“Girl stuff” in Free Software

This is an edited repost of a blog entry of mine from February 2009.

In January 2009 I gave a talk at the LinuxChix miniconf held as part of linux.conf.au 2009. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and used women developers and community leaders as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) email interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others.

One thing stood out and kept coming up all week: Terri mentioning that she had resisted at times working on things perceived as ‘girl stuff’. In Free Software this includes but is not limited to documentation, usability research, community management and (somewhat unusually for wider society) sometimes management in general. The audience immediately hit on it, and it swirled around me all week.

This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women. (In the case of software, disproportionately occupied by women still means male dominated of course, at least in the English-speaking world.) It’s difficult to disentangle the extent to which women and/or their mentors and teachers self-select for the lower status roles (and I would hardly argue that the self-selection occurs in a vacuum either) versus the extent to which they are more or less barred from high status roles versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. Other well-known examples, are, for example, the concentration of women in biological sciences as opposed to, say, physics, the different specialisation choices of male and female medical doctors and surgeons, and so on. Sometimes, as in the war between sciences, the status of a field is somewhere between a joke and real, to the extent that those can be differentiated, but often it isn’t: there’s a correlation between the male to female ratio of a medical specialty and its pay.

In all of these cases, a woman who is conscious of this problem tends to face a choice. Do the ‘girl stuff’, or not? (Of course, ideally one rejects the dichotomy, but no individual woman is responsible for constructing it.) And some, although I don’t know what proportion, of women feel guilty about their choice, especially if they do choose to do girl stuff. Just go ahead and imagine your own scare quotes from now on, by the way.

It also gets messy in various other ways. There’s the extent to which a woman who doesn’t do girl stuff is invested in maintaining the status of her boy stuff role and also the aforementioned vicious cycle where if women are doing something, it will come to be seen as not particularly hard or noteworthy.

Most concretely, I usually see this tension bubble away underneath outreach programmes promoting computing careers (you know what, I have my own status issues and I still resist calling it IT) to women. There’s the people who want to go for yeah we all know coding is populated by weirdos, and male weirdos at that, luckily you don’t have to be a geek and you don’t have to code, phew! I tend to hear about that one only once my outreach friends have gotten involved and staged a coup, admittedly. There’s the there’s so many opportunities in computing, and yes, coding is one of them and its fulfilling and it’s something you can do, but dammit, coders get all the cred and attention and dammit can we talk about something else? Women who admin/write/test/manage rock! And there’s you know, women coders don’t exactly rule the world yet, and furthermore isn’t all this oh-yes-you-could-code-I-guess-and-that’s-a-fine-thing but look! something for folks with people skills! talk basically a soft version of ew coding that’s for boys, also, last I checked, math is hard?

I observe again that there’s no right answer here in the real world right now. Women doing girl stuff have good reasons to feel dissatisfied that their hard-won skills are underpaid and under-respected, women doing boy stuff (scare quotes! please insert!) want other women to know that there’s fun to be had over here, thank you.

One crucial point in my thoughts about this I stumbled on only after the conversation Brianna Laugher recounts, over Indian food on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said — paraphrased — that she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if we want to code, or do something else we are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which we are good at but in which we’d have competitors, we should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty. However women are justifiably reluctant to enter places where they aren’t obviously welcomed, and what better way to be welcomed than to do work that needs doing and not become just another person doing the coding free-for-all and delaying external validation for potentially quite a long time?

I have no answers. Just the perennial question of distinguishing what other people want, what other people claim they want, the genuine satisfaction of being of service to someone, and the genuine satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job of something hard. Where do you like to stand on that?

16 thoughts on ““Girl stuff” in Free Software

  1. pfctdayelise

    Wow, this blog is going at a cracking pace!

    I am still a big fan of this post. There was a blog post a few weeks ago that is a good complement to it: Permission to suck. http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/011418.html

    I am doing a bit better at being selfish, and sucking, in recent months. Although sometimes it really seems like all web developers were born knowing SQL, I am trying to remind myself that they all had to not-know it and learn it at one point.

