roof deck (not that I've ever been on one anyway).
So I'm curious...
A question for women and people who have been perceived as women at some point: How much do the commenter's experiences resonate with you?
If anything I've gotten *more* harassment and threats than the commenter has.
Yeah, sounds about right.
It's not quite that bad for me, but close.
Sure, I've gotten a few whistles here and there, but nothing remotely like what she talks about.
I have never gotten any such comments or feared for my safety. Maybe I'm wearing an invisible burqa.
I was too lazy to read the comment, but I wanted to click the clicky thing.
I am a cisgender man, and will therefore take this opportunity to practice my listening skills.
[*] is worth noting because it's an essay that I and many other people in my circle have enjoyed, yet it seems somehow quite revealing that it's titled "The Anti-Girl Manifesto" -- why is it so frequent that when somebody writes something rejecting gender, it's always the trappings of the female gender that get attacked far more harshly? The author writes, "I'm not a woman, I'm a geek;" yet why does it seem so natural for a woman to write that when it would seem almost unnecessary for a man to declare, "I'm not a man, I'm a geek"? It's not that no one would ever say such a thing, but there doesn't seem to be anything contradictory in our discourse about being a man and a geek. I mean, duh. So when you say, "I'm not a woman, I'm a geek," is this a daring statement of individuality, or does it just reveal you've bought into the same poisonous stereotypes we all have, that you've bought the idea that you can't be a woman and a geek? When I say that I don't identify as a woman or a man because I don't feel like either one, am I just buying into the idea that man is default and woman is special-case? If I were exactly the same as I am now, with the same mind except with convex instead of concave bits (ignoring that I'd have lived a different life if I'd been born with them), would I feel the same need to repudiate my assigned gender? Or would I just take it as a given that I was a person first and a man later, because all men grow up with the privilege of being able to take it for granted that they are a person first, whereas a woman has to spend her life proving it?
To put it another way, there's something really quite broken about the fact that if you call a man a "lady", you're cruising for a bruising (unless he's gay or has an unusually good sense of humor), but if you call a woman a "gentleman", she's supposed to take it as a compliment.