July 22nd, 2010


Women again

[The subject line is to be sung to the tune of "Women and Men" by TMBG. I hope you enjoy this earworm as much as I am enjoying it.]

I rambled a lot in a response to a friends-locked post by monkeyhands, who said I should post my response somewhere everybody could see, or more precisely, "I would like to see you turn this stuff into a proper LJ post where people who aren't my friends can read it. But I realise you have Important Very Hard Coding to do. :) " But because I'm a Modern Woman and I can have it all, I got today's not-actually-that-important-but-entertainingly-Hard Coding out of the way (still whittling away at the XSLT to turn docx into TEI XML and back again without loss of style/formatting information - today's problem: right-to-left text in Arabic), done my volunteer shift at the Oxfam bookshop, and am now posting this stuff as well, go me. So anyway, I reposted the comment below, wholesale and unedited, and hopefully it makes enough sense without the full context. And then I went and rambled some more after that, too.


I should point out that the "geek as a gender" thing is not mine originally -- see explanation here.

geek work environments seem more meritocratic to me and I’d like to find out more about why that is

A couple of factors which I think may be relevant:

* geeks usually have some experience of talking to people in online chatrooms etc where you don't always even know somebody's gender. (This is a mixed blessing as some people just default to assuming people are male if they don't know their gender... but then that can be even more educational if they find out the truth & are forced to reassess their assumptions as a result.)

* geeks have often had some experience of being laughed at for being socially awkward, ie for failing to conform to rules that they didn't accept and don't understand. So when they get a chance to construct a micro-society for themselves, it may have fewer 'secret' (implicit) rules of interaction (and more explicit rules, and more insistence on codifying the rules - again a mixed blessing).

* related to the above -- programmers are used to 'communicating' (with computers) in a language which doesn't really have tones of voice or nuances; a language where if what you 'say' does the right thing, then at some level it's good enough. (There may be a more concise way to say the right thing, or a way to avoid having to say the right thing more than once, or a way that "just seems more elegant".)

In practice, I think it's often just substituting one set of implicit expectations for another, though. :-/

Also, there's a risk of a "geekist" attitude along the lines of "nobody who isn't a geek can possibly have anything worth contributing", the sort of attitude that refuses to acknowledge that things like literature and art and kindness can possibly have any value to society, because you can't express them in equations. But that's kind of at the extreme end of the geek spectrum.

“oh, they’ll be expecting me to buy the birthday card because I’m the only woman here”

I do get some of that, but I don't know to what extent that's because I'm female and to what extent it's because I'm probably the most sociable member of the team, the one who's willing to talk to people. (I mean, I'm not ruling out the fact that being sociable is related to being female, nature/nurture/Nietzsche/quack, but I am certain that being female is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being sociable.)

E.g. the year before last I got asked to organise the team's Christmas meal, which involved talking to people & asking them what they wanted to do and blah blah blah then ringing the restaurant and booking the table and getting people's menu choices. I don't like trying to guess stuff when I can ask the person who knows directly (and I work with people who do not worry too much about being socially gauche), so I asked my line-manager whether he was asking me to do the "social secretary" stuff because I was a woman; he looked pained, reminded me who else was on the team, & asked if I could imagine any of them organising a social event. I had to concede that he had a point. :-} I guess that's a bit of the "oh just give it here" problem, & maybe we should be trying to teach the less-sociable people to socialise, but that's problematic (morally and practically) too.

As you say, though, it's hard (maybe not always possible) to disentangle the sexist expectations from the other social/cultural assumptions -- and we have to be able to make some assumptions otherwise we'd go mad trying to analyse each social situation from first principles every time. On the other hand I think sometimes it's important to ask people about their assumptions. But that's often hard.

I don't know. I can only really talk about how I do things, and then only anecdotally, and a lot of it comes down to chance and selective memory, and social interaction is experimentally unrepeatable, and and and. And I'm not saying that because it's difficult to untangle we shouldn't try to untangle it, but my coping strategy (imperfectly implemented) for my own life is to focus my limited energy on fixing things I stand a chance of being able to fix; so I can't do anything about being female, but I can do lots of other things to try to work better with people and persuade them to work better with me.

Anyway. I should do some work otherwise I'll just be reinforcing the stereotype that girls just sit around posting to LJ when they should be working. :-}


So much for the comment. Then I realised that in my list of disintegrating statements I didn't say much about my stance on the f-word. I don't tend to describe myself as a feminist; but then, I also don't tend to describe myself as a human being. I've said before that "All I know is that whenever I express sentiments that distinguish me from a feminist I get called a doormat", but that's just being facetious and doesn't really explain the problem.

I certainly don't think feminism is "over" or has "done its job"; I think there is still a sickening amount of inequality in the world, a lot of it relating to gender and sex and sexuality, because those are things that are important to people, and people commit terrible atrocities in the name of things that are important to them, and telling people they shouldn't care about those things is a rubbish way to fix that problem. I do think there's an enormous amount of cultural baggage associated with the word "feminism", not all of it helpful, and I think it's at best disingenuous to pretend that that baggage doesn't have any effect on how people react to the word. (At worst you're basically telling people "You mustn't accept the labels that the patriarchy imposes on you ... but how dare you refuse the labels that we impose on you?" which is a bit like telling women whose husbands are beating them up that they'd be much better people if they let another woman beat them up instead.)

I also don't see how "I'm a feminist and I'm not going to stand for your sexist bullshit" is actually a stronger statement than "I'm not going to stand for your sexist bullshit"; in other words, if you're fighting for the cause, I don't think it matters if you're not wearing the official uniform. In fact, I think sometimes the uniform gets in the way, because if you're always wearing the uniform, people start to see you as a role rather than a person, and that's not helpful if you're trying to get them to see you as a person and stop categorising you in according to their perception of your role. I'm not saying that there's no place for labels and causes; I'm just saying that there is also a place for action outside the labels and the causes, and that failing to wear the official uniform every day doesn't make you a bad person, and that "if you're not for us then you're against us" is a pernicious lie.

And talking of uniforms, I know I am just awkward and contrary, but to me the famous feminist tshirt has the unfortunate subtext of suggesting that a feminist has to dress in the wearisome conformity of the "alternative" subculture, the confrontational slogan tshirt, only available in I'm-only-wearing-black-because-they-haven't-invented-a-more-tedious-colour, only available in stare-at-my-chest-please. Where are the feminists wearing suits and ties, the feminists wearing actual uniforms, the feminists in spacesuits, the feminists in Laura Ashley dresses, the feminists wearing tracksuits, the feminists wearing silk negligées, the feminists wearing nothing at all, the feminists who are not even looking at the camera?