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Women in tech, women near tech, sitting alone in dark rooms, and girlfriends of geeks - Lindsey Kuper [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Lindsey Kuper

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Women in tech, women near tech, sitting alone in dark rooms, and girlfriends of geeks [Mar. 31st, 2011|09:19 pm]
Lindsey Kuper

After reading today's Geek Feminism post by guest blogger Cate about girlfriends of geeks, I'm of two minds. I already commented on the article, but while I wait for my comment to make it out of moderation, I realize that I have enough to say on the topic that it deserves its own treatment here.

I agree with the point being made by Cate in the sense that I'm sick and tired of media and events in which women who are held up as examples of "women in technology" actually turn out to be women near technology, as Kirrily Robert's earlier post on the same blog so aptly put it. Here's a recent example. I was hopeful when I read the text of this post by Jolie O'Dell about women technologists at Facebook, but disappointed when I watched the video that went along with the article. The video starts out in a promising way by saying, "A recent Facebook Developer Garage saw much more participation [than past such events had seen] from women engineers. We decided to talk to some of the women in attendance and ask about their opinions and experiences working in this male-dominated industry." Okay, sounds good! But the promising introduction is followed by interviews with three women who are not engineers. They are, in order, a marketing executive, an engineering manager, and a product manager and strategist.

This is not to say that these women don't kick ass at the jobs that they do. But the video makes it sound like we're about to hear from women engineers specifically, then presents us with women who aren't. I can think of at least two reasons why this is problematic:

  • First, it makes it look like there were no actual female engineers to be found. Was that actually the case at this Facebook Developer Garage thing? I hope not, but that's sure how the video makes it appear. The first woman interviewed in the video even starts right off the bat with, "I'm not a coder myself..." Again, it's not that there's anything wrong with what she does instead. But there is something wrong with actual female engineers like me being made to feel invisible.
  • Second, if people become used to hearing "Here are some women engineers!" and then seeing non-engineers, then later on, when an actual woman engineer does show up, who's going to believe that she really is one? When people have been lied to enough times, they won't believe you even when you're telling the truth. When I tell someone that I'm helping implement a new programming language, I really, really don't want to have to worry about whether they'll believe me.

The second woman interviewed, the engineering manager, says something I'm ambivalent about: "You can absolutely find very hard-core women systems developers who sit in a dark room and write code all day." Well, it's great that hard-core women systems developers exist, but instead of just talking about them, why not interview them? Moreover, I think it does a disservice, both to would-be women programmers and to the profession of programming itself, to propagate the misinformation that sitting in a dark room and writing code all day is actually what good programming jobs are like. My colleagues on the Rust team and I very rarely spend our time on the job sitting alone in dark rooms. We're talking to each other, unreservedly and passionately, all day long, in person and on IRC. We could never get anything done if we didn't! (Also, the office is pretty well-lit.)

So I'm happy to see Cate's Geek Feminism post in some ways, because it provides a counterpoint to what I see in Jolie O'Dell's video and other media like it. But I'm disappointed by the part of Cate's post that suggests that being a computer science geek is the only legitimate way to be a geek. That discounts all the other flavors of geekery: being an architecture geek, being a model railway geek, being a letterpress geek, being a lute-tablature-of-the-15th-century geek, or being an audiophile geek, to name a few. Have you ever heard two women talking about a knitting pattern and not been able to follow all the intricate jargon? They're geeks. Know a woman who knows all the ins and outs of constitutional law? She's a geek. A woman who who can explain exactly how ranked-choice voting will affect the outcome of an election? Geek to the core. And, yes, you can also be a marketing geek or a management geek or a product strategy geek, and none of these geeks somehow magically become less geeky by happening to date a computer geek. As the girlfriend of a computer geek, I can tell you how patently absurd that notion is.

