“Geek culture” is a broadly defined term: including professional cultures associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields as well as recreational ones like science fiction/fantasy fandom, comic books, anime, video games, and hobbies like hacker/maker culture for building hardware and software. However, women who work, study and/or play in any or all parts of geek culture face a unique set of issues.
Some therapists and counselors lack the personal and professional experiences necessary to fully understand the context of these women’s lives. Women who face intersecting oppressions such as being a woman of color, trans or genderqueer, disabled, non-neurotypical, or being either younger or older than most of their peers have an especially hard road to plow.
The Geek Feminism Wiki has been operating since 2008 as a resource for women and for feminist allies in geek communities, defined broadly. The wiki is a well-respected Web site that has been cited in mainstream media such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. In 2011, Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner — two regular contributors to the wiki at the time — founded the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization that furthers the interests of the groups served by the wiki.
Alex Bayley, an Australian software developer and community organizer, has been one of the most active contributors to the wiki; she gave a talk on its history at the Open Source Bridge conference in 2014. Also in 2014, Bayley, wanting to make it easier to find a therapist who could understand their experiences, created a page on the Geek Feminism Wiki, “Resources for therapists”. The “Resources for therapists” page introduces mental health professionals to the background for some of the problems faced by geeky women, or women who work in geeky professions. Several other contributors to the Geek Feminism Wiki have worked on it since then, and I have improved it based on suggestions from a licensed professional counselor, Cat Pivetti (who does not necessarily endorse anything in the article). While the wiki article is a collaborative effort, the analysis in this article is my own and the other contributors to the wiki should not be taken as endorsing it.
Most people know that women are a minority in geek cultures and in technical professions, at least in North America, Australia, and much of Western Europe. In some particularly high-status parts of tech, they are a very small minority: some estimates put women’s representation around 10% in tech startups, and between 2-10% in open-source projects (which are often a launching pad for volunteers to transition into lucrative jobs). The numbers for women with one or more intersecting oppression are even lower.
What’s not as well-known are the reasons for this disparity. Often, people blame the leaky pipeline, saying that culture teaches young girls to be less interested in programming, or that K-12 teachers discourage them from pursuing science and math. These things are true, but don’t explain why women who make it past that point — who get as far as studying a STEM subject in college or grad school, or getting an entry-level job in a STEM field — continue to leave mid-career. And they do.
The reasons for this include widespread and systematic harassment of women in tech. As Julie Pagano wrote:
“People dealing with abuse stop being their best, stop working, and eventually fail. As an industry, we spend a lot of time trying to counteract attacks on our systems, but we often overlook abuses directed at the people who develop and maintain those systems.”
Many people outside tech are unaware of just how severe this harassment is. Gamergate, a coordinated attempt to harass women who develop and/or write about video games, has resulted in two women (Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian) being forced out of their homes by threats. Harassment ranges from death threats and rape threats — sometimes credible ones, often at such a high volume and pace that distinguishing credible from less credible threats becomes difficult — to all of the classic forms of workplace discrimination, to sexualized environments at technical conferences, to firings of women who speak up about any of these issues (such as Adria Richards”). Occasionally, this harassment includes outright physical and sexual assault, such as in the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre of female engineering students, numerous reports of rapes at technical conferences, and open-source developer Hans Reiser’s murder of his wife.
Another kind of assault is sustained by a large and varied collection of microaggressions. The tactics vary, but the end goal is the same: to challenge women’s presence and participation in technical professions and in geeky subcultures. Either women are being erased and othered when they’re right there in the room, or they are accused to their faces of being inauthentic: of being “fake geek girls” or of lacking a genuine interest in their work and only being there to make money or attract a man. When women are undermined and constantly made to question their own talents and motivation, that’s a form ofgaslighting. The net effect of these slights is, for many women, impostor syndrome — if they didn’t already feel like impostors, being constantly undermined by one’s peers in ways that are hard to recognize as sexism when it’s happening will make sure they do.
There is a feedback loop between these types of harassment and another, more subtle, undermining kind of assault on women. The more women feel like impostors, the more helpless they are likely to feel in the face of harassment. Likewise, being harassed in a community contributes to a feeling that one does not belong there, especially when bystanders aren’t helping. Lindsey Kuper wrote (regarding an online harassment incident she faced as a consequence of her participation in an open-source project, Rust):
…every time I point out something like this in a community I’m part of, whether it’s the Rust community or any other, there’s a part of me that insists on first checking to see how much social capital I have to spend there. How high up am I on the contributors list? Have I contributed to the next release yet? All right, I guess it’s okay for me to say something — as though it hurts the project to speak up about a community problem! And so I have a double-entry accounting system in my head for amount of code contributed and amount of abuse reported, and it’s terrible and broken that I feel that that’s necessary. The only qualification that any of us should need to be treated with humanity is that we are human.
I hope the potential traumatic effects of being constantly harassed and told you’re unwelcome in the field where you’re trying to earn a living, in a hobby that is supposed to be fun, or both, are clear. You might wonder, though, just why it’s so bad. What makes men (and a few women who enable them) harass, abuse, attack, and undermine women in tech? Some of us have noticed a few recurring themes.
