Tag Archives: girl stuff

Andrea's daughter Maya, wearing pink and braids

Girls and Robots

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. This is a guest post, cross-posted from Deus Ex Machinatio.

My daughter Maya is five and a half years old. She’s in kindergarten, and is as clever and adventurous a child as you’ve ever seen. She loves dancing and princesses and rainbows and anything that is pink.

Andrea's daughter Maya, wearing pink and braids

Maya has also always, always loved cars and robots, right along with those butterflies and flowers and hearts. But recently she’s been saying that she doesn’t like these things anymore.

“I don’t like cars,” she told me, “because I want people to like me.”

This breaks my heart. And I imagine it breaks your heart, too. Five years old, and she’s already figured out just exactly how this thing works.

It turns out that “it got out” in school that she liked cars, so she says. And then the other girls in her class made fun of her for liking boy things.

All her life I’ve been talking about being true to yourself, about liking the things you find in your heart whether it’s a girl thing or a boy thing, and still, still, this is how fast it can unravel. Five years old, and she’s already trying to change who she is because she doesn’t think it’s who she should be.

Internet, talk to Maya, and talk to me. Tell us about girls who make robots and cars and bridges. Girls who build rockets, girls who can make and build and invent — girls who have grand adventures, but who can still go dancing, and still braid their hair, and still wear pink. Tell us about you. I know you’re out there.

Linkspamming the night away (11th May, 2011)

  • May 13 in Boston: A project-driven introduction to Python for women and their friends (unfortunately now gone to “waiting list only” status).
  • An open letter to the Australian SF community: However, the venue staging was awful, in terms of its accessibility. High, and only accessible by temporary stairs, the stage was off-limits to anyone in a wheelchair, anyone in an electric scooter and anyone with a significant mobility impairment… This should not be acceptable to us as a community in the twenty-first century.
  • How To Encourage More Brown Women To Launch Tech Startups I realized that simply asking, “Are you going?” is enough to make a difference in someone’s awareness.
  • As benno37 says: Tip to open source developers: don’t name your library after a sexist/offensive/illegal activity. I’m looking at you upskirt! Seriously, wtf. (So that not everyone has to google for the term, upskirt is a library to parse the Markdown syntax for webpages. The Wikipedia page for Markdown has loads of alternative implementations to choose from.)
  • Confessions of a Fairy Tale Addict: Because it is a lifestyle choice, to write fairy tale books. Make no mistake. I mean, in our culture, the phrase fairy tale practically means: trite, lightweight, and fluffy. You know, girl stuff.
  • There’s a long series of interviews conducted in 2010/2011 with women working in planetary science. See for example Natalie Batalha (From postdoc to Deputy Project Scientist on Kepler), Amy Jurewicz (Stardust, Genesis, and SCIM) and for that matter Emily Lakdawalla (It is NOT failure to leave academia).

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

An “ass” out of “u” and “me”

I’m off-white, so I’m used to people assuming rather strange things about me. The big one I am forever explaining is that no, I really am Canadian. Yes, that’s where I’m really from. That’s where my ancestors are from too. I’m biracial, but even the “immigrant” side of my family has been in Canada for well over 100 years, and the other includes united empire loyalists. Really.

Sometimes people assume I don’t speak English when they see me teaching at the university. Sometimes they assume I speak French after proclaiming my Canadian-ness. (I do, but most Canadians don’t.)

When people see my name, especially associated with my geeky pursuits or with my academic or professional work, they sometimes assume I’m male. Hilarity ensues.

But the weirdest assumption I ever encountered was that because I was a girl, I would somehow know something about computer usability. People would get me to test things. People would ask me questions. People would assume I could do design. People would assume I wanted to work at the interface level.

You think I know what?

When I was a fledgling programmer, I stayed as far away from interface as I could get. My first real programming job had me working on an SQL query optimizer and tracing bugs through threading libraries on old unix systems. I worked with email at the text-only, server level in my spare time. I lived off the command line. I didn’t know anything about interfaces, and was irked that people kept assuming.

But… I watched how people used things. I saw how sometimes, it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t unsubscribe from the mailing list when you had to do it by clicking a button labeled “Edit Options” (yes, as a Mailman developer, I made sure this was fixed.)

Hm… maybe I should learn some usability after all

I wanted to be able to help prevent this sort of nonsense. So I fit some human factors and user interface courses into my schedule. I read books. I angsted over whether this was “girl stuff” that I shouldn’t be doing lest I never be seen as a core programmer again, as Mary mentioned in her post. (There’s other girl stuff, but that’s not part of this story.)

But then I got into computer security, and in the course of my study, started to realise that a lot of “security flaws” come through people misusing products. I read Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0. (Yes, the SSL cert fail you get when you click that link is pretty funny in context.) I realised that it didn’t matter if usability was “girl stuff” — it was core, it was important, and people who ignored it were just being foolish. I finally embraced my “girl stuff” as part of security.

The happy ending

I won’t claim to be a usability expert, but I’ve got a lot more training and a lot more curiousity. It’s made me a much better software developer, and it’s made me a significantly better security researcher. (Most people in my research lab would argue that without understanding what users do, you can’t really understand computer security!) My open source project of choice, Mailman, is slowly benefiting from my increased expertise. And all starting with a really strange little assumption that usability was girl stuff. I still don’t understand why it’s girl stuff, but I understand that it doesn’t matter.

Turns out, when you assume, you don’t have to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me” after all.