Author Archives: valerieadainitiative

About valerieadainitiative

Co-founder and former Executive Director of the Ada Initiative.

How you can help #banboothbabes at CES

This week saw the birth of the “#banboothbabes” campaign, kicked off by a news story calling for action on booth babes at CES, a large consumer electronics show (sign the petition here). The company behind CES, the Consumer Electronics Association, said they hadn’t received “a single formal complaint” about booth babes, apparently discounting the blizzard of press coverage on the subject every year.

Alicia Gibb, founder of the Open Source Hardware Association, decided to call CEA and register a formal complaint. She summarizes the results this way: “They don’t have a process to register formal complaints and don’t know who you should talk to.” (The company later set up an email address to collect complaints.)

What are booth babes and why ban them?

Ban booth babes
What exactly are “booth babes” and why would we want to ban them? In the words of the Geek Feminism wiki page on the subject, booth babes are “People, usually women, employed to staff booths at trade shows and use their sexual attractiveness to entice people to buy the products being advertised. Frequently they are dressed in demeaning outfits and pose for pictures with attendees.” A more accurate phrase might be “sexualized booth staff.” Booth babes are occasionally not women, but seldom in communities that already have a problem with sexism towards women.

What’s wrong with this picture? When companies employ booth babes, they are usually sending several messages:

  • Women aren’t customers, they are objects we use to sell to our customers
  • The only customer we care about is not only male, but also straight, sexually unfulfilled, and not very bright
  • Our customers make buying decisions based on feelings of lust, not features or price
  • Demeaning our women employees is part of doing business
  • Our marketing department and our management views our customers with contempt

Or, in a sentence: “Women are not people and men are fools.” (And if you’re neither male nor female, they really don’t care.)

Let’s be clear: the problem is not “women who are too sexy” – by which people usually mean women who look or act in a way that many straight men find strongly attractive. Some people argue that banning booth babes would require instituting a dress code for all female attendees because to them, attractive women and booth babes are impossible to distinguish.

There’s nothing wrong with being a good-looking, attractively dressed, well-groomed woman at a conference. The problem starts when women are turned into sexual objects, dehumanized, and used to sell products to or attract attention from men (or rather, a certain subset of men).

The Ada Initiative’s approach to ending booth babes

The Ada Initiative has opposed “booth babes” since our founding because they send a clear, obvious message that women are not welcome or valued. One of the first updates to the example conference anti-harassment policy added a clause covering sexualized booth staff:

Exhibitors in the expo hall, sponsor or vendor booths, or similar activities are also subject to the anti-harassment policy. In particular, exhibitors should not use sexualized images, activities, or other material. Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.

We prefer this wording because it focuses on the real problem: turning women into objects to sell to straight men who make poor buying decisions. It’s little known reality that in some open tech/culture communities, sexualized booth babes are volunteers, so it’s important to include unpaid staff as well.

How you can help

For CES, you can make a difference right away:

For any event or conference, you can take any of the actions that help get an anti-harassment policy adopted (just be sure to include the booth babe clause): emailing the organizers, starting a petition, refusing to speak at conferences that allow booth babes, etc.

85% of JSConf US participants donate to support women in open tech/culture

JS community logoToday, the organizers of JSConf US 2013, a popular Javascript conference, announced a donation of $5000 to us here at the Ada Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to women in open source software and similar communities. We are grateful for the $5000 donation, and excited about the work we’ll be able to do with it, but we are more excited by this number:

85% of participants in JSConf US donated $10 of their own money to support women in open tech/culture.

This is an amazing number, and shows broad support for the goal of increasing the participation of women in the Javascript community!

In addition to the money donated by JSConf US attendees, the JSConf organizers donated personally to bring the total to $5000. The organizers also consulted the Ada Initiative on how to increase the diversity of speakers and participants at the conference.

The silent majority speaks

One reason we founded the Ada Initiative was a belief that the majority of people in the open source community wanted more women involved in open source, but didn’t know how to make their voices heard. The JSConf donation system is one way to give that often invisible majority a voice. In this case, 85% of the people who attend JSConf US were able to say that they would rather give their $10 to a non-profit supporting women in open tech/culture than uncheck a box and keep it for themselves. Without the creativity and support of the JSConf US organizers, we might never have known that 85% of the people at this conference supported women in open tech/culture at this level.

Conferences as agents of social change

Almost imperceptibly, open tech/culture conferences have gradually become agents of social change. Conference organizers and participants alike have realized this simple truth: Either we are supporting the status quo by doing things the “normal” way, or we’re trying to change it by consciously making better decisions. No matter which way we go, we’re still making a choice.

Many people joined the open tech/culture movement to make the world a better place. So it’s no surprise that many open tech/culture conferences are making their choices in favor of social justice: serving environmentally responsible food, cutting down on wasteful schwag, reducing unconscious bias in favor of white male participants, and now partnering with and donating to charitable organizations that support the community’s goals. JSConf US, and the Javascript community in general, are at the forefront of this change in the way open tech/culture conferences interact with their communities and the world as a whole.

A mandate for diversity and equality in the Javascript community

If 85% of JSConf US attendees support women in open tech/culture, that’s a strong argument for a similar level of support in the Javascript community as a whole. If you’re part of this community, you may have thought about speaking up in favor of including women or increasing diversity in other ways but kept quiet because you thought you were in the minority. If that’s the case, this is your signal, both to speak up in the future, and to support people who speak up as well. Consider this an encouragement to reply with a “+1” to a statement you agree with, or a “I disagree entirely,” to an opinion that doesn’t reflect your view of the community. Learn more about how to support women in your community as an ally through the Allies Workshop.

More about JSConf

Unfortunately, JSConf US 2013 is already completely sold out, so you won’t be able to join them this year at a Florida resort (!!!). However, you can still sign up for upcoming JSConfs and related events around the world (in Australia, Singapore, and Europe, to name just a few).

More about the JSConf family of conferences, in the words of the JSConf organizers:

JSConf is a unique conference organization, because we aren’t really a conference organization at all. We are a very loose federation of developers who share the same general idea about how a technical conference should be held. We don’t believe that one model or process fits all communities, in fact we are big advocates of locally run events driven by passionate individuals dedicated to the community. We make events that aren’t from the standard conference playbook because we believe you (attendees, speakers, and sponsors) deserve more than that. We focus on two things, pushing the boundaries of what is thought to be conceivable with JS and providing exceptional human social activities that encourage community and friendship building. That sets the general tone for each of our events and from there, local individuals from each region drive the conference to its own incredible level of excellence. Our mission is to make the technology community better, more diverse, and more human; in short, we just want to make things better. JSConf does not focus on what is popular or cool now, but on topics that define and revolutionize the following year of technology. We have been the launching point for some of the most revolutionary products, services, and technologies on the web. We have also been the inspiration point and support base for a wide range of conferences beyond the “JSConf” name, but still retain the very essence of what makes JSConf special.

