Breaking down geek stereotypes in open source | Opensource.com

Breaking down geek stereotypes in open source

Posted 07 Feb 2014 by 

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I'm a newcomer to the tech industry. I don't have a degree in Computer Science or Engineering. I'm a writer by trade and training, so coming to work for Red Hat after years of freelancing and crappy office jobs was a real shock. Which is to say, a pleasant shock. Tattoos? Sure. Pink hair? Oh, yes. Start time? Whatever suits you best. And unlike other places I've worked, not a single man has expected me to make them a cup of coffee, and nobody tells me to "smile love, nobody likes a sadsack in the office!" (I frown when I concentrate. I'm sorry! And by that I mean I'm totally not sorry.)

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What's more, I work in a department full of women. This was also unexpected—I'd been led to believe that women didn't work in IT, and so I came in bracing for more male-dominated office life. But there are heaps of women in my office. Well, I should qualify—heaps of women on my floor. Engineering? Not so much. There are lots more women in the "periphery" of tech, such as technical writing and business management, but engineering is still hopelessly male-dominated. Why is that?

From the Women in Technology (WiT) Education Foundation:

"In 2008, women received 57% of all undergraduate degrees but represented only 18% of all Computer and Information Sciences undergraduate degrees. There has been a 79% decline, between 2000 and 2008, in the number of incoming undergraduate women interested in majoring in Computer Science. As a result, only 27% of computer scientists today are female."

I find that really interesting. In the course of researching this piece, I read a lot of troubling stories from women in the industry. This quote from an article in Fast Company stood out to me:

"It's tiring always being first, always being different, always being the one who has to adapt, denying important parts of yourself just to get the chance to do your job. It’s like being a stranger in a strange land, where you speak the language but nobody learns yours. That's why even women who do well in development end up leaving mid-career."

What is the strange land? What is the language of the tech industry? As a newcomer, and a woman, it's immediate and noticeable, but oddly hard to articulate. It goes deeper than the plethora of buzz-words and over-determined jargon. I think it's a cultural problem, and I don't just mean in the standard "men-and-women-can't-get-along" kind of way.

I don't mean to start a fight here, but I think the tech industry, and open source in particular, is snobby. Geek culture is so deeply insinuated into every part of this industry it forms a barrier of entry to everybody already not inducted by a nearly life-long process of immersion. Just like any culture, there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to dress, shows to watch, books to read, hobbies to engage in, and modes of communication.

It's also understandable to a degree how suspicious geeks can be of non-geeks. The exclusionary nature of geek culture works both ways: mainstream society's relationship with geek culture seems to be torn between opportunistic profiteering (Big Bang Theory) and downright antagonism (every "nerd" movie trope). But an unfortunate by-product of this is a seriously insular culture that has been wrapped around the tech industry. That culture could do a lot to be more welcoming in general, but more welcoming to women specifically.

It returns to this notion of working somewhere "where you speak the language but nobody learns yours." I'm nerdy, geeky, dorky, whatever. I was the weird kid in high school. I read comic books, I play Dungeons and Dragons. I also like shoes, and handbags, and musical theatre, and I pay too much for haircuts. I bulk-bought makeup in Walmart last time I was in the States like there was an oncoming fashion apocalypse.

Despite the fact that I definitely consider myself die-hard geeky, apparently I don't fit the girl-geek stereotype—maybe geek girls don't shave their heads and get a lot of tattoos? I lack the pre-requisite shyness? (It was a long slog but I grew out of it eventually...) I'm actually not sure why I get disqualified. I own a NASA shirt! Nonetheless, I therefore run the risk of being accused of the ultimate insult against geek puritanism: the fake geek girl. I won't speak too much about this recent phenomenon, but apparently now there are girls invading the land of geekdom and appropriating cultural icons as fashion accessories without any knowledge or understanding of their history or significance. I can see how this is problematic, and there's a big debate to be had about cultural appropriation there, but automatically dismissing anyone who isn't deemed "appropriately geeky"—especially women, because this vitriol seems to be focused on women—isn't exactly going to facilitate the kind of growth most of us would like to see in open source. Authenticity should only be discussed in terms of desire to be a part of the open source community, not in terms of what clothes you wear or what books you read.

