Check out my shiny new Moo cards!
Front: pink background, RTFM in large white letters
Back: White background, pink text that says the wiki – geekfeminism.wikia.com – the blog – geekfeminism.org
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. :)
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!
(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.