Male entitlement and attention-seeking are part of it. Technology is a profession that, at least in US culture, is one of the last remaining routes to a middle-class life that can, at least in theory, be accessed just by getting the right education and training. It wasn’t always this way: initially, in the 1940s and ’50s, computing was a women’s job. As soon it became clear that it was a potentially lucrative job, women were systematically pushed out, as historian Nathan Ensmenger wrote an entire book about.
In the 1980s, there was a slight resurgence of women in the tech industry, but their numbers actually decreased again with the rise of the Internet and the concomitant economic growth that the industry experienced. Many men believe that the mere presence of women in their field lowers their salaries, and statistically, they’re not wrong: for example, in medicine, specialties tend to be higher paid the higher percentage is of men who work in them. The more economic benefit is at stake, the more vicious the harassment of women trying to take a little bit of what men feel entitled to becomes.
Especially in realms where money is not at stake (hobbies like science fiction and video games), some men seek to defend a more nebulous sort of value. Threatened masculinity plays a role, especially for men who identify as geeks/nerds and so are less likely to have traditional masculine hobbies or skills, such as ones involving physical power or skill, to use for shoring up their masculine identities. To protect their masculinity, they must ensure that the things they do like doing such as playing video games, writing open-source software, writing science fiction stories are coded as “male”, which can mean driving women out.
For angry young men who feel disenfranchised and marginalized in the larger world, and who confuse feminists with the forces with actual social power that disenfranchise them, attacking women who they see as threatening the one hobby they can escape into (the “threat”, of course, is simply the presence of women getting to enjoy it to) can be appealing.
Compounding factors that make it even harder for women to cope with these problems are high-pressure and/or unstructured working environments, public scrutiny arising from online activity that is necessary for building a career and doing a job, blurred or nonexistent boundaries between professional and social life, secondary trauma from carrying not only one’s own adverse experiences, but likely those of many friends, and pre-existing mental health issues.
Anecdotally, people who are on the autism spectrum and/or who have ADD/ADHD are more common in tech, perhaps because tech jobs can sometimes be more forgiving of social differences and of inconsistent working hours and performance. Both women being harassed, and harassers themselves, may be on the autism spectrum or have ADD/ADHD; so that complicates interactions. Also anecdotally, trans women who are openly trans, as well as non-binary-identified gender-non-conforming people, are a bit more common in tech than in the underlying population. In the case of intersecting mental health issues like these, a therapist should not work with members of these groups unless they have genuine knowledge or are willing to seek consultation with an expert.
Feminists in geek culture (largely women, a few male allies) have organized to resist the ongoing assaults against them. They have drafted anti-harassment policies for conferences, which many conferences have adopted. They have organized formal support groups, networks, and regularly scheduled events. They have adopted inside jokes and dark humor as a coping mechanism, which may seem strange or self-deprecating to those who aren’t in on the joke. They have formed support networks online, both public and closed ones.
As individuals, women in tech (and their friends) may cope by talking it out with anyone willing to listen — sometimes publicly on their blogs, sometimes with a friend in private; by self-soothing with displacement activities like puzzle games, knitting, or cat pictures; by self-medication or substance abuse; by filtering or muting triggering content on the Internet (which women in tech are generally adept with); by working at home if that is possible for them; by protecting their privacy online, or, ultimately, for some women, by changing careers. Often, these methods aren’t enough, and some of them can become needed to such an extent that they displace work or family responsibilities.
Collectively, as the editors of this wiki page, those of us who have sought out therapy or counseling have heard some unhelpful things from therapists. We know that we are smart and talented — at least, those of us who are women, or gender-non-conforming, or who are trans men who transitioned during our careers know (deep down) that if we weren’t, we would have given up on it long ago. But knowing that we’re smart doesn’t protect us from abuse.
Suggestions of avoidance aren’t helpful, since many of us are already using avoidance to cope. “Leave your job” is unhelpful: most of us don’t have the financial privilege to change careers, and in the early-21st-century economy, many of us would be likely to take a huge pay cut if we did opt for any other work outside of tech. “Don’t use the Internet” is no more helpful: many of us have to use it for our jobs, and it’s a source of much-needed social support for all of us. Likewise, suggesting that the Internet isn’t real goes against our lived experience, in which many of us find all of our employment and build and sustain genuine relationships using the Internet.
Dismissing our experience with “it’s not that bad”, with any form of blaming the victim, or with a suggestion that we ought to grow a thicker skin or be less PC just compounds the problems we experience. In seeking therapy, we hope that a therapist will validate our lived experiences. Likewise, a therapist should not attempt to jump straight into helping us problem-solve without validating our emotional responses first. Most of us are very good at solving problems, but live and work in extremely emotionally invalidating environments.
I hope this article is a helpful introduction for therapists to the Geek Feminism wiki. More information can be found on the Resources for Therapists page and on the wiki as a whole. We welcome suggestions to improve the Resources for Therapists page — you can either make them on the article’s talk page or by emailing me.