Happy (belated) Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day was March 24th. It’s a day people were commemorating women in technology in honor of the woman Babbage called the Enchantress of Numbers[1].

No need for me to reiterate what so many others have already said about Ada Lovelace Day. Instead, I’ll just note the person that came to mind when I read the following:

Ada Lovelace represented the meeting of two alternative worlds: the romanticism and art of her father versus the rationality and science of her mother. — Science Museum

I’ve known Sara for more than 10 years. At that time, she was working hard to establish her career as a visual artist. We met while attending open figure drawing sessions. I had an undergraduate degree in painting, but found that I had neither the passion nor the talent that being a professional artist required. I did discover, or, rather, rediscover, a passion and talent for computer programming. I’m fortunate that one of the two things I love earns a living.

Nevertheless, I still like art, and am particularly fond of life drawing. As Sara and I learned more about each other, we discovered a common interest in science.

Sara always impressed me not only for her excellence as an artist, but for her discipline. If she’d lived on the East Coast, making a career would have been easier, but even then, being an artist is difficult and success is rare.

When Sara eventually returned to school she found that her interest in science and math wasn’t just an interest, but a talent and a passion. She applied her tenacious discipline and sterling intellect to getting her undergraduate degree. Immediately she went on to post-graduate work. Currently she’s obtaining her Masters and Doctorate of Mathematics. Concurrently.

Ada Lovelace Day brought Sara to mind because she is a credit to the world of mathematics, while remaining an artist. She’s made me see that there isn’t a fissure between the two avocations of art and science. The cliche is that mathematicians are often also musicians, but they are also artists.

I wonder what it was like to be a friend to Ada Lovelace? A little intimidating: a little thrilling. I know it embarrasses Sara, but, it can’t be helped. She is one of my heroes.


Don’t feed the trolls: or, women can be such weenies sometimes

Violent Acres (VA) really hit a nerve yesterday, no, she hit two.

  1. Nobody ever died of embarrassment
  2. Women can be such weenies when hostility is directed their way.

Read her post for a good and funny example of surviving public embarrassment. Even better, approach it with humor. In her case, she gracefully turned physical awkwardness into into an opportunity to set her audience at ease. This no doubt made them more receptive to her ideas, and she must have left more of an impression than if everything had gone “perfectly.”

Look back on the memorable occasions in your life. Aren’t they more memorable because of the things that went haywire? Mine are. Yes, usually, you really will laugh about a life bobble later.

That story alone makes that post top notch. But then she segues into a topic that has been on my mind for years. I’ll let you read VA’s post for the particulars of the incident that inspired her to write. The particulars aren’t important, because it’s just another occasion of a woman giving up because someone attacked her (not physically).

There aren’t as many public, professional women as men, so it’s noticeable when they give up in the face of hostility or public attacks. The problem is the message this sends: women are weak, need protecting, and that, really, it’s better to just stay quietly in the background and not make waves. This is so wrong it makes my head ache.

I’m mightily disappointed every time I read of a woman who gives up instead of fighting.

I used to read the blog Creating Passionate Users co-authored by Kathy Sierra. A while back some people started posting really mean things about her. I gather that it was pretty extreme at one point and included death threats. In the face of that she gave up writing and appearing publicly. I don’t know what her current status is.

I sympathize. I really do. I have been subject to miserable, obscene suggestions about what would happen to me as a result of newsgroup postings some respondent didn’t like. It was frightening. It wasn’t nearly the scale of the abuse Ms. Sierra experienced, but enough that my sympathy is sincere. And it’s true that sometimes people really do act on their threats. So, Ms. Sierra had reason to be afraid.

Mostly though I wanted to say, still want to say, WHAT THE FUCK WAS SHE THINKING WOULD HAPPEN? You go public, writing about topics that are supposed to instill passion in people, that you feel passionate about, and you are shocked when people react passionately? Especially knowing that people will feel particularly free to attack you because you are a woman? And that when you don’t quit, they will be even more abusive?

