Girly geekdom for girls… only?

Several of the front page posters here are participating in discussions on the Python diversity email list, a list created by Python community member Aahz to discuss diversity problems in the Python programming language community. The initial aim of the list is creating a diversity statement like that of the Dreamwidth community.

Some of the more problematic discussions on the list come down to “this stuff is hard, and hard to talk about, and people get angry and defensive when things are hard.” I don’t want to discuss the tenor or direction of the discussions there in general in this post though, I want to talk about a specific incident. A poster to the list made reference to being “beaten up by a girl” (in a metaphorical sense, what had actually happened was off-list criticism from a woman, not physical violence). A 101 discussion followed, and while it was pretty clear to most people posting that the framing played right into the idea that being beaten by women, physically or in argument, is emasculating, it took a surprisingly long time until it was pointed out, originally by me, eventually also by Aahz in a separate thread, that “girls” is a problematic term. It seems this was a new idea even to some of the more pro-feminist posters.

Now despite the Python diversity list’s innocence, calling women “girls” even in conversations where men are just “men” is not a new problem. As I pointed out to someone on, Wikipedia has a prominently placed discussion of how there are few neutral terms for women, especially more informal ones. And the geek feminism groups have run into it ourselves. We have LinuxChix and Girl Geek Dinners. One syllable terms make for snappy names and the “girl geek” alliteration has zing. Reclaiming problematic terminology has a long history, but one of the appeals is that it’s just plain fun, and it’s happened to some extent with the term “geek” as well.

But how much are we playing into the idea that geek feminism is for young women, that once first year CS is gender balanced we’re done here? I’ve seen concerning things. LinuxChix’s name has on occasion drawn young women who explicitly say they only want to interact with other young women. LinuxChix and Girl Geek meetups are often just as inconveniently timed and placed for primary carers as LUGs and gaming groups. When Julie Gibson interviewed me for Ada Lovelace day, she talked about how LinuxChix turned out not to be for her, she’s too far removed in time from having enough geek hours in her life to learn Linux. An older woman—in her late forties, perhaps, well outside the Australian LinuxChix demographic—at our LinuxChix miniconf in 2008 said that she’s careful to avoid becoming a “face” for women in IT: she thinks no teenage girl wants to grow up to be her. It reminded me of Lauredhel’s post at Hoyden About Town, Monica Dux thinks I’m bad for feminism’s image, about the trend to say it’s great to be a proud feminist, as long as you aren’t a marketing problem for the feminism brand. Is it only great to be a woman geek if you’re exactly what the guys on Slashdot are asking for, 18 and single and heterosexual and able to fix your own computers, thus making time for everyone’s two favourite leisure activities, gaming and sex? Of course not. But I’m worried that we’re talking about ourselves as though it is.

This is hard for me. I’m in my twenties. It’s a lot easier for me to think about what my fifteen year old girl geek self would have wanted from geek feminism than what the sixty year old woman I hope to be will want. But we should. What does geek feminism look like, for women who aren’t girls any more and don’t want to be?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

19 thoughts on “Girly geekdom for girls… only?

  1. Skud

    I’m in my mid 30s, and while I’m pro-reclamation, I have to say, sometimes I hear the names of these groups and assume they’re for girls in high school or younger. My most recent example of this was at OSCON when someone said they’d been talking to $person from Girls In Tech about my keynote. I wasn’t familiar with GIT but assumed it was a thing for school-aged kids. Nope. It’s mostly for adults. Despite it being very, very pink. Suffice it to say, I don’t feel that this group is thinking of me.

  2. reACTIONary

    When it comes to words and meaning context is everything. “Girl” may or may not be depriciatory, or affirmational. But it is true that it needs to be questioned, while “boy terms” don’t require such critical attention. I think thats the real problem.

  3. Liz Henry

    Well, consider me a “Crone in Training Geek”. 8-)

    I really appreciate the women who are a bit (or a lot) older than me who take the time to talk about their experiences as programmers or sys admins or engineers, and who also listen to my problems and dreams. It is great to have them to look up to. I am thinking of specific people like Strata Chalup (not that she’s that much older than me, but more experienced for sure) or Virginia DeBolt, people I kind of look up to but also feel that we’re friends & equals and it’s not like a “teacher-student” relationship. I feel that way about much of the discussion and the people on the Systers mailing list too.

    1. yatima

      Four cheers for cross-generational female solidarity, especially in corporate-landia. Margo Seltzer gave me a ton of good advice about childrearing and work when I was pregnant with my first. So did VMware founder Diane Greene, for that matter – I came to depend upon my VMware-branded diaper bag! Evi Nemeth has been another inspiration, as has Cheryl Traverse.

    2. Skud

      One group I belong to over on LJ is the Crabby Old Bats brigade. I rather like that as a reclaiming of crone-dom. And boy are they fun to go drinking with!

