Language, Gender and Feminist Epistemology

Sometimes a weird combination of things happens in exactly the right order. Sometimes they are so perfectly coordinated that it makes me wonder if the universe isn't setting me up to have the experience for a reason.

Let's start with the background. A long, long time ago when mullets were still in style I had a quote on my bedroom wall. It read, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." It is a quote from Margaret Mead and I can still recite it by heart. Skip forward. I have a deep love of Mandy Patinkin that dates back to Princess Bride. I've been catching up on old episodes of Criminal Minds (I also love the Garcia character). A few days ago I watched, "Lessons Learned." In it the team of profilers got information out of a prisoner by first offering respect and human decency. Then I listened to Part Six of "About Oscar" on CBC Radio. It was "About Canada." Oscar Peterson was fiercely patriotic in ways that make me proud to be Canadian. And before that it was a TED talk about Manchester Bidwell where Bill Strickland said, "If you want to involve yourself with people who have been given up on. You need to look like the solution, not the problem... set a tone and an attitude about people before you give them a speech." All during this time I've been working on my talk for LugRadioLive on gender and technology. That, in turn, has me looking at terms like feminist epistemology and seeing the connection between it and how I learned my technical skills. Over and over again I've been running into things that address respect and leadership. It might be fair to say that I've been made hyper-aware through this set of personal experiences.

Skip forward to this weekend. Sometimes I provide tech support in an on-line chatroom for people using Ubuntu (that's the operating system I use instead of Windows). Someone logged into the channel with the nickname "stupidgirl." While I cannot confirm the person's gender, I can definitely confirm their questions were not stupid. They asked a lot of really good questions and were obviously trying to solve a very tricky problem. Over and over again their name popped up as they talked with others about their problem. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. I found it jarring even though nothing about the person's behaviour was negative. It was just the name that made me uncomfortable.

Unclear on how to deal with the problem, I joined the staff room and asked, "Out of curiosity: is there a way to NOT allow the user name 'stupidgirl'?" You can follow the discussion in the public transcript of the conversation. I became increasingly frustrated as I noticed that the (all male) participants in the conversation did not see the same problem I was seeing. I logged out at 6:07. They continued to talk about me. The tone continued to lack respect for the issue. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. I was unable to articulate my concern in a way that made sense to the staff. The two names that are referenced (Hobbsee and Elkbuntu) are both women in the community. It's hard to tell based on their names which is why I add that bit of information here.

Empowered by Oscar and Bill and Mandy Patinkin's character I decided the only real way to deal with my concern was to go to the source of my concern. I sent stupidgirl a private message that read, "I'm part of the Ubuntu Women project. I just wanted to drop you a little note to say that I find your name jarring. I don't think it helps to provide positive language for women in technology." It turned into a lovely discussion. I helped her with the question she'd been asking earlier and pointed her at a bunch of resources and provided support while she tried to fix her problem (ultimately she solved the problem using a different approach and without my help the next day). Once she was settled on how to tackle her problem I asked, "So now that I've done you a favour with the instructions... can I ask for a favour? Your nick... I really do think it doesn't help to give women in FOSS positive language/role models/etc." And with that she changed her name and was using her revised name today when I logged into the chat room. I am delighted beyond words that such a simple action on my part created the change that I wanted to see.

Today the comic at xkcd has the following: boy says to boy, "wow you suck at math." second frame: boy says to girl, "wow, girls suck at math." Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. The title for today's cartoon is, "How It Works."

I understand that the volunteer staff do not have the time to address everyone's concerns. I understand they make choices based on what they feel is important to the rest of the community. But they have all signed a Code of Conduct that requires them to be respectful. Dismissing my concerns as "emotional" is not respectful. Within the open source community women comprise less than 5% of all developers. To say we are a rare breed is an understatement. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. Stupidgirl. Every day I probably scan through thousands upon thousands of words. Emails, Web pages, text-based chatrooms, reports. I am affected by what I see on screen. I am sure that others are too. Am I sloppy with my language from time to time? Definitely. Have I said things that have left me in a less than perfect light? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean I've completely stopped trying to create a positive space for everyone to interact.

