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What didn't he see?

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Sep. 10th, 2009 | 12:24 am

So probably some of you already know a depressing fact about free software: its developers are about 98.5% male. That's not hyperbole, it's a real statistic; female participation ratios are about 10-30 times worse than for even closely related fields like professional programming or academic computer science. It's a wonderful, wonderful community in many other ways; I owe it a huge debt, not just for, ya know, writing all the software that makes my computer go and being a force for liberty in the digital age, but for experience, knowledge, friends — a chunk of who I am. And yet...

Anyway, the issue of female participation came up a few times recently on a news site I frequent, and attracted the usual response (neither link recommended unless you need a cure for low blood pressure, though the second has more redeeming features). That response being, of course, a big pile of spin, denial, and derailment. Not exclusively, but. I'm sure you're surprised.

I mostly stayed out of RaceFail et seq., but privilege has really been on our minds around here recently, and, well. These are my people. I'm not sure wading in did much good (if you ignored my advice and followed that link, mine are the posts from "njs"), and I particularly doubt I convinced any of the main offenders. But — in part as a result of RaceFail, in fact — I think I was able to discuss the issues more clearly than in the past. I had better conceptual tools. And perhaps I was able to help a few bystanders learn to see and talk about these issues, and pick up some tools for themselves. I'm not an expert in these things, but my impression is that when women are so rare that they — and other's behavior towards them — are simply invisible, then that itself becomes one of the problem's roots. Expert or not, I can at least make sure that on my little corner of the internet, this $#@ won't go unchallenged. Here's to awareness.

But on a more uplifting note, it's also from the first discussion — esp. Kirrily Robert's keynote that set it off — that I became aware of the Organization for Transformative Works's Archive of Our Own. I knew about OTW, of course — they're a great group fighting for other sorts of creative liberty — but I didn't know about their software development project.

Now, as you know, Bob, their core demographic is fangirls, the sort who squee and write slash fiction and all that, and every Bob knows that that's about the least tech-heady audience you can think of.[1] So then how on earth did they start this project off, anyway? They said, hey all you women who've been told to be afraid of computers, BAM, you're programmers now, try this and report back (click this link it is fantastic, maybe this one too). And that's what happened. And now they have 60k LOC, 20+ coders, all women.

Okay, so that's a simplification and those contributors aren't all newbies pulled in by that post, but: High-octane AWESOME, yo, on so many levels. So screw you, Bob.

* * *

I've recently been enjoying some art games — computer "games" designed as interactive art pieces. It's a pretty experimental scene; everyone's trying to figure out how to make this stuff work at all. And one of those interesting experiments is called Pathways, by Terry Cavanagh.

I recommend it — it'll only take you 10 minutes to play through, and no clicky-clicky reflexes are required.

But playing it with all the above swirling around my head, I couldn't help noticing how very... gendered it is. Not explicitly, and I'm definitely not calling it out as sexist — it's a personal work, and that person is male. Well, but... since the answer to art is art, I just did my own experiment.

I drew some sprites and poked some assembler and inverted it. For me it makes something new. Try for yourself: Pathways Remixed (if you don't have Windows — I don't — then it works well under Wine).

[1] ETA: since it seems this wasn't totally clear to everyone, let me clarify that yes, this is intended as irony.

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Comments {18}

Paul Crowley

(no subject)

from: ciphergoth
date: Sep. 10th, 2009 08:15 am (UTC)
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Fascinating, Tweeted it - thanks!

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Sherwood Smith

(no subject)

from: sartorias
date: Sep. 10th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
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This is fascinating stuff. I need some time to ponder and follow these links, but thanks for the heads up.

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खेचारि

(no subject)

from: lutin
date: Sep. 10th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
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Yeah. What she said.

(Thanks, njs!)
(Thanks also, mippo!)

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Nathaniel

(no subject)

from: elsmi
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 01:37 am (UTC)
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You're welcome!

(Mippo is in the wash, but I will pass that on when he returns!)

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Nathaniel

(no subject)

from: elsmi
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
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Glad you find it interesting!

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Damned Colonial

(no subject)

from: damned_colonial
date: Sep. 10th, 2009 05:25 pm (UTC)
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You can link my real name to my LJ/DW identity if you want :)

I'm kind of amused and unsurprised to see you were tracking RaceFail. I noticed in your LWN comments that you seemed to be using a lot of the same rhetorical tools I saw and learnt there, and I did wonder whether you had been part of it (or at least on the sidelines, paying attention).

As for tech-headiness in the fan community, I don't know that it's the "least tech-heady" community you could find. Keep in mind that all are using the web extensively and in interesting ways that far exceed eg. everyone in my family except me; many customise their LJs with CSS and LJ's arcane style system; vidders (to give an example I've recently been dealing with) are handling some pretty serious tech when it comes to ripping source material, converting formats, and driving very complex applications. To be honest, I think the fan community is pretty damn techie, but they've come at it kind of sideways and don't realise they are. They're a classic example of that study where people under-estimate their own skills: "Oh, I don't really know CSS... I only ever did a couple of styles on LJ" which, if you've tried it, you'll know is no mean feat.

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Garrett

(no subject)

from: garote
date: Sep. 10th, 2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I was just about to point that out. I found the assumption - that 'fangirls' are the least tech-savvy audience one can find - almost ironic.

I laughed at "RaceFail"... The whole episode struck me as a great big wringing-out-of-virtual-hands, and epitomized a lot of what I see wrong in the political minds of "the youth", raised in the shadow of the internet. They often fail to observe the difference between a loud, angry protest in a real town square, and a half-anonymized free-for-all bitch-session bleeding silently across a messageboard. One key difference being that the first stands a chance in hell of actually reaching the disenfranchised, and including them into the movement. Another being that the participants have a different perception of who their "audience" is.