    I still find it weird that there is apparently “girl stuff” that is only “girl stuff” when women are doing it. Like look at this panel of guys: http://www.stormyscorner.com/2009/08/what-would-you-ask-these-guys-about-the-desktop.html Now will it even occur to _anyone_ to ask them how they all feel about doing *snigger* girl stuff? I really doubt it.

  2. Liz

    +1 on all this. If I do the girl stuff there is a level of instant dismissal from men and women alike (but worse from men). If I code or say I do, then it’s not enough that I just write some goddamned code – If I can’t prove I’m some kind of super hacker, then people dismiss my credentials there too. If I say that I’m a coder or developer, then no one can rest until I’ve proved I know something or measure up. It sucks. Not everyone is a genius computer scientist to write some useful bits of python now and then. People need to get a grip and demystify what “being a coder” means.

    1. Olivier

      I think that dismissiveness isn’t just a gender thing. It could be more a software right-of-passage thing. Generally speaking, I find software developers who exhibit the trait of being dismissive do so on a “you haven’t proven yourself to me” basis, regardless of gender.

      1. Mary Post author

        One thing about this is that the dismissiveness is not well correlated with their own status. I’ve met dismissiveness and non-dismissiveness in people of high status, and more irritatingly dismissiveness and non-dismissiveness in people of low status. This I am not claiming solely a problem for women, very few social things are, they are just associated, but in careers where this right-of-passage is expected, you sure do have to spend a lot of time proving yourself to people who have arbitrarily decided that they will stand in judgement of you despite no evidence of seniority in formal or informal senses, or, not infrequently, considerable evidence of inferiority in formal or informal senses.

        Anticipating the next question: of course you can decide not to prove yourself to someone who isn’t worthy of the proof. But then, for example, if that person is a colleague, you can expect for example that every time your boss tells you to do something your colleague, who has assigned themself higher status, will re-explain it to you in smaller words. That is, you can expect that by not playing the game you will have made yourself the lowest status person in the group; the games are usually constructed to account for people trying to opt out. The best solution I’ve found is to seek areas of intellectual generosity. And to advocate them becoming larger.

        Where this is a gender issue is in several places:
        1. women are less trained in general to play skilfully in the game of status in mixed gender groups, and especially not in male dominated groups;
        2. almost all women are taught, sometimes explicitly and often not, and correctly taught that they will be punished for challenging the status of men; and
        3. men are trained to defend their status especially vigorously from women.

        I’m not prepared to go into evidence for the above list after this comment. 2 is well illustrated in trigger warning Another post about rape, which isn’t just about rape, but about women’s social training. For 3, see sexism and group formation.

  3. Lucretia Pruitt

    Loving this blog so far (now that I’ve finally stumbled across it) and this post in particular.

    I was about to comment that I gave up caring what someone else thought about my choices when it came to “girl stuff” a long time ago – about the time I gave up teaching coding for being a stay-at-home mom (something my male colleagues thought was a joke at first when I told them I wasn’t coming back.)

    But then I realized I keep finding myself rankling at the number of times someone has said “oh! Well if you didn’t want to be mistaken for a mommy blogger online why do you have the word mommy in your ID?” (My overused response is ‘apparently so people like you will skip over the word ‘geek’ that precedes it and jump to asinine conclusions.’)

    Somehow, by virtue of giving birth, I’ve gone from having to either “do the girl stuff” or “battle the girl label to hang with the guys” to “irrelevant – if she admits she has offspring, she’s clearly not sufficiently geeky.” A standard that never exists for the guys I know.

    So huh… now I’m revisiting this. Dammit. I hate having caring what anyone else thinks about whether or not I’m living up to their standards.

    Either way, I think I adore this blog. (But now must sleep.)

