Being Nice

O’Reilly has been running a series this month titled, Women in Technology. I contributed one of the earlier essays, titled So, What?.

I had ambivalent feelings about participating, not the least of which I wasn’t sure that grouping essays by a bunch of women together for publication during the same month was necessarily a ‘good thing’ for women. It becomes a little too much, “Powderpuff O’Reilly”, a little too easy to tune out. By lack of response from most of the regular O’Reilly writers, and readers, too, this concern has been born out, but it’s been interesting to see who has participated, and what they’ve written.

I don’t agree with all that’s written, and I have more than a suspicion that most of the other participants don’t agree with me, which is good because it just confirms my own decision not to write on this topic again–at least not in this environment or these pages. Especially when I read a post about one of the essays I disagreed with most strongly.

Flock of gulls

Carmelyne wrote:

Why does everyone argue negatively? The people who made comments argued negatively with the author. I can understand then why Amy didn’t like Articles about Women in Tech…Who needs that negativity? As Naruto would put it: “I like my positive chakra”. I don’t dwell any more on the negative side of being one of the few females in a male dominated environment/career.

This is not to pick on Carmelyne, who has a nicely designed site with a fun sense of color and pattern, in addition to a valid viewpoint: why dwell on the negative? Wanting to focus on the positive is understandable. What surprised me, though, is how much Carmelyne’s writing sounded like something else I had read, this time a comment by Tantek Celik in a post by Robert Scoble.

…thanks to all the social web technologies at our disposal, perhaps for the first time in history, people that are capable, humble, and nice can find each other in such numbers as to prioritize and focus their energies on each other rather than the emotional vampires that would otherwise sap them and drag them and their projects, companies etc. down with them.

Dave Rogers also made a small note on this general movement to niceness, but then moves on to discussions of Heroes (opinions of which, I agree with) and music because, really, what more is there to say?

Birds flying

Which leads me back to not writing on “women in technology”. I always felt I had to write on this topic: to point out the conferences where women were missing, the all male publications, the exclusively male panels–not to mention the lack of opportunities for women, as well as acknowledgment of what we’ve accomplished.

It’s not with disappointment but relief that I realized that such writings in this enivironment don’t work, haven’t worked, and are unlikely to work in the future. There are a hundred other things I’d rather write on, and now I no longer feel like I’m betraying womankind, and my own sense of responsibility, by doing so.

This series has been remarkably freeing for me.

Birds not

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31 Responses to Being Nice

  1. ralph says:

    I’m not so sure they don’t work. I don’t know for sure that the general opprobrium aimed at conference organizers had something to do with this; maybe it’s more the fact that of the six people behind the conference, three are women. But Webstock ’08 in Wellington, whose web site was just unveiled a few days ago, seems to have taken the idea that both women and men have useful and interesting things to say to heart. Of the 19 speakers listed on their site for the upcoming conference, seven are women. It’s not 50/50, but it’s also not blindingly male.

    One enlightened conference down, several dozen to go….

  2. Aruni says:

    Well as a woman in tech, I liked that you share your strong convictions on this blog. You are right though…maybe a different approach is needed. I think the more women out there doing great things in technology is how we will inch toward equality. Supporting women in tech is the way to go…

  3. Ethan says:

    I was just wondering today when you’d be back at it, and ta-da! Glad you’re back. Hope all is well.

    As for your decision to stop writing about women in tech, ultimately it’s your a) life and b) blog. I personally think that it’s helpful when you explore those topics and raise awareness, but if it’s plain not working or something that doesn’t interest you, I empathize.

  4. loren says:

    I really like the bird pictures :-)

    especially that last one.

    Perhaps flowers would have been more appropriate for this topic, though, since women seem to have a special fondness for them.

  5. Shelley, I too don’t think you should stop (although I am curious as to which of the other essays you *did* agree with most strongly).

    Too much of online conversation seems split between smug congratulatory agreement and vile invective. Sharply worded criticism, analysis, and debate are being squeezed out of our discourse.

    Well, fuck that.

