Women, knowledge, technical fields and the Hacker Ethic

Stacy Thayer, one of the Security Twits that I follow, posted a blog entry regarding an encounter she had with some neanderthal at RSA 2008. Quite frankly, it made me shake my head. The idea of judging someone’s knowledge based on their body parts is far too common in some technical circles, and what drives me nuts is that it often happens to people who tout the “hacker ethic”.

As a brief side, the Hacker Ethic was a term coined by Steven Levy in his excellent book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (If you haven’t read this book and are involved in IT, click the link and order it. Now. Go ahead, we’ll wait. Back? Cool.). One of the key points that I always feel is one of the great equalizers in computers is the fact that people are often accepted by their knowledge, rather then their position or their alphabet soup after their name. (However, they are not mutually exclusive)


The ready acceptance of twelve-year-old Peter Deutsch in the TX-0 community (though not by non-hacker graduate students) was a good example. Likewise, people who trotted in with seemingly impressive credentials were not taken seriously until they proved themselves at the console of a computer. This meritocratic trait was not necessarily rooted in the inherent goodness of hacker hearts–it was mainly that hackers cared less about someone’s superficial characteristics than they did about his potential to advance the general state of hacking, to create new programs to
admire, to talk about that new feature in the system.

This is often a very common theme technical circles. Unless, of course, you seem to of the female persuasion at which point it seems to be thrown out the window. I really experienced this in college. The handful of women in our classes were leered at, harassed, and generally made uncomfortable by some of our more “vocal” geeks who probably thought that it was some part of the mating ritual. To be 100% honest, I was dismissive of some of them until I came to the conclusion they could hold their own. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with some talented women, some of who can kick my ass technically.

The computer industry is very male dominated. Conferences have booth babes and the likes of Vanna Vinyl, which I’m sure doesn’t encourage women to get involved in the field. However, shouldn’t people who subscribe to the hacker ethic start equally applying it equally to both sexes?

Also, since we’re on the topic:

Talented Women in Computers who’s weblogs I read, and so should you: