tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)

Make Functional Programming Better by Supporting the Ada Initiative and Petitioning the ACM

Edited to add: we reached our initial $4096 goal in just 5 hours! But please keep donating -- we're about to increase the goal to $8192 so folks in Europe, Australia, Asia, and anywhere else where most people are currently asleep can also participate :)

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Donate to the Ada Initiative

Clément Delafargue, Adam Foltzer, Eric Merritt, Chung-chieh (Ken) Shan, and I are orchestrating a community challenge to both raise money for the Ada Initiative, and make computer science conferences (specifically, the many technical conferences that the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) organizes) better. We are challenging anybody who identifies as a member of the functional programming community to do two things:

  1. Donate to the Ada Initiative, a nonprofit organization that is working hard to make it broadly possible for women and people in a variety of other marginalized groups to work in technology.
  2. Call on the ACM to consistently publicize their own anti-harassment policy for all its conferences. That is, I'm asking that those -- at least those of you who use Twitter -- tweet a statement like the following one (use your own words, just include the #lambda4ada hashtag and try to include the donation link):

    I donated to @adainitiative b/c I want @TheOfficialACM events to announce their anti-harassment policy. https://supportada.org?campaign=lambda #lambda4ada

Our goal is to raise $4096 for the Ada Initiative by 5:00 PM Pacific time on Friday, September 19. If you use the URL https://supportada.org?campaign=lambda, your donation will count towards the functional programming community challenge and help us reach the $4096 goal. I personally pledge to match the first $1024 of funds raised -- that is to say, I already donate $80 per month to TAI, so over a year, my contributions will add up to $960. If we reach the goal, I'll donate an additional $64 to round the amount up to $1024. I've spent the past couple years struggling to pay off student loans and medical bills despite being generously compensated for my work -- nevertheless, I support TAI every month because I see it as an investment in my continued ability to work. I hope that my example inspires those who have a bit more financial freedom than I do to donate accordingly.

If you are reading this and you have benefited from your involvement, past or present, with any part of the functional programming community, we need your support. It is up to you how much to give, but we ask that you consider how much you have gained -- materially, intellectually, socially, perhaps even spiritually -- from what you have learned from functional programming and from the people who love it. Particularly if you are currently making your livelihood in a way that would be impossible without the work of many people who have and are making functional programming languages great, consider giving an amount that is commensurate with the gift you have received from the community. If you need a suggested amount and are employed full-time in industry who is using functional programming or doing work that wouldn't be possible if not for the foundations laid by the FP community, $128 seems pretty reasonable to me -- and at that rate, we would just need a total of 32 people to donate in order to reach the goal. I think there are far more people than that who do FP for a living!

If anybody assumed that Clément, Adam, Eric, or Ken endorsed anything in the remainder of this blog post, that assumption would likely be wrong. In what follows, I am speaking only as myself and for myself. I am an employee of Heroku, a Salesforce company, but neither Heroku nor Salesforce endorses any of the following content either. Likewise, I don't necessarily agree with everything that Ken, Eric, Adam, or Clément might say in support of this challenge; we are all individuals who may disagree with each other about many things, but agree on our common goals of supporting the Ada Initiative and raising awareness about the ACM anti-harassment policy.

If you've already gone ahead and made a donation as well as tweeting your support under #lambda4ada, great! You can stop reading here. If you're not sure yet, though, please read further.

Why ICFP Is Fun... For Some

  • Young man, there's no need to feel down
  • I said young man, put that old journal down
  • And come publish at... I - C - F - P
  • It's fun to publish at... I - C - F - P
  •  
  • When your lambda is tight, and your theorems allright
  • You can come, on, down, and publish at... I - C - F - P
  • You know I'm talking 'bout... I - C - F - P
  •  
  • There's a place you can go, and lots of friends that you know, at the I, C, F, P.

          -- Nathan Whitehead, paying homage to The Village People

ICFP, functional programmers' annual "family reunion" (to borrow a phrase from one of the organizer's of this year's ICFP, which took place two weeks ago) feels to me like more than just an academic conference. The lone academic publication that I can claim (second) authorship for appeared in ICFP, but it's more than just the opportunity to hear about new results or share my own that keeps me coming back. Maybe that has something to do with the affiliated annual programming contest, or the copious number of co-located workshops revolving around different language communities, or maybe it's just about folks who know how to keep the "fun" in functional programming. It's a serious academic conference that occasionally features cosplay and [PDF link] once had an accepted paper that was written in the form of a theatrical play.

Putting The Fun Back in Functional Programming and How the Ada Initiative Is Helping Us Do It )

tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
In 2004, I attended ICFP in Snowbird, Utah. At the time, Paul Graham was on the schedule to give an invited talk entitled "Don't make the wrong mistakes: programming as debugging".

That might have been an interesting talk. The talk Graham actually gave was "storytime with Grandpa about the dot-com bubble" (which was all of three years ago, at the time.) I don't remember much about the talk, which was quite inane. I do remember the quotes I wrote down on LiveJournal at the time, which I approved of (shamefully... but it was ten years ago):

"It's no coincidence that I'm dressed like this... it's to make an important point. The coincidence is that I'm always dressed like this." -- PG
"Nerds dress informally as a prophylactic against stupidity." -- PG
"If you go to Google and search for 'nerd', I'm what you get." -- PG
"If your code miscalculates the path of a space probe, you can't dodge your way out of it by saying that your code is patriotic." -- PG


There is a liberally rewritten transcript of his talk on his web site. It still has nothing to do with the abstract he submitted to ICFP for his talk. (Full text for all you non-ACM-members out there. I'm pretty sure it's short enough to qualify as fair use.)

Anyway, what's not in the liberally rewritten transcript was the bit where, in the Q&A session afterward, someone asked him his opinion of outsourcing. And Graham said -- I'm paraphrasing -- that he thought outsourcing would be a self-limiting trend, because, "You can send things to India all you want, but eventually you realize you have to hire real programmers."

This is notable because while racism is thoroughly shot through Silicon Valley, it's rarely stated that overtly, that unashamedly, and by someone with some degree of social capital.

In any case, I guess Graham was namesearching on a Friday night, since out of nowhere, he replied to a tweet of mine that was about something else, giving me the occasion to post the tweet that is the pinnacle of my career.

Achievement unlocked: being told by Paul Graham that I should be ashamed of myself.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
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.
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
The International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP 2010) program
committee is delighted to inform you that your paper #64 has been accepted
to appear in the conference.

Title: A Certified Framework for Compiling and Executing
Garbage-Collected Languages
Authors: Andrew McCreight (Portland State University)
Tim Chevalier (Portland State University)
Andrew Tolmach (Portland State University)


Uh, so, yeah. We're going to Baltimore!!!!111 And for those who didn't know, this is my first academic publication, ten years after attending my first ICFP and nine years after entering grad school for the first time.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

September 2014

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