If Sierra made any mistake, perhaps it was in thinking that she could become a public figure and not be subject to bad behavior by idiots.

The abuse was wrong. Those people were absolutely foul. It was a serious problem, and Ms. Sierra had a serious decision to make. I can’t really fault her for choosing as she did, but I am disappointed. Ms. Sierra is an extreme example of women in a position to push through a wall of resistance to her and every woman’s presence, and she quit. The next woman after her will only have a harder time because Ms. Sierra quit. That next woman may be her daughter. Or a daughter of one of the assholes who drove her to quit.

So, there is this crux that Ms. Sierra’s case presents, that the case VA presents: one can’t be a revolutionary (and she was) and be assured of personal safety at the same time. If a woman gives up in the face of resistance to the trail she’s blazing, she will only leave a harder path for the woman behind her. Why? The assholes will know what works and will feel more free to pull all the stops. It’s interesting, she blogged once about the importance of listening to the happy (well-adjusted) people rather than the negative people. And yet, she did exactly that.

One more point. This isn’t, really, about men vs. women. Public men also receive abuse, death threats, and threats of violence. Also, women are subject to the censorship of other women as often as by men. A graphic example? Girls are not circumcised by men. They are circumcised by women. I won’t use an example from my own country (U.S.) or time because it would just be a distraction.

When someone, anyone, stands up for themselves in a constructive, proud way, they are really standing up for many other people. Sierra mentions Robert Scoble’s support for her. Robert is my role model for grace under fire. He’s had horrible, miserable, untrue things written about him for years. If he loses his temper it’s rare, and rarely public. He’s always seemed to me to be genuinely willing to hear the constructive part in any criticism, and yet keep his self-confidence whole and complete. I admire that. If I don’t have that talent naturally, I can certainly try to emulate it.

In reading up on the Sierra controversy, I found the following statement by Joan Walsh in an interesting article about the “firestorm:”

I say this as a mouthy woman who has tried for a long time to pretend otherwise: that Web misogyny isn’t especially rampant — but even if it is, it has no effect on me, or any other strong, sane woman doing her job.

I argue that those are not only options. We do not have to choose between delusion about the misogyny, nor do we have to dwell on it to the point it controls us and our actions. But, how do we acknowledge it? How do we as public people (yeah, I’m over-inflating my importance) resist the temptation to give up, to stay sane in the face of brutal reactions?

I don’t know  how to “solve” the problem of disrespect in the public sphere. I don’t know that “it” is solvable, or even if there is an “it.” I do believe that regulating manners fails. Manners are relative: mean things are couched in nice behavior and an abrasive person can become a loyal and helpful advocate.

In either case, nasty whisperers and the overtly hostile, direct counter-attacks seem to be rarely successful. However, the form of the counter attack has to be natural to the person. VA would fight one way, I’d fight another. But neither of us would give in–well, I’d hope. Of course, we all have our limits.

But I don’t want to no matter what someone thinks I should do, because I work with girls every week who are learning from the examples around them what it means to be a woman. If I give up, I’ve abandoned them. If people try to attack me, I have to figure I’m starting to get somewhere.

I’m glad that VA will be there fighting too, in her way, on her terms.

I was impressed by the following exchange between two very public, trailblazing women: Diane Sawyer and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

Sawyer: “Didn’t you experience discrimination as a woman?”

Kirkpatrick: “Yeah. So?”

Hate Kirkpatrick’s politics. Love her aplomb.

Names, typing, and what a difference 10 years makes

Mother is always right. Just not always for the right reasons. For example, my mom didn’t give me middle name because “when [I] married, [I’d] use [my] maiden name as a middle name.”

I didn’t take my husband’s last name when I married, not out of principle, tho’ I am a feminist, but because it seemed silly and bothersome. In other words, why? (We didn’t have kids, so that question never came up, but there plenty simple solutions.)

I married in the mid-80’s. The first time we filed jointly the IRS 1040 didn’t have a space for two different last names. That was a fubar that was quickly remedied…by the next year if I recall correctly.

