BarCamp Manchester (2): “Geekquality”

November 8, 2009

Samantha gave a talk at barcamp today (well yesterday, technically) on “Geekquality” (i.e., “geek-equality”). In BarCamp style, she threw it together in a hurry (though we did go over the slides before hand).

It’s a good start; I hope we polish it more.

One really great thing about it, I think, is that there was no quibbling about the problem (i.e., that women are underrepresented and that that is undesirable), though some disputes about specific tactics. This makes me so happy. It’s a huge chunk of progress.

The most vigorous discussion (post talk) was with Yu-Wei Lin (along with Melanie Lewis and another fellow, Enrico Zini who called me on having an aggressive tone and invading Yu-Wei*’s space; sigh), who is doing a ton of interesting work on women in open source (among other things, include eScience). I think a fair bit of her perspective expressed after the talk is in her A Techno-Feminist Perspective on the Free/Libre Open Source Software Development, which is certainly worth reading. She is strongly critical of the use of statistics to point out problems with tech communites, e.g.,

The draft of a paper to be published in the Gender and IT Encyclopedia (2006, Idea Groups) on 18 June 2005. In this email, a man said how much he despised women because women usually complain there is no enough women in male-dominated but successful fields…by taking this hatred message as an example, I do not suggest that all men in the FLOSS world are that ignorant. Instead of generalising the fact that women in computing and in FLOSS are discriminated, hated and rejected by men, I have to say that there are also quite a few
sympathetic male developers constantly providing mutual help for their female counterparts. In order not to fall into the gender stereotype between men and women when coming across to the gender issue, I feel that we have to go a step beyond the number that just showing the percentage of women participating in the FLOSS development or in the IT industry. We all know that there are comparably few women involved in the FLOSS development or computing. But why is this and what can we do with this number? The important thing is not
only to find out how to create a welcome environment for women to join the FLOSS development, but also to come up with a better way of encouraging both sexes to collaborate with each other.

Given this, it’s no surprise that she didn’t like the beginning of Sam’s talk, since Sam exactly piled up a bunch of statistics to argue that there’s a problem. I’m still on the stats side here, esp. the evidence that, unlike other fields, the participation by women in computer science (e.g., as measured by CS university graduates in the US) is declining, unlike other fields (even as the use of computer technology and of university attendance has risen). I find this shocking and as strong prima facie evidence that we have specific issues in computer science. And I do care specifically about computer science (though, of course, not only about computer science). One of Yu-Wei’s expressed goals in this paper is to alter the overvaluing of programming skill in FLOSS communities. I do think it’s important to value documentation, design, usability, etc., but, I still want women to program! And do computer science research across the spectrum of computer science areas. And I worry about ghettoization in “soft” areas. (Yu-Wei raises this point, i.e., “In other words, involving more women in the documentation or localisation (and internationalisation) of FLOSS should not turn these fields into a female domain that it might ironically end up somehow cheapening the work suggested by some old thoughts about certain things being women’s work”, but I’m unclear how this is handled. Even if these other area’s weren’t denigrated (which they shouldn’t be!) I don’t think it (directly) solves the problem of few female open source programmers to have plenty of female members of the open source community.

(And we’re clearly discussion strategy and tactics. Which is good! There’s room for lots of experimentation here as there is really no silver bullet.)

I have a lot more thoughts about all this, but it’s quite late. It’s a conversation started, but by no means even begun.

*I’m really unsure how to label people in prose like this. Samantha and I are, obviously, on a first name basis, as we work together. Writing “Dr. Lin”, or “Lin” seems weird (though less weird than “Ms. Bail” or “Bail” for Samantha). Argh! I ran into this problem in other comments I’ve made. I generally prefer to be labeled with (and addressed by) my first name (though, obviously, giving my full name at first appearance makes oodles of sense). In the case of “Ian” vs. “Ruby”, I wasn’t comfortable using Ian’s nickname (“hixie”), but I had thought I had offended Sam Ruby (hence being uncomfortable being familiar) and it was a mess. I guess I’ll try to default to applying the policy I want applied to me but instantly change to a person’s expressed preference.

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