    Some things still need to be said. Repeatedly. Ad nauseum. Every time the topic comes up. I don’t think you should cut back except to the extent that you can point to others saying more-or-less what you would have said.

    If you think you aren’t having an effect, just remember that people staking out the fringes help define the middle ground of the debate, that firebrands give cover to moderates, and that well behaved women rarely write history.

  6. Welcome back, Shell.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought ‘nice’ was a lot lot less important than ‘kind’, that ‘nice’ is often false and socially-conditioned, but that ‘kind’ is something that someone is rather than how someone behaves.

    I don’t care how someone acts, for the most part, I care about who they are.

  7. Phil says:

    Thanks, Stav – well put.

    Hi, Shelley! Good to see you posting again.

    I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying here – something about not wanting to be nice, but not wanting to be Ms Anti-Nice either? But I empathise with your frustration. Sometimes you work on a post, & by the end you think it’s so good that it ought to not only change the world but earn you a modest living for ever after. (Sometimes you even think that about somebody else’s posts.) And it doesn’t happen – nothing happens, or nothing much. To stop banging your head against the wall isn’t selling out or giving up the fight – it just makes a nice change.

  8. dave rogers says:

    I always flash on an old Chip and Dale cartoon where they’re both so polite to each other. Two chipmunks trying to get through a door:

    “After you.”

    “No, precede me.”

    “No, I insist, after you.”

    “Really, you’re too kind, after you.”

    And this goes on and on…

    It’s kind of interesting to think about Scoble’s Facebook Hotel, where, “In my Facebook Hotel anyone who just attacks me would be deleted.”

    This, and Tantek’s comment, say a great deal. I don’t want to make too much of them, perhaps they were both written at some emotional “low” point for these two “nice” people. But it’s interesting that they both seem to feel that technology can be empowering for individuals to exclude other people they don’t like.

    Say it with me, “Technology changes how we do things. It doesn’t change what we do.”

    And I go back to my own view that the world isn’t here so that we can change it. The world is here so that we can learn to change ourselves.

    But I’m just a troll, so what do I know?

  9. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
    – George Bernard Shaw

  10. dave rogers says:

    And we’re “making progress” in Iraq.


  11. Welcome back Shelley!

    Reading this, I thought of the vapid character Annie Hall from the Woody Allen film of the same name: “It’s nice to be nice to the nice,” she says.

  12. Shelley says:

    Thanks for welcomes back. Thing are well, Ethan, but the book is stressful. Now, I need to redesign my web site. I always redesign my web site when I’ve not posted for awhile. Just like a certain Wonderchicken I know.

    Ralph, I saw the New Zealand conference. I’ve always liked New Zealand. I want to go to New Zealand.

    Loren, glad you liked the bird pictures. Look a little familiar?

    Michael, most of the writings don’t really have a like or dislike to them, they were anecdotal discussions of the individual’s personal experiences. I really disliked Amy Hoy’s, was disappointed at a couple, liked Margian Klawe’s best, though I wasn’t happy about the encouragement for women to be ‘nice’.

    I definitely felt my contribution didn’t fit the rest.

    Phil, that is more or less what I’m saying. Many of the women wrote that the best way to work for women in technology is just to be the best we can be at technology and everything will follow naturally from that. This is what you mentioned, too, Aruni. OK, sounds good to me.

    Hey Dave, we need to get bumper stickers, “Kiss me, I’m a troll”. Or maybe, “I make nice people cry.” Yeah, I like that one. As for unreasonable people and progress, Shaw neglected to mention the third option, Seth ;-)

    Joe, I must admit that “vapid” has been coming to mind a lot , lately. I’m beginning to think it’s something in the water at Silicon Valley.

    Oh, I’m terrible. Absolutely terrible. I make nice people cry.

  13. Seth Gordon says:

    Gloria Steinem once observed that men get social respect for being old and rich, while women get respected for being young and pretty; therefore, men get more conservative as they get older, while women get more radicalized.

    I thought this was a keen insight when I read it about ten years ago, but now I think Steinem is a shrill harridan who must have been on the rag that day. ;-)

  14. Your cutting turns of phrase originally drew me to BurningBird, so I’m working against my own interests by encouraging you to stay away from controversial topics like women not-so-in tech.