There are other parts of Cate's post that I take issue with, as well. I'll point out one quotation in particular: "[A] woman who can’t actually write a line of code has little credibility presenting on that topic to a crowd of people who do." The "on that topic" part of the quotation makes it pass muster, just barely, but I dislike the implication that programmers can't learn anything from non-programmers (as if programmers are somehow better), and I would go so far as to suggest that programmers can even learn something about programming from non-programmers, because to say otherwise is to implicitly deny the legitimacy of all the other forms of geekery. If programmers don't allow all the collected wisdom of non-programmers to inform what we do, we're doomed to irrelevance.

If I had an elegant way to sum up the two sides of my reaction to Cate's post, I'd put it here. But the best I can do is an awkward conjunction: I am a programmer, and I'm not any better than you. Please, world, acknowledge me that way!


[User Picture]From: catechism
2011-04-01 04:48 am (UTC)
As someone who programs but is not really much of a programmer, it has always been my feeling that programmers who think they can't learn from non-programmers are, in fact, not very good programmers. To me, programming is problem solving, and some problems require different approaches. Many programmers attack problems in the same way -- like, I don't have to tell YOU that it's a creative endeavor, but whenever I start waxing poetic about the creativity or the elegance of a few lines of code, non-programmers look at me like I've lost my mind. But it IS, and I just feel like any creative endeavor is a product of its influences, and the more (and better) your influences are, the better and more creative you're going to be at whatever it is you've undertaken. And, as we know, diversity >> not-diversity; that applies just as much to knowledge and influence as it does to race and gender and orientation.

Anyway, I think that post overreached. I think the end-game message was solid: stop saying you've got more women engineers and then talking about people who aren't engineers. But... yeah. Something about the tone felt off to me, too.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-01 05:18 am (UTC)
Yes. All of this.

stop saying you've got more women engineers and then talking about people who aren't engineers.

Yeah. If it had stopped there, I'd be happy.
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[User Picture]From: sonetka
2011-04-01 08:25 am (UTC)
Maybe we’re not standing in the spotlight because we’re actually getting shit done.

She sounds like a treat to hang out with. And yes, "the girlfriend" raised my hackles as well -- if a man had written that post, with that kind of terminology, he'd be getting absolutely reamed (not that all of her commenters were kind, but I mean it would be much, much worse). It's too bad, because I can see what she's trying to say and I think a good part of her tone may have come from defensiveness, but I was reading it and thinking "If women engineers are all like her, why would I WANT to join them?"

The expansion of the word geek is interesting -- I think it's followed an "autism"-like trajectory where what thirty years ago meant something fairly specific now means an intense interest in almost any given subject. But I have to admit I really wouldn't like to call myself a geek around, say, Andrew's officemates. I'd feel like I was trying to tag along, saying "me too!"

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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-01 08:59 am (UTC)
There actually is some truth to the women-in-tech-being-overcommitted thing. We get asked to be spokespeople a lot, which is nice sometimes, but it can get in the way of getting actual work done. As a matter of fact, I just had to turn down a request to be in a video myself -- it's something my department is putting together as a recruiting tool, but I can't be in it because I'm currently thousands of miles away, working! Yet it's really frustrating for me to have to turn it down, knowing that if I'm not there, women might be unrepresented or misrepresented in the video -- to the point where I wasted a lot of time trying to think of some reasonable way to participate remotely before realizing that that just wasn't going to fly.

I think of geekery as any intense interest that involves knowing a lot of arcana and minutiae. I always think of the Edgar Wallace quotation, "The intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex." That's the sense in which I use the word. I don't think there would be anything "me too!"-ish about you using it, if you added whatever qualifiers are appropriate for your flavor of geekiness ("I'm a British royal family genealogy geek, so I'm a fan of Alison Weir's books", or what have you).
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[User Picture]From: jamey1138
2011-04-01 11:08 am (UTC)
It's a bit like Physics envy, innit?
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[User Picture]From: gawm
2011-04-01 12:40 pm (UTC)
Woman Geek Love WOO
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-04-02 02:03 am (UTC)
Hm, now that I actually read the article and not just your response to it (as in, I got my butt to a proper full-sized computer), I have to say that, yeah, my reaction to it is pretty strong. A large part of that is, ouch, my pride -- I take a similar view of what "geek" means, and I absolutely am one about a whole lot of topics that do not generally include code, and I also hang out with a whole lot of "real" geeks and do spend a lot of time feeling inferior to them (largely in terms of salary, sigh, but also just general prestige). So her post basically was just another bratty re-statement of something I already spend a lot of time thinking, so it's not surprising that my reaction is kind of angry.