Anyway, I’ve never missed a middle name, and so Mom was right. I didn’t need a middle name.

Another example of Mom being right for the wrong reason–she made me take typing in 8th grade. “If all else fails, you’ll always be able to get work as a secretary.” Now that was irksome, to put it mildly. This was before I ever saw a computer, thus, found “my people,” as a friend said once. [1] I had no intention to ever be a secretary. (I would have been lousy at it, frankly.)

As much as I grumbled at the time, I was grateful the first time I sat at a keyboard. Except for more emphasis on shift number keys than my typing teacher envisioned, I was well prepared in at least the mechanics of being a programmer.

So, how fast do you type?

I wonder if I would type faster than 63 words if the test included bangs, hashes, and splats?

[1] Mom was no June Cleaver: she was just being practical about a girl’s likely opportunities in the early 70’s. (The Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974. Before that women couldn’t apply for credit in all U.S. States in her own name. Let’s pause for a moment and consider what that implies…

Grrrl != Girl

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit this post may kill your groove. However, I ask you to read it with an open mind and try to understand what I say as if you recognized me as a thoughtful person. You’ll still be free to disagree with me.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s hard enough being a technologist (male or female) because of the inherent demands of the profession without having the extra pressure of having to do it in a virtual wet t-shirt, too.

My Sisters…oh, I’m ferklempt. You listened! Not. On the other same hand, there’s the Women of IT calendar.

Right now you might be dismissing this as:

1. The product of a jealous, fat, old woman.

2. The opinion of a prude.

My reasons are either sound, or not, regardless of my weight, state of mind, and age. So, for the sake of argument, I’ll grant you all of that.

My points are as follow:

1. Heterosexual men already know that women are sexy. They are also capable of recognizing it when they see it.

2. The calendar and hottie campaign do nothing to improve the public perception of female geeks. At least, not as competent professionals.

3. The campaigns undermine the laudable goal to change the common cultural perception that ugly, fat, and shy women have less value than conventionally pretty women.

Argument for point 1: This should be axiomatic. Men notice women. All the time. There is no danger that a man will fail to evaluate any woman as a potential sexual partner. Whether they admit it in public or not at all, it’s biology. Therefore, the efforts are, at least, trivial.

Conclusion for point 1: Mindless entertainment is great but counterproductive in a professional milieu. So, why expend one’s energy on it?

Argument for point 2: The public doesn’t know about female technologists. Full stop. Therefore, it is not in danger of stereotyping us as all-brain-and-no-body.

Conclusion for point 2: Indeed, the calendar campaign, et. al. do nothing to advertise women as human beings much less geeks. Only as sensual, sexual creatures. Yes, women (including moi) are sexual, every person is; however, I’m not sexual or sensual in a conference room. (Hey, see? The guys are lost in fantasy land!) I’m happy when my clients can focus on their software. Requirements gathering doesn’t benefit by distractions from the business domain.

Argument for point 3: There is no dearth of body beautiful imagery for girls. There IS a dearth of imagery representing women of all sorts being something other than whores or saints. In contrast, there is very little imagery of obvious male sexuality and men are generally very shy about public nudity or sexuality (of their own). That’s why the men’s ValleyWag compaign has a completely different impact from the women’s.

Conclusion for point 3: If one wants to change the public’s image of geek women then feel free to provide more images of them being geeks. And, hey, male geeks will like it because they really do think it’s sexy when a woman counts in hex.

It’s ironic, or maybe instructive, that the two finalists in the ValleyWag poll are in marketing, AFAICT. Not a C++ code monkey in sight. That’s not a judgment of value. There is enough challenge to be a marketing professional and it’s a valuable profession. (Really, I do think that.) That said, this sort of marketing, I don’t need. I’ll handle my sexual identity the way I see fit, thankyouverymuch. You think my posting on this subject is tedious? Well, trust me, I think the fact we’re still having to fight other women for the right to control our own sexual identity is tiresome. And, discouraging.

