Author Archives: Matt Zimmerman

Linkspam: International (Geek) Women’s Day

The first International Women’s Day was observed on 19 March, 1911: 36,515 days ago. In honor of 101 such observances, and in the spirit of celebrating the achievements of women, here are a few of the past year’s highlights and milestones for women in geekdom.

Awards and Recognition



  • A report published in 2010 showed that venture-backend startups led by women delivered better than average results
  • Jane Silber became CEO of Canonical


  • Physicist/Feminist marks IWD by posting statistics on the progress of women in science from 1958 to 2006, using statistics from the NSF

Please share your favorites in the comments!

Ask a geek feminist: But I don’t feel oppressed

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question.

This question may seem very 101 but I have yet been able to find or formulate a good response to a comment I recently received from another young woman and I was hoping someone could help me out?

I was talking about power dynamics between men and women and the respondent came back with “Western women aren’t oppressed. I don’t feel oppressed. We are able to vote.. etc etc.” and I was just flabbergasted and didn’t know how to respond. I suspect a lot of this was her personal response to acknowledging oppression making her seem weak or whiny. Although I could be wrong and she may really believe this and think it cancels out the feelings of any Western women who does acknowledge our ongoing oppression. Help?

It can be disorienting to be faced with this stance by someone who is a member of a class of people, and feels that they represent that class. You may disagree strongly with their position, and have very good reasons for it which you want to express. But you hesitate.

It could be that the situation is already tense and you don’t want to make things worse. Maybe you don’t know each other very well, and you’re not sure whether it’s a good idea to open this particular can of worms with them. Or, perhaps, you just don’t have the right words.

Finally, a Feminism 101 blog has a FAQ with a pretty good answer, which calls out the misconceptions underlying the question:

1. Even if women in your part of the world do have legal equality, what about women elsewhere? Feminists who fight for the rights of other women to have what they already have are justified in doing so.

2. Simple, basic legal equality regarding the right to own property, sign contracts or vote does not always translate into social equality in work, the community or the home.

(emphasis added. thanks to Mary for the reference)

However, the matter of how to respond to the person is perhaps more important than having an answer. Ideally, you’d like to engage with this person, and enter into a dialog where you can both learn something. Your mileage may vary, but I find that counterargument and psychoanalysis don’t always set us on that path.

Here’s what I try to do:

  • Validate their first-hand experience. Regardless of whether they represent a class, they are telling you something about their lived experience, and that is a subject on which they are an authority. Respect that, and acknowledge what they are telling you about themselves. You never know, and they may have been very fortunate. They are almost certainly fortunate compared to many other people, and recognizing that good fortune can be a sign of genuine humility. So, give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Integrate their position into a broader perspective. Other people (including you) have a different view: how can we reconcile that? If you don’t know, invite them to explore the question with you. What would have to be true in order for both views to be valid?
  • Explore their point of view. Now that you have some shared perspective, dig a little deeper and try to understand why they feel they way they do. How do their past and present experiences, their beliefs, and their personality influence their opinion? What can you learn from them?

How about you, readers? Tell us in the comments how you respond to this type of situation.

Antipodes robotics team

Team Antipodes is a team of three girls “headquartered in Pacifica, California, USA, but dedicated to collaboration with similar teams from around the globe.” They competed in the 2009 FIRST Lego League, placing third in their regional championships, and have extensively documented their work in the form of notes, video and CAD models to encourage others to experiment and compete.

Team antipodes portrait

Team antipodes portrait

We caught up with Violet, Emma, Kjersti and their coach, Ken, for an interview via email.

GF: When and how did you take an interest in robotics?

Violet: Ever since I was little, my dad has been exposing me to all sorts of technology. One of these things was robots. Robots fascinated me because they had a mind of their own. I wanted to be a part of making these machines and learn more about them.

Emma: The year before we started the team Antipodes my dad was doing a project with it. At first I didn’t want to do it but one day I got bored and started helping him out with the programming. Now I’m here.

Kjersti: The beginning of my 8th grade year. My friend’s Dad started a team, and he invited me to join it because he found out about robotics through my mom. It seemed like a cool thing to do, so I tried it out. This year was way cooler than my first year.

GF: How did the three of you come together to form Team Antipodes, and compete in tournaments?

Violet: Last year, our coach went to an event at NASA Ames and saw one of the FIRST robots. He got interested and was inspired to start a team. At first, it was through 4-H, which both of his daughters are involved in. Two of our team members, Kjersti and Emma, were on the team that year. It was not as successful as they had hoped. They had many people who were not very dedicated or interested.  He gave Kjersti and Emma the choice to craft this year’s team, and they decided to shrink the team and only include people who were extremely interested  in robotics, so they invited me onto the team.

