Articles tagged: geek-feminism

Impostor Syndrome vs Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome

2208 days ago

Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora of the Ada Initiative recently wrote a guest post for the USENIX blog called Impostor Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community. I found this point, made almost off-hand, rather striking:

Often Impostor Syndrome is a completely rational response to being called an impostor over and over. In fields in which women are not supposed to be good (and where sexism is rife), women are more likely to face Impostor Syndrome. The idea that most people, when their skills, authority, and legitimacy are regularly questioned, can answer with a “Not so, I’ll show you” is a myth. Rather, when our community tells us over and over that we’re imposters, we start to believe it.

(My emphasis.) It makes total sense. It is not merely a coincidence that women in male-dominated fields should face this indiscriminately. Of course, it is related – of course.

I was reminded of this when someone on a widely-read tech mailing list made a “tongue in cheek” (pff) comment about the evils of affirmative action:

We see ourselves as a meritocracy; for sake of honesty and transparency, our special programmes for women should candidly admit patronage of incompetence over political correctness. Let’s cancel our “women in IT” programmes and replace them with programmes that reward “incompetent women in IT,” or at least to widen eligibility to include hamsters and fish.

Yep. Incompetent women, hamsters and fish.

I am reminded of a quip that we will know there is equality when there is just as many incompetent women in power as there are men.

Specifically, what reading a post like this reminds me, is that a non-trivial number of people in a geek crowd will see my name on a mailing list or see my face at a conference, and they will wonder. Does she deserve to be here? When I give a talk, they will wonder, is she a token appointment? If someone congratulates me on something I’ve done, they will wonder, is it just because she’s a girl? Whether I succeed on skill or not, some people will always look at me sceptically and doubt my abilities.

My intention is not to talk about affirmative action, but cultural dissonance of belonging to a community that suspects at first glance, you’re probably in the wrong place.

One of the suggested counter-actions to impostor syndrome is to Go to an in-person Impostor Syndrome session at a conference, from your workplace training program, or your school: There’s nothing like being in a room full of people you respect and discovering that 90% of them have Impostor Syndrome.

This is good advice. And the flip side of Impostor Syndrome is maybe this point by Garann Means, made better than I could:

When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

Should there be a term for the inflated sense of personal achievement and bright-eyed belief in meritocracy that comes from unexamined privilege? I put “Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome” in the title but it’s not ideal. It’s probably more widespread than Impostor Syndrome, and is arguably more harmful (to others, if not the individual).

Any individual’s achievements will be a result of both of their personal actions and societal forces. Privilege silently and seamlessly working in your favour in some cases, and systemic discrimination and isms working against you in other cases, where sometimes you won’t even know which doors were closed before you thought to look (or maybe you were discouraged from looking well before then), and other times you definitely know.

Anyway, I’ve a little thought experiment to cap this off with. It will only take, hmm, the rest of your life.

Imagine that what minorities report about their lives is actually true.

Chew, swallow, digest.

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An interview with a conference organiser

2219 days ago

INTERVIEWER: Hi there, thanks for joining us.

CONFERENCE ORGANISER: No problem, thanks for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you’re the lead organiser of this conference, which has been running for several years now, is that right? Can you tell us how this year’s edition is shaping up?

ORGANISER: That’s right, this is a conference which has really come from a humble grassroots beginning of barely a few dozen attendees, growing to what it is today, the premiere conference in this region for this field with several hundred attendees. It’s really a must-be-there event for people working in the field thanks to our incredible line-up of speakers. The program has just been released and we are super excited about the latest and most important developments with the best speakers.

INTERVIEWER: I noticed one of your keynotes is from the local university here, which is a bit different to the usual industry crowd I suppose.

ORGANISER: Yes, we wanted to make a real effort this year to hear voices from a wide range of fields, so we have some great speakers from academia, from government and even a CTO from a non-profit. We think they will provide a surprising and perhaps even controversial counterpoint to the accepted wisdom, and it’s so valuable for professionals in this field to have an opportunity to hear from them.

INTERVIEWER: Indeed. Has the incident that occurred at an industry conference just a couple of months ago had any influence on the organising of your event?

ORGANISER: Oh, yes, that was terrible. Thankfully that guy has been identified and won’t be causing any more problems. Just a terribly unfortunate story to hear.

INTERVIEWER: You haven’t decided to adopt an anti-harassment policy?

ORGANISER: It’s not really relevant to our event, I believe. We have a different vibe and it’s always been fine. And we don’t want to be seen as censoring our speakers.

