Special pleading for female hackers considered harmful

Just for the title of her article "Girls and Software", hacker Susan Sons would get pilloried by the feministas. And yet she has done more to explain publically the actual problems than anyone I know:

Twelve-year-old girls today don't generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn't turn the young women into hackers.
It's not impossible to feel the tug of software later in life and get involved, but it's pretty apparent that childhood involvement is one of the main feeders of the world supply of hackers. Warning children - especially girls - about the dangers of online communities is clearly a good idea, but if you end up keeping them out of those communities all together then you've just choked the pipeline that produces the next generation of hackers and hence the next generation of software.

You, gentle reader, need to set aside five minutes and read Sons' whole piece - right now. Be you male, female, transgender, hacker or computerphobe, it's one of the best pieces I've seen on this issue. By all that's holy, she nails it:

Open source was my refuge because it was a place were nobody cared what my pedigree was or what I looked like — they cared only about what I did.
Heavens above, don't tell the Guardian columnists. We're never going to get any progress in involving women in software with that kind of attitude, are we? Where are the affirmative-action programs to demand minimum percentile representation?

As flawed-but-interesting arch-hacker ESR notes in the Jargon File:

Racial and ethnic prejudice is notably uncommon and tends to be met with freezing contempt.
When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels, and this is doubtless a powerful influence. Also, the ties many hackers have to AI research and SF literature may have helped them to develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive — after all, if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can't seem very important any more.
I've seen the world of hackers to be one of the most welcoming places to transgendered people. They appear to be significantly over-represented in software engineering. As a canonical example I give you Sophie Wilson who implemented the BASIC interpreter that powered the 1980's home computer phenomenon the BBC Micro. Sophie (as "Roger" back then) crammed a superb BASIC implementation into a 16KB ROM space, leaving five bytes spare to tag it with "Roger" at the top of the address space. I can't remember offhand if there was another byte spare that would have allowed "Sophie" to fit. Anyway, Sophie was a hacker par excellence and when she changed from Roger to Sophie no-one batted an eyelid. I remember one post on the comp.sys.acorn Usenet group where a poster tried to poke fun at her gender change, but was shut down in short order by the rest of the group. We didn't care about her gender, just her code.

One of the major problems that Sons isolates is, ironically, the less-well-thought-out attempts to "promote" women in software engineering:

It used to be that I was comfortable standing side by side with men, and no one cared how I looked. Now I find myself having to waste time talking about my gender rather than my technology...otherwise, there are lectures:
  • The "you didn't have a woman on the panel" lecture. I'm on the panel, but I'm told I don't count because of the way I dress: t-shirt, jeans, boots, no make-up.
  • The "you desexualize yourself to fit in; you're oppressed!" lecture. I'm told that deep in my female heart I must really love make-up and fashion. It's not that I'm a geek who doesn't much care how she looks.
It's hard to over-emphasise how screwy these attitudes are. "We want women involved in computer science!" "Well, I'm a woman in computer science." "But you don't look like a typical woman!" "I'm not a typical woman. I'm involved in computer science. I'm a typical hacker." In my experience women in software can go either way in dress style; T-shirt and jeans probably pips skirts and dresses; indeed, the transgender hackers make up a significant fraction of the latter.

That's not to say there aren't serious problems with how women in software are treated - there is no shortage of chauvinism, trolling and plain bad manners, like anywhere else. A particular problem is that, as Sons notes, many hackers are poor at social skills and don't have any real filter for their words and behaviour; when they encounter a woman they may want to be welcoming, but it seldom comes out right. Still, they'll battle to the death to protect their own whether they be male, female, transgender, robot or dolphin.

Want to encourage more women into software? Tell them how they'll be treated on their merits. On the Internet, no-one knows if you're a dog, a cat, a man or a woman. And in the world of hackers, no-one cares.

[Hat tip: The Advice Goddess]

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