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This is a repost of some thoughts I once put elsewhere which I'm reframing because of recent discussions about women in libraries and technology at Dorothea's and Bess's and Karen's and Rachel's. I'm also posting this because after spending the weekend with multiple generations of Haverford and Bryn Mawr alumni, I got to thinking about computer science education for women.

You see, the computer science department at Haverford and Bryn Mawr was (and I believe is) a bi-college department, and I took many classes in both schools. I know all the arguments for girls-only science education, about how girls will only learn to speak up and gain confidence in the absence of the boys, but at the time I completely disbelieved those arguments. This is because the Haverford women in my Bryn Mawr computer science classes, who had only survived by learning to compete with the guys, to speak up, to yell -- we were the ones who spoke up in the coed Bryn Mawr computer science classes. The Bryn Mawr women, on the other hand, who didn't have to learn to compete with men on a daily basis, were silent in those computer science classes taught in the Bryn Mawr campus, leaving discussion to be dominated by Haverford men and women.

Yes, I acknowledged at the time, there were far more women taking computer science classes at Bryn Mawr than there were at Haverford, and maybe that was because the women who didn't want to shout and be aggressive got weeded out at Haverford but not at Bryn Mawr, but surely that wasn't a problem compared to how much more prepared to compete the Haverford computer science women were?

Now I don't know anymore. Now that I've left high-tech because I was sick of having to play in that aggressive playpen -- and I use the word "playpen" intentionally -- now I begin to understand the arguments for girls-only science education. Why is it right that an environment was created where the only way to learn computer science was competitive, was in an extremely aggressive, rude, and uncomfortable environment? (I want to stress that that environment, at least in the bi-co at the time, was not created by the all-male faculty, who were good people, good mentors, and went out of their way to encourage the women who choose to be in computer science. The environment came from my fellow students, but I don't remember the faculty doing much to repress it, though.)

Until recently, with the switch to librarianship, I've spent of my life in primarily male social and professional spheres. Anyone who says there's no sexism among geeks doesn't remember the gaming groups in high school that excluded girls "because RPGs aren't for girlfriends", the times in college when games players were patronised as girlfriends until suddenly the male players realised this chick was good and must be destroyed in case a girl won, and the explosion of sexist rage that ensued when Wizards of the Coast started alternating male and female pronouns in players handbooks. They never worked in technology offices where male professionals were tracked toward software architecture positions and equally qualified female professionals were pushed toward middle management. They never had unqualified men with half their experience and skill hired to work with them at twice the salary.

I've had all these things happen in my life as a geek, and in almost all cases, the guys responsible would call themselves Sensitive New Age Feminists. And you know what? I didn't care. I loved what I did, and if the guys were insensitive pricks, well, sometimes I'm sure I did crappy woman shit. And I'd learned to compete in my coed computer science classes in college. I'd learned to speak out, join in the dirty jokes, shout to make myself heard.

But ... it was wearying, to be always proving myself. It was exhausting, to know that all of my peers were judged just as people with varied skills, except for me and my female co-workers. I was an aggressive chick who hung out with the guys and dressed poorly and oh, by the way, did systems. I sat there and listened while they all mooned after another woman in my release engineering team (who has since also left technology), discussed how much they all wanted to date her, and never took her seriously, not once, as a release engineer. I listened as they all thought it was completely reasonable that the three women who reported to the CTO all had to share one large office, but each one of the many men who reported to the CTO had an office of his own. I sat there while they argued to me that it was reasonable that the one male manager who had an alternate schedule because of childcare responsibilities didn't get treated differently, but the three female managers who had flexible schedules because of childcare responsibilities did. Male was normative, and anyone who wasn't male was Not-Male first and a competent co-worker second. And again, every single one of these guys was a Sensitive New Age Guy, feminist and true. And I accepted this. Hey, I was in a male space, shaped and dominated by men, and I had to live with the consequences of that. The dominant group is normative; that's just the way people work.

After a while it started getting too exhausting to fight. I remember a friend asked me to weigh in on a slashdot thread about why women are bad at computers, and I just couldn't. I didn't have the energy to be in a space that needed me to defend my life. Like Dorothea keeps saying, I don't want to have to fight to prove myself every single day. I didn't create this problem and I don't see why I should have to babysit adults on a daily basis because they aren't smart enough to figure out that their actions are making for an unsafe and repellent environment. I remember when the constant jockeying for position, the -- I know it's a cliché but it's true -- fighting twice as hard to be thought half as good finally wore me down at work, and I realised I couldn't do it anymore. And I remember deciding to leave and go to library school. (Note: nearly all of my female coworkers from technology startups who were in systems administration, release engineering, or programming has since changed careers; I can name five without breaking a sweat. Of my male co-workers, only one has changed careers (to law school). I can't speak for anyone's reasons but my own, but the evidence that something drives women out of tech is anecdotally overwhelming).

The original version of this post went on to say how I'm also uncomfortable in the predominantly female space of libraries, after decades of learning to communicate like a geek guy. But right now I'm not thinking that way. I'm pissed off at the domination of library technology and library management by men in a field that's overwhelmingly female. Male librarians are disproprtionately powerful given their rarity [1] [2]. I'm pissed off that, as proud as I now am to be a librarian, I was driven out of the field I loved at least partly by the knowledge that my peers saw my gender first and my abilities second. And I'm pissed off that those same people have taken over library technology, and think it's okay that men are overrepresented because after all if women had something to say, they would come forward, right?