    But when you said “I always felt I had to write on this topic,” it sounds like a hole I dig for myself on my blog from time to time. Feeling like you must cover something is the second least satisfying reason to blog. (The first is blogging to deter the threat of litigation.)

  15. I definitely felt my contribution didn’t fit the rest.

    All the more reason it needed to be written, then.

    Sure, your point of view is somewhat unpopular. The status quo always has it’s supporters and apologists.

    When your contributions do fit in, then they won’t be necessary anymore.

    Since we, as a society, have eliminated the most overt forms of discrimination, it follows that when we see evidence of remaining gender disparities their causes will most likely be more subtle and indirect, easier to dismiss and ignore, and much more uncomfortable to discuss.

    In Feminist terms: For women, as a group, to have agency in the modern world, they must be involved in the creation and not just use of technology. More broadly put, if our common technological infrastructure is not created by a diverse constituency, our society will suffer.

    I note that no-one in that series so far, not even you, actually mentioned the ‘F-word’ in their essay, so I’d say that the full range of opinion is still not being represented.

    Perhaps the question of ‘Women in IT’ is the wrong one. Where is the ‘Feminism in IT’?

  16. Anna says:

    Tatiana was asking for stories about personal experience in IT, so that may have influenced why the articles were mostly anecdotal. It’s been interesting reading the various articles. I liked your suggestion about breaking up computer science programs and make it part of every discipline. I don’t know that it accomplished much, as a series, but the one thing I think a series like this can do is help overcome the “I’m all alone” syndrome, that results from us being spread so thin that we feel like there’s even fewer of us than there really are.

  17. Shelley says:

    Seth, we’re going to beat you with our purses until you cry, cry like a baby.

    Michael, F-word? Well, whether the writing fit or not, it’s done, it’s there, and it generated a decent discussion, with good folks contributing.

    Anna, what you said does match most of the posts. I don’t remember hearing the request that way, but it could be because my focus was on “It’s broken, fix it” rather than recounting my own experiences. But then, I did run into a discrimination problem when I worked at Intel, so perhaps the personal telling would have been useful.

    Rogers, well, you all hit it in a nutshell. I had a hard time coming back to this space. Whether it’s the book or the long miserable summer or other things, but I’m really tired.

    I also noticed this last year that some posts would energize me, while others would just sap my strength and interest. I still feel that way. More so.

    Take for example wanting to engage some of the ‘nice’ people in dialog or debate, and knowing that no matter what you say, it will be rejected because some people only listen through selective filters. Tantek says trolls are exhausting? I find the ‘good’ people to be pretty tiring, myself.

    The women-in-tech topic has a lot of ‘good’ people associated with it, both in a positive and a negative sense and I reached a point where writing anything on the topic both exhausted and depressed me. Even this post was hard to do. I had to add pictures to sweeten the experience for me. It was stupid to continue.

    We may not be able to change everything, or anything, but we should be able to feel good about what we do here. If a topic tires us, and writing about it really isn’t making any difference (when one is honest with oneself), why continue? Because, as the joke goes, it feels so good when we stop?

    This series really crystallized my habit of writing on topics not healthy for me. It’s time to stop, and go back to topics that, though they may or may not help the world, at least don’t leave me feeling like I’m bleeding my life out on the page.

    (Ooo, that’s a mental image, idna it?)

  18. F-Word. Feminism.

    No one mentioned it even once. How can over a dozen essays on different aspects of women’s careers in IT manage to avoid using it? Ooh, scary! Can’t use that word, and anyway we’re nice, not one of THEM…

    It might have been halfway understandable if all of the authors had been under 30 or so.

    As it is, it is the elephant in the room that no one dare speak it’s name. Kind of like the trend of articles in science and medicine avoiding using the word ‘evolution’.

    Anyway. I do understand the need to avoid energy-sapping topics and contexts. But the self-congratulation gets hip-deep at times, so I just wish I saw anyone else stepping in with a shovel.