  4. Anna Ravenscroft

    I also feel like the “girl” and “chix” places are hangouts for younger women. As such, I admit to feeling more intimidated and out of place there than I do in the “mixed” groups and conferences like OSCON or baypiggies where there are a range of ages and ability levels, even if there aren’t as many women. Systers is a great place for women geeks of all ages. But I would LOVE to find a place for women who came into tech through more non-traditional ways (as a second career, for example, or who moved into it from non-tech backgrounds), rather than for those who seem to have known what they wanted to do all along.

    1. Mackenzie

      Based on the LinuxChix IRC channel, I’d say most are over the age of thirty and a decent handful are over the age of 50.

  5. Dorothea Salo

    I’m old enough to remember a very early Guido van Rossum essay about Python as a teaching tool in which the boys in the classroom are building robots and the girls are… designing doll dresses.

    I wish I were kidding. In ten years, has no enlightenment happened among Pythonistas? (Python, incidentally, is my programming language of choice.)

    1. Mary Post author

      The list is not a hotbed of enlightenment, but several very core Python developers including Guido are being pretty decent from what I can see. So I think ten years have improved some people.

      The comment I riffed this post off came from someone pretty peripheral to the community as far as I can tell. (That’s used as an excuse far too often, but since you specifically asked I figure it’s relevant.)

  6. Cesy

    This blog keeps producing brilliant posts. It’s interesting that Dreamwidth’s diversity statement originally forgot to mention age, though I think they’ve fixed it now. And yes, more support for second careers and people who are interested but don’t have much time to learn would be good.

    1. Mary Post author

      Thanks for the props! I’m glad you liked the post. I keep worrying that I’ve exhausted my capacity for geek feminist thought with each one…

  7. Denise Paolucci

    Cesy, the Dreamwidth diversity statement actually doesn’t mention age, because US law does force us to discriminate against age: we can’t accept users under the age of 13 without jumping through all sorts of hoops that we don’t really have the resources to jump through, so we just don’t allow them. We were all uncomfortable adding “age” to the diversity statement, given this fact…

  8. Dori

    I’ve long suspected that it’s simply a difference between second-wave & third-wave feminism.

    I’m older than most of the women I run into in the tech biz, and my personal take is, if a group’s name includes “girl,” “grrrl,” “chick,” “chix,” “babe,” or similar—I’m not invited. I don’t have an issue with it; I just look at it as I would, say, a group by/for Asian-American women in tech: I’m sure they’ve got issues they want to discuss with each other, and I wouldn’t have anything to contribute.

    However, if you try to use one of those words about me, I’ll object. I’ve never been a chick or a babe in my entire life, and I haven’t been a girl for several decades now. My usual line is that you should try asking an African-American man over 50 how he would feel being called “boy”—his response should give you some idea how I feel being called “girl.”

    Now, if you have a group with one of those words in its name, and you do want women born before 1965 to feel welcome, you might reconsider. Why have a name that drives off members you want?

    1. Skud

      See, I think of myself as pretty firmly third wave, born in 1975, and I feel the way you do, Dori. I didn’t a decade ago — when LinuxChix formed I was very into it as a name, and I remember talking a lot about “girl geeks” and stuff around then (late 90s), but I was in my early 20s at the time and it was the riotgrrl era and all that. Now? Not so much.

    2. Mary Post author

      Yeah, I frankly suspect that it’s less about reclamation and more about minimisation, at least with some groups. “We’re not actually feminist activists, don’t you worry. We’re just girls having girl meetings. Very inclusive though. There’s no problem except girl choices. Just you let us sort out our girl choices over here. Nothing uncomfortable or challenging will happen to your IT industry as a result.”

  9. Sarah Stokely

    The women and language issue is so, so hard. Reclaiming is great. We’re LinuxChix, we’re girl geeks and we rock. But it’s all about who’s doing the speaking, isn’t it? Pretty easy for LinuxChix to become a derogatory comment when it comes from a guy trying to write off what the group does or its reason for being.

    Does this mean we shouldn’t use loaded terms like Chix or Girl? Fact is most things gendered female will be valued less in our language/culture. I think especially where we want to encourage girls to feel ok about doing or trying ‘boy’ stuff like tech, using works like Chix and Girl Geeks can be powerful. Reclaim, reclaim.

    It is worrying when women say that names like LinuxChix or Girl Geeks either turn them off or make them assume the group is for teens. Good to know, but not sure yet how to address this. I like the idea of Geek Crones. :)


  10. Dori

    Oh, I would definitely join a group with a name like that. If there’s isn’t one out there already, I’d help start it if there are others who’d want to join. Hmmm… “Code Crones”? “Crones who Code”?

    But overall, I think that there’s a need for groups that aren’t so specific. I wouldn’t join LinuxChix not just because I’m not a chick, but also because I don’t use Linux (I caught the Mac bug well before Linux existed). That’s one of the reasons I helped start the Wise-Women mailing lists.

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