There have been a couple of “chicks in IT” news items recently that have been turning heads. Firstly, there was a very high profile story in Australia about Sonja Bernhardt, an IT professional from the Gold Coast who decided it would be cool to release a calendar featuring women in IT, posing as movie sirens, to try and drum up girly interest in joining the IT forces. That caused a furore down here, let me tell you. Technology news is usually stuffed down the back of the paper, but when you might sneak a peak at a calendar girl it’s a whole different story... even if she is into computers. There was also a recent slashdot entry about Fedora introducing a group for Fedora women, to help support women in the FOSS world (apparently, chicks don’t dig IT and they REALLY don’t dig FOSS).
What I found interesting about the slashdot post wasn’t the post itself, but the 333 comments (and counting) that followed. All the usual suspects were there, from the vehement pro/anti feminists to the “this is such a dead issue, get over it” brigade. And it all comes down to what it always comes down to in the great gender debate. It’s the nature versus nurture, natural versus social issue. And people, there is no way for a nuturer to win an argument with a nature-er and vice-versa, because the base position of each argument is so fundamentally different that it’s like two people trying to have a conversation while one is speaking English and one is speaking Mandarin. However, I would like to make some general responses to the slashdot comments.
People think gender means women
When you are talking about gender issues, this DOESN’T JUST MEAN GIRLS. If there are certain beliefs about gender abilities, this affects both genders. Even if people acknowledge that girls can do boy stuff and vice-versa, if there is an emphasis on the things one gender can do as being superior to what the other gender can do, then this still affects EVERYBODY. It means that not only are women encouraged to do things that men do, but men are villified for doing things that are seen as “girl things”. This is stupid, because if there was REAL equality in the world and gender really was a dead issue, then men would be able to stay home with the kids if they wanted to, or say they don’t like sport, or don’t like beer, and not be looked at like there is something a bit wrong with them.
Stereotyping hurts everyone
On this topic, there was a fair bit of back and forth with girls saying “geeks see us as second-rate programers/sex objects/irritations” or “boy geeks suck”, and boys saying “girls are second rate programers in general and are better at housework anyway” or “we get stereotyped and unfairly maligned too, how come the girls get special treatment?”. This sort of sniping shows that we ALL (boys and girls) need to get together and do some work on this. I’m not saying the world needs therapy, I’m just saying that we should all be big enough to not make mass generalisations. I know a programmer who reckons that “women are flawed programers”. You know how many he knows? Five. You know how many weren’t that great? Three. You know how many programers he would have met online and assumed they were boys? Lots. You know how smart this guy is in many ways? Very. I could look at him and say that I don’t date geeks because all geeks wear glasses, look like Martin from the Simpsons, eat prunes, and have no social skills. But I can’t say that... because I’ve only met five geeks and three of them are like that... and hell, there are heaps more of you than that!
And leading on from this point, thinking all programers you meet online are boys and thinking this is being genderless is wrong, wrong, wrong! It isn’t being genderless, it is privelleging one gender over another. Everybody does it, I know... we all make assumptions about gender... that’s how we are raised or wired, depending on your beliefs. But think about how counter-productive it is! And, more importantly, think about how you are limiting yourself by just unthinkingly assuming that way.
Reaching the status quo doesn’t mean it’s good enough
Whether you believe in nature or nurture, some things are still valued more than others in our society. And if you believe that gender is a dead issue, and you feel like women are being coddled and that people should just do what they want and it’s all hunky-dory, you are going to be sadly disappointed, because the gender issue isn’t going away. The gender issue will never go away until we all stop defining ourselves, and each other, based on rigid gender roles. Until we can not only stop saying “boys like FOSS, girls like ponies”, but can also stop believing it subconciously. It may not be what everyone wants to have happen. But that’s progress. And, for all of you “girls are naturally inclined to be hairdressers, not programers!” nature supporters, all I can say is: “Don’t you think it’s time we all evolved?”
So, yay for any group promoting above the status quo. By having FOSS groups for women, attention is being drawn to a very much alive gender issue. And until we as a people can resolve this issue, then we as boys and girls will continually struggle with ourselves.