The Ada Initiative thanks the JSConf organizers again for making this generous donation possible, and for showing the depth of support for women in open tech/culture in the Javascript community!


Want to partner with the Ada Initiative on a similar or different project? Contact us at contact@adainitiative.org and find out how we can work together.

Allies workshop at Everyone Hacks in San Francisco Jan. 19

The Ada Initiative will be teaching the Allies Workshop this Saturday, January 19, 2013, at the Everyone Hacks event in San Francisco, California.

The Ada Initiative Allies Workshop is for people who may or may not be women in open technology and culture, focusing on practical, everyday ways they can support women in their community. After a short introduction on the basic concepts, we role-play or watch other people role-play through common scenarios, and discuss why some things work and others don’t.

Everyone Hacks is a two-day event focused on teaching women how to form teams quickly and build software that works in a short time – the skills often used at hackathons, startups, or fun projects. People of any gender are welcome. Child care is available both Saturday and Sunday for an extra fee.

We teach the Allies Workshop several times a year. Would you like to host an Allies Workshop in Australia or New Zealand? Because we’d like to teach one. The conditions are:

  • Dependent on staff availability
  • Travel and accommodation paid if outside Sydney
  • At least half of the workshop spaces must be open to non-profit employees and open tech/culture volunteers

See our Workshops and training page for more information.

Take the pledge: Don't serve on all-male panels

A hopeful new trend is growing: People are noticing when conference speakers are all or mostly men (and often all white as well). And they are asking questions: What kind of selection process results in an all or mostly male speaker lineup? Is it true that all the best speakers just happen to white men, or are there other qualified speakers who are getting passed over? No one thinks these conferences are deliberately signing up only men, but they do think that all-male lineups are a sign of not trying very hard to get the best speakers.

One solution is for men to publicly pledge only to participate in panels that have at least one woman on them, as Rebbeca Rosen proposed in The Atlantic last week. Speakers in many different areas have already adopted this rule, but now it seems to be gaining popularity at an explosive rate.

Another way to help change the ratio is for people of any gender to make a rule to not speak at conferences with less than a certain percentage of women speakers: depending on the field, perhaps 10%, or 25% – we know one speaker with a 35% rule. This is something you can note in your talk application and decided on when the speakers are announced. If you are male and invited to speak at a conference, you can make it a habit to suggest qualified women speakers in addition or instead of yourself. Another rule that helps is to not attend conferences without an anti-harassment policy.

Finally, if you are a conference organizer, and are not having success getting applications from women, here are some writeups from conferences that succeeded in getting 25% or more women speakers. Also useful is the Geek Feminism article “Women speakers” which has lots of concrete advice.

As many people have pointed out, the simplest way to have more women speakers is to become friends with, learn about, or work with more women in your field. One thing you can do today: Follow 10 women on Twitter, add 5 women’s blogs to your news reader, or read 2 articles on women in your field on Wikipedia. (Bonus points for improving them.)

By taking these steps, you won’t just be helping women, you’ll be helping yourself. We bet that you’ll enjoy the conferences you attend more, learn new things, make new friends, and open up a world of interesting new perspectives.

In Arbeit: Das Ende von Sexismus in der Hackerkultur

This is a German translation of our recent blog post on sexism in hacker culture (click here for the English original). Translation courtesy of @fin, @bekassine und @michaelem.

[Übersetzung ins Deutsche von @fin, @bekassine und @michaelem]

Letzte Woche wurde wieder global über Sexismus in der Hackerkultur diskutiert. Auslöser dafür waren eine Reihe von sexistischen Vorfällen am 29ten Chaos Communication Congress, einer Veranstaltung die jährlich in der letzten Woche des Jahres in Deutschland abgehalten wird.

Die Vorfälle begannen damit, dass jemand aus den sogenannten “Creeper Move Cards” ein Bild eines nackten Frauenkörpers (Link führt nicht direkt zum Bild) an eine Wand klebte. Diese “Creeper Move Cards” waren gedruckt worden um auf das Thema Sexismus aufmerksam zu machen, was in diesem Fall auch gelungen war. Weiters wurde im Wiki der Konferenz eine Seite erstellt, die die TeilnehmerInnen im Rahmen eines Spiels dafür belohnte, anderen gegenüber sexistische Kommentare abzulassen oder unerwünschte sexuelle Annäherungsversuche zu unternehmen. Außerdem machte ein Moderator des beliebten Spiels “Hacker Jeopardy” im Rahmen der Show wiederholt sexistische Kommetare wie zB. “Jetzt müssen wir leider aus Gleichstellungsgründen eine Frau nehmen”, ohne dass die Organisatoren der Konferenz eingegriffen hätten.

Schnell reagierten sowohl KonferenzteilnehmerInnen, als auch die weltweite Community. TeilnehmerInnen erstellten eine Webseite, auf der sexistische Vorfälle am Congress dokumentiert wurden. Die Kritik verbreitete sich explosionsartig durch die sozialen Medien – “Ich behaupte, die Konferenz-Orga hat versagt und euer Team ist eine symbolische und sinnlose Geste” [übersetzt] – wiederum nicht nur auf der Konferenz, sondern auch in der weiteren Community.

Diese Vorfälle brachten für die bekannte Online-Aktivistin und Cryptoparty-Gründerin Asher Wolf das Fass zum Überlaufen und sie bloggte über die sexistische Diskriminierung und Belästigung, die sie in der Hacker-Community erfahren hatte. Wie zum Beweis ihrer Aussagen wurde kurz darauf ihre Website gehackt und persönliche Daten online gepostet.

Diese Vorfälle waren umso schlimmer, weil nur ein paar Tage zuvor eine offizielle Anti-Harassment-Policy (Anti-Belästigungs-Richtlinie) veröffentlicht wurde. Im Zuge dessen wurde auch eine Telefonnummer eingerichtet, an die diskriminierende Vorfälle gemeldet werden konnten und es stand ein Team zur Verfügung, das auf Meldungen reagieren sollte. Die Ada Initiative sah dies als ein Zeichen des Fortschritts, auch weil der 29c3 damit bereits als dritte Hackerkonferenz eine spezifische, durchsetzbare Policy hatte.

