a feminist technology blog

Category: feminism (Page 1 of 2)

New Study Released: Legal Implications of Online Harassment

Working with the wonderful people at Fordham Law’s Center on Law and Information Policy, I’m happy to announce we are releasing our newest research report:

Online Harassment, Defamation, and Hateful Speech: A Primer of the Legal Landscape

This interdisciplinary project focused on online speech directed at women and seeks to provide a primer on (i) what legal remedies, if any, are available for victims of sexist, misogynist, or harassing online speech, and (ii) if such legal remedies and procedures exist, whether practical hurdles stand in the way of victims’ abilities to stop harassing or defamatory behavior and to obtain legal relief. The study concluded that while online harassment and hateful speech is a significant problem, there are few legal remedies for victims. This is partly due to issues of jurisdiction and anonymity, partly due to the protection of internet speech under the First Amendment, and partly due to the lack of expertise and resources on online speech at various levels of law enforcement. Given this landscape, the problem of online harassment and hateful speech is unlikely to be solved solely by victims using existing laws; law should be utilized in combination with other practical solutions.

The objective of the project is to provide a resource that may be used by the general public, and in particular, researchers, legal practitioners, Internet community moderators, and victims of harassment and hateful speech online.

Download the paper for free at SSRN.

This report was inspired by the many high-profile incidents of women (esp. women of color and queer women) harassed online in the last few years. Before digging deeper into the sociological implications, I was curious as to whether there was room in the current legal landscape to prosecute such actions, whether civilly or criminally.

Because internet speech is (rightfully) protected under the First Amendment, any laws criminalizing online speech have to be written very carefully. The specifics of the words used (calling someone a “ho” versus a “bitch”), the threats made (“burn at the stake” vs. “publicly execute”), and the venue in which they appear (Facebook vs. email, for instance) are all crucially important. While 37 states have cyberharassment laws, they are often written to circumvent First Amendment protections (and it remains to be seen whether they will be upheld as constitutional). In addition, victims face issues of jurisdiction, anonymity, and getting law enforcement to take the threats seriously.

CLIP was immensely supportive of this effort and funded the work. I am DELIGHTED that this report is finally coming out and I hope those of you doing research on topics like online harassment, online conflict, revenge porn, cyberbullying, and so forth find it useful.

Please comment or email me if you have feedback!

On online misogyny and sexism

I was on Al-Jazeera English’s social media show, the Stream, yesterday talking about online sexism and backlash against women.

This was my television debut and I was very nervous. TV isn’t like any other form of commentary. You can’t edit what you say, you have to be able to think on your feet and have your talking points down cold. I think I did a good job, but there are a few places where I’d have loved to just be able to write out a big ol’ blog essay instead. The folks at Al-Jazeera were really welcoming and nice and I had a great time. It was also fantastic getting to have a real discussion rather than just a few 10-second soundbites.

Notably, the comments on YouTube are mostly about how there’s no such thing as sexism and feminism is a plot against men. Perfectly proving our point!

On the gender neutrality of language

“The idea that some terms encode a male worldview is initially a puzzling one. One thing that is meant by it is, roughly, that the meanings of certain terms seem to divide the world up in a way that is more natural for men than for women. Good examples of this come from the terms ‘foreplay’ and ‘sex’.‘Sex’ is generally taken to refer to an act that is defined in terms of male orgasm, while the sexual activities during which many women have their orgasms are relegated to secondary status, referred to by terms like ‘foreplay’. These terms, then, can be seen as based in a male perspective on sex. (It is worth noting that the ‘male perspective’ claim need not rest on the (implausible) idea that this perspective is shared by all men. Rather, it can rest on claims about what is typical for men, or on the claim that the only perspective from which certain understandings make sense is a male one.) As a result, these terms may serve as a barrier to accurate communication or even thought about women’s experiences of sex. ”

Jennifer Saul, Feminist Philosophy of Language, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Women Speakers at Technology Conferences

Lately I’ve been paying close attention to just who I’m paying attention to when I go to a tech conference (academic or industry). Places like SXSW are pretty good about gender balance, but others will have panel after panel of white dudes, or at least four white dudes and a white woman.