INTERVIEWER: How much work goes into organising a conference of this size? Are the hard yards done now or are the late nights just beginning?

ORGANISER: Well many late nights of planning have passed to get us to this point, which is really laying the foundation. But at this point registrations are now open, and it’s all about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to bring a superb conference experience to our attendees.

INTERVIEWER: I couldn’t help noticing that none of your invited speakers are women.

ORGANISER: …Oh, is it? I hadn’t noticed.

INTERVIEWER: In fact you have a stuffed toy listed as a speaker, but no women.

ORGANISER: Well, Sparky is standing in for our secret mystery speaker. But, uh, it’s certainly not a deliberate decision to not have any women speakers. In fact we invited several, but they all refused. And, uh, there are some among our submitted talks, I believe.

INTERVIEWER: There’s one.

ORGANISER: Well, again, that’s just based on what was submitted. Our submissions are judged purely on merit. If women don’t submit anything we can’t accept any more talks from them, obviously.

INTERVIEWER: How many women did you approach to give invited talks?

ORGANISER: How many exactly?



INTERVIEWER: And they both said no?

ORGANISER: One was busy and the other one couldn’t attend because it’s in the school holidays.

INTERVIEWER: Your conference doesn’t provide childcare for attendees?

ORGANISER: What? No, it’s a conference for IT professionals, not mothers.

INTERVIEWER: Right. And so after they both declined you didn’t think to approach any other women?

ORGANISER: Well, seriously, who else would we have asked? Like, we are open to suggestions. It’s not like we are not open to suggestions.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t know any other women working in the field?

ORGANISER: Well, no, not personally. But that’s just because there aren’t many women in the field. It’s not like I’m avoiding them. At the local monthly meetup, there would be maybe one woman out of twenty, and actually maybe she stopped showing up about six months back. I can’t remember.

INTERVIEWER: Do you go to the local Girl Geek Dinners events? Or the local Women in IT Society?

ORGANISER: What? Of course not — look I don’t appreciate this suggestion that the conference is somehow anti-women. All we aim to do is invite the best technical speakers and accept the best proposals that are submitted. We are not discriminating and throwing out anything with a woman’s name on it. We simply don’t get anything to throw out. It is hardly our fault if women choose not to be part of the industry or choose not to participate in community events like ours. We are not going to have some token woman just for the sake of having a woman. That would be insulting to our other speakers and also insulting to women.

INTERVIEWER: Did you reach out to any groups attempting to target submissions from women? Did you reach out to individual women on Twitter or via email that you knew of in the industry? Did you make any effort whatsoever to encourage women to submit to the conference?

ORGANISER: No, we just sent the call for papers to the mailing list of the local meetup groups like normal.

INTERVIEWER: Like the group that had one woman six months ago?



INTERVIEWER: It looks like your conference has some new schwag this year. This pen-sized electronics board is going to be a popular item I suspect.

ORGANISER: Oh yeah, people are going to love it. That took literally months of wrangling by our organising team, trying to get stuff organised with the Chinese factory. We’re really proud it’s finally made it into the schwag bag. I think it’s really that attention to detail that we bring that makes this conference so special, you know?

INTERVIEWER: Thanks for your time.


Any resemblance to reality is coincidental. Imagine this being read by Clarke & Dawe for a superior experience.

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The Ada Initiative - Supporting those who have supported me

2274 days ago

It’s easy for me to choose to support the Ada Initiative, because when I think about the kind of web I want to be part of, I know that they are doing some of the most visible work in in making it so. I also know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the work of both Val and Mary, the Ada Initiative founders.

Back in 2005, in the middle of my university studies, I discovered Wikipedia. Back then it was something you needed to discover, not something that was just there all the time. I enjoyed wiki editing and got involved in many different aspects of the project. In 2007 I attended my first community tech conference, Wikimania in Taiwan. It was probably the first time I had the “these are my people” feeling. It strongly cemented my enthusiasm for the community and was the start of many very strong friendships. I attended the next three Wikimanias (Egypt, Argentina, Poland) and I have such fond, warm memories of spending time with those people that I got to meet precisely once a year.

Wikimania 2007 dungodung 79 Wikimania 2007 was also the time of the first WikiChix lunch (that’s me in red). WikiChix, a women-only mailing list, had been founded in late 2006, to a huge amount of hostility, which was a shock to me. I learned that it was modeled on LinuxChix, which had a grrls-only list started by Val.

