Women in Tech and the Code Censors

A friend who works in IT brought this discussion to my attention. It relates to the removal of a line of code which some of the (seemingly all male?) community found to be sexist. The code made reference to the phrase “not your fathers’ [x]”. I know quite a few men who work in tech, and although they are fabulous individuals, I don’t have to be convinced of the sexism and misogyny which are generally still very prevalent within IT circles. Women are stil very under-represented within the industry, and misogynist attitudes within IT are certainly a contributing factor to this.

The discussion on Github about this line of code and whether it should be removed gets quite heated. It seems that many people are convinced that the phrase “not your fathers’ [x]” is actually quite sexist. The origin of the phrase, an Oldsmobile ad, was quite sexist, in the way that many ads are, particularly of that era. But I hadn’t ever seen that ad, and the phrase to me has a very different meaning. As someone who has certifiable “dad issues” I can say that the phrase means little other than something new/better/improved/different than that which has come before it. Obviously, I can’t speak for ‘all women’ or any other group I might be a part of, and I’m not a women who works in tech. Maybe that line of code is offensive to some women.

The real issue is that the developer community over at Github are trying, it seems, to counter the anti-women culture which tech circles so often cultivate. That’s great. But I’m not sure that this particular line of code is something that required so much time and energy. Conducting small scale censorship doesn’t seem particularly worthwhile at this point. If only such effort could be channeled into other things to affect cultural change within tech.  Confronting issues like sexual harassment at conferences and the broad issue of under-representation of women, by supporting those who are already doing it would be great ways to achieve this.

[Edit: Appears I may have viewed an alternative/different ad, not the original Oldsmobile ad. The original isn’t particularly sexist.]


A laugh in the face of increasing US reproductive rights restrictions

This year has been a depressing one for reproductive rights activists in the US, with a record number of restrictions being legislated in the first half of 2011 alone.

The Onion managed to bring a smile to my face today, with this article highlighting the ridiculousness of such restrictions. I’m not trying to make a joke out of a serious situation, but this has allowed me to think about what has for most of the year been too depressing to even contemplate. Cheers, onion writers.

Education policy and funding in the federal system

I’ve read a couple of articles this week about proposals to introduce a Victorian Baccalaureate and an Australian Baccalaureate, as an alternative to the exam-focused VCE Certificate and interstate equivalents. In Victoria, and I believe in most other states, the International Baccalaureate is already offered, though usually only by the top, most exclusive private schools (of course in metro areas). There was also an opinion piece by Brian Caldwell in support of the Victorian proposal. These baccalaureates would be more focused on longer, thesis assessments and include an element of public service.

Caldwell highlighted the history of Victoria’s innovation in education, comparative to the rest of Australia particularly, citing Kennett in particular. He also focused on what I found most striking about The Age article I referred to earlier – that Martin Dixon, Victorian Education Minister, said the Victorian Government would not wait around for the Australian Government to enact reforms. Anyone who follows education reform would know how slowly the Australian Government moves on such matters. The current model of federalism in Australia leaves a lot of responsibility with state governments to run the educations systems – I believe this is good. This has led to innovation and differentiation between states and has allowed localised solutions to be found for local problems. However, the funding still comes from the Australian Government, and the cumbersome bureaucracy this brings leads to stifling innovation and a very slow, reactive approach. I am sure that this two-tiered system of double bureaucracy for the one system also leads to a lot of education funding actually being bureaucrat salary – particularly at the Commonwealth level which doesn’t provide direct education services itself.

I’m not advocating, as many current Republican presidential nominees would, to completely abolish the Commonwealth Education Department, however it’s clear from the history of education provision in Australia that the real innovation and reform of service delivery comes from the states. Victoria has the most efficient primary and secondary education systems, and (I can’t remember this reference as I read it a few years ago) studies have shown that it’s the empowerment of local schools to decide how their funding is spent which has driven this efficiency and good outcomes, comparative to other states in Australia. A Commonwealth bureaucracy telling states how to spend their money, instituting national curricula and creating uniform national systems flies in the face of such evidence for localising the system and allowing local experts to make decisions which suit the local community best.

