ITAL: A Diversity of Voices?

The latest Code4Lib journal had an editorial addressing the gender balance of c4lj authors. That sounded like fun, so I have replicated the analysis on LITA’s journal, Information Technology and Libraries. (With thanks to the LITAns who made it open access as of volume 31, issue 1 – that made this much easier!)

I did author counts back through 2007, thus covering approximately the same period as c4lj’s graphs. Over this period there were 239 (nondistinct) authors of 133 articles, communications, and tutorials. (There were also editorials, presidents’ messages, and book reviews, which I excluded.) I have not replicated c4lj’s editorial board counts.

As with all counting-based exercises, I am nervous about the exclusion or erasure of non-counted types of diversity (which are important, but not always doable with the available data) and the possibility of error in gender guessing, particularly given that the graphs impose a binary that doesn’t actually represent gender reality. (Again, a data set of author names doesn’t allow for better accuracy.) So please apply lots of grains of salt and take this as an approximation.

So…what does this mean?

It’s consistent with my subjective impression that LITA is 50/50 ish …but I don’t entirely trust that subjective impression, because I know that people tend to overestimate the percentage of women once they have any visibility at all. I don’t have data on the gender breakdown of LITA membership (do you?).

And I still don’t know how I feel about 50/50, even if true. Is it good, because it represents the culture at large? Is it bad, because librarianship is 80% female? Is it good, because it’s less male-dominated than Code4Lib or the broader technology industry? Should I be creeped out by that, on the theory that LITA is less male-dominated because it has more of a mix of hard and soft skills, and the gender ratio tracks with that ratio? (It’s not like it isn’t obvious that the more I do code and leadership and public speaking — technical things, things that put me on a stage, things that pay well — the fewer women I see around me.) Does 50/50 mean we’re doing something right, something that points toward a possible future, or does it mean we’re tangled between poles of wrong?

And while I’m asking questions, does anyone who knows statistics want to take a stab at the shift in author gender ratios over time? Circa 2009 issues went from being generally male-dominated to generally female-dominated, but I have no idea if that’s statistically meaningful.

#libtechgender: conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

In discussing ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct with ever-wider audiences, I get the growing feeling that we stand at different starting lines, and it affects our understandings of the words in the statement.

So if you looked at the Statement and your first reaction was “but…free speech?” or “nanny state” or “political correctness”, this is for you. Let me attempt to explain some starting points. (Trigger warning: graphic violence, rape, rampant misogyny.)

Proponents of these codes are not concerned that people might disagree with them (even disagree passionately). We aren’t concerned that people might not be nice. We aren’t wanting to run to some hammer of authority every time someone says a group we’re in might be other than pure unicorns and roses.

Here is the world I live in:

I live in a world where famed game developer and technical writer Kathy Sierra disappeared entirely from the internet for years after she received a series of death threats, including publishing of her home address, social security number, and false allegations that she had abused her children.

I live in a world where Anita Sarkeesian ran a Kickstarter to support a project on sexism in video games, and as a result someone created and distributed a video game consisting solely of clicking on her face until you had beaten it to a bloody pulp.

I live in a world where merely having a female-gendered nickname on IRC (a chat network important in the technology world) makes you 25 times more likely to receive unsolicited malicious private messages, even if you never say a word.

I live in a world where I have zero interest in going to CES because I don’t want to have to deal with the naked booth babes (and am therefore cutting myself off from the biggest trade show relevant to my interests). Where a friend of mine takes for granted there will probably be naked women on conference slides in her field. Where people complaining that a joke about being “raped by dickwolves” in a comic about gaming isn’t funny leads to its creators selling dickwolves t-shirts and large numbers of people to this day defending this as a reasonable position to hold. Where a hackathon sponsored by a major tech news web site gives time on stage to an app intended solely for sharing photos of women’s cleavage, with a nine-year-old-girl in the audience. Where a major tech news discussion site is so prone to misogyny many women never bother to spend time there, at the same time as it is suspected of repeatedly quashing discussion critical of misogyny.