In the grand scheme of life, the universe and everything it is probably completely insignificant and irrelevant that I stepped up and asked for change. But it is the collective sum of our token actions that will make the difference in the end. We cannot solve a problem if we are not willing to tackle it. And we cannot tackle it if we do not name it. And we cannot name it if our language doesn't recognize it. Thank you for changing your name, Aparna. You've helped tackle a problem that will make a difference for women in technology.

Can I offer up some

Can I offer up some wonderful supportive websites that make you feel very 'uppity' and decidly 'done with warm and fuzzy'.

Yes they should have done what you did, in asking for a name change.
No it wasn't an emotional response, it was a realistic response
Yes it speaks to how women approach a problem, that it is us who are stupid, not the problem.

Thank you for working with this woman to help her out, and to change the attitude.

This particular issue is not

This particular issue is not one that can be easily detected by a bot or by the admins who scan thousands of lines that flash by their screens or by scanning irc logs. Its something that takes a person who is sensitive to the issue which is this case seems to be limited to you. This is a shame. The policy and codes of irc tries to weed out certain types of easily recognized behaviors: going off-topic, not asking 'smart questions', ask in the wrong forum, trolling, spamming, making 'generally offensive' remarks to other irc participants. This issue that you highlight is one where given freedom of choice this person gave themselves a nick which I think you felt was an insight to how this person felt about themselves which most likely is negative psychologically to themselves and to other potentially. The impetus for *-women is to bring in more women devs and if the atmosphere is not women-friendly this will not happen. A side effect of this is to make the whole user community women-friendly. Now that is more or less true where the mailing lists and irc chat rooms show some women friendliness. The issue that you are trying to address of the username/nick is to try to thwart peoples external representations of their internal feelings of inadequecy(eg. The person sees how girls are treated when asking questions and internalized feeling stupid when doing so, so they express this by labeling themselves as stupid which is negative rather than a positive like inquisitive (ergo: inquisitive_girl). I would agree that this is not something that would be best discussed in a 'public' way on irc but in a personal chat to alert them to the way that this portrays them in a negative way and how it affects others in continuing a stereotype that xkcd highlighted and how girls/women should view/think of themselves in more positive ways. I had a situation on debian-user where I asked a user to not open his email with 'Hi Gents' as not everyone here was and he responded in a negative way. I would rather point that out and receive a possibly negative reply than to have said nothing. Its a battle where each step counts. Keep up the good work.

Well done. Recognizing and

Well done.

Recognizing and reacting to norms like this is what I think WebGrrls and DigitalEve were trying for, at least initially. Certainly that's why I supported them for so long. In later years they seemed to have made this a secondary or tertiary goal, but that might just be my outsider perspective.

It's disheartening that "women in technology" SIGs are still necessary, still using phrases like "Encouraging women to participate" and "Openly discussing issues facing women in [insert technical area]". It's good that people are still forming and joining these groups, and presumably having useful discussions. Hopefully the discussions are not staying within the SIG, but also carried through the organization to at least create awareness that there are issues.

I've been trying to find the time to contribute to Ubuntu for a while now, since it's the primary OS on my laptop. I wonder what the reaction would be if I was to join the Ubuntu Women group. Perhaps I should update to Hardy/Alpha4 first so I wouldn't be summarily dismissed. ;) (and maybe Hardy will finally support my fscking Atheros 5416 wifi card with native drivers and I can stop using stupid ndiswrapper)


Finalists in the Canadian Feminist Blogger Awards...

Well done, EJ. That XKCD

Well done, EJ.

That XKCD comic hit me right in the gut, too. I spent this past weekend skiing with 8 of my (male) colleagues, and there were any number of times when I felt I was being tested.

Would I stop playing Yellow Car because I was getting bruised?
How would I react to this comment or that one?
Would I display enough courage and toughness on the slopes?
How was I with being the only woman in the pool? In the sauna (European - no swimsuits, just towels)?

I get so damned tired of having to choose between pretending to be male and checking to see if being feminine is OK in a given situation.

As for the nick, yes, your objection was valid and was dismissed pretty callously. Words have power. The entire Internet is based on the idea that words have power. Anyone who ignores that is just setting themselves up to be a patsy.

Having said that, I think the direct approach was the best one, as well as the most effective. IRC is a talk shop, so anything you say will be kicked about like a football. Real conversations happen elsewhere, where you know whose attention you have.

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