I was perusing Glenda Bautista‘s blog this morning when I found an old post on a web strategy blog listing Asian/Asian-American potential conference speakers, which I think is a terrific idea.

A list of potential female tech speakers would be a very long list. But while I can think of several female startup heads (Mary Hodder, Dina Kaplan, Gina Bianchini, etc.), generally it’s the young male CEO/CTO/COO’s who land on panel after panel and demo after demo. A recent demo session I went to had 25 companies presenting and not a single woman.

The hand-wringing over “Women in Tech” isn’t the point: there are plenty of women in technology already, and there needs to be a more proactive effort to include them on lists, conferences, panels, et cetera. This is the opposite of tokenism; instead, it’s an attempt to replace the friend-of-friend attitude that has dudes organizing conferences and booking their dude friends on panels. The more visible women in technology, the more younger women will see technology as a space for them.

So: Do we need a list?

(Note that there’s something totally wackadoodle about this blog lately, technically; I’ve been meaning to devote an afternoon to un-gunking it and haven’t had the free time yet. I apologize for the continued broken comments, etc.)

Women of Silicon Valley and Sleeping Your Way to the Top

Owen from Valleywag posted a charming article claiming that Pownce founder Leah Culver slept her way to the top.

If she’s sincere about avoiding fame, Culver will have to reform more than her work life. Granted, San Francisco’s pool of straight men is on the small side. But besides Burka and Fitzpatrick, Culver also dated Cal Henderson, an engineering director at Flickr; MG Siegler, a writer at tech blog VentureBeat; and Nick Douglas, a former editor at Valleywag and Gawker. If she doesn’t want to be famous, Culver might want to take a look at her relentless technosexuality, which more than hints at the acquisition of influence rather than intimacy as its goal.

The misogyny of this article is obvious; I don’t think I need to point out that the men of Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 serial date as much as the women. Since there are fewer women in power in tech than men, this is not usually seen as a way to get ahead. I suppose since it’s no longer considered OK to smear women for having sex lives, Valleywag had to come up with something else to salaciously comment on, namely, this claim that she slept her way to the top.

I think it’s interesting that I hear, over and over again (from women in tech), that there is no sexism in tech, that women in tech have no feminist agenda, and that they want to be judged on their accomplishments. Unfortunately, women are judged on their looks, their sexuality, and their male partners in a way that men are just not, in Silicon Valley as they are in “regular life.” For example, the vitriol directed at, say, Julia Allison is completely disproportional to her actual impact on the technology scene. There are plenty of fame-seeking men in SV, but they don’t get nasty comments on their body and their looks every time they post a narcissistic Twitter.

Full disclosure is that I know everyone involved in this article through my dissertation research (and I think the accusations against Leah are ridiculous).

John Edwards, Bloggers, and Democracy

The recent skuffle over John Edwards’ decision to hire the bloggers behind Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister illuminates the differences between the political blogosphere and the conventional mores of US politics. Bloggers, particularly young, leftist bloggers, tend to be irreverant, personal, and opinionated. US presidential politics tends to the bland and milquetoast – witness Gore distancing himself from Clinton, Kerry distancing himself from the anti-war movement and Bush distancing himself from reality-based thinking- and the kinds of strong opinions found in people’s blog archives aren’t considered appropriate for public consumption. One of the reasons Dean was so popular with the blogosphere was that his blowsy, aggressive rhetoric was in concordance with the way most liberal bloggers viewed Bush at the time.

I’m glad Edwards didn’t bow to extremist pressure and fire Amanda and Shakes, but the fact that both women had to back-pedal and apologize for their previous remarks demonstrates a certain lack of, shall we say, balls on the part of the Edwards campaign.