Enthusiasm for the “free culture” philosophy behind Wikipedia’s copyleft licensing led me to take an interest in the free software movement – although using Linux on my laptop was still a little scary. Somehow, I don’t remember now, I heard about an upcoming conference that was going to be held at my uni –, in early January. I decided to submit a talk about Wikipedia to the LinuxChix miniconf. Which is how I met Mary, who was one of the organisers. She has also been one of the lead LinuxChix organisers in Australia (now OWOOT).

Truthfully, attending LCA in 2008 was overwhelming. I sheepishly apologised for presenting on a laptop running Windows. I barely had a clue about what I was hearing talks about, but I liked the enthusiasm and the friendliness. I figured I must be learning an awful lot. That has kept me returning to the present date (Hobart, Wellington, Brisbane, Ballarat, Canberra). These days I don’t even remember what it’s like to use Windows, and I know enough keywords not to accidentally wander into a kernel talk. :)

Later in 2008 the geek feminism wiki was founded by Skud, and in 2009 the counterpart blog began. 2009 was a bit of a breakthrough year, I think. Not in terms of outcomes, but in a groundswell of women documenting their experiences and making contact with each other so that each complaint became part of a history, rather than being dismissed without context. The geek feminism wiki and blog were (and continue to be) very important and thoughtful resources to me. Through this I have done a lot of thinking about why I took pride in being an honorary guy and why I felt somewhat uneasy about putting my hand up for community building work on the regular.

Back on track: Having this community (the geek feminism community) has helped me not feel isolated, and given me amazing resources to avoid having conversations from first principles every single time. In 2012 I got to attend the first AdaCamp in Melbourne and again enjoy a “these are my people” moment. This community, more than anything else, is what will help me avoid burnout and have a career in “open stuff” that is longlived and enjoyed. That’s my plan, anyway.

So, I can draw lines directly from Val and Mary’s work to my own position today – I am deeply grateful for all the fights they have had so that I didn’t have to. For their work to set up structures and events to bond communities online and off. As you might guess from my Wikimania and LCA attendance record, I think conferences can be a hugely important and rewarding part of participating in open source/free culture communities. I would encourage anyone to do it – and know that if you attend a community tech event with an explicit anti-harassment policy, it’s directly or indirectly because of Mary and Val’s work. This is why it’s a no-brainer for me to make a monthly donation.

The Ada Initiative fundraiser is ending soon and I encourage you to donate now, either once or ongoing. Use your dollars to vote for an open web that is more welcoming to women.

Mary and Val, Ada Initiative founders. By Adam Novak, licensed CC-BY-SA.

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"RTFM" for women in tech

2819 days ago

Check out my shiny new Moo cards!

"RTFM" for geek feminism Moo cards 1/2

Front: pink background, RTFM in large white letters
Back: White background, pink text that says the wikigeekfeminism.wikia.comthe

I kinda love Moo cards. They’re just so darn cute. I hadn’t even finished up using my old set when I ordered a new set. Then in the spirit of creation I decided to make these ones up too.

The idea for them came to me after LCA had a Haecksen miniconf which included its second “Allies workshop” for men. I had quite a few conversations with men about topics related to “women in tech”. Then a couple of weeks ago Free Software Melbourne had a discussion on the topic encouraging women. I was kind of leery of it being horrible but I went for an hour early on (double-booked with my book club :)) and it wasn’t, I’m glad to say.

But the discussion at both LCA and FSM contrasts sharply with the discussion at AdaCamp, an unconference organised by the Ada Initiative shortly before LCA, or even the Girl Geek Dinners Melbourne planning session that I went to this evening. It’s not just that the conversation is different when I have it with women; it’s different when I have it with people that have bothered to do any reading about the topic at all.

It’s like if you went to a Python meetup and all people wanted to talk about was “whoa, significant whitespace!” “No truly private class variables!” “Isn’t developing in an interpreted language awesome?!” “How about that integer division, huh?”

At some point it’s nice to have a discussion where those things are a given. GF wiki page Feminism 101 discussions says they “can be exhausting and demoralising for feminists and allies”. I would add they can just be repetitive and boring and for that reason, frustrating.

Nobody knows everything about everything or even anything about everything. I’m not trying to say men should never talk to women in tech about issues regarding women in tech. But what I am saying is if you are interested enough to take part in such conversations, maybe you should be interested enough to subscribe to a blog or cruise around a wiki occasionally. Look, I’ll even start you off: Elementary mistakes in feminist discussion.