Kritik an der Reaktion der Organisatoren war unter KonferenzteilnehmerInnen weit verbreitet und dauert bis heute an. Wir sind selbst traurig und bestürzt, dass viele TeilnehmerInnen aller Geschlechter Belästigung erfahren hatten und von den Organisatoren im Stich gelassen wurden. Wundert es also, dass Viele öffentlich verzweifelten und fragten, ob Frauen jemals eine Hackerkonferenz besuchen könnten, ohne als Stück Fleisch gesehen zu werden?

So sieht Fortschritt aus

Unsere hoffnungsvolle Ansage: Genau so sieht Fortschritt aus. So schmerzhaft diese letzte Woche auch war, so sehr zeigen diese Ereignisse auch, dass sich die Hackerkultur in eine Zukunft bewegt, in der Frauen nicht aktiv entmutigt werden, Teil der Hackercommunity zu sein.

Als letzten August Sexismus bei der Hacker-Konferenz DEFCON Schlagzeilen machte, drehte sich die Diskussion innerhalb der Community darum, ob Sexismus überhaupt existierte, ob Grenzübertretungen und Beschimpfungen als Sexismus zählen, ob Frauen ein wertvoller Bestandteil der Hackerkultur sein können und ob sexuelle Übergriffe zentraler Bestandteil der Hackerkultur sind. Im August 2012 hatte keine Hacker-Konferenz eine öffentliche, konkret durchsetzbare Anti-Harassment Policy.

Letzte Woche hingegen drehte sich die Diskussion darum, wie die Hackercommunity auf Sexismus reagieren sollte, nicht ob er existiert oder ob Frauen einfach mit Übergriffen rechnen müssen. Nun haben drei Hackerkonferenzen öffentliche, spezifische und durchsetzbare (wenn auch vielleicht schlecht durchgesetzte) Anti-Harassment Policies. Als diese Policy am Congress schlecht durchgesetzt wurde, organisierten sich Anwesende spontan, diskutierten Verbesserungen für die nächste Konferenz und stellten eine Liste mit praktischen, sinnvollen Verbesserungsvorschlägen zusammen. Sexismus in der Hackercomunity hat schon immer existiert, allerdings sind sich jetzt mehr Leute denn je dessen bewusst und ergreifen Maßnahmen um diesen zu bekämpfen.

Der Kampf gegen Sexismus: ein laufender Prozess

Von hier an ist bestimmt nicht alles ein Zuckerschlecken: Um im Kampf gegen Sexismus erfolgreich zu sein, müssen wir weiter auf die Verantwortlichkeit mächtiger Menschen pochen, unabhängig davon ob das für sie unangenehm oder peinlich ist. Wir sind hier um zu diskutieren, wie dieser Prozess funktioniert.

Zuerst wollen wir ein Beispiel geben, wie dieser Prozess in ähnlichen internationalen, kreativen, peer-to-peer-organisierten Communities funktioniert. In den letzten zwei Jahren gab es messbaren Fortschritt für Frauen in Open Source Software, Wikipedia, und ähnlichen Communities. Die Ada Initiative sieht sich in einer Führungsrolle für diese Bewegung: Wir arbeiten direkt mit Konferenzen und Firmen zusammen, vernetzen Frauen in dem Bereich durch die AdaCamp Konferenzen und arbeiten an einer freien (CC-BY-SA lizenzierten) Wissensdatenbank über Feminismus im Geek-Kontext mit, damit nicht jede Community und jede Konferenz ganz von vorne anfangen muss.

Wir haben gelernt, dass gesellschaftlicher Wandel ein Prozess ist. Wir sehen diesen folgendermaßen:

  1. Sensibilisierung: Leuten beizubringen, dass das Problem existiert
  2. Lösungsfindung: Praktische Methoden zu finden, die Community zu ändern
  3. Maßnahmen ergreifen: Diese Methoden implementieren

Das Erstellen und Austeilen der “Creeper Move Cards” hat unübersehbar ein Bewusstsein dafür geschaffen, dass Sexismus auf Konferenzen existiert. Das Erstellen und Verbreiten von Anti-Harassment-Policies für Konferenzen hat einen Lösungsweg aufgezeigt. Dass Konferenzorganisatoren jetzt diese Policies durchsetzen ist eine Implementierung dieses Lösungswegs.

Damit dies funktioniert müssen wir diese Schritte immer und immer wieder gehen, wir müssen riskieren, Fehler zu machen und wir müssen lernen, es nächstes Mal besser zu machen. Ein Beispiel für eine erfolgreiche Umsetzung dieses Prozesses ist die Australische/Neuseeländische Opensource Konferenz linux.conf.au.

Beispielfall: eine Konferenz über Opensource Software

Linux.conf.au ist die bekannteste Opensource Konferenz in dieser Region und zieht hunderte von ReferentInnen und TeilnehmerInnen aus allen Teilen der Welt an. Heutzutage hat sie eine starke, gut durchgesetzte Anti-Harassment Policy, einen hohen Anteil von Frauen als Referentinnen und Teilnehmerinnen und einen Ruf als freundliche und einladende Konferenz für alle. Aber es war nicht immer so.

Vor einigen Jahren hatte die linux.conf.au Vorfälle, in denen Frauen ohne deren Zustimmung fotografiert, Teilnehmerinnen körperlich bedroht und Witze darüber gemacht wurden, dass Hans Reiser Teilnehmerinnen töten würde. Im Jahr 2010 hatte die Konferenz zum ersten Mal eine “Diskriminierungspolicy”, die belästigendes und diskriminierendes Verhalten verbot. Diese Policy war jedoch so vage formuliert, dass es Diskussionen darüber gab, ob beispielsweise sexistische Witze diskriminierend seien.

Als Ende 2010 eine in der Open Source Community bekannte Frau den Namen des Mannes nannte, der sie auf der ApacheCon begrapscht hatte, löste das eine weltweite Diskussion über sexuelle Belästigung und sexuelle Übergriffe in der Open Source Community aus. Dieser Diskurs führte schließlich (neben der Gründung der Ada Initiative) dazu, dass eine Vorlage für eine konkrete und vollziehbare Anti-Harassment Policy ausgearbeitet wurde, welche die linux.conf.au im Jahr 2011 übernahm.

Als ein Keynote-Sprecher 2011 diese Policy mehrfach verletzte (und zum Beispiel pornografische Bilder in seiner Präsentation verwendete), folgte eine Diskussion, die die Community mehrere Monate beschäftigte und zu weiteren sexistischen Vorfällen auf der Mailingliste der Konferenz führte. Schlussendlich entschuldigte sich der Referent und die Videoaufnahme des Vortrages wurde editiert um zu reflektieren, dass der Vortrag die Konferenzregeln und die Prinzipien der Organisatoren verletzte. Linux Australia, die Organisation, die hinter der Konferenz steht, bestätigte die Unterstützung ihrer Anti-Harassment-Policy und die Konferenz hatte 2012 keine signifikanten Vorfälle.