Not only do I have to constantly prove my worth as a non-technical person in a highly technical world, I also have to contend with the notion that I'm just trying to disguise myself as someone nerdy in order to fit in with the misfits. (How does that logic even work?) So I ask you, if we can't even trust women from our own highly insular culture, then how are other women ever going to feel welcome in our industry, so caught up in said culture? By failing to disrupt the narrative that entwines geek culture with IT, we're alienating everyone who already feels like IT is inaccessible, especially women.

I nominate open source particularly because even by tech industry standards, this is the hardcore stuff. When I tell other IT people I work for a Linux company even they sometimes get the haunted look of somebody about to be bombarded with a bunch of stuff they don't know or care about. I really like it though. I like the passion people have. I like that innovation and progress are the big markers of success, and that good ideas are going to naturally work their way to the top. This sort of natural selection shouldn't be limited by who can produce some geek cred. I know it's worn like a badge of pride, but it shouldn't devalue other social structures, especially feminine social structures, in the process.

It's got to be hard to have the best ideas when we're missing a huge chunk of the population. Imagine how many brilliant potential software engineers are being lost to other industries because they feel like there isn't any space for pink high heels in IT? Should femininity be a foreign language barrier that women need to overcome in order to have a career? And why should women have to prove their geekiness even when it is genuine? We need to better delineate between the tech industry and geek culture, because ultimately, being snobby in open source is bad for business.


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65 Comments

Old School Technology

Perhaps we ought to consider the science that the minds of humans endowed with testosterone do operate differently. One mind glits over an elegant page of C++ and the other over a page in Glamour magazine more naturally. Clearly such a science must support exceptions - like C++. Science nonetheless. I hope humans can celebrate the differences - it would be one ugly world if all minds were endowed with testosterone

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Máirín Duffy

Oh my word, you did not say that. I did not read that. Oh my gosh. I think I just threw up in my mouth.

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Me

Let me clarify one important point. I am not arguing the sexism doesn't exist. It does. However, I am saying that it is better to argue with points that are more solid rather than to argue with points that are, in some instances, just due to misunderstanding, etc. or imply that people who don't understand you are sexist or likely sexist. That simply may not be true and may damage your cause.

By the way, the author probably did not realize it, but she did write something that was offensive to me. While that is another thread, it is best not to offend others when writing about being offended.

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jodibiddle
Open Minded

What did I say that was offensive? I'm very curious. I also didn't mean to convey that I was offended by geekiness. The comments section here has been really interesting. So what offended you in my article? I will try to repair any misunderstanding.

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Me

Oh Jodi, I feel like I have beaten on you too much. You didn't write anything too bad.

A little of my history will help with my perspective. I am an alpha geek as people say. I have always loved science, engineering, and computing (e.g., I was programming very well in assembly language by the sixth grade). After three degrees (BS, MS, and PhD) and ~20 years of adulthood under my belt, I have been a teacher, researcher, programmer, and engineer. I am a gentle and patient teacher and good mentor and leader/manager. Apparently, my success makes me a big, mean, scary person. By the way, my story isn't that unusual.

You wrote, "I don't mean to start a fight here, but I think the tech industry, and open source in particular, is snobby. Geek culture is so deeply insinuated into every part of this industry it forms a barrier of entry to everybody already not inducted by a nearly life-long process of immersion." You also wrote, "This sort of natural selection shouldn't be limited by who can produce some geek cred. I know it's worn like a badge of pride, but it shouldn't devalue other social structures, especially feminine social structures, in the process."