I live in a world where I treat it as great and inexplicable good luck that no one has yet threatened to rape or kill me just because I blog and speak publicly about technology and sexism under an obviously female name, and I have the backup plan in my head of how to moderate comments and log IPs if it’s ever needed, and the list of which friends have my back enough that I’d ask them to wade through that kind of cesspit for me. I live in a world where using my own name on github and IRC was a specific conscious choice that required actual bravery from me, because I know that I am statistically exposing myself to retribution for doing so.

Let’s say that again: I live in a world where being myself in public, talking about things I care about under my own name in public, is a specific choice which requires both courage and a backup plan.

In this world some people choose not to be themselves in public. They choose not to speak, or to speak only under disguises – ones they can’t wear at conferences, face-to-face.

That is my concern about free speech. That right there.

That is the aim of conference codes of conduct. To clarify the threats — not to eliminate them, because you can’t ever do that, but to state that this is a place where silencing people through graphic threats of sexual violence or open and regular degradation is treated as unacceptable, that if it happens to you there’s a place to go, and to (crucially) say that the bystanders care too. That you’re not in a place where a lot of people are decent but indifferent and someone somewhere might attack you and it’s all on you to cope, but you’re in a place where a lot of people are decent and affirmatively have your back.

And by clarifying the threats, by publicly affirming the decency of the bystanders, we create a world where you don’t have to be quite so brave to speak up. A world where the uncertain, the new, the outsiders have a voice too. A world where maybe the barrier for being a woman in tech — or an outsider coming in — is not the ability to say “fuck you”, but merely the interest in saying something, anything.

If you have been reading the statement of acceptable conduct from the frame of mind that you haven’t encountered problems and things seem fine and the only speech you can imagine it chilling is the edgier end of the perfectly fine, please go back and reread it from my world. It reads differently.

#libtechgender: the dangers of a single story

Let me tell you some stories.

One of my favorite TED talks is this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story”:

“The discovery of African literature saved me from having a single story of what books were,” she said — a single story that could be gripping and wonderfully written, that inspired her to be a writer, but also made it unthinkable that girls who looked like her and lived like her could exist in stories. (But watch the whole thing.)

One of the stories I’m following today is Andy Woodworth’s airing of grievances about where we should stop wasting our energies in libraryland, and Cecily Walker’s (excellent) follow-up post on intersectionality and the librarian image — quite rightly calling Andy to task for using language that implies librarians come from a single story, and therefore have a burden of proof on ourselves to prove competence when we depart from that story.

We are not, of course, one story. We are many stories, overlapping and crisscrossing through “librarianship”, but pulling a million threads in along the way, and pulling the threads of librarianship out into many places. Nor is stepping outside the expectations of a single story always a choice. I can’t choose to stay inside the dominant story of tech by being male; Cecily can’t choose to stay inside the dominant story of librarianship by being white. We never stepped outside. We just are.

Another of the stories I’ve been following (part of) for longer has been that of conference codes of conduct. In talking about them with ALA leadership these last six months I’ve found that the stories evoked by the term “code of conduct” vary quite a bit depending on the listener’s background. Those of us whose threads include the broader world of technology have a particular set of (deeply held, terribly important) stories we bring to the table, a context that people from other worlds lack and may find surprising; sometimes they have their own stories (often, in turn, surprising to me).

ALA is committed to telling the code of conduct story more widely, and hence has asked me to moderate a panel on #libtechgender issues. I’m still finalizing the panelists (not least pulling strings in hope that Cecily can be one of them) — but it’ll be Saturday at 4:30 in the convention center, room 201C.

One of my guiding principles in constructing this panel has been that talk above, the dangers of a single story. It would be so, so easy for me to assemble a libtechgender panel which gave the impression that there is only one story of gender in library technology, and it is the story of white, cis, straight, thirtysomething (-appearing) women (such as myself). So easy.

