October 17, 2014

Uppity women

The best answer to bad speech is more speech. The best answer to trolls is not to feed them. The best answer to stupid sexist abuse promulgated by a small minority is a mix: report the death and rape threats, ignore the idiots, and tell the rest of the world why they're wrong.

When Suw Charman-Anderson founded Ada Lovelace Day as a blogging campaign, she said on Tuesday night at London's live celebration, she never expected it to spread as it has, with myriad events around the globe and even finding a footing in non-Anglophone cultures. Sampling his year's crop: the Telegraph, the Guardian - twice, the New York Times, and so many more. Two reruns: XKCD, and 2010's net.wars: Sung heroines.

The idea is simple enough: to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This year's London event, held at the Royal Institution, featured eight speakers showing off the fact that there is nothing about the female brain that is unsuited to any of the sciences. Speakers included Turi King, who uses genetics to answer questions in archeology and anthropology and discussed her work identifying the bones of Richard III; the physicist, oceanographer, and bubble scientist Helen Czerski; designer Steph Troeth; and the structural engineer Roma Agrawal, who spent six years designing the foundations and spire for the Shard, the tallest building in Europe.

The great thing about these talks is that they outlined knowledge and achievements that would be impressive and interesting whoever showcased them. The Skeptic in me especially appreciated Czerski's populist approach to showing how basic physics principles can be demonstrated with ordinary household items such as powdered laundry detergent, tonic water, and her skirt, yet appear in myriad phenomena at all scales. We forget, now that many big advances require expensive equipment and trained experts, that vast tranches of science can be discovered and inferred exactly as they were originally. All you need is curiosity and a willingness to investigate beyond typing search terms into Wikipedia, reading the first paragraph, and muttering "tl:dr".

If it were just one day a year, and the organizers had to scour the backwoods of science and technology to find the same old names popping up, Ada Lovelace Day would be a failure. That they *don't* have to do that shows how far we really have come. Although: clearly not far enough if the Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella can still say women shouldn't ask for raises. (His reasoning, by the way, was familiar to me from 1976, when a renowned middle-aged, British male folksinger informed me that I should not approach people for work but should stay home and practice, and when I was ready work would find me.) Nadella rapidly apologized and said he was "completely wrong"; CSMonitor has followed up with an analysis of the company's actual treatment of its female employees, who are 29 percent of the workforce (17 percent of technology).

Relatedly, on October 9, a special "digital women" edition of Teacamp drew dozens. At this event, speakers noted that training more women is important in solving the skills shortage employers complain about. It's true, and yet it's an argument we shouldn't have to make. It's even a little reminiscent of the world wars, when women staffed the factories while men were at the front - only to be sent home again when the men returned.

The rise of US period TV drama set in the 1940s (Manhattan and 1950s (Masters of Sex) is obviously at least partly attempts to copy the success of the 1960s portrayal, Mad Men (see also the failed, short-lived Pan Am and The Playboy Club). But I also have a theory that part of the appeal of these dramas is to people like watching women who aren't so...uppity.

One thing Mad Men has done exceptionally well is show the way sexism changed as women began penetrating the workplace in new, more substantial roles. The early - 1960, 1961 - sexism in the older generation's style was rather paternal (when they weren't actually screwing the secretaries): patronizing, limiting, dismissive, but veneered with politeness. The younger breed (such as Jay R. Ferguson's Stan Rizzo) arrive with a sneer: more overtly hostile and obnoxious. The contrast between the two is mirrored by the difference in response by the parallel generations of women, perfectly encapsulated by Peggy and Joan's elevator scene (Season 4, episode 8, "The Summer Man").

In many ways, Peggy and her real-life counterparts would have loved to have modern women's problems. To break the ground her generation did, they had to seem impervious to both paternalism and hostility while striving to get their abilities to be taken seriously without being damned as "pushy". They are probably grateful not to have faced revenge porn or the hunting packs of social media (though they did face the tabloids), and at conventions being ignored was a bigger issue than being harassed. One day soon a generation will look back on 2014 and wonder the fuss was about. Happy belated Ada Lovelace Day.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.