Maryam is not a Jerk

Maryam is taking some unfair blows on her reply to my reminder that I’m socially inept a tech geek. Although, I’m gratified to read in some comments that there are women who also think of themselves as geeks, I want to address a misconception some folks might have.

Maryam never said women can’t DO geek, she’s just said we can’t be labeled geeks.

Maryam is a capable woman, fully equipped to defend herself, but if I may say so, she caved in too easily in her gracious follow-up. Why? She’s got every right to have an opinion on the subject. She’s like an anthropologist studying an obscure tribe in the Silicon Forest and Valley. Besides, I’d be stupid to complain that she values my “artistic and literary qualities.”

Her opinion of me is my fault, if fault is to be found, since I don’t expose my geek side to her very often.

Maryam has a more narrow definition of the word “geek” than I have, understandably so. She lives in the middle of an intense and specialized tech community that is mostly male. The people she regards as geeks mostly talk about gadgets, tech products, or play video games. I don’t qualify as that flavor of geek since:

  • I don’t care about video games
  • I have little use for gadgets except as tools (my passion is for every-day solutions to real business problems, and programming craft, which is dry stuff)
  • I welcome opportunities to get my brain out of code once in awhile
  • I love getting to know other people and what floats their boats

It’s no wonder Ponzi doesn’t think to call me for advise about managing email!

I appreciate Maryam’s definition. It’s sensible. I’m an unrepentant relativist, though, and as such I see any quality as being a matter of degrees. I’m not hardcore, and that used to bother me, but, thankfully, age does bring a measure of acceptance, or is it resignation?

The ways in which Maryam and I disagree is damned interesting, and full of potential for future discussion. I hope we continue to explore some of these ideas. They’ll be controversial subjects, but my respect for Maryam and appreciation of her views will always remain constant. After all, we agree that, as Maryam wrote, “girls and women can be intelligent, technologists, scientists, ambitious, professional…”

Here’s to seeing something unexpected in someone you think you know well.

What’s in a Name?

Maryam and her readers post some good questions. Can a woman +be+ a geek? Should a woman call herself a geek? A person has the right to call herself, or himself, anything they like. I cringe every time a woman allows herself to be called, or calls herself a ho’ or bitch, but far be it from me to deny her right to do so.

I don’t bite the head off chickens, but, yes, I am a geek. Sure, I can dress acceptably for an occasion, and I even own makeup. I have and like jewelry, and I even have an unhealthy but managed love of purses. I am still female, very much so, but I am also a geek. I’m a geek because my brain is a geek brain.

Let me try to explain. My teen years in the middle to late 70’s, were lived in the suburb of Littleton, CO (yeah, that Littleton). Title IX was passed when I was a teenager. I was ever-so-grateful when I could take drafting instead of home economics. I couldn’t sew a dish towel, but I came in second place in the bridge design and building contest in drafting class (my bridge was lighter, but withstood less stress). My dad was proud and deeply embarrassed by that. (My parents didn’t tell me my math teacher wanted me to study math: it was unnatural for a girl to be good at math.)

I had a programming class in sophomore geometry class. It was love at first sight and it was the first time I felt like I fit into the world. The prof invited me to join the computer club, but the idea appalled me. Partly because the guys were jerks, but also because that would have simply sealed my fate as a hopeless social reject.

So, I went to college and studied the nicely feminine (i.e. useless) subject of painting. (Tho’ if you want to talk sexist, talk to me about the art business.) This choice was a real gift, and completely balances my parents’ unhelpful notions about girls and math. For one thing, I have a talent for and love of art, but for another, the degree program allowed me the room to take science, math, linguistics, and anthropology. So, by the time I graduated, I had a better sense of what I was interested in (not to mention a growing need to earn a living). PC’s were blooming and I dived right into another degree program…this time computer science. It was like coming home. I loved it. 20 years later, I still love coding, though I have many interests other than code and technology.

I’m glad I didn’t get too plugged into technology too early because I did have a chance to explore many subjects that I couldn’t have guessed I love (geology, linguistics, physics). But, I’m happy as hell that I was born when I was instead of 200 years ago. I don’t know how I would have fit into society then. I shudder at the thought.