  19. To go off topic a bit, does anyone have ideas on how to boost the participation of women in volunteer-run events like PyCon?

    Unlike a lot of other conferences, PyCon does not invite speakers (other than a handful of keynotes). In previous years we’ve taken steps to eliminate various kinds of bias by diversifying the review committee and anonymizing the submissions, but neither of those help much if women don’t submit papers, so we need to do more to encourage those submissions…

  20. Audrey says:

    Michael: One key thing, in my experience, is to explicitly invite women to be involved in the planning process. Sometimes they volunteer themselves, but if not, ask around. It’s one of the things I talked about in my essay for O’Reilly’s series, but it hasn’t been posted yet.

    Shelly: I would have been really disappointed if you weren’t invited to participate in this series, and I thought your essay was very thought-provoking. But sticking to the topics you enjoy writing about makes perfect sense to me.

    Also: I don’t want ‘nice’ above all else. Especially when some people manage to use it as an excuse to be complete drama queens (no one here, just something I thought of while reading another post today). If you’re ignoring someone for being mean, you don’t need to tell the whole world.

  21. Audrey says:

    Oh, also on getting women to submit talks for things like PyCon: contact groups like Linux Chix and DevChix to ask them to post the call for submissions to their mailing lists. You won’t reach all of us that way, but it’s a start.

  22. Your writings about women in tech work for me. But if you’re tired of writing about it, give it a rest.

    Glad you’re back, Shelley.

  23. SB says:

    Hi Shelley, so nice [heh] to have you back!

    I actually joined O’Reilly, just to comment on your article (this was several days ago) and worked some on the comment, posted it — but somehow it got lost.

    I’m trying to remember if I used “the F word” — I might have. Wish I’d composed it elsewhere so I had a copy.

    But — you’re here.

    & I’m glad to read whatever you decide to post about.

    & look at the pictures, too.

  24. Audrey: We do invite women to be involved in the planning. We have women involved in the planning.

    Some of those women also submit proposals (which, despite the anonymized review process actually have a higher than average acceptance rate), but hardly any other women submit proposals.

    I *think* we sent out our 2007 Call For Proposals announcement to both of the groups you mentioned, but it didn’t seem to have much effect (on proposal submissions or attendance by women). Obviously we can crank that up some more.

    I am familiar with the existing ‘women in tech’ speaker lists, but they aren’t necessarily relevant here (the CFP is a general announcement, not an individual invitation to speak), and we don’t want to spam people. Does anyone know of an equivalent list of groups we could send our CFP and other announcements to?

    Obviously our current efforts aren’t reaching women in a significant way, or if women are seeing the announcements, they still aren’t being moved to send proposals.

  25. gregbo says:

    (x-posted to oreillynet)

    I don’t think it is a good idea to separate CS (or SE) from engineering, because there are core principles of engineering upon which it (they) rest. In my own personal experience, the study of linear systems theory and probability was key to my ability to implement algorithms that enabled fair sharing of resources in computer networks and distributed systems. (I’d also like to add that women such as Sally Floyd are core contributors to this subdiscipline of CS.) This doesn’t mean there is no place for selected topics in CS (or SE) that can be applied to other disciplines; in fact, many disciplines such as bioinformatics draw on such topics.

    WRT the meritocracy of CS, there is a justified reason for this: computer software runs on real systems that require real resources. I don’t feel there is an anti-female or anti-feminist agenda here. The way that the arguments for or against certain design choices are articulated is often criticized as anti-female. I agree and think this is unfortunate. It has no doubt driven many promising women out of the field.

    Whether CS (or SE) is a “real” engineering discipline is a highly contentious topic. Given what has happened to the industry of late – jobs have been lost in the US to low-income, low-wage countries, licensing and certification has been proposed as a solution. There is backlash to this argument, claiming that certification does not imply qualification, and that it stifles innovation. But the software industry does not currently have a way of articulating to those outside of the industry what it should be expected to do.