Einzelne Mitglieder der Community unterstützen weiterhin Sexismus und handeln weiterhin sexistisch, nur wissen sie jetzt, dass sie mit Sanktionen, Strafen und Abscheu von Seiten der Community rechnen müssen. Die Kulturnormen dieses Teils der Opensource Community haben sich sichtlich verändert.

Im Großen und Ganzen ist es mittlerweile in der Open Source Community die Norm, dass gegen Belästigung auf Konferenzen gekämpft wird.
Die meisten großen und auch kleinen Konferenzen haben Anti-Harassment-Policies und setzen sie auch durch. Die Python Software Foundation geht sogar weiter und verkündete vor Kurzem, dass sie keine Events ohne solchen Policies finanziell unterstützen würden, und uns wurde gesagt, dass viele Sponsoren der gleichen Meinung sind, dies aber nicht nach außen kommunizieren. Ermutigend ist besonders, dass Open Source Konferenzen nun ihre Aufmerksamkeit auf die Auswahl von ReferentInnen legen und sowohl auf Diversität bei der Auswahl der ReferentInnen achten, als auch Konferenzen darauf aufmerksam machen, wenn sie nur männliche und nur weiße ReferentInnen haben.

Hört auf, meine Konferenz zu ruinieren!

Wir werden immer wieder gefragt: Können wir all diese Unannehmlichkeiten nicht einfach überspringen und stattdessen nach dem Grundsatz “be excellent to each other” leben? Wir sind schließlich erwachsene Menschen, nicht wahr?

Gesellschaftliche Veränderung findet nicht statt, weil wir einfach darum bitten.

Veränderungen passieren durch Proteste, Hungerstreiks und öffentliche Aktionen. Veränderungen blockieren den Verkehr auf den Straßen großer Städte. Veränderungen passieren, wenn geheime Regierungsdokumente geleakt werden. Sie geschehen als Resultat von Unruhen, ausgebrannten Häusern und Tränengaskanistern auf die Nasen von Demonstranten. Wir können uns glücklich schätzen, dass Protest gegen Sexismus in der Hackerkultur hauptsächlich mit bösen Worten gekontert wird – besonders wenn wir gegen etwas Protestieren, das oft genug körperliche sexuelle Übergriffe auf Frauen beinhaltet. Wenn du noch keine Übergriffe oder Belästigung erlebt hast, mag diese unangenehme Diskussion wie ein Schritt zurück aussehen, aber für jene, die so etwas schon erlebt haben, ist die Diskussion eine klare Verbesserung!

Die Folgen dieser Art von Protesten sind unbequem und manchmal gefährlich für Leute die ihren Alltag leben. Jedoch sind diese Unannehmlichkeiten oft schon zuvor im Leben von Unterdrückten zu finden. Viele Frauen können schon nicht zu Hackerkonferenzen gehen, ohne mit Sexismus rechnen zu müssen. Wenn du diese Woche zum ersten Mal mit Sexismus konfrontiert wurdest, stell dir vor wie es ist, jedes Mal mit Sexismus konfrontiert zu werden, wenn du einen IRC-Channel betrittst, öffentlich bloggst oder zu einer Konferenz gehst. Das wäre ziemlich schrecklich, oder? Es könnte sogar dazu führen, dass du die Hackercommunity verlässt.

Die Antwort auf “hört auf meine Konferenz zu ruinieren” darf nicht “hört auf Sexismus aufzuzeigen” sein, sondern muss “hört auf sexistisch zu handeln” lauten. Beschuldige nicht die Opfer dafür, dass sie Sexismus aufzeigen, oder dass sie es auf eine für dich unangenehme Weise machen. Schlussendlich macht Sexismus sowohl Männer als auch Frauen mehr als leicht betroffen; Sexismus verletzt sie und vertreibt sie aus der Community. Wir forden den Chaos Communication Congress auf, hinter seiner Policy zu stehen, umfassende und funktionierende Prozeduren zu entwickeln und sich in Zukunft zu ihrer Durchsetzung zu bekennen

Wenn wir alle weiter zusammen arbeiten, laut bleiben und Maßnahmen gegen Diskriminierung ergreifen, wird sich Sexismus aus der Hackercommunity zurückziehen, wie es schon in anderen Communities passiert ist. Und das kannst du selbst tun:

Danke an alle, die letzte Woche über Sexismus und Belästigung diskutiert haben. Ihr macht gesellschaftliche Veränderung möglich. Kontaktiert uns gerne, wenn ihr Unterstützung braucht.

[Kommentare sind nur unter der englischen Version dieses Posts aktiv.]

Die Ada-Initiative ist eine gemeinnützige Organisation, die sich für die Steigerung der Partizipation und des Status von Frauen im Feld “Open Technology and Culture” einsetzt. Unsere Arbeit, welche diesen Blogpost, die Vorlage für eine Anti-Harassment Policy und viel der dazugehörigen Dokumentation beinhaltet, wird durch Spenden von Community Mitgliedern wie dir finanziert.

Donate now

Ending sexism in hacker culture: A work in progress

CCC building at night by dschanoeh, on Flickr

CCC building at night by dschanoeh, on Flickr

Updated to add 2 January 2013: German translation available here courtesy @fin, @bekassine and @michaelem.]

Last week, sexism in hacker culture became a topic of worldwide dialogue again. The trigger was a series of sexist incidents at the 29th Chaos Communications Congress, held every year in Germany during the last week of the year.

The incidents started with a wall in the conference center, where a picture of a woman’s nude body (link does not show image directly) was created using “Creeper Move cards,” printed paper cards used to raise awareness of sexism. (They definitely raised awareness in this case.) The conference wiki was edited to create a game in which participants were rewarded for offending people by making sexist comments or unwanted sexual propositions. During the popular conference event “Hacker Jeopardy,” a moderator repeatedly made sexist comments like “For reasons of gender-equality, we’ll sadly have to pick a woman now,” unhindered by the conference organizers present.

The reaction was swift, both at the conference and around the world. Many of the incidents were chronicled on a web site set up to document sexist incidents at CCC (in German, English here). Social media exploded with criticism of the events – e.g., “I think the conference leadership (the ccc) has failed horribly and that your team is a token and meaningless gesture.” – which quickly spread to include not just people at the conference but also people around the world.

These incidents were the last straw for prominent online activist and Cryptoparty co-founder Asher Wolf, who blogged about the sexist discrimination and harassment she experiences from the hacker community. As if to prove her point, her web site was hacked and her personal details posted online shortly thereafter.

