Catch-22: Tech Blogging As a Woman

One of the Hacker News comments on Anna Billstrom’s article regarding female users on StackOverflow caught my eye:

We have had article after article claiming it is obvious women are being oppressed in the tech industry. Every week there is one of these. Many make bigoted claims about male engineers, enforcing stereotypes of male geeks I have never actually seen in industry.

Where are the technical articles written by women? There are plenty of contributions complaining about oppression, while attacking men and claiming absurd stereotypes. Where are the technical contributions?

While there are multiple potential issues that could be raised with regards to this comment, I’m going to focus on the second half – the part asking “where are the technical articles written by women?” Well, let’s use an example that’s close at hand – the blog post I wrote about Git submodules. That blog post wound up on Hacker News and also on Reddit.

For now, let’s set aside whatever opinions you have on the content of the post itself – assuming you can at least agree with me that it’s an example of a technical article. In exchange, I’ll refrain from commenting on the merits of the comments I’m quoting here.

If you look through the comment threads on both sites, you’ll notice something: any instances of gendered language that the commenters use assume the author is male. They refer to “him” and talk about what they think “he” should do or their opinion of “his” thoughts on the matter. Some examples:

Hacker News:

It appears that one of the solutions he recommends, git-subtree, is going to be merged into git soon:

Reddit:

He complains about having to branch in both the parent and the sub project, but I have found that not to be a problem at all, and kind of nice in some situations. He’s blowing it way out of proportion.

Reddit:

On the other hand, the author prefaced all his “this is where submodules break” descriptions with “I forgot to run submodule update”, so I have trouble sympathizing.

Sure, I generally don’t go out of my way to make it obvious that I’m a woman on my blog – you’d have to first click over to the About page, and then click through to either my Google+ profile or my Twitter account. Then again, I don’t know many male developers who go out of their way to make it obvious that they’re male, either. After all, supposedly gender is irrelevant on the internet (Hacker News):

Not to mention that we’re on the fucking internet. There is no gender, race, colour or creed here. Everybody pick a neutral username and, hey, presto! Problem solved.

Sure, I could go out of my way to make it obvious that I’m a woman. I could put my name at the top of my blog or on my About page, or I could mention it in passing in my writing. That’s not something a male author has to do, though. Furthermore, doing so results in harassment and having my writing dismissed/trivialized/tokenized because of my gender. Hence why I don’t (or at least, hadn’t until this post).

The catch-22 here is that if I choose to blend in, then people like the commenters above assume that everything they see was written by men, and use that as an excuse to dismiss the concerns of women in the tech industry – because apparently, we don’t contribute and thus don’t matter. If I choose to not blend in, I’m dismissed as bringing up gender when it’s irrelevant (or worse, harassed by people who’ve decided gender is relevant).

It’s no surprise that when the default assumption is “male author” it winds up seeming like male authors write almost everything. So to the original commenter I quoted, here’s your answer: they’re where all the technical articles you read are: on Hacker News, on Reddit, on whatever other blogs and aggregators you frequent. Just because you don’t see them (or perhaps, don’t realize you see them) doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Posted on July 1, 2012, in Women in Tech and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. heinousbutch

    It’s like when Neo meets Trinity IRL for the first time and he says “I just thought, uhm, you were a guy.”. She replies “Most guys do.”.

  2. It makes a good point!

  3. I never took offense when someone referred to me as “he” online. English doesn’t have a gender neutral pronoun, so the masculine has always stood in its place. It’s more of a generic label, I’ve always thought, not someone assuming I’m a man for one reason or another. Using “she” when I don’t know the gender always seemed too specific.

    Those movements that proclaim “We need to get more women doing ______!” make me a little angry. I mean, maybe most women don’t want to be doing those things, which is why they aren’t? We don’t need to be led around and told what to do, we have the tools and the intelligence to accomplish our goals on our own. It’s usually women that start those movements, so it makes me think they are the ones who think we’re helpless and are looking to gain an edge because of their extra X chromosome.

    If you want to stand out, stand out by doing something fantastic. Don’t use your gender to get attention. If you do, that’s what you’ll be seen as, and all of your accomplishments will be tied to that.

    And for the record, I really don’t care about the gender of whoever wrote an article I read or coded the software I use. If it’s good, it’s good, if it isn’t, well, it isn’t! :-)

    • If you want to stand out, stand out by doing something fantastic. Don’t use your gender to get attention. If you do, that’s what you’ll be seen as, and all of your accomplishments will be tied to that.