And I would turn down the request to moderate sooner than I would run such a panel. Because libtechgender is not a single story; it is many stories, overlapping and diverging and sometimes in conflict. I cannot conceivably fit all those stories in a panel of reasonable size or in an hour. I’m already struggling to hold all the moving parts together. I’m already frustrated that the whiter, straighter, cis-er, and thirtysomething-er my prospective panelists are, the more likely they are to say yes — to have availability, funding and release time or the ability at least to manufacture it (or, alternatively, less competition for their time from the million other people who would also like to hear their stories at a conference). But we can and will scratch the surface of more than one story. We’ll be messy and provocative and leave unresolved threads so you can repair to a bar (or blogosphere) and argue afterward. And we, and you, I hope, will resolutely take all those stories seriously — to recognize that even if they conflict with our own experiences or assumptions they ring true for someone — and to ask, what would the world look like if I took it to be this way? What would that imply about everything else?

Saturday, 4:30, convention center, 201C (scheduler link). I hope to see you there.

#libtechgender: your world and mine

This relates to yesterday’s post on ALA’s new code of conduct, and it doesn’t, and it does again.

So these all happened in the last two weeks:

I consider myself a pretty sensitive person with respect to these issues. In language as well as action, I try to let things be neutral and fair, evicting unnecessary and damaging assumptions. But I didn’t notice the gendered language [of a LITA Forum keynote] at all until I saw the tweets calling it out.

Eric Phetteplace, thanks to #libtechwomen, 9 November 2013

I was actually a little surprised at the gender thing with Github…it makes sense, I just had no sense of it. To know that the Github community is EVEN MORE biased towards males than general tech was…counter intuitive to me? I don’t know, just didn’t realize.

Jason Griffey, personal correspondence (in re this article on unpaid labor and open source, 18 November 2013

That said, I came in to the panel believing that the most important gender related issue in library technology was finding ways for well-intentioned colleagues to communicate effectively about an uncomfortable problem. Listening to my colleagues tell their stories, I learned that there are more direct and pressing gender issues in libraries.

Nicholas Schiller, #libtechgender: A Post in Two Parts, 9 November 2013

I should make clear here, yes, Eric and Jason and Nicholas are all white men in academic libraries. They’re also all staunch feminists who spend a lot of time listening, actually listening, to non-male-identified people’s perspectives about gender issues.

And yet here we are living in different worlds. I take for granted that using a female-gendered IRC/github nick and a picture of my face as an avatar is a conscious choice, and the fact that it has not yet occasioned blowback is just remarkable good luck which will run out in time. I take for granted people will use language which implicitly defines me out of geekdom in general, and its higher reaches of technical competence specifically (developer’s-girlfriend jokes and neckbeard references, I’m looking at you). I take for granted that people will be marginalized and threatened at work in ways it’s just not worth bringing to HR’s attention.

I take for granted all these things that are invisible to you. (And I am living with about all the privilege it’s possible to have — no doubt there are many more things others take for granted that are invisible to me.) And I have to spend energy on surmounting them all and it’s wearying, sometimes. And we talk and we’re friends and you listen. And you don’t see.

Do we (somehow, despite this constant obsessive blogosphere twittering thing) not talk about this enough? Do we not talk about it, or do we only talk about it to other women, or do we talk about it and it doesn’t make any sense because our experiences are so different that you think we can’t mean what we mean, not even because of malice or marginalization but just because you’ve got no context to fit them into where the facts tell us both the same story? Are we over here shouting loudly like drowning people against a chorus of internet voices who are just so tired of it, why are you so upset over nothing, because it really is nothing to you if it never happens in ways you see?

This is why I use a female-gendered nick, you know. Because being female is important to me and it’s not something I stop being when I enter tech spaces, and I refuse to surrender it in order to be technical, or to make it easier for people to fit me into their tech-culture stories. Because I don’t want the stories we tell ourselves about technologists to only encompass neckbeards who don’t have girlfriends; I want them to fit around everyone who wants to play.

But this is what I was talking about when I wrote about my first hackathon, when I said the bar for being a woman in tech is the ability to say “Fuck you.” Because before I can get to the table I have to wade through all these things you don’t even see. I have to defy all these things. And you don’t notice. Or you only notice the defiance. Or the weariness.

Feeling so baffled and angry that here we are in different worlds, colocated and superimposed to look like they’re the same. That overlap until that sudden reminder that, oh no, they don’t.