These incidents stung more than usual in part because just a few days earlier the CCC 29 publicized their official anti-harassment policy, including a special phone number and dedicated team for responding to reports. The Ada Initiative saw this as a hopeful sign for progress, since it was the third hacker conference to publicly adopt a specific, enforceable policy.

Yet criticism of the conference organizers’ actual response to harassment was widespread (EN) (DE) and continues through the time of this posting. We are personally sorry and upset that so many people, of all genders, suffered harassment and then were let down by the response from the conference. Is it any wonder many people publicly despaired over whether women can ever expect to go to a hacker conference and not be treated like a piece of meat?

This is what progress looks like

We have a message of hope: This is what progress looks like. As painful as the last week has been, it is a sign that hacker culture as a whole is slowly working its way towards a future in which women are not actively discouraged from being part of the hacker community in ways men are not.

When sexism at the DEFCON hacker conference became national news last August, the community discussion centered around whether sexism existed at all, if assault and insults counted as sexism, whether women were valuable to hacker culture, and whether assault and harassment of women was an integral, essential element of hacker culture. In August 2012, zero hacker conferences had a public, specific, enforceable anti-harassment policy.

Contrast this with last week, when the discussion centered around the right way for the hacker community should respond to sexism, not whether it exists or women deserved the basic right of not being assaulted in the hacker community. Now, three hacker conferences have public, specific, enforceable (if in some cases badly enforced) anti-harassment policies. When the anti-harassment policy was poorly enforced at CCC, attendees spontaneously organized to discuss how to improve the enforcement at the next conference and assembled a list of practical, sensible improvements (EN) (DE). Sexism in hacker culture has always existed, but now more people than ever before are aware of it, are agreeing that it’s wrong, and are taking steps to end it.

Fighting sexism: an on-going process

It’s not all roses from here on out: Success depends on continuing to push for accountability from powerful people, whether or not is uncomfortable or unpleasant for them to address. We’re here to talk about how that process works.

First, we want to share an example of how this process is moving forward in similar peer-to-peer, international, creative communities. The last two years have seen measurable progress for women in open source software, Wikipedia, and similar communities – what we call “open technology and culture” and which includes hacker and maker culture. The Ada Initiative is an active leader in this movement: working directly with conferences and corporations, bringing together women in open tech/culture at the AdaCamp conferences, and contributing to the Geek Feminism wiki, a freely available CC-BY-SA licensed knowledge base so every community and conference does not have to learn from scratch.

What we’ve learned is that social change is a process. One way to look at the process is as this series of steps:

  1. Raising awareness: Teaching people that the problem exists
  2. Creating solutions: Inventing practical ways to change the community
  3. Taking action: Implementing the solutions

For example, creating and handing out the “Creeper Move cards” (EN) (DE) raised awareness of the problem of sexism at conferences in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Writing and promoting conference anti-harassment policies created a solution. Conference organizers enforcing an anti-harassment policy is implementing that solution.

To make this work, we have to take these steps over and over, we have to risk making mistakes, and we have to learn how to do better next time. One example of this process working in the open source software community is the Australian/New Zealand open source conference, linux.conf.au.

Case study: An open source software conference

Linux.conf.au is the most popular open source conference in the Australia/New Zealand region, and attracts hundreds of speakers and attendees from all over the world. Today, it has strong, well-enforced anti-harassment policy, a high percentage of women speakers and attendees, and a reputation as a friendly and welcoming conference for all. But it wasn’t always that way.

In previous years, linux.conf.au had incidents of non-consensual photography of women, jokes about Hans Reiser killing women attendees, and physical intimidation of women. In early 2010, for the first time the conference had a “Discrimination” policy forbidding discriminatory or harassing behavior, but was vague enough that people argued over whether, e.g., sexist jokes were “discriminatory.”

In late 2010, a prominent woman in the open source community named the man who had groped her at ApacheCon and kicked off a worldwide discussion about sexual harassment and assault in the open source community. This discussion led to the creation of a specific, enforceable example anti-harassment policy (and the founding of the Ada Initiative). linux.conf.au adopted the new specific and enforceable policy for the 2011 conference.

Despite this policy, one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 conference violated the policy in several ways (including showing a variety of pornographic images). The ensuing discussion engulfed the community for months afterward and triggered more incidents of sexism on the conference related mailing lists. In the end, though, the speaker apologized, the video of the talk was edited to add a notice that it violated the conference policies and principles of the organizers, the backing organization, Linux Australia, publicly confirmed its commitment anti-harassment policy. The 2012 conference had no major reported incidents.

Individual community members continue to support sexism and do sexist things, but now they know they face sanctions, penalties, and disgust from the rest of the community. The cultural norms of this part of the open source community have visibly changed.

Overall, opposition to conference harassment has become the default in the open source community: Most major and many minor conferences have and enforce an anti-harassment policy. Going even further, the Python Software Foundation recently announced publicly that it would not sponsor any events without a policy and we are told many other sponsors have the same policy but don’t advertise it. Even more encouraging, open source conferences are now paying attention to speaker line-ups, both working hard to increase diversity in speakers and calling out conferences with all-male or all-white speakers.

Stop ruining my conference!

But, people ask, can’t we skip all the unpleasantness, just “be excellent to each other” and be done with it? We’re all adults, right?

Social change does not happen because people ask nicely.

It happens through protests, hunger strikes, and publicity stunts. It blocks traffic on the streets of big cities. It illegally leaks classified government documents. It riots and burns down buildings and takes tear gas canisters in the face. We can count ourselves lucky that protesting sexism in hacker culture mainly results in angry words – especially when we consider that the current reality that we are protesting already includes physical sexual assault of women. If you haven’t experienced assault or harassment yourself, the upsetting discussion may seem like step backward, but for those of us who have experienced assault, it’s a clear improvement.

The effects of protests like this are uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous for people going about their daily lives, but that’s nothing compared to what life is like for the people already oppressed. Many women already can’t go to a hacker conference without having sexism pushed in their faces. If this week is the first time you’ve been made uncomfortable by sexism, imagine what it’s like to experience sexism when you join an IRC channel, blog in public, or go to a conference. That would suck pretty bad, right? You might even stop participating in the hacker community.

The answer to “Stop ruining my conference” is not “Stop pointing out the sexism,” it’s “Stop being sexist.” Don’t blame the victim for pointing out that sexism is happening, or for doing it in a way that makes you uncomfortable – after all, sexism is already making men and women more than just uncomfortable, it’s harming them and driving them out of the community. We call upon Chaos Communications Congress to stand behind their anti-harassment policy, develop a comprehensive response procedure that works, and to commit to enforcement in future years.