At some point, people need to call out so-called “Christians” on their involvement in politics while still happily claiming 501(c) status as non-profit, non-political organizations. I fully support your right to worship in any way you want. But legislating religious morality on others, such as the display of the Ten Commandments, outlawing gay marriage, promoting abstinence-only education and campaigning against the HPV vaccine, goes far beyond personal spirituality. My mother is a committed Christian and I was raised Christian; I am not anti-Christian. But I am against strategic promotion of particular political viewpoints under the guise of Christianity.

Bill Donohue may be Catholic, but his group sure doesn’t represent most Catholics, and he’s very selective about which anti-Catholic comments bother him. It’s also clear that “taking offense” is a political strategy. Extremist right-wingers will jump all over any suggestion of leftist bias against Christians, but will ignore Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter’s horribly racist remarks about Muslims, calls for the death of liberals, etc., and will make apologies for charming anti-semites like Mel Gibson.

Here’s a remark from Donahue himself:

“The gay community has yet to apologize to straight people for all the damage that they have done.” – MSNBC, Scarborough Country, 4/11/05

Lovely! What a religious man.

Anyway, getting back to the blogosphere: I finished Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks a few weeks ago and I’ve been musing over his claims that participatory culture will improve democracy. I loved the book and I like all of Benkler’s enthusiasm and positive thinking, but I really don’t think that the blogsophere, especially when he’s mostly talking about Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, is really having an enormous effect on democracy per se.

What’s “democracy”? We don’t live in a direct democracy, we live in a republic. By “democracy”, most people mean “increased participation”. Does the blogosphere actually increase political participation in meaningful ways, or does it just increase the number of people who can talk about politics in the public arena? Sure, I know all the Habermasian theory about the public sphere. But I’m not convinced that political blogging is having an effect that goes deeper than that.

I do think that political blogging is great for investigative journalism of certain topics— although it still requires legitimacy from the mass media in order to have a significant effect. Trent Lott’s pro-segregation remarks, for example, were ignored by the mass media, then harped on by the blogsophere, then picked up by the mass media, then actually impacted him. And now, several years later, he’s in the exact position he was previously in. I also think that political blogging is good for fund-raising and coordinating targeted activist efforts. Although, again, the anti-war movement has been one of the most organized leftist movements of the last two decades and has drawn enormous crowds to huge, record-breaking rallies, and has basically been ignored by the mass media until conventional media polls showed that the majority of Americans agreed with it (and I’m never convinced that pollsters are really getting representative samples; I think they skew too suburban/rural and leave out everyone without landlines, which is all my peer group).

The blogosphere operates in its own rarified atmosphere. Amanda and Shakes’ comments were par for the course for leftist political bloggers. The fact that Edwards was shocked– shocked!– to see such filth coming out of the mouths of nice young women (and let’s face it, the fact that they are women had a lot to do with this supposed offense and shock) just shows how out of touch mainstream politics and “blog politics” are.

Let’s not forget what the real problems in the political system over all the online hype.

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Counterpoint: Newsweek on Marriage

With all the talk in the blogosphere today about the reprehensible Forbes article, I thought I’d accentuate the positive for once and send kudos to Newsweek for its balanced and sensible revisiting of the famous 1986 article that contained the choice quote “women over 40 are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married”. That piece inspired Susan Faludi to write Backlash and became a symbol of how frequently mainstream press misconstrue academic studies (it also, unfortunately, became canon of the 80s: if you’re not married by 40, the conventional wisdom went, you’re SOL).

So great to see Newsweek revisiting that by examining the original study, looking at new studies, and re-interviewing the participants in the 1986 article. Their conclusions?