A variation on the first sentence has been used against me a number of times (fortunately with no harm to me) and I am very tired of hearing it. The argument always goes a little like this... Because I grew-up a geek, I have some unfair advantage. Then, as the logic goes, my "geek cred" (which I call accomplishments) makes me intimidating; therefore, person_x doesn't want to be on my project. Better yet, my project should be given to someone less intimidating. Why heck, if I didn't exist, person_x could be successful. As I see it, I knew at a young age what I wanted to do, I worked hard and learned a lot, and I worked my way through school. (The words induction and immersion rub me the wrong way.) I don't look down on person_x for not having the passion for science and technology that I do. They have a job. I have a hobby. I wish person_x could accept that. Removing me (the barrier) won't change that and accepting that doesn't devalue them in any way that I can see.

This emotional baggage is mine. There is no doubt about that. I also doubt you meant to agree with or support person_x. However, you are using the language of person_x. When people speak of my induction to geek-hood via a nearly life-long process of immersion or my "geek creed", I always feel that they are cheapening my dedication and hard work, accusing me of belonging to some diabolical secret society, or some other asinine thing.

As I (and other people) see it, I am a very a patient teacher and am very nurturing with young enthusiasts and engineers. I also have a strong sense of community service (e.g., when I have time, I answer questions on various forums). Despite being busy and "pulled in a million" directions, I happily stop and talk to non-geeks, give them advice, and help them with their "thingies." With old scary engineers like me, I learn a lot from them and they learn a lot from me. This is as it should be. I fully understand that person_x is insecure, but the attacks are relentless and exhausting. As a result, I am not as approachable and friendly with some people. Oh crap, I guess you are right, I am being aloof and snobby. *sigh* Seriously, most of the scary old engineers, like me, enjoy helping people. But sometimes, we get tired, have had a bad day, etc. and, honestly, there are a few a**holes out there. But, they aren't anywhere near a majority of us. We are happy to help the non-inducted-via-a-lifelong-immersion join the secret-society. The non-inducted will just have to work harder to beat the folks who started earlier and a great many do work hard and rise to the top.

It has been my experience that there is a "layer" of folks in this hierarchy that people write about that do pose some trouble for the industry with their hyper-competitiveness, rudeness, etc. However, it seems to me that these folks are often insecure and competing for attention. They should provide no barrier; however, I do understand that they do, but they should not. My advice is to smile an move on. It is true that person_x wears on me, but person_x doesn't stop me. Likewise, nobody should stop you because you belong here too! Again, this isn't sexist, racist, or classist. It has to do with our insecurities, fears, etc.

Anyway, back to the words I don't like. I don't wear my "geek creed" (accomplishments) like a badge of pride, but I am proud of what I have done. In other industries, accomplishments are not viewed with the disdain that they are sometimes viewed with in this industry. As an academic, I can tell you that the number of publications one has often entirely determines their worth. Fair or not, that is life. It is not sexist, racist, or classist. It just is. I must admit that I am perplexed by this focus on cred, the idea that someone's cred somehow devalues another's cred, and that achieving cred is bad. For example, I will never have the cred that Bjarne Stroustrup has. So what? More power to Bjarne! You go man!

To me the problem is also about age. Because I started at a very young age, I have the life experience of a person much older than me. For some reason, a young person in a senior-level position is more intimidating. Well, I say for some reason, I do know why, I just don't want to go there here and now.

This is long, I am very tired, and it has been a really long day for me. I just didn't want to leave this hanging because you are working on something very important. Feel free to call-me-out on bad grammar, things that don't make sense, etc. In summary, I and my friends work hard to be patient, gentle teachers. It makes me sad when people view us as a barrier simply because we were focused and got a jumpstart on life. I always feel like "removing the barrier" means removing me and I really don't want to be removed. I also don't like the focus on "cred" and the way it is viewed in this industry.

Maybe the key for fine young women, like you, is to make connections with the older folks like me and ignore the l33t.

By the way, I don't have a NASA shirt, so +1 to you (or whatever you younger folks are saying now).