I'm annoyed that in my library and technology services group, which I was so proud to join because I saw a utopian vision of the power behind a merged library and technology department, is constantly falling into the trap of thinking of the technology department as the smart guys who provide services and the libraries as those hidebound women who demand assistance. I don't think that's the overtly stated belief here, but I feel like I'm fighting it every day. And I'm not just fighting that war with the technology people, but with the librarians, who see the aggressive playpen and don't think they can compete.

Look, systemic sexism, like systemic racism, or homophobia, or any other kind of bigotry, is not our fault. But it is our responsibility. If someone says to us "Your behavior is contributing to an unsafe space for women," that is not, to me, the same thing as saying, "You are a sexist pig!" It's not an attack, it's an explanation. Here's another example: both librarianship and technology have far worse race problems than they do gender problems. I am sure that as a participant in a society with institutionalized racism that I have done things which are partially responsible for the creation of the space in which these fields have become so racially monolithic. If somebody helps educate me on what I can do to fix those problems, I won't take that as an accusation of racism. I will take that as a teachable moment. And I will be sorry that somebody had to teach me, that somebody else had to babysit me in something I should've figured out on my own. But as an intelligent adult, I can sure as hell figure out that the ethnic representations in technology and librarianship are a problem. And as an intelligent adult, I can sure as hell figure out that the gender representations in technology and library technology are a problem. Maturity is responding to problems by proposing solutions from within as well as from without, not in defensive lashing out. And the solutions which have been proposed so far? Well, if you combine the responses in Karen's post with the conversations related by Dorothea and Bess, you have the following proposed solution, which goes along with my experiences as a woman in technology:

"You should speak out, advertise yourself, and demand to be heard in our forums. Of course, once you're there, you will have to put up with an environment full of sexist, unprofessional behavior. If you speak up, you will be attacked for changing what people think of as a fun environment. The men on your side will not speak out publicly on your behalf (and on behalf of all people who don't want to live in a misogynist environment, both men and women), but will privately urge you to stay the course and educate those adult men who can't figure out on their own that dirty jokes and sexist cracks are unprofessional, not fun. But you should absolutely fight for the right to join these forums, because if you don't volunteer yourself, we will assume you have nothing to say."

I hope that everyone who reads this sees how absolutely unacceptable that solution is.

Date: 2006-07-31 03:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bunnyjadwiga.livejournal.com
I don't know quite what to say about this, except, I agree.
I came to my current position from a 'merged' library and computing environment where I felt that same pressure. I can't say it affected me per se, since I managed to offend and upset both sides, but I saw it happening to other women, and I could see that there was definitely a double standard on what was ok for the males to do as opposed to the women.

Nowadays I'm in a great environment, but constantly terrified because I don't know what I can and cannot do with respect to my computing co-workers; after a year on the job, I was deputed to replace a popular and knowledgeable woman who was popular with the computing staff but not with all the library staff (because of her abrasive personality). My library co-workers don't really have a good sense of what is reasonable to expect, either, though. It's a challenge.

The best weapon in the misogynist aresenal seems to be to accuse women of being oversensitive, since it's a double layer attack/defense.

I don't like the proposed solution either, especially as it means I have to rely on people like you who have a lot more social skills than I to educate misogynists...

Date: 2006-07-31 04:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bunnyjadwiga.livejournal.com
Really, my paranoia is mostly what I brought with me from my previous job. "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much, till you spend half your life just a coverin' up."

Date: 2006-07-31 03:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cavlec.livejournal.com
Wowzers. May I link to this publicly?

Date: 2006-07-31 06:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tattycat.livejournal.com
Clicked through from [livejournal.com profile] bunnyjadwiga's LJ. I feel this pain, deeply. I switched to librarianship after a master's in religion, and had planned to go into the info architecture/tech end of the job. I removed myself after the first round of summer classes because the constant commentary from the male students in my programming class just wore me down.

I get tired of the fighting, honestly. Like you, I get tired of explainaing myself/defending myself/beating my head against that particular brick wall. And then I often feel guilty, because I am one of the people willing to speak up. But Dorothea says it all so much better....

Date: 2006-08-02 04:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tattycat.livejournal.com
*nods* I've been thinking about that ultra-competitive atmosphere a lot lately. Oddly enough, my awareness of it sharpens due, in part, to the tangentially-work-related projects I've been doing. Lots of reading about gaming plus lots of reading about women in IT equals "why do our work environments so closely mirror MMORPG culture?"

One of the things I find difficult to explain to people is that there are certainly areas of online culture that are just as closed as "real life" culture used to be/still is. That I don't read Fark.com because 13 year old boy humour and misogynistic remarks rule the day. That I hesitate to start gaming after hearing about some of my female friends' experiences with men in game. And how very much it bothersm e that this seems to be okay.

Argh. I seem to be better at the irritation this morning than the coherence. One good thing that came out of not taking those classes, though-- I didn't get boxed into what my professors thought I should be learning. I got the chance to research around the library community and decide what would be useful to me later. That's how I got interested in the social software/open source movements. I'm a lot self-taught, and that's both good and bad.

Date: 2006-07-31 09:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amaebi.livejournal.com
Hey! Haven't seen you around in yonks, knew you electronically when you were doing the DWJ site.

What a wonderful post. :)

great post

Date: 2006-08-01 08:03 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hi, Deborah. I just found this post via Dorothea. Amen to what you said about how tiresome it is to always have to prove yourself. You know the worst part? Earlier this year one of my geek co-workers said to me, "Stop trying so hard! You act like you think you constantly have to prove yourself!" Aaargh!!! This after a year long battle to be allowed to run my own server, because even though I've been a *nix sys admin for eight years, I might not know how to do it properly. *Sigh*

Bess Sadler
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