    1. Skud

      We only started up on Monday; you’re excused for having not noticed us for a whole two days ;)

      The issue of geek parents is fascinating. I was trying to think of women at OSCON who have kids, and it was hard (Liz was the only one I could think of, off-hand), but I could easily name a bunch of men there who had kids. Either the women were dropping out when they became mothers, or they were concealing their motherhood to some extent so they wouldn’t be further marginalised.

      1. Mary Post author

        I was going to say that naming geek women with kids isn’t so hard for me… but actually it’s nearly as bad when it comes to geek women I know who come to events, rather than being on the LinuxChix mailing lists (to give one example of a place where there are many, although probably an underrepresented, number of women with children). There’s a few who have appeared at linux.conf.au: Silvia Pfeiffer, Stormy Peters, Susanne Ruthven (co-lead organiser this year). Kristen Accardi only if we get her back and soon Brenda Wallace who intends to be primary breadwinner rather than primary parent.

        Do you notice many women over, say, the age of 40 at all? They are distinctly absent from geek circles I move in relative to young women. That’s not nearly as true of men.

      2. Skud

        I notice more older women at tech conferences than I do mothers, but that may be because I can see it without talking to them or knowing them outside of that environment. (I can think of a few older women from OSCON the other week, for example.) I guess as a childless, unmarried person with no particular interest in kids I don’t hear people talking about motherhood as much as you might — it’s just not something that comes up as much. OTOH everyone knows eg. Larry Wall’s kids, and Nat Torkington’s always talking about his, and I’ve seen plenty of birth announcements from guys on mailing lists and IRC and stuff. (RMS even has a well-known problem with people posting birth announcements on mailing lists — see http://edward.oconnor.cx/2005/04/rms for example.)

    2. Mary Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      The problem that we have to care what at least some other people think is insufficiently appreciated in the geek community in general, and on feminist issues in particular.

    3. Mackenzie

      A while ago, one of the guys I know in the Ubuntu community made a blog post about The Mother Test, referring to “so easy, your mom can do it!” My friend Melissa blogged a response. She told me that some of the women we know who are soon to be mothers (dang, there are a lot of soon-to-be moms in LinuxChix and Ubuntu Women) were going “wait, so once I give birth, do my years of hacking cease to count?”

  4. Olivier

    Re: “This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women.”

    I can definitely agree with the “occupied by”, but I have to question the “associated with”. Any organization is going to have a hierarchy of roles aligned with the structure of what they do, and what those sub-roles are is more likely in itself associated with a gender role rather than the workers assigning gender-role to the task.

    If you read Warren Farrell’s “Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap – and What Women Can Do About It.”, there’s some interesting statistics on areas where the average salaries of women in those roles outpace their male counterparts. Women sales engineers earn 43% more than their male counterparts, and women technicians and mechanics earn 29% more. So, it’s not universal, and there are a number of studies claiming empirical results for how often self-selection is a deciding factor for women pursuing higher ranking positions. It’s a stark contrast to some kind of sinister exclusionist trend behind recruiting practices.

    In terms of software, I’ll cite a counterexample to touch on both roles and rank. I spent 2 years working at Nortel in a 3rd-party integration team. Not only were there more women than men in the department (about 8 men vs. 12 women), but all 3 levels of management before hitting the executive layer were women as well. This is an old company with an average working age probably in the 40s. I’m not saying this is disproof, just a pretty decent counterexample.

    Re: “versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. ”

    This sounds rather odd. Could you please elaborate?

    1. Mackenzie

      According to Veronica I. Arreola, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Women in Science and Engineering Program:
      “Bioengineering has been growing to the point where we could see a 50/50 split of women and men majoring, and there have been some reports of salary staying flat or going down. Engineering fields where women are less than 20 percent pay more.”

      When women enter a field, that job becomes worth less in terms of money.

      Additionally, other recent studies showed that if women try to negotiate a higher salary when interviewed for a new job, they are less likely to get the job at all (viewed as “mean” or “bitchy”—hard to work with). Men in the same situation do not need to fear being rejected for the job if they negotiate. Heck, they may get the salary they ask for.