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jodibiddle
Open Minded

Ahhhh I see where we've gone wrong. When I say geek cred, I'm talking about how much obscure anime you're into, or that you can quote from 1970s sci-fi novels. It has no bearing on professional achievements (yours sound particularly impressive). This I suppose is the crux of my argument - being really good at your job in the IT world shouldn't be considered geeky. It shouldn't be related to the ephemera of pop culture at all. Thanks for your really considered reply. Send me an email sometime! j biddle at redhat dot com.

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Me

On the email...I just did. Talk to you later...

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Máirín Duffy

I really don't understand how enjoying pink high heels and enjoying the craft of writing software are mutually exclusive, but you seem to be posing them as such.

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tracyanne

I agree, as I've known personally a couple of non female programmers who enjoyed both.

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Old School Technology

The science and engineering community is not "Male Dominated" any more than the Olympics are. I have no college degree. I am a felon. I teach best development practices across Android/iPhone/WinPhone/Linux, AND Windows. Search for XMLFoundation. 1 Woman made the 1 Man that made XMLFoundation and neither could have made the others masterpiece. You consider yourself diehard geeky. What do you consider me? about.me/brian.aberle

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mairin
Open Source Evangelist

It's not about you...

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Old School Technology

It is http://about.me/brian.aberle
That's just a poetic technicality, because it's about US as humanity. Me(in this thread) - just spoke for me too. I love science and humanity.

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Adam Williamson

Thanks for the thoughtful article! I'm not sure it wrote gets things on the head, though.

I'm a guy in tech (I work for red hat), and I get all my privileges. everyone assumes I know what I'm doing (even when I don't), I'm not treated with condescension or suspicion when I show up on a mailing list, etc etc. But I've never played dungeons and dragons, never watched star trek or doctor who or Babylon five, took an arts degree, and really have just about no 'nerdy' interests other than my job. This has never seemed to present any kind of problem for me at all.

I think there *is* an insular, insider culture to tech - or rather, to certain sub sectors within tech, I think I'd be completely lost in the Valley startup culture - but it's not really a nerd/geek 'pop culture'thing. It's even more insular than that -at least with Foss, the culture I know, the culture is *Foss itself*. There's this fairly large range of assumptions about how you work and what sites you read and stuff that really does form kind of a barrier if you're not familiar with it. I think this may well affect women disproportionately, but I've absolutely seen it affect all kinds of people.

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Adam Williamson

Well damn, remind me never to write substantial comments from cellphones. Auto-'correct' makes you look like an idiot and it's hard to follow a train of thought.

What I wanted to convey is that I think you're on exactly the right track with the idea that there's a culture in F/OSS that acts as a barrier to participation by people who are not immersed in that culture, but I'm not sure the nerd/geek 'popular culture' is quite it - at least in my experience.

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Evon Glasgow

Whoa, talk about going off track here? To attempt to answer your original question, "Why is that?" I won't go down the (empirically peer reviewed and upheld) trail that argues that women are simply better at some professions than men (trait of empathy) and equally so that men perform better at (dare I say it) cut-throat situations. Social scientists (fortunately) look beyond this area of trait psychology and see that simply gender is for the most part an institutionalized system of social practices which in the case of exclusiveness in job suitability forms the basis of inequality squarely on the basis of that difference. It is unfair, especially in an industry where testosterone gives no advantage what-so-ever, that women either do not enter, or give up. Fortunately women are very smart and either rise to the challenge or diversify (like yourself in IT coming from an entirely different discipline). I believe that Reinhold Niebuhr (he was not just a theologian, but an ethicist, an intellectual, and a commentator on politics and public affairs) perhaps was speaking to this when he penned:
(God) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
(Cheekily added so that I can join the ranks of Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Young, 50 cent, Sinead O'Connor, Robert Downey Jrn - just to name a few)!!

PS M/s Biddle - I don't think there is an answer..... yet.

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