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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 05:30 am (UTC)
You know, one other thing. Not necessarily from that post, but just more in general. I get so, so twitchy whenever "the girlfriend" is brought up, because it's so often automatically dismissive. It's incredibly loaded, and there are a million assumptions built into that term. And I feel like... women go to sci/tech conferences, or join a band, or do something else that has typically been male-dominated, and so many times the automatic assumption is, oh, she's just a girlfriend, she doesn't count, she can't possibly be interesting or worthwhile. Fuck you, you know? That's something we fight against, that assumption.

... ugh, I was going somewhere with this, but now I'm just cranky. I think where I was headed was that there is a line to walk between assuming that the girlfriend of a boygeek is a geek herself, and dismissing her outright with a snide, "oh, the girlfriend." Neither of those things is the right thing.

(Sorry, typo. You know how I feel about that!)
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-01 05:50 am (UTC)
Agreed. If the post had just used the words "woman near tech" instead of "girlfriend" every place it appeared, it would be so much better. Honestly, I'm not sure that the post brings anything new to the discussion that Kirrily's original "women near tech" post (and the Dori Smith post that inspired it) didn't have. I can't say enough good things about Kirrily's post. It's the one that I direct people to when I'm trying to explain why I like Geek Feminism.
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-04-02 01:44 am (UTC)
[Augh I started to respond to this on a tiny idevice and thought I maybe posted something by accident?]

Ugh ugh the "girlfriend" thing. I'm not a computer-type geek (I am an architecture geek and a letterpress geek!) but one of my angriest memories from high school was that the robotics club advisor refused to take me seriously because I happened to be dating another club member. It certainly wasn't possible that we were dating because we met in the club or anything, nosiree. And yeah, I didn't know a lot about programming or mechanical engineering but 1) neither did most of the other members -- it was high school and 2) several of the other girls would later go on to engineering at MIT and were equally ignored/condescended to.

...man, now I'm cranky too. :P
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-02 02:24 am (UTC)
It was you that I was thinking of for the architecture-geek part! I didn't know you did letterpress, too. I don't think I actually know any model train geeks or constitutional law geeks (of any gender), but I had specific examples in mind for the rest: the audiophile geek is my sister, the knitting geeks are Beth linettasky and Megan tornadogrrrl, the voting systems geek is Ginny gawm, and the lute-tablature-of-the-15th-century geek was me in college.
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[User Picture]From: _tove
2011-04-04 04:36 am (UTC)
Ha, awww. Yeah, I have some experience with letterpress; I was a TA/lab assistant for a few semesters for the School of Design's letterpress lab, and I spent a summer sorting lead type back into type cases ("dismantling poems") there. But actually my biggest geekdom is clothing, though you wouldn't know it from the way I dress. :P
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2011-04-04 05:03 am (UTC)
But actually my biggest geekdom is clothing, though you wouldn't know it from the way I dress.

Yeah, I knew that, but I was sort of lumping it under architecture.
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[User Picture]From: lyceum_arabica
2011-04-04 01:10 am (UTC)
Huh... My friends had a different interpretation of the 'girlfriend'. Many of the girls I know who got into table top rpg's (read D&D, pre-everquest) or got into messing around with computers (building them, doing arcane stuff with Linux)... They all first got introduced to the trade by a boyfriend. The basic understanding was that in high school these were all boy's things, and while girls still had cooties an interested girl needed a boy to champion her in order to get access to the social/informational channels (pre useful Internet). So the 'girlfriend' was seen as a girl who'd been vetted by one of the boys... She was certified to be geeky enough to join in.
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