RTFM” is pretty much the geek way of saying you have a responsibility to educate yourself which I have heard many times in relation to social justice topics. I like to think the bright pink takes the edge off the abruptness of the (implied) message.

I took my cards to the GGD tonight which was hosted at inspire9 (I totally see what all the fuss around these folks is about) and happened to meet Desi McAdam, who founded DevChix! How amaze! I was stoked to be able to give her some and since I’ve done that, I thought I should blog about it. And if you run into me sometime just ask me for some cards if you feel like you’d like to distribute some. :)


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Revisiting craft

3581 days ago

I have recently developed a dabbling interest in what might be termed craftivism. Crafty things for surprising, unusual or subversive purposes.

It kinda started when my housemate wielded her hand-me-down sewing machine to do a shorter hem on some pants for me, and then made a Christmas hat out of the leftover material. I thought, “Hm, creating things from pure thought-stuff (and the odd bit of material)…that’s rather what I love about the power of programming! Except with sewing, you can hold something in your hand, or wear it.”

I’ve also had in the back of my mind, for quite a few months now, a vague idea that “learning how to do Arduino stuff would be cool.” Every time I see Andy around Melbourne tech events I am also reminded of this, as he is a keen Arduino evangelist, you could say. But not in an overbearing way. :)

Then I was reading Frankie, which is a crafty/fashiony magazine (a girl I went to high school with works for them now! just sayin’), and they mentioned a book called Yarn Bombing. I immediately saw that it was a cross between street art and craft, and it’s such a sweet, surprising, colourful idea that I immediately fell in love with it. It’s just so… wonderful. I love those little details in public places that make you smile and suddenly improve your day, and by extension I wanna hang out with the people who make those details exist, and be cool like them.

BinaryApe / Trees / CC-BY.

So I bought Yarn Bombing and just started reading it yesterday. And I was thinking, I’m sure I’ve seen Skud mention knitting... why were all these things off my radar? Why do I feel like there’s so much more “cred” to be had with Arduinos than sewing, even though they’re all maker activities?

Why have I felt the urge to shun or pooh-pooh traditional/stereotypical women’s hobbies? Why do I feel so perversely pleased in pursuing traditionally male-dominated things, like mathematics, programming and football?

Partly it’s that I have fumble fingers, and partly it’s that the women who pursue male-dominated activities are virtually without exception really freaking cool, but mostly it’s that… I have obviously internalised the value judgements that say Men’s Things are Important and Worthy, while women’s things are trivial, trifling, silly, harmless diversions.

Now it’s kind of annoying to consider yourself a feminist for some 10 odd years before realising that, but there you go. Better late than never I suppose. Succeeding at the status quo is a certain kind of success, but it’s not as good as broadening the idea of what success can look like. So, you know, is designing and building an Arduino so different to creating and making a knitting item?

In fact, one of the most fascinating Arduino products to me is the Lilypad range, which is designed to be sewn into clothing. Imagine the explosions of awesome to come when sewers and coders are united!

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LCA recap - Code of our own

3590 days ago

(Techiturn is a tad neglected. I somehow managed to not blog once about attending OSDC. My bad. Anyway, let’s skip straight to LCA...)

Monday’s Haecksen and LinuxChix miniconf brought what was for me, the first great talk of LCA 2010: Liz Henry’s Code of our own. Because there were no abstracts, I guessed from the title she was going to talk about the Archive of our own (AOOO) project, but she was talking more generally about potential answers to questions like, what can we do to encourage more women in open source? How can we better support the ones that are here already?

The title (as well as that of AOOO) is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own, directly referencing the feminist ideas about the value of spaces specifically for women. In terms of coding, I definitely see the value myself in spaces to talk to other women about programming: I can ask questions and share my experiences without having the pressure of representing All Women Programmers Of All Time. Not to mention, I can actually just have a tech conversation with another woman without a man butting in.

So, Liz opened by saying that she wanted to apply “advanced feminist solidarity theory” to FLOSS, and was going to skip over some assumptions, like diversity is good, and universal design is a goal of FLOSS. (I am paraphrasing from memory and brief notes, so if you can correct my paraphrase please let me know.) I hadn’t heard the term “universal design” before but I guess in software it mostly is referred to as usability and/or accessibility.