      Which is precisely why, as I mentioned in this post, I generally avoid calling attention to my gender. But again, as the post points out, keeping mum has its own problems.

    • From reading the article I did not the the impression that Amber cares about being called a “he”. What she was drawing attention to is that when one assumes any author of technical material is a man, that will lead you to believe that you never see technical articles written by women, which is a pretty good point to make.

  4. Why do you care if they call you a “he”. You could call me the chief dishwasher on my business card and it has the same effect as calling me a carrot.

    I know that value i bring or dont bring. Dont sweat the small stuff.

    • I don’t really care what people use in one-off discussions. I care more about the general impressions of the industry that the assumptions people make wind up shaping.

      • While I don’t disagree with your points nor those of many legitimate female technologists (women that produce quality software in the field) – I feel that a very simple truth is being ignored very blatantly by “all of you”: that you’re a minority.

        Is it not true that straight men who are clothes designers not often considered gay? Primarily because straight clothing designers are a minority in that industry? (I’m not in that industry, so I’m only basing that point off of limited anecdotal experience/observation)

        To me, there are some issues you’re simply not going to be able to escape as a minority – whether you’re a man or a woman in fields that are dominated by a specific gender or sex.

        As a man, what I care about is the treatment of intelligent and industrious women as intelligent and industrious persons; and shattering people’s (women and men) notions that because you’re a specific gender or sex doesn’t limit you to the prevailing themes of that gender or sex.

        This stands for women in male dominated fields just as much as it stands for men in female dominated fields. So please, don’t get too irritated (I have a few female friends in the tech industry and you all get very up-in-arms), remember that there are some things you can’t change about the situation and that there are a vast number of manly men that support feminine women doing awesome things in technology.

        And yes, I always assume something technology related on the internet was authored by a man – because most of it is. So if you care a bout those assumptions, then start making it obvious that you’re a woman and stop waiting for the sun to set in the East!

      • You seem to have missed this paragraph from the article:

        Sure, I could go out of my way to make it obvious that I’m a woman. I could put my name at the top of my blog or on my About page, or I could mention it in passing in my writing. That’s not something a male author has to do, though. Furthermore, doing so results in harassment and having my writing dismissed/trivialized/tokenized because of my gender. Hence why I don’t (or at least, hadn’t until this post).

  5. I can understand your frustration, but what is a better solution ? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun documents efforts to change our language, but for now the masculine still serves as a markless form for pronouns.

    • Singular they isn’t a bad option for pronouns specifically, or in some cases just using a more descriptive form of address (e.g. “the OP” or “the author”).

      However, the real problem here isn’t so much pronouns as it is people not realizing the unconscious bias such usage can introduce. Being cognizant that “yes, people tend to assume others in the tech industry are male” goes a long way towards realizing that maybe the reason why you don’t perceive there as being a ton of women bloggers isn’t because they don’t exist, but rather simply because they’re lost in the crowd of assumptions.

      • Amber, lol now who is making assumptions……are you telling me “i” dont know there are females in tech.
        ……hmmm sorry try again I follow about 2000 of them daily – http://www.twitter.com/XXinTech/following

        I feel so violated and carrot like that you didnt know this about me just by reading my posts.

      • Fair enough, and as I hit reply I had a feeling maybe I was missing the point. Indeed, your post makes me wonder if people would assume tech related articles were written by (and about..) males even if we did have genderless pronouns.

      • @Dean: She was talking about the tech industry in general, not any single person. The fact that you decided to take it personally and attack her for “attacking” you speaks volumes about your character.

      • Wow. These d00ds will do ANYTHING to tell you you’re wrong.

        Well, you’re not wrong. You’re absolutely right. I live this world every single day, too. Like seriously, you’re quoting me except you swear less. And do they really think they’re telling us something we don’t already know? We get it. We’re zebras in a barnyard. Seriously, it’s like they all went to the same school. >_<

        Because we totally missed that, thanks d00ds. Thanks bunches. Dunno what we're do withoutcha.

        In fact, I'll make a convenient list for you fellas:

        – Thanks for ensuring that nobody who pees sitting down misses the deliberate erasure, the othering
        – Great job on the totally unintentional cooperative effort to deliberately marginalize us
        – The barriers weren't quite high enough. Way to make it a little more difficult!
        – That was some incredibly very effective othering you just laid on us.