If people of good will continue working together, speaking up, and taking action, sexism will retreat from the hacker community as it has from so many other communities in the past. Here’s what you can personally do about it:

Thank you to everyone who spoke up about sexism and harassment last week. You are what makes change possible. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help!

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The Ada Initiative is non-profit dedicated to increasing the participation and status of women in open technology and culture. Our work, includes this blog post, the example anti-harassment policy, and much of the associated documentation. We can only do this work because of the support and actions of the open tech/culture community as a whole. Thank you!

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Re-post: Why conference harassment matters

This is a repost of one of our most popular articles of 2012, originally published August 1, 2012. It has been updated to include announcements of anti-harassment policies by three hacker conferences, BruCON, DeepSec, and CCC 29.

This weekend was DEFCON 20, the largest and most famous hacker[1] conference in the world. I didn’t go to DEFCON because I’m a woman, and I don’t like it when strangers grab my crotch.

Let’s back up a little bit. DEFCON is a stellar computer security conference, attended by famous computer security experts, shadowy government “spooks,” creative hackers of all sorts, and the journalists who write about them. I first attended DEFCON in 1995 as a gawky 17-year-old. DEFCON 3 was just a few hundred computer security experts wearing black leather jackets and milling around in a ballroom at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas.

DEFCON 3 badge

The author’s first DEFCON badge

That weekend I learned about Kevin Mitnick getting hunted down by the FBI, war-dialing for modems, and the existence of the Internet. I met a guy with long red hair named Dan Farmer who had written a program called something like EVIL, or SATAN, I wasn’t sure which.

I was so inspired by the fascinating, brilliant, frequently leather-clad people I met at DEFCON 3 that I became a computer programmer. I still have my first DEFCON badge, a cheesy purple and white laminated number with only my first name – at age 17, I wasn’t about to to give my full name to a conference full of hackers!

DEFCON today

Fast forward 17 years to DEFCON 20. Every time I read about something cool happening at DEFCON, I wanted to jump on the next flight to Las Vegas. But I didn’t, because of my own bad experiences at DEFCON, and those of people like KC, a journalist and student in San Francisco who wrote about attending DEFCON 19:

Nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of bad behavior I experienced. Like the man who drunkenly tried to lick my shoulder tattoo. Like the man who grabbed my hips while I was waiting for a drink at the EFF party. Like the man who tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff.

Or the experience of one of my friends, who prefers to remain anonymous. At a recent DEFCON, while leaning over to get her drink at the bar, someone slid his hand up all the way between her legs and grabbed her crotch. When she turned around, the perpetrator had already disappeared into the crowd.

My own stories from DEFCON seem tame compared to what these women went through, but I couldn’t take the constant barrage of sexual insults and walked out halfway through DEFCON 16, swearing not to return if I was going to be harassed like that again.

Unfortunately, DEFCON isn’t unusual among hacker conferences. Similar stories about Black Hat, HOPE, CCC, and others are also common. Sexual harassment at other computer conferences often appears unintentional, but at hacker conferences it’s often clear that the perp is doing it on purpose, and enjoying the hell out of it. As a woman, it’s hard to justify attending a hacker conference when I can go to an academic computer conference and get treated like a human being most of the time.

Why harassment matters

At this point, some of you are thinking, “Well, if DEFCON is so bad for women, women just shouldn’t go. Who cares?”

As KC puts it, “Defcon is also many wonderful things. It is a fantastic environment to learn, network, and connect with friends old and new.” There’s a reason that I attended DEFCON five times before I quit. DEFCON and other hacker conferences are popular for all the reasons that conferences exist at all: learning new things, meeting people in your field, improving your reputation, finding jobs, and making new friends.

I’ll start with the most obvious benefit of attending DEFCON: jobs. Did you know that Twitter is recruiting computer security experts at DEFCON? So are Zynga and the NSA:

@netik: Twitter is hiring security people. If you are at defcon and need work, @ reply me and let's meet up.

Happy Recruiting! NSA top spy going to #Defcon 2012 http://exm.nr/NKEIOM  via @examinercom #infosec #cybersecurity

I am recruiting for AppSec, SecEng, and SecIR positions at @Zynga this week at BsidesLV, Defcon, and Blackhat. Lets talk.

Twitter, Zynga, and the NSA are only a few of the companies and government agencies that consider DEFCON prime recruiting ground for experts in all sorts of areas: network security, operating systems, robotics, surveillance, electrical engineering, intrusion detection, and anything that communicates via electromagnetic waves. When companies recruit at DEFCON, and women aren’t at DEFCON, both the companies and the women miss out.

But how do you become qualified for a computer security job in the first place? Computer security isn’t very well documented, or taught in any depth in most universities. After my first DEFCON, I knew to sign up for the DEFCON mailing list, read the 2600 magazine, and check out a copy of the UNIX Systems Administration Handbook from the computer center library. When I got a computer account at my university, I logged into the UNIX workstations instead of the Windows machines because I knew UNIX was what hackers used. I poked around UNIX until I found files I couldn’t read and commands I couldn’t run, and then I started reading manuals to understand why. I eventually became a worldwide UNIX file systems expert – all because I went to this obscure little conference in Las Vegas in 1995.

For those women who work or want to work in a computer security related field, conferences like DEFCON are the best chance to meet influential people in the field. Take Bruce Schneier, a professional speaker and the author of “Applied Cryptography” (known outside computer security for coining the term “security theater” to describe TSA security measures). I met Schneier at DEFCON 6, when I made a joke that he reused in his talk a few minutes later. The DEFCON speaker list is a who’s who of modern digital glitterati – and in a strange twist of fate, now includes the Director of the NSA.

Giving the right talk at DEFCON can make your entire career and net you dozens of offers for jobs, contracts, and book deals. DEFCON is good for hands-on learning too: For example, every year teams of security experts compete in contests like “Capture the Flag” to show off their skills and learn from each other.

Finally, everyone at DEFCON benefits from more women attending. Women “hackers” – in the creative technologist sense – are everywhere, and many of them are brilliant, interesting, and just plain good company (think Limor Fried, Jeri Ellsworth, and Angela Byron). Companies recruiting for talent get access to the full range of qualified applicants, not just the ones who can put up with a brogrammer atmosphere. We get more and better talks on a wider range of subjects. Conversations are more fun. Conferences and everyone at them loses when amazing women don’t attend.

When you say, “Women shouldn’t go to DEFCON if they don’t like it,” you are saying that women shouldn’t have all of the opportunities that come with attending DEFCON: jobs, education, networking, book contracts, speaking opportunities – or else should be willing to undergo sexual harassment and assault to get access to them. Is that really what you believe?