That said, I absolutely agree with, actually, everything you're saying. It's completely infuriating that "women in tech" spots seem utterly incapable of securing actual women in tech. The ways that media can minimize and render invisible are many, subtle, and insidious.

P.S. Golldangit, another blog for my feminism/geek list. "Ouch, my productivity" as well.
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[User Picture]From: cos
2011-04-02 02:40 am (UTC)
Huh, this was strange for me, because I really haven't noticed a lot of this thing, of women who aren't doing a particular kind of computergeekery being presented as representing women doing that kind of computergeekery. I haven't gotten the impression that things like the video you describe happen a lot, nor can I call up much memory of encountering that myself. So why am I not seeing it? Is it something that happens a lot less in my computergeek field (sysadmin, not programmer)? Is it something I just don't notice or remember as much when I see it? Is it regional, or subcultural, in some distribution that exposes me to less of it?

Anyway, I read that whole post feeling that sort of puzzlement that comes from feeling how important this was to the writer while trying to search my worldview for evidence of it. It must be real or there wouldn't be people feeling so strongly about it, so where is it?
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-02 03:02 am (UTC)
It seems to happen in particular at "women in technology" panel discussions at industry conferences. We also narrowly avoided it recently at my university's Women in Informatics and Computing group. We were trying to decide on who to bring in as a keynote speaker for a special event, and one of our steering committee members suggested Lindsay Manfredi, who is a self-described ghost blogger. She's someone that companies hire to write their blog posts for them, to drive traffic and customers to their websites. I think she's a good example of an entrepreneur, but I wanted our keynote speaker to be a technologist, so I protested. We ended up not having a keynote speaker and just having a few students speak instead, which was fine, but it was a shame considering that women technologists who could have given the talk do exist.

Edited at 2011-04-02 03:05 am (UTC)
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From: sherwooddotnu
2011-04-02 11:41 pm (UTC)
I don't have a lot to add to this conversation. I doesn't consider myself a geek -- too much of a generalist -- and I don't work in tech. But thank you for talking about this, and thinking about it, and spurring others to think about women in the workplace as well.

I've experienced a number of revelations about women in my own profession lately. Even though women make up more than half or my colleagues, I see jarring sex-linked disparities in how they're treated and what opportunities they receive. Salaries, promotions, and behavior expectations are often meted out or calculated differently for women than for men. Most of the time, people don't even notice it's happening.

The challenges technical women face may be especially urgent and extreme, but the battle for fairness is being fought on many fronts. Witnessing these challenges, talking about them and advocating for change all can make a difference.

Also: Although my husband and many friends are geeks, I think the idea of being defined as "significant other of geek" is unbelievably lame. I'm an interesting person with lots of stuff going on in my life, so of course geeks want to know me. And I'm interested in smart, creative folks who make a difference in the world, so of course I want to know geeks, too. I'm sure some geeks are happy to live in isolated bubbles where they only talk to like-minded folks, but most that I've met have been happy to welcome other thinking people into their social spheres.
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[User Picture]From: pmb
2011-04-03 03:01 am (UTC)
Well put. Too many of these presentations say things like "women CAN be hard-core programmers" and then proceed to interview the graphic design staff. There are valuable tasks being done all around, but the bait-and-switch is particularly annoying in this context.
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[User Picture]From: leadsynth
2011-04-18 08:43 pm (UTC)
Well, it's great that hard-core women systems developers exist, but instead of just talking about them, why not interview them?

Because they're too busy gettin' shit done!
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-19 12:11 am (UTC)
A crucial part (arguably the most important part) of getting shit done is talking to people about your shit. If nobody talked about their shit, far less shit would get done. This is why conferences exist. If you are too busy to talk to people about your shit, then your shit will become irrelevant.
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