– Men and women are more likely to marry after 40 than they ever have been before
– College educated women actually have greater chances of getting married than non-college educated women (they do nicely identify that if marriage becomes a class privilege, it contributes to the rich-poor gap as marriage has many financial, child-rearing, etc. advantages, as all those denied that right by virtue of their sexual orientation would agree)
– Trying to predict future behavior based on past demography when you’re looking at rapidly changing social mores is difficult (before 1980, women really didn’t marry much past 40)
– There are plenty of fulfilling life paths for both men and women that don’t include obsessing over marriage

And finally, Newsweek admits to participating in the “trend-spotting and fearmongering that are too often the stock in trade of both journalists and academics”.

But I have to take umbrage with this:

Statistically, people who marry at much higher-than-average ages don’t have lower odds for divorce. But intuitively, some experts are starting to think that later-in-life marriages may have better chances of survival. “It makes sense—if you’re getting married at a later age … you’ll have gone through a lot of relationships, and you’ll know what you want [and] what you don’t,” says Elizabeth Gregory, director of the women’s studies program at the University of Houston and the author of “The New Later Motherhood,” to be published in 2007.

This is a common technique in mass media using social science: Statistically, this is not true. But we think it is, so we’re going to repeat it anyway. This is just a lazy way of repeating conventional wisdom rather than to bother exploring why it might be incorrect.

But otherwise a nice and balanced look at a social construct that we spend way too much time obsessing over to begin with. A great book on this is Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History”— she’s excellent at locating difference historically. Before one gets all up in arms about marrying career women, not marrying career women, working outside the home, not working outside the home, housework, day care, “soul mates”, marrying past 40, marrying before 40, domestic partnerships, gay marriage(*), and any other type of problem that can be analyzed, overanalyzed, and polemicized, let’s keep in mind that marriage is a constantly-changing institution that has meant an enormous array of things over the years. (Marrying for love is about a 200 year old concept, for one thing. And engagement rings were invented by the N.W. Ayer advertising agency working for DeBeers in the 1940s).

* Not to de-emphasize the importance of attaining equal marriage rights in the U.S.

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Terrific blog on sexism in science/tech

After posting my rant about C|Net’s stupid article about women and gadgets, my call for people to write more about sexism in technology was answered with a link to Thus Spake Zuska. Zuska has a BS in Engineering, an MS in nuclear engineering, a PhD in biomedical engineering and a grad certificate in WoSt, and thus is eminently qualified to write about the topic of sexism in the academy and industry.

This blog is HARD CORE and I cannot believe how egregious the practices she writes about are. For anyone who wonders innocently “why aren’t there more women in the sciences?” a brief skim through the front page of this blog alone will answer that. Zuska focuses on sciences in the academy, although we all know that sexism is hardly confined to one particular sphere.

In full disclosure, I am not a scientist, I am a dot.commer (and a humanities major to boot). I’ve been doing dot.com stuff since 1998 (with two summers at Microsoft before that) and I can honestly say that although I’ve generally worked in all- or almost-all male environments, I have rarely if ever experienced outright sexism against me by any of my superiors and co-workers. I could dredge up a few incidents, but they are not representative of my overall experience. (I do understand that many women would not be comfortable working in all-male environments, which in themselves discourage women from the field). But obviously liberal web2.0 companies in Seattle and San Francisco are very different from academic science departments, which are cut-throat and backstabbing to begin with.

I’d be curious to hear from any women engineers about this. Perhaps my experience is because I work in product planning and consulting and researching, which are more female-friendly (I guess). Anyway, read the blog, it r0x0r.

Off to LA tomorrow. Finally met danah last night, and had a nice long talk with Clay Shirky. I have to say that the SF tech world beats the pants off NYC in that department (not in transportation, weather, nightlife or shopping, though).