OTOH there are groups that get it right. The Anonymous protestations of the Church of Scientology got it exactly right. San Jose Bike Party gets it almost exactly right...

But yeah, to the point at hand, there are a lot of very real reasons why women are under-represented in the computer programming field, and many of them have to do with the complete social ineptitude of the average male computer geek, who tends to panic around women. And when confronted with this, they will sometimes declare that women should "act more like men" in order to function more smoothly in the workplace - completely offloading the problem from them onto women.

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shweta_narayan

(no subject)

from: shweta_narayan
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 01:30 am (UTC)
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Yes, I was just about to point that out. I found the assumption - that 'fangirls' are the least tech-savvy audience one can find - almost ironic.


Er.... you guys realize that bit was irony, right?
Or maybe AYKB is not as clearly that to everyone on elsmi's flist as it is to us here?

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Nathaniel

(no subject)

from: elsmi
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 05:30 am (UTC)
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Re: RaceFail, I'm not sure we have a common point of reference. I mostly saw people trying to talk to other people, and I'm not sure what public protest has to do with anything.

Re: male computer geeks panicking around women, certainly that's a factor, but I think if you read those threads (and similar discussions elsewhere) then you'll see that there's rather a bit more going on :-(.

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Garrett

(no subject)

from: garote
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 11:39 am (UTC)
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Actually I did read a pretty significant amount of the lwn.net threads, and I think my summary covers almost all of the problem.

Computer geekery, and the geek population bred within it, suffers particularly from a lack of sensible exposure to women. In a workplace - or even an ad-hoc team environemnt like the one often created in FOSS projects - they will hyperfocus on women, they will ignore and therefore ostracize women out of fear or frustration, they will unthinkingly barrage women with insidious male banter ... and on top of that, they will claim that the cultural trappings of the development environment are a requirement for productivity and will place the onus on women to conform to it, which in practical terms breaks down into "if only you were so much like a geek guy that I wasn't inspired to act like you weren't, everything would be fine." (Which is wrong on, like, three different levels.)

Those cultural trappings can run a wide gamut too, from a comment in a header file about a function being "a total bitch" to implement, to the lurid bikini-girls staffing the trade show booth, and a hundred incidents in between that women are compelled to gloss over for the sake of their project and team morale. Sometimes I'm amazed there are any women in my building at all, and I'm consistently impressed by the few that are here, beause I see them work twice as hard and, on top of that, nimbly deflect and preserve the sensitive egos of the geek guys around them.

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Garrett

(no subject)

from: garote
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 12:29 pm (UTC)
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With RaceFail, I was reminded of the "public protest" and "audience" issue because so many of the participants felt very strongly about things, despite usually having only a vague idea of what the topic for discussion was.

So they ended up latching onto an edge and pontificating at whoever would listen, often in a confrontational way, for the sake of posterity.

Each person was his/her own audience. Their "act" of protest was to fire anonymous words at a random correspondent. "People trying to talk to other people" could loosely apply to this, yes. The core posts that started the whole mess, at least, were coherent, but around the grains of journalism formed a hurricane of blather, perpetuated beyond all sanity by the usual forum diseases of nit-picking, willful misinterpretation, taking things out of context, hilarious and impossible changes of subject, et cetera.

What did we end up with? Acres and acres of accusations, rants, position statements, and manifestoes, spewed into the blogrolls deeper than any search engine would ever go, never to be seen again. After the first ten or fifteen threads, (warning: the following analogy is rather graphic) it put me in mind of a dark room, packed with aggravated chimps, all furiously masturbating onto the floor.

Perhaps you and I read different threads. Or perhaps we just encountered them at different stages of decay. :D

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Nathaniel

(no subject)

from: elsmi
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
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You can link my real name to my LJ/DW identity if you want :)

Done!

I did wonder whether you had been part of it (or at least on the sidelines, paying attention)

I'd wondered the same thing (and was similarly amused when yatima cited it herself in the first of those threads). Now you know! Like I said, I stayed on the sidelines, but even if I had wanted to ignore it, that's a bit tricky when my wife is a PoC fantasy writer.

As for tech-headiness in the fan community, I don't know that it's the "least tech-heady" community you could find

Yeah, that was intended more as an ironic propping up of a stereotypical strawman...

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Dichroic

(no subject)

from: dichroic
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)
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There's a reason I have a paid account over on Dreamworks! It's a pleasingly female-heavy project and I like being able to support that.

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Nathaniel

(no subject)

from: elsmi
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
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I bought an account over there too ("njs") for similar reasons, though I'm not sure yet whether I'll end up using it for anything :-). At least I have my name reserved!

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Shveta, bursting with stars ॐ

(no subject)

from: shveta_thakrar
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 02:40 am (UTC)
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Thanks for this, Nathaniel.

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Alex Haist

(no subject)

from: howl_at_the_sun
date: Sep. 11th, 2009 06:06 am (UTC)
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I read a lot of the OSCON keynote discussion. Some of the crap people were saying was depressing, but I felt really -relieved- at the intelligent responses that shot it down. Good stuff.

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Athena Andreadis, aka Helivoy

Girl Cooties and Boys' Treehouses

from: helivoy
date: Sep. 12th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
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As a scientist and a writer, I interact with many "progressive" groups. The attitude you describe is prevalent in all of them: science fiction writers, space exploration/SETI enthusiasts and practitioners, transhumanists, futurists. I wrote about this issue in two of my blog entries:

Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Athena Andreadis
http://www.toseekoutnewlife.com/
http://www.starshipnivan.com/

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