        — And thanks especially for refusing, no matter what, to take a non-male seriously! <3 <3 <3

  6. Honestly, I’ve been mistaken for a *woman* on the Internet (through no fault of my own beyond having a gender neutral name). I think that is an even more bizarre experience. Because the mistake is always expected to be made the other way, you wonder what you did to lead them to make this assumption. You also get to experience life in the tech world as a woman, which is quite a horrific shock for a man.

    Even if pages were colour coded based on author gender and 51% of the tech content was written by women, confirmation bias would ensure that stereotypes continue to exist. As a consequence, I wouldn’t worry too much about the tech world’s presumptions about author gender.

  7. This has nothing to do with “tech blogging”, or the industry being male-dominated. The same topic often comes up on reddit, where users also often use “he” without knowing anything about the other redditor. And the gender ratio there is much more balanced than among software engineers.

  8. It is also in the “genderless” nature of the english language. In many other languages (like in my native Russian) there is a grammatical distinction between “male” and “female”. “I did it” written by a man or by a woman sounds differently – and the reader always knows if the author is a man or a woman.
    But english, probably due to its grammatical simplicity, is the “language of choice” in the Internet in general and in IT area.

    • I used to visit a Russian online group and even after a couple of years, despite all gendered grammar and references, I was still sometimes referred as a male, and not believed being a female…

      It’s like if somebody’s nickname is not gendered, pretty or flirty, or constantly talking about sexual attraction, shopping, cooking and family, they are hard to be recognized as a female despite any grammar rules. Because what kind of “female” could they be if they don’t present themselves as a stereotypical object to serve men’s needs?

  9. Using “he” for gender indeterminate is grammatically correct. If you don’t know the gender of a person, use “he”. If you don’t know the gender of a not-person (this is less of a problem in English where we only really think of gender in terms of people), use she.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    I agree with your point about men being arses towards women on the internet. However, i’m old enough to remember the time before this “no wimmenz on the intarnets” bullshit came about when giving information about yourself away on the internet was a massive no-no. Everyone was just identified by their nickname and nobody really cared about your gender or race or anything else about you are IRL (“on the internet, nobody knows that you’re really a cat”) and they only cared about what you had to contribute.

    I wish we could go back to those times when someone was just identified by their name and what they have to contribute. It was such a productive time.

    • It’s worth remembering that when a person’s gender isn’t known, people tend to assume ‘male’ in most situations. (Or for race, white). So while people may not have cared, subconsciously they were probably thinking that everyone else was a white male, especially if that’s what they themselves were.

  11. >Where are the technical articles written by women? There are plenty of contributions complaining about oppression, while attacking men and claiming absurd stereotypes. Where are the technical contributions?

    The points are still rather valid. Let me explain.
    I know some real women in tech and I respect them.
    I’ve seen several women complaining about some opression in their blogs. But when I looked at their blogs there weren’t any technical posts/contributions there.

    Looks like there two distinct kinds of “women in tech” – the ones who contribute and the ones who complain. (Well, of course there is some blending). This is valid for other areas as well.

    What do you think?

    • I think the radical feminist in me is fighting with the senior developer in me over who gets to smack this embarrassingly sexist bigotry down harder.

      I vote, neither. Your ignorance isnt even original enough to merit a waste of my time; I was not put here to Google things for you. Instead, I think we should pose this incredibly misogynistic (not to mention blisteringly ignorant) question to Radia Perlman, and see what she has to say about it.

      (For maximum irony, do it on the internet.)

      (And to be clear, by “we”, I mean “you.”)

      Look, just because you’re myopic doesn’t mean we don’t exist.

      It just means you’re incapable of seeing us.

      It just means you’re probably doing stuff like idk assuming authors are male, and failing to note the discrepancy in your perception. Debug fail.

      Mind you, that doesn’t make us – me, the OP, women collectively – responsible for your deficiencies.

      You’re aware that overt hostility and obvious bias against the contributions of women exist, right? That’s one of the (many) ways women are silenced. By men. So women contributors generally do so anonymously…

      …and your projection does the rest, I suppose.

  1. Pingback: Who will linkspam the linkspammers? (3rd, July 2012) | Geek Feminism Blog

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