      1. Olivier

        I understand what’s being said. I’m just very skeptical on how accurate it is today vs. several years ago. In part because the role paying less because women start doing it just sounds like such an unethical practice that it comes off as being far-fetched. Certainly I can see this being the case 20 years ago. The world wasn’t and isn’t perfect, but if that happened today, I’d expect to see the companies and hiring managers involved metaphorically lynched for it. I hear constantly the statistics on stereotyping, but what fails to show up in media or even random conversation is first- or second-hand citation of this kind of thing happening to them personally. For that reason the problem claimed seems invisible or less visible.

        I also have to sincerely question the assertion that men (generally speaking) in the same situation asking for higher salary don’t need to fear rejection for negotiating higher salary. Before being male, we’re human first, and I would expect the majority of people negotiating for a job actually need that job, so the course of their future depends first on getting the job before it depends on how much they get for it. Sacrificing your grounds for getting hired by asking for more increases your cost to the organization and so diminishes the value they get from you vs. the next person.

      2. Mackenzie

        By “men don’t have to fear…” I mean this:
        Women are more likely to just plain not-be-hired if they try to negotiate their pay. Men are more likely to get told “I offered $x. No, you cannot have $y.”

    2. Skud

      @Olivier: Some professions that have become lower status as women started doing them include secretarial work and teaching. Both were predominantly male jobs a hundred years ago. Conversely, at the dawn of the computer age, women were programmers/programmers were women, and it was seen as a lower-status job. Its increase in status and the number of men doing it have gone hand in hand.

      Secondly, the existence of isolated counter-examples does not change the fact that there is an overall gender gap in pay.

  5. Helen McCall

    I think that Olivier hit the nail squarely on the head when he said;

    `I find software developers who exhibit the trait of being dismissive
    do so on a “you haven’t proven yourself to me” basis, regardless of gender.’

    When men apply the “proven yourself” test regardless of gender, they are actually applying a male pattern of “proving yourself” to females where that pattern is less common.

    Boys have an inherent need to “prove” their manhood. Girls do not have such an inherent need to prove their womanhood.

    The key to successful feminism is to help men to liberate themselves from the male stereotypic patterns of having to prove themselves.

    Where I find men who are truly liberated, I find they are open about their own limitations, and don’t get worked up about someone doing something perceived as “better” than they can do. They also recognise potential instead of demanding everyone “prove” themselves.

    The reason why OpenShot is the first Open Source project I have become a full developer on, is that Jonathan Thomas recognised potential, welcomed me onto the team, and then encouraged me to try tinkering with his code and learn python that way.

    He didn’t pressurise me into “proving myself” by doing anything amazing. He just suggested; “just for fun, try doing this”. So I was able to play around with OpenShot without any male pressures, and started doing good work. I wasn’t expected to “prove my manhood”! So as a woman I feel an equal member of an otherwise all male team.

    I am hopeless at the kind of boasting that is needed to “prove manhood”. I always forget the things which to a male would be proof. An example is when I joined my current aerial circus troupe. I only told them about my recent activities on trapeze. I completely forgot to mention how long ago I had first become an acrobat. I was also recovering from breaking a leg in a trapeze performance, and so was unable to demonstrate my abilities in anything. The leader of the troupe, Rhys, had only ever seen me perform in one of my productions, and that was when I had broken my leg when I collided awkwardly with a heavy steel trapeze bar! I hammed up all the subsequent performance so the audience thought it was just a bit of good clowning on trapeze, and laughed non-stop.

    Rhys happened to be in the audience, and told me that he had recognised that what was happening was for real. He told me that he recognised my potential.
    So I joined his troupe without having to prove myself first. I rose rapidly in respect within the troupe before I could even get back on a trapeze properly, by simply assisting others with their own development.

    So my hypothesis is that women can best achieve equality in male dominated environments, where the men are sufficiently liberated to not need to prove themselves, and don’t demand that others prove their “manhood”.

    Best wishes, Helen

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