The internet a dream for government power expansion

We’ve long known that governments like those in China and Iran will use whatever means they have available to them to surveil their residents at any moment possible – including internet use. The idea that ‘Western’ or liberal democracies would engage is such practices has until recently seemed harder to believe. This aricle on Ars Technica comments on a report issued by Wikileaks, detailing the kinds of technology, including malware type applications, which companies are producing and marketing to governments and law enforcement bodies around the world.

It’s not clear from the article which countries are currently using such software, though it’s pretty easy to see how governments will be tempted to use (or perhaps already in the process of acquriring and using) such software, in the wake of things like SOPA, and other encroachments into internet users’ privacy.

We currently lack a strong theory of privacy, liberty and freedom in the online sphere, and it seems that until we can argue that our human rights extend to the online world, governments will be able to continue to undertake the real life equivalent of constant personal surveillance without warrant or cause. With the expansion of the uses and usefulness of the internet comes the expansion of our online ‘self’ – we would not tolerate such government intervention and monitoring into our houses, or brains, and it’s time that this kind of advocacy became commonplace in the area of internet privacy and freedom.

Policy inertia and democracy

It’s not new to argue that the War on Drugs is senseless policy which flies in the face of all the evidence of its flaws. It perpetuates the conditions which make it attractive for people to grow plants which produce drugs, like coca which is turned into cocaine. It supports the organised crime in Western countries as well as developing countries – these networks of illegal distribution are necessary to move the drugs from the production into the supply markets. Recently, things have started to get seriously out of hand in Mexico, for example, with hackers Anonymous becoming involved to highlight the lawlessness which has resulted from the power of the drug cartels. And it’s seriously profitable – not only for those who actually distribute the drugs into countries like Australia and America, but even for farmers – compared to other ‘cash crops’ like coffee, growing coca is significantly more profitable.

And, the public health effects of drugs on the end-user have been well documented also. The current punitive regime and incarceration of drug users has been shown to be completely ineffective, and seriously costly.

What has struck me this week is the length of time these things are discussed, and how long change can take to occur. I’ve been re-watching the first season of The West Wing recently, and the episodes lately have been dealing with The War on Drugs, as well as climate change – from the point of view of a fictional Democratic party administration. What has been so frustratingly demonstrated to me is that these things have been on the reform agenda for more than 15 years. Seriously, all of the arguments against the War on Drugs were just presented in a circa 2000 released episode, and all of the merits of a cap-and-trade carbon system were discussed in the same episode. It was spooky to listen to – much of the rest of the series has been like a time-travel experience – this could have been a sound bite from today’s news.

On the one hand, I understand that social change can take time. And that we have deliberate checks on our system that ensure government can’t make sweeping changes overnight – it prevents horrific change and safeguards democracy from too much power being in the hands of the few. But I also feel that, perhaps because of public opinion and the unwillingness to show leadership on difficult policies (it’s never going to be popular to be ‘soft on crime’ or ‘promote drug use’ or ‘increase the cost of living’) these hard battles are left to be fought by someone else. The next Prime Minister, the next President. Someone else. Perhaps it’s also very difficult to attract the attention span of the media and the public to craft a complex argument in favour of some difficult policy decisions, to explain that the War on Drugs is actually counter productive. It can be hard to see a way to cut through the rhetoric and move towards policy based on evidence.

Mississippi Personhood amendment

Right now, I’m writing a uni essay about women, pregnancy and surveillance… It’s pretty theoretical. Perhaps we should adopt a ‘the theoretical is the personal is the political’ type approach to feminism, because as I’m writing this big abstract ramble about how women are turned into walking incubators, or as Purdy would say, fetal containers, I’m also reading all this crazy about the Mississippi Personhood ballot. In fact, it’s so relevant and crazy I’ve managed to work it into my essay in the legal approaches paragraph… It really is one of those things that causes one to lose sleep.