    I don’t have any good ideas on how to encourage women to pursue CS (or SE). In all honesty, I can’t fault any woman for choosing another field, given the loss of long-term viable career options, the high stress, etc. However, in other countries, especially the low-wage, low-income countries I mentioned earlier, this seems to be much less an issue. In these countries, there is parity in numbers between women and men. An argument I’ve heard from Jane Margolis is that these women see entrance into the software industry as a means of economic liberation. Women in the US have more options, and exercise them.

    On a side note, I hope you will reconsider and post articles on women and computing.

  26. Mike says:

    Ralph – thanks for the kind comments on Webstock. In answer to your question, no, the “general opprobrium aimed at conference organizers” didn’t have anything to do with how we’ve chosen speakers. I believe our speaker ratio for our first conference in May 2006 was similar to this one, and in running that we were new and naive enough not to know how others did it!

    The fact of having a good mix of men and women organising the conference did though, we’ve all pushed each other at times in terms of who might be appropriate to speak. Diversity *is* something we’re conscious of and is a factor is approaching people to speak.

    And Shelly – come to NZ then :)

  27. I’m just now listening to NPR (nighttime replay) of Talk of the Nation Science Friday. About girls/women and math. Guest is actress/author Danica McKellar, author of Math Doesn’t Suck. Another guest is Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College. She just raised the issue of declining women in computer tech. (as opposed to what we’re seeing in the field of mathematics). That part of the conversation didn’t get a lotta time, just speculation that decline was due to stereotype of the “nerd” and, well, gamer culture.

    Funny how, after a discussion of Math Doesn’t Suck as a successful presentation of sound mathematical concepts in teenage girl cultural terms (cf. teen magazine style, the book includes quizzes, horoscopes), they weren’t able to apply that same cultural appropriateness (What You’ve Said, time & time again) to computer tech culture in teaching and practice.

    Here’s the link to show info:

    Which runs counter, I suppose, to my support that you go in whatever direction doesn’t weigh you down. But when I hear a program like this, I think, “oo! Shelly’d be interested in this.” Or maybe, Shelley used to be interested in this.

    [tried to post here using ampersand; the preview engine rejected it: "An error occurred, please check your syntax for malformed markup." used & to get it to work.]

  28. Shelley says:

    SB, thanks! And also thanks for the cheerful cat pictures on Fridays.

    Audrey, looking forward to reading your essay.

    Mike, if I could afford it, I would.

    Still interested, Susan, just not motivated to write on the topic of women-in-tech in this weblog. If I write on the topic, it will be longer, more in-depth, and elsewhere. I don’t think it’s a topic that works well in weblogs. Regardless, I am, and remain, a feminist.

    (There you go Michael.)

    gregbo, thanks for commenting at the O’Reilly site and here. I know that the numbers of women in tech are much higher in many non-western countries. I believe Spain has the highest number. I’m not sure economics is the only differentiator.

  29. Well, just as long as you note it and link it from here. :)

  30. Elaine says:

    As everybody else says, it’s nice to see you back. (Although I’ve been away from reading for so long, now I have a whole stack of your posts to read!)

    re: “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” — I seem to remember Frank Burns saying that in an episode of MASH. (I use it on occasion to mock C, who played Burns in a high school theater production.)

    I’ve been reading all of the Women in Tech pieces, and find myself of mixed opinions. There was one with the first woman graduate of Annapolis, and that was fascinating; and I appreciated the interview with danah. (differences in spatial perception based on actual hormonal differences? wow.)

    But much less systematic thinking than I would like, and a surprising number of people saying that the number of women in IT is going up, when at least as measured by CS graduates, it’s going the other way entirely. Dunno about actual employed, would love to see stats on that.

    I know that feeling of almost despair, shouting into the wind. Yesterday on my way home for lunch I heard on the radio a recording of an activist who had recently died. He was complaining about the timidity of war protesters, and said that too many people think, it doesn’t matter what I do, nothing changes.

    And then I thought to myself: but so often, that looks to be entirely true. I even thought back on protesting that I was involved with in college, at college, and I sure as hell don’t see any results of that in the alumni mag that comes to my mailbox.

    Anyway. I’m going on too long.