Emma: Kjersti and I did it the year before and Violet was our friend who was interested in it also. We competed really well. We are all really good friends and helped each other out.

Kjersti: Emma and I were on the original team in 8th grade, but we split off from that and decided to form our own team independently. Violet was our friend who is super smart and seemed interested, so we recruited her. We felt satisfied with just the three of us, so  we stopped there.

GF: What have been the most enjoyable, and most difficult, times in the
team’s history?

Violet: The most enjoyable are the meetings, because there are always jokes going around, and the car rides back from the tournaments are always fun because the stress is gone. Seeing the robot, named TOR, do well in the competition is always rewarding, too. Though I have to say, our recent trip to Istanbul was one of the most memorable things in the whole season. The most difficult times are when it is the night before one of our competitions and things aren’t working like we had hoped.  Also when the robot is having a hard time at the competition and we don’t know why.

Emma: The most enjoyable have been meeting new people at the tournaments and hanging out. The most difficult are definitely when something is not working right and we don’t know how to fix it and also the long, early car rides to tournaments.

Kjersti: Some of the most enjoyable times have been the competitions. We are there, having fun with each other and at a point where there really isn’t a whole lot we can do the change what we have and we have to be happy. So we are. Some of the most difficult have been the night before a competition. We usually sleep over at our coach’s house the night before (his daughter is on the team) and the whole night we are stressing about our robot and just totally freaking out. It’s probably when we are the most stressed, and there have been break downs.

GF: How do you feel about competing internationally in the Open European

Violet: We were thrilled when we found out. We fundraised so much and worked hard to go. When we got there, we were overwhelmed. We got to meet kids from all over the world and compete with them. It was a chance that few get to have and we were lucky enough to get.

Emma: I’m a little nervous but also very excited, it should be amazing to meet people from all over the world and see how their competition is run.

Kjersti: Totally amazed, honestly. Our goal at the first competition was to not get dead last. We accomplished that, but we never dreamed we would make it to an international tournament. We were trying not to be too nervous or stress about the competition, because we were there to have fun.

GF: What do you do when you aren’t making robots?

Violet: I do a lot of plays. In fact during the season, I was in two different shows.  Kjersti plays the saxophone and is in the marching band at our high school. Kjersti and I are also in Girl Scouts and a youth group together. Emma is involved with 4-H, does Cross Country, and horseback riding.

Emma: I run cross country, I do mock trial, I’m in a 4-H club, and I ride horses three days a week.

Kjersti: I’m in my local high school, Terra Nova’s marching band. It takes up a lot of time and practice, but I love it. I also love swimming and watching movies, but most of my time is taken up by school work.

Ken: Violet forgot to mention that she also does mock trial with Emma.

GF: You’ve decided to take a very open and collaborative approach to your work, as evidenced by the detailed information on your website (notes, designs, video and so on). How and why did you choose this approach?

Violet: We want to help other teams that need an idea of how to get started and let people see how we came up with our ideas.

Kjersti: It just sort of happened, but with a lot of pushing from our coach. He’s an architect and knows that it’s important to keep track of everything we do, and after a little bit we discovered that it was really helpful, especially since we weren’t always able to meet at the same times. It became an important tool to keep up with each other.

Ken: The reason we share our work and designs with our competitors, and anyone with access to the internet, is manyfold:

First, it’s a general principal of our league (FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to be gracious competitors. Second, we’ve been recipients of openness and help from older teams (most notably the LegoGuards and TechnoGuards), and it was immediately apparent this was the right thing to do. Third, I’ve been impressed by the many accounts of the long-term benefits of 1980’s Silicon Valley openness vs. Boston Area secretiveness. Fourth, it’s consistent with the whole idea of Antipodes (which means location on the opposite side of the globe) to push the envelope of engineering collaboration with students as far away as possible (Australians). Fifth, it took countless hours of web surfing to get started as a new team.  I realized it would be a valuable resource to have a single location to learn as many lessons as possible from our experience, down to the invaluable detail of remembering to change your tires the week before the tournament and to adjust your programming to account for the better traction.

Matt, as the team’s coach, I didn’t give the team much choice about this.  I just told them that openness is what we do, and they never questioned it.  Although, I know they can tell the difference from most of their competitors that don’t show their designs.

GF: What is your creative process like when you work together? How do your projects begin, develop and get completed through collaboration?