She pointed out the interestingly-covered book How to suppress women’s writing, which identifies rhetorical strategies used to trivialise women’s writings, such as

  • denial of agency — “someone else (a guy) must have written it”, but also, interestingly, seemingly complimentary statements like “women are just naturally good at design” (ie, she didn’t have to work so hard)
  • pollution of agency — “she only hacked with her boyfriend”
  • double standard of content — kernel hacking is important, blog software is not. Coding is important, documentation/design/support is not.
  • false categorising — women defined as a relative/partner of a male hacker rather than in their own right. Maybe also related to above, “what she did isn’t REALLY hacking”.

And there are others.

Liz talked about her experiences at the BlogHer conferences, with some 1800 attendees, mostly women, who all write their own blogs and in some cases earn a living from it. Many of them may be on the verge of being able to hack. How could they be “converted”? What kind of things can be done to encourage women to contribute to FLOSS projects?

One thing often suggested is a mentoring programme. She mentioned she is not a big fan of these, because they typically have a very strong teacher/learner dichotomy, which can put a lot of pressure on the self-appointed “expert” teacher. Rather than this, maybe it is better to have a situation where two people are just learning and figuring out stuff together, rather than one having the responsibility to always have the answers.

Another barrier is that new developers often don’t have “old school skills” — ie the command line. This is often required (or virtually required) for contributing to FLOSS projects. I definitely notice this myself, even though I am comfortable with the command line. For example, a page describing how to access/commit to the code base of a project will have sample command-line SVN commands to run, even though there are great SVN GUIs that don’t require any command-line fu at all. They could have screenshot-based walk-throughs but they don’t. I mean that is one side, the other side is making sure women have a chance to learn command-line stuff. Lots of demystification is needed. Plus even if you did complete a CS degree, there is always a ton of command-line tricks you don’t happen to know about yet!

Liz also made the great point that the reaction “We need more women in FLOSS – let’s teach programming to girls!” is not very rational. Of course, teaching programming to girls is great. But it’s not like all the existing grown women in the world who don’t currently program are write-offs. :) Teach programming to WOMEN, too!

So when it comes to actually holding women-friendly or women-specific hacking events, she had the following advice:

  • Treat tech support and debugging as feminist activism — demystify, reassure and empower
  • Create a culture of figuring things out together
  • Always do introductions! Do them faciliated – have people talk about their life briefly, or 5 keywords, or one thing they know about and one thing they want to learn, or have everyone put their picture on a sheet of butcher paper with a brief bio.
  • “Show and tell” – what tools does everyone use? How do they go about doing a particular task?
  • Have a “installathon” — install Wordpress on a webhost, just go through bits of code together. Admit that debugging (figuring out how code works) is hard!
  • Create guest accounts for everyone on a server if need be
  • Have a house party. It doesn’t have to be huge or super formal.
  • Do lots of paired/one-on-one activities
  • Borrow the practice from fanfic of having a beta reader – someone who looks over your work before you release it to the world. (AKA code review! I love this reframing)

Liz mentioned that she hates IRC and much prefers using instant messaging and Pastebin. Got to say I’m not much of a fan of IRC either — the attitude is just so often hostile or just apathetic, although it is a useful just to know how to use it because a lot of FLOSS projects don’t give you much other choice. Knowing how to connect to the LinuxChix server is a good skill to have too. :)

She also recommended to show the code! Blog about your code, even though it means exposing it along with all your potential mistakes. Although it is hard not to feel wary about this, after observing the reaction to Leah Culver doing a similar thing.

One of the audience questions was, “Where do I find these great geeky women?” One answer was Girl Geek Dinners (although I was discussing with another woman later, that the women I’ve met at these are often a distinctly different crowd to the women I know through FLOSS. But that’s no bad thing, we can recruit them :D). Liz also suggested running a class at a library on blogging.

Another audience comment was that this may not be a good approach for getting women into a particular project. This kind of approach, which is not integrated with the project’s community, may make it seem that when a woman does begin publicly contributing, she is “coming out of nowhere”. I have often observed that FLOSS projects don’t take too well to suggestions or criticisms that seemingly come from outsiders. (Of course, some don’t take to them too well from insiders, either. ;)) Making contributions inside a community is important for establishing reputation and trust. Personally I see the kind of approach Liz is suggesting as preceding any kind of project-specific recruitment, and just encouraging a “can-hack” attitude.

So that’s pretty much my take on the talk, but you should definitely get it straight from the horse’s mouth and watch the video. If this sounds interesting, you should probably also check out Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time about the Dreamwidth fork of Livejournal blog software. Liz Henry is also talking in the main conf on Friday about Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech.

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