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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: 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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