Is change coming to hacker conferences?

Back to KC:

I know Im not alone in being frustrated with the climate at Defcon. Last year at Deepsec in Vienna, I met a fantastically intelligent woman developer who flat out refused to attend Defcon because of interactions like those listed above. I can think of countless other women I know in the tech industry who are regular Defcon participants and speakers who are just as fed up with this crap as me. I wonder why we’ve all been so polite about such an unhealthy atmosphere.

Red/yellow (and green) cardsRed/yellow (and green) cardsKC stopped being polite, and started doing something about the sexist atmosphere at DEFCON: she created the Red/Yellow Card Project. She got the idea from a joke a rugby-obsessed friend made after she complained about sexism at DEFCON, suggesting that she hand out red and yellow penalty cards to people making sexist comments. She designed and printed the cards and distributed them at this year’s DEFCON, with mixed reception. Some people vehemently objected, but others loved it. DEFCON founder Jeff Moss offered to pay for the printing costs of the cards.

How the Ada Initiative is changing conferences

The cards are a hilarious way to raise awareness of the problem of brutal sexual harassment at DEFCON and similar conferences. Unfortunately, it will take more than raising awareness to make hacker conferences safe for women. That’s one reason why I quit my cushy computer programmer job and co-founded the Ada Initiative, a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture. Our scope includes open source software, open hardware, and open data – all of which are major parts of hacker conferences like DEFCON.

The Ada Initiative’s first project: an example written policy that bans harassment at conferences, sexual or otherwise, of people of all genders. Organizers for literally hundreds of conferences have adopted some form of this policy, including open source software conferences from Linux to Python to Git, the world’s largest Wikipedia conference, Wikimania, and a plethora of others including gaming cons, open video conferences, science fiction conventions, and even skeptic/atheist meetups.

The policies aren’t just empty words; several conferences have enforced their policies successfully. Many conference organizers have told us that they had record women’s attendance after they adopted a policy aimed at reducing harassment (and often higher overall attendance as well). One conference organizer said that the first year they worked hard to invite 30% women, everyone enjoyed the conference so much more that they’ve done it every year since. When women feel welcome at a conference, everyone enjoys the conference more.

A call to action and a challenge

We’re waiting to hear about the first[2] hacker conference to adopt a specific, enforceable, well-planned policy protecting women from harassment – and then we’re going to promote the hell out of it. Will it be HOPE? CCC? DEFCON? Whichever hacker conference is first will get dozens or hundreds of new attendees, women and everyone else, too. If you want this to be your conference, and you want help designing and implementing a policy, email us at contact@adainitiative.org.

Updated to add on December 28, 2012: The first[3] three hacker conferences to adopt and publicize an anti-harassment policy are BruCON, DeepSec, a hacker conference in Vienna, and Chaos Communications Congress, a hacker conference in Germany. You can read more in an interview with the BruCON organizers, a report from the first BruCON with a policy, and an interview with the DeepSec organizers. CCC is on-going at the time of this post; see here for more information on how to report harassment to the organizers. See below for more on our criteria for listing conferences for this challenge.

If you’re not a conference organizer, you can help too! We’ve created a list of actions to take to support policies preventing harassment at conferences, all field-tested for effectiveness. To name just a few, you can publicly request a policy by blogging or tweeting, organize a community petition asking for a policy, and when speaking, make your appearance contingent on a policy.

Finally, if you like the work that the Ada Initiative is doing, you can support us by joining our announcement mailing list or donating to support our work for women in open technology and culture (we’re a tax-exempt non-profit charitable organization supported by donations and we do this for a living).

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[1] The precise meaning of the word “hacker” has been the subject of furious debate for at least 30 years. Suffice to say that in this post it does not mean exclusively “person who breaks into computers” and it includes people who experiment with computers and hardware for curiosity’s sake.

[2] Updated on December 28, 2012: The title of “first” hacker conference to have a “specific, enforceable, well-planned policy protecting women from harassment” is in dispute. Kiwicon is a hacker conference that has a (hilarious) Code of Conduct:

Kiwicon attempts to be a relatively informal conference where all members of the hacking community can come together over one weekend. Individuals intent on sprinkling fetid douchenuggets over the ice-cream sundae of anyone else’s enjoyment may incur penalties, reprisals or sanctions at the discretion of the Crue. In other words, the Crue reserve the right to kick you out, own your boxen and publicly shame you if you’re being an idiot.

CCC 27 and 28 previously had a FAQ entry banning harassment but did not publicize the change or enforcement widely. Other hacker conferences have contacted us to say they have secret anti-harassment policies.

None of these meet our criteria of a “specific, enforceable, well-planned policy protecting women from harassment.” In particular, we have observed that an anti-harassment policy is ineffective unless it is both specific and widely publicized and publicly enforced (see this guide we contributed to for documentation on how to do so). Half the purpose of an anti-harassment policy is to educate the attendees about specific actions that are harassing, which can only be done if the policy lists specific actions and if the attendees read it. As a result, we consider BruCON to be the first hacker conference to adopt (and by all accounts, successfully enforce) an anti-harassment policy.

Chaos Communications Congress 29 becomes third hacker conference to ban harassment

Drum roll, please! The third major “hacker” conference to publicly adopt an anti-harassment policy is Chaos Communications Congress 29! CCC is a conference about technology, society, and creativity, and is one of the most popular conferences in the field. Thousands of people travel from all over the world to Germany during the last week of December each year to attend CCC.

CCC joins BruCON and DeepSec as the first three hacker conferences to publicly pledge that they do not condone and will respond to harassment based on age, gender, sexual orientation, race, physical appearance or disability. CCC 29 has set up a special team available 24 hours a day to respond to harassment, with a phone number, email address, and even Twitter account! (We note that the German translation of KC Crowell‘s “Creeper Move” cards was also recently announced.)

Updated to add Fri Dec 28 07:30 UTC:Tips on reporting harassment, responding to reports of harassment, and related resources are available on the Geek Feminism wiki. Writing these kinds of documents are part of what the Ada Initiative does.

We at the Ada Initiative are astonished and amazed to close out 2012 with so much progress in the area of harassment of women at conferences – and it goes way beyond conferences. Each time conference organizers make a public pledge like this, it kicks off a conversation that reveals people’s opinions and beliefs about the role of women in their community – and often changes them for the better. What we find out is often not pretty, but it is also the reality that women in our communities experience. Becoming aware of the problem is the first step in fixing it and becoming the kind of community we believe we truly are.

Bravo and congratulations to the organizers of CCC, BruCON, DeepSec, and everyone else who worked in 2012 to make open technology and culture more welcoming to people of all genders!