In amongst all the media hype though, this post at the Abortion Gang blog sums up how the consequences have actually been overstated in the media. Not something I’ve previously had to be too concerned about when the media report on anti-woman type laws, but it’s important to point out that many people still don’t understand how contraception works. Really. This is important people! I’m happy that, if courts are to understand this, it would mean that even if this law does get up in the vote, it won’t have quite as wide reaching consequences as what you read in articles like the Huffpost one I’ve linked to at the top here. But that’s assuming courts do get it right…

I am pro-choice, and I focus a lot of my attention on what’s happening in the world which restricts women’s access to contraception, sexual health and abortion. But the flip side of choosing not to have children is of course, having children. Women who make that choice are also at risk, in a horrifying way, under this proposal. Miscarriages become… murder? manslaughter? Who knows how a prosecutor could choose to proceed when a case presents itself. And lets not mention the hundreds of eggs which meet up with sperm but which fail to implant, and are expelled when a woman has a period. Murder! What about spontaneous early miscarriage? These often happen when women don’t actually know they were ever pregnant, for a variety of reasons, when a woman’s body decides that the pregnancy isn’t viable. Murder? What of women who consume moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy? According to some studies, this is ok. Others, it’s not. Would this woman be prosecuted for something? Supplying alcohol to a minor? Who can tell, but there have been very vocal minorities in the US advocating this course of action for a long time, particularly in the US. Women have been prosecuted for supplying drugs to their fetuses in other cases, before any law like this in the US, though thankfully these have been overturned. This law paves the way for all kinds of consequences, probably some which haven’t even been contemplated yet. And that’s the point – Professor Cohen of Harvard Law School argues here that the amendment is very ambiguous and may have unintended consequences, even for those who advocate against a woman’s right to choose abortion and for controlling, punitive interventions into women’s pregnancies.

For some extra reading on this depressing potential law, check out this list of links from Feminists for Choice

7 billion

This post over at Feminist Philosophers is succinct but brilliant. It captures the feeling of hope which I think has been completely lost in all the doomsday articles on over-population and armageddon type scenarios about the end of the world as we know it now that we are 7 billion, and not 6-billion-and-something.

Yes, if all 7 billion consumed the resources that I do right now, it really would be the end of the world, and quick. But they don’t, and hopefully we will all find ways to meet the challenges that this population will bring with it.

Interestingly, addressing climate change is inherently linked with empowering women and girls. As this blog explains, a recent paper has found the most cost effective ways of spending climate change intervention dollars is via educating girls and increasing access to family planning. Through these outcomes I would also hope that maternal mortality and morbidity would decrease.

I too hope that this generation of girls has a brighter future than what we are currently able to see, particularly those who are born into the developing world.

March for the Babies and Reproductive Rights

Last Saturday I spoke at the Pro-choice rally which was gathered in opposition to the March for the Babies (an anti-choice rally organised by Bernie Finn) outside the Victorian Parliament. It was a very surreal day, I really felt I had travelled to a parallel universe. Sadly, the anti-choicers severely out-numbers the pro-choicers, though they had bussed people from all over the place (including Albury, in NSW…) to attend. It was a call back to the 70s, it felt like (though I wasn’t around for such protests back then, so I don’t know).

This is the text of the speech I gave:

I am here today as a woman, and as a student. Let me start by emphasising that education is centrally important to achieving equality, addressing poverty, preventing unemployment, homelessness and a host of other issues which impact individuals and the whole of society. Access to education is therefore pivotal. In my primary and high school days, I sat in classrooms with boys, being told that I was the same as them, being told that I could do anything. That as a girl and as a woman, there was nothing that was impossible. As I grew older, what a surprise it was to find that equality is still being fought for. How amazed I was that it wasn’t until 2008 that Victoria removed abortion from it’s criminal statutes – after I had graduated from high school and had begun my tertiary education. All this while some women of my generation question the need for feminism and believe that full equality was achieved some time ago.

Reproductive rights are about more than just abortion. They include access to all forms of contraception, adoption, IVF, excellent pre- and post-natal care for those who give birth, as well as sterilisation. Abortion is part of reproductive rights as a whole and I would like to emphasise that each of these are important for men, women and trans identified people – all people should have access to reproductive justice. Later this afternoon, the March for the Babies protesters will try to separate abortion from all of these things. Abortion must stay within a reproductive rights context and every element of reproductive justice is as important as the next. Last year at this protest I was shocked to hear one anti-choice protester say that she would rather be raped than have an abortion. A strong feeling that I personally disagree with, however she illustrates my point perfectly – this is about choice and personal freedom – if you do not want an abortion, then please, do not have one.