Violet: When we run into a problem, or just need to figure how to do something, usually someone suggests a possible solution. Then we start questioning it and trying to figure out every single detail of it. Since there are a few very visual people on the team, this usually involves a bunch of drawings and sketches. If we decide the solution is not going to work, someone else suggests something else and we start over. Once we agree on a solution we start working on it. Usually we divvy up the work and assign different tasks to different people. If someone runs into a problem with their task, they will ask for advice from the rest of the team. Eventually, the final work will be achieved whether it is a solution to a minor problem or a whole project.

Kjersti: We start with the problem, and basically brainstorm about what needs to happen. There’s a lot of trial and error that goes on, and we try each other’s ideas, until we find the best one and go with it.

Ken: I’d like to add that for any major design issue, we always break out the white board. The girls sit together on the couch as comfortably relaxed as possible and one of them volunteers to write the problems and suggestions out on the board in front of the others.

GF: Do you have any words of advice for other girls who are interested in robotics, as to how to get started?

Violet: Don’t let other people hold you down. Your friends may tell you that you are wasting your time, or someone may tell you that you can’t do it. You have to learn to not listen to these people.   Find a robotics team of some sort, or start your own. It is really a great experience and you learn a ton. FIRST has programs for all ages, and you can contact them about finding a team near you.

Kjersti: I’d say go for it! It’s a lot of work but it pays off in the end. There are more opportunities than you might think to get involved in robotics, so you can ask around, or go to the FLL website to get more information.

The team gave a Google Tech Talk in Mountain View in June, where they discussed their team and activities, and gave a demonstration of their robot:

Having competed in the European Championship in Istanbul, they are seeking donations to help cover their travel expenses. Due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the trip was much more expensive than anticipated and as of this writing they are about $4000 short. If you wish to support them, you can do so on their website.

Open thread: digging out

It’s been a couple of weeks since our previous open thread, so it’s time for a new one.  We create these from time to time so that there is an opportunity for general discussion in the comments. So, go for it. Tell us what’s on your mind.

As for me, I’ll be digging out from a mountain of email:

Hiring women

Terri recently pointed out that one way to involve more women in open source is to hire them into open source companies, an approach which works for other technology sectors as well.

I’m looking for advice and resources for putting this into practice, particularly in technology companies with a paucity of women. Assuming the company has open positions to fill, there is work to be done in order to:

  • make the case for gender diversity with hiring managers
  • attract applications from women candidates
  • ensure equal opportunity for women in the selection process
  • retain women once they’ve joined the organization

I’d like to hear your ideas and suggestions.

This isn’t only an academic exercise on my part, as we have openings to fill in my department, which currently includes less than 5% women.  We’re looking for an exceptional manager and a variety of talented engineers.

Our most qualified applicants generally come from the open source community and/or the software industry, both of which have their own gender imbalances, and so we tend to receive comparatively few applications from women.  Interviews and selection decisions are virtually all conducted by men, whose expectations have been forged in this environment, and in other, similar companies and communities.  Our culture reflects those origins, which is to say that it has its share of issues which affect women.

How can I, and others in this position, effect change for the better?

Please send in your suggestions in the comments or add them to the wiki.

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome

This is only the second blog I’ve written for, the other being my personal blog.  I’m still getting the hang of it, and look forward to learning a great deal from the other contributors here.  I’m excited to see how quickly things are picking up, and grateful to Skud for inviting me here.

After quietly using free software for some years, I became personally involved with the free software community when I joined the Debian project in 1999.  Through my work in Debian, I met and collaborated with developers of many other free software projects, and became a founding member of the Ubuntu project in 2004.  I presently work for Canonical as Ubuntu CTO.

Earlier this year, I began writing about problems affecting women in the free software community, inspired in part by friends in the Debian Women and Ubuntu Women projects.  Along the way, I have found the geekfeminism wiki to be a valuable resource in exploring feminism, and have tried to help improve it with references and information from my own experiences.  I have never lived as a woman, and have only very basic knowledge of feminist history, theory and ideology, and so am conscious of being out of my depth at times here.

I hope that by being a part of this conversation, I can help to promote higher standards of behavior and dialog in geek communities, especially in free software, which is my passion.  I would like to see more men listening, questioning themselves and their peers, and recognizing the necessity of change.  Many discussions about women in geekdom seem to revolve around changing women to bring them into the community: inspiring them, instructing them, converting them.  Instead, I think we need to focus on changing our community, to make it a place where women are welcome, to stop excluding and driving away women who are already interested.  This begins with changing ourselves, and setting an example for others.