Note to conference organizers: The title is still open for the first non-European hacker conference to adopt a public, specific, and enforceable policy against harassment. The honor could be yours!

Seven charities changing the world for women and open tech/culture

Why is December the biggest month of the year for giving to charities? No matter how many times it plays on TV, “A Christmas Carol” can’t explain everything. Donations to some charities are tax-exempt in the U.S., but only the most Scrooge-like folks donate just because their accountant recommended it. ‘Tis the season – but why?

We decided to interview two Ada Initiative advisors about end-of-year giving and how they decide which charities to support year-round. Lukas Blakk is a release engineer for a popular open source company, and Kellie Brownell is a professional fundraiser for a prominent open technology non-profit.

But first, here are seven of our favorite open tech/culture and/or pro-women charities (yes, we included ourselves – we’re biased).

  • Black Girls Code: Giving girls and young women of color the opportunity to learn programming and STEM skills
  • Hollaback: Fighting street harassment around the world
  • Python Software Foundation: Supporting the growth and diversity of the Python open source community (and leading the way on welcoming women)
  • Wikimedia Foundation: Bringing the sum of human knowledge to the world for free – including women’s knowledge
  • Scarleteen: Creating sex-positive online sex education for teenagers
  • Creative Commons: Enabling the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge
  • Ada Initiative: Supporting women in open technology and culture (that’s us!)

Now to our interview with Kellie and Lukas:

Q: What’s the general idea of end-of-year giving? Why do people do it?

Kellie: According to nonprofits that took part in a survey by Charity Navigator, they receive on average over 40% of contributions between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Non-profits tend to go all out during this time. We’ll send more appeals to more people in one month than we will have during the rest of the year. To a certain extent non-profits condition all of us to give during the holiday season.

Here are some of the reasons why people prefer to give now:

  • My family makes our philanthropic decisions when we are all together during the holidays
  • I love to procrastinate and December 31 is the final deadline for making tax deductible donations for the year
  • I receive my bonus in December
  • It’s a better time for me to assess my financial situation
  • I think about what I can do to make the world a better place around the end of the year

Combined, these reasons make year end giving a pretty important time for the non-profit sector. As a fundraiser, it’s obviously my favorite time of the year because I get to meet and thank some people with great generosity of spirit and hope for our success defending the rights of technology users.

Q: What’s your strategy for donating to organizations?

Lukas: I have a few monthly giving amounts set up for organizations because I know that having a steady, reliable source of income makes a big difference for small organizations trying to do big things. These are organizations whose missions I feel closest to. Then I also donate to some organizations at one-offs like yearly fundraisers. Finally there are several annual memberships that I renew every year.

Q: What are some ways to increase the impact of the money you donate?

Kellie: This is a really important question for anyone who gives to the non-profit sector. It has one common answer and one uncommon answer. More often than not you would probably be told to support one out of two charities that more efficiently fulfills its mission. For example, if you want to support animal shelters, your donation will have a greater impact in the hands of a shelter that places more kittens in homes per dollar spent. That’s the common answer and companies like Guidestar and Charity Navigator are there to help you assess things like financial management (which is different than mission fulfillment, but in the absence of better metrics, many donors use financial management as a proxy).

Photograph of Sumana Harihareswara

Sumana Harihareswara, Ada Initiative matching donor (Tobias Schumann CC BY-SA)

But talking about your donation will increase the community of support for a cause you value. I have thought back many times to the extraordinary gift Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson gave the Ada Initative in October. Their commitment to a future in which women are supported and thrive in open source communities inspired a great deal of generosity in other people. Sumana and Leonard’s pledge to match up to $10,000 was fulfilled within 24 hours. If supporting a good cause adds meaning to your life or brings you joy in any way, share that with people who you think might also care. It can be a tweet, it can be a blog, it can be a conversation over coffee. One of the most powerful forces I see at play in civic society is someone simply saying: I believe in this and have staked by time or money to see it happen, won’t you join me?

Q: What do you get out of donating to these organizations?

Lukas: Many things. In the organizations I donate monthly to, I just am glad to know they exist and continue to do the hard work that I alone cannot put the appropriate focus on doing. The amplified impact of those organizations isn’t necessarily something I benefit from in my daily life but I never have doubts that the areas they touch are greatly impacted and I love being a silent patron to those shifts and improvements in our society. For one-off fundraising I will sometimes get art or other physical items that have been donated to the org, so it’s more tangible benefit in terms of having something to ‘show’ for my contribution. Then with yearly memberships to organizations I get member privileges as well as knowing I’ve helped support an organization in a sustainable, dependable way. I enjoy getting membership benefits at these places – like discounted admissions, member-only events, and feeling like I’m part of the organization’s fiber.

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Deleting Ada Lovelace

Today is Ada Lovelace’s 197th birthday. This is a repost of our Ada Lovelace Day article on Ada Lovelace, focusing on the debate over her authorship of the first computer program and attempts to write women out of the history of science. The most recent version of this post, including information about the new Ada Lovelace conference, can be found here.

Ada Lovelace portrait

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (known as Ada Lovelace) is probably a familiar figure to most of our readers. She is the world’s first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world’s first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. It was presented as “Notes” to a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her “notes” were longer than the original paper and were considerable more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

Arguments against Lovelace’s authorship include that Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else’s work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc. Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men’s authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I’ve personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else’s error) used as an argument against a male scientist’s competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace’s critics will go, Charles Babbage’s biography, written long after Lovelace’s death (and after they worked on the paper) has this statement on Lovelace’s paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

People argue that “the algebraic working out” of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace’s favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage’s ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music, which definitely wasn’t Babbage’s idea as he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum’s biography of Ada Lovelace says, “The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.” On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire’s primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire’s name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, “Minerva dictated, and I wrote.” Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Chatelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women’s writing: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art,” ad nauseum. (Substitute “computer programmer” for the last – people also argue that what Lovelace wrote wasn’t really a program, either.)

Lovelace’s current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: “[…] She is sometimes considered the world’s first computer programmer.” [Update: As of Dec. 9, 2012, it is now “often considered” – the debate rages!] But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

The most evidence-based biography, “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers,” quotes heavily from Lovelace’s letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, we should not be denigrating women’s accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That’s one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.


Help give Ada Lovelace the credit she deserves

Portrait of Ada Lovelace in colorThe Ada Initiative, named after Ada Lovelace, is working hard to give women the credit they deserve in many areas: open source software, Wikipedia, open data, and others. You can be part of this fight by donating to support our work and learning more about how you can help. You can also read about our accomplishments during the last year and our plans for the future.

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