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c|net: women like shiny things, revisited

I’ve blogged before about my infuriation with technology companies who market to “women” as if they are a monolithic group consisting of mommies and fashion junkies. Today, CNET gets into the action with a really condescending article about women and gadgets. Some choice excerpts:

“It’s increasingly not just about having a gadget, but having a functional product that enhances the life of the family,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group. “The idea that people go online to go shopping–that makes the computer (purchase) something of a household decision. It’s not just guys in charge of the gadgets.”
Gadgets for girls

Whether the wallet is being wielded by a stay-at-home mom, a working woman or any of the other countless variations on the 21st century female, gadget makers are taking note. Major companies including Apple Computer, Motorola, Eastman Kodak, Sony and Nintendo are giving products like cell phones, USB flash drives and handheld game devices bursts of color and graceful lines, and featuring women prominently in ads. Some designers, meanwhile, are developing products with an exclusively female audience in mind.

These “countless variations” are still family-oriented. There are just as many married men as there are married women (duh), but you don’t see articles about gadgets singling out that they are for men– that’s by default, I suppose– or mentioning kids or family responsibilities.

If there’s a theme, it seems women are attracted to portable gadgets like cell phones, digital cameras and notebook computers, which, according to NPD’s Baker, “tend to do better with women than big, desktop, stationary kinds of products.”

No way! Like everyone else? I know that all the men I know would much rather have a giant, heavy boom box than an iPod video.

“Women don’t want anything but an iPod,” she said. “Most of them won’t go outside the iPod circle for an MP3 player.”

Part of the appeal has to do with the abundance of iPod accessories, Hughes says. Another factor? Advertising. “The way that Apple advertises…they advertise hip. It doesn’t seem like a nerdy thing. It’s hip. It’s fashion.”

Thanks Hughes. I hope you’re not getting paid the big bucks for your invaluable consulting advice. The article does gently point out that she’s totally wrong and that there’s no evidence that women purchase iPods more than men do. I would also like to point out that the iPod has major market share in all demographics. Overall, this article completely jettisons any discussion of features, or functionality in favor of vague generalizations about style and design.

The trackbacks and comments are way better, pointing out that it might be nice to focus on women users in all articles, rather than run one of these tired pieces every three months. I’d also like to see more on women technologists in general, about sexism in technology culture, and also on use of technology by actual people, rather than these “consultants” who are totally talking out of their ass making major generalizations about how “women” use technology. Women make up the majority of bloggers and the majority of teens using social software are girls.

Women are more than half the population. Can we please stop talking about women as a monolithic group? Thank you.

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and now a really worthy application of mathematics

This is so gross. Scientists one creepy psychology professor has come up with a formula for “the perfect female bottom”:

The magical figures are (S+C) x (B+F)/T = V. Though the equation looks rather complicated, it is, according to the scientist, simple.

It assesses shape, bounce, firmness and symmetry – all factors that add up to the bottom line.

S is the overall shape or droopiness of the bottom, C represents how spherical the buttocks are, B measures muscular wobble or bounce, while F records the firmness.

God this is disgusting. First, thanks for wasting everyone’s time. I love how social science and the humanities get criticized for doing irrelevant research on “irrelevant” things like porn and reality TV when all these studies on what men find attractive are deemed perfectly relevant.

Second, although this assessment is based on 2000 women’s self-evaluation (BTW, self-reporting is usually deemed suspect in social science) of their butts, the equation basically seems to come up with what kind of ass the psychologist thinks is worth wanking off over. Get this:

“The perfect female derriere has firmness to the touch and a resilience that prevents undue wobble or bounce, yet looks soft with flawless skin,” Dr Holmes said.

“Slender thighs and a hip-to-waist ratio of 0.7 will frame the perfect bum, well perfectly.”

Ugh! Talk about male gaze. Of course nobody is doing studies on what kind of men’s asses women find attractive. You know why? Because it’s stupid, and because, as usual, men’s assessment of women’s body parts is considered completely legitimate. This kind of work is unbelievably objectifying, encourages viewing women as a collection of parts, insults mathematicians doing interesting and intellectually engaging work, and is discouraging to women working in similar academic disciplines.

This research better not be funded.

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