Speaking of personal freedoms, I would also like to talk about sexual freedom. It all sounds very 1970s and free-love, but sexual freedoms are the ones which governments target first. They are hard to defend because the moralising parts of our society attack them as being debaucherous, immoral or unwanted in the first place. They have been described as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ or the barometer which tells us when freedoms in our society are beginning to be eroded. Reproductive rights are inherently linked to sexual freedom, as we cannot achieve sexual freedom without proper access to reproductive rights.

This brings me to my next point. We must trust women, trust them to make decisions which are best and right for them. Women must be able to decide when, if and how they have children. Women, including women students, are more than incubators and we must treat them as such. Women deserve equality before the law and the respect which comes with trusting women to make reproductive decisions. We must say to women ‘you are responsible and have your own moral integrity’ and allow women to exercise that responsibility and integrity. In Victoria, we are lucky that the law largely allows women to do that. In other states, we must fight so that women are afforded the rights they are entitled to. The prosecution of a young woman and her partner in Cairns should serve as a wake up call to all of us – this issue is centrally important and although these laws very old, they are still being enforced, and we must not assume any differently. Victoria can never go back.

The Other Side of Abortion

Pro-choice activists have long argued that abortion should be available on demand, and without apology. I am one of them, and I agree with that. But sometimes, things happen to those close to you that make you realise how complex and at times, awful, this can be when it’s translated into a specific set of circumstances in reality.

Someone close to me is currently pregnant and has found that there is likely (to be confirmed soon) complications with the brain development which mean that the baby would have very very serious disability* when born. Depending on the degree of this damage, the doctors are likely going to recommend termination. She is more than 30 weeks pregnant, and her and her partner want this baby very very much.

Of course, abortion isn’t the problem here – it didn’t create the developmental issues that are the cause of her anguish. But the fact that her and her partner have a choice to make is absolutely heartbreaking. What a choice to try to make.

Disability rights activists have long argued that all the screening and tests conducted in pregnancy are reinforcing the idea of a ‘perfect’ and ‘normal’ human and I completely agree. However, the kind of disability that they are talking about would bring quality of life into question, and neither of them are financially set up to be able to adequately care for a child who requires constant attention and care. But they desperately want a child, and she is over 40 years old. She had been thinking for the whole pregnancy that she was lucky to be pregnant and that she probably wouldn’t be able to have another child.

Sitting and talking with two pro-choice women this afternoon, the sentiment was that, while we completely support everyone’s right to choose, sometimes you just don’t want to have to choose. This kind of abortion story, heartbreaking and messy, has been almost completely left out of the pro-choice movement, because it’s difficult. Because it’s borderline for many people and because at 9 weeks we can call something a collection of cells but after 26 weeks, those cells can, if things work out that way, be sustained by medial support and intervention. But a machine cannot bring up a child. I don’t want to have a debate about when life begins, because as far as I’m concerned, a baby needs more than itself to survive and women have to be able to have these choices. We have to trust women. But in marginalising women who make choices in these grey areas which are so open to attack by anti-choicers, we really are silencing women who desperately need support and to be included in the pro-choice movement. Pro-choice activists need to accept that these women and their stories are just as valid as an unplanned pregnancy terminated at 7 weeks.

Of course, I don’t know that this is the way my friend’s story will end, and I hope that something wonderful happens and the next test tells a different story. But the way she is feeling now, she could use the support and the stories from other women to feel that she is not alone.

*for the record, I absolutely hate this term/word but am yet to find one which adequately replaces it without being equally able-ist or inadequate. Suggestions welcome!

Attraction and Subjectivity

Motherhood makes women more attractive? According to this psychologist, though I’m not sure if she’s just articulating her personal opinion or if this is based on some study she’s not talking about.

This isn’t the first article to assert features/characteristics which make people more attractive without contextualising these things within their cultural context. (See this mess earlier in the year about how black women are “not as attractive” as other women.)

I am so tired of social science, psychology, biological science and journalism (by not critically interrogating claims made by the afore-mentioned ‘experts’) maintaining and reinforcing a singular definition of what everyone finds attractive. Each time people panic about children’s self-esteem and body image, we should remember articles like this, which reproduce one version of attractiveness.

Then, of course, there is the way the article argues that women are always more attractive after childbirth. Please. Shall I mention white privilege as well?

Couldn’t we just have a definition of beauty that included individual differences and subjectivity? Wouldn’t that be nice!