My brain is now.

Women in Technology

No, this post won’t bash men. Instead, I’d like to chat with the women out there, tho’ I hope the men out there read it, too.

Specifically, I want to speak to women in geek communities but who aren’t geeks themselves.

Most male geeks already respect smart geek women (and people of color, and paraplegics, and ugly people), and have done so since probably forever, certainly since I’ve been a geek. It’s non-geek women who don’t respect us as geeks. Oh, you notice us if we’re attractive, or if we can at least pass for normal, but you don’t really respect our intelligence like you respect male geeks.

Got your attention? Whew. Stick with me, please ;-)

Dear Female Reader,

I am a colleague, friend, or acquaintance of your husband, boyfriend, brother, son, and I’m a geek. You know this because we are members of the same geek communities. You’ve told me about your frustrations trying to get the attention of your male geek for help with some tech problem. If you do get their attention, you tell me they’re impatient or otherwise not helpful (not mean, just not very helpful). Most of you say you are supportive of geek women, which is great. If you’re sincere then I have a challenge for you. For one month go to one of your female geek pals for help instead of a guy. I bet you know someone in your circle who can help. If not, then by all means get the info anywhere you can. But give the women a try first. You might be surprised.


A Female Geek

Where does this come from? Well, I’ve had the subject of women in professions on my mind for a while now, but two recent events prompted me to get off my butt and write: a conversation with Ponzi last weekend and a post by Maryam about Blogher. I dearly love these two women: my life is better for their friendship, so, don’t construe this as criticism. I’m not picking on you or your guys.

Ponzi and Maryam’s significant others (Chris and Robert, respectively) have excellent minds and fine characters. I understand the tendency to rely on them for tech help, if for no other reason than they’re loud!

Even tho’ Chris and Robert are a couple of smarty-pants, they have their weaknesses. One weakness is they are NOT user advocates. They’re early adopters and leaders for communities of Über users. They’re brilliant at digesting the implications of new technology. They are important resources for vendors who want to investigate market directions. But they don’t “do” just-regular-folk. Can you imagine Chris spending the time necessary to overcome the habit an office worker has of first printing, then deleting, every email she receives? I don’t want to think what Robert would say to a worker who expresses resentment for new software that will surely put him out of work.

If Ponzi and Maryam are sincere about recognizing women in technology, and I believe they are, then use me and my sisters as technologists. For example, Ponzi has relied on Chris for help with her unmanageable email inbox. It was a problem for her months ago when I first offered to show her some useful tricks. It was still a problem for her last weekend when we last chatted about it. Admittedly with a bit of a sniff, I reminded Ponzi that I’m a geek. Ponzi is so sweet! She said it’s hard for her to remember I’m a geek. (Guess that teaches me to bathe daily.)

Well, I AM a geek. And a damn good one. Not only am I geek but part of my job is to help non-geeks implement technology. I’m damned good at that, too. Better than Chris or Robert. (Again with the sniff.)
Maryam’s post about Blogher was another spur. I love what Maryam is doing—she’s a fine leader for the community of blogging in general and female bloggers in particular. But, the post made Blogher seem to be about fashion, gossip, and kids. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong in any of that, but that’s not what will get me to a conference.

I don’t mind the wetware stuff, but advertising women as mommies and hotties, well, seems so 70’s. Most women in technology I know just want to be people and talk about geek stuff. Men already notice tits and asses without any extra prompting.

I’m confident that male geeks will listen to a female speaker on technology issues if she’s got high quality geek content–I know they do. They won’t go because she’s hot. Sure, they’ll want to talk to her between sessions, but they go presentations because of content, not sex.

I tell young girls that computer technology is a great field for women because geeks care about knowledge, not appearance. Please, don’t make female computer scientists have to pass a wet t-shirt contest in addition to keeping up with the incredibly fast pace of the profession.

See us as geeks, it’s how we see ourselves, and we love a chance to show our passion off to you, our female friends.