We Have Always Been Here

It was 1981. I sat in a corner of my pre-teen bedroom, hiding. The book was Andre Norton’s Lore of the Witch World, full of dark bargains, sacrifice, and betrayal. It was still preferable to the world outside its covers. It was the book with which I graduated from the myth and fairy tales that children read without any idea of genre alliance to “grown up” F&SF. It was the book with which I became a fan.

I went on to read the classics and eagerly wait for new releases. I discovered cons, attended, cosplayed before the term was common in U.S. fandom, was an extra in an attempt at a fan-made film before the days of digital movies or YouTube, sat on panels, moderated panels, hosted room parties, wrote original fiction, worked it through with a writers group, read it live, was published in a professional SF venue.

It was 1982. We were late adopters, picking up the Atari 2600 after the 5200 was released. We’d had a Super PONG system for a while, though I’m not sure how long. There’s only so much to remember about a system where changing games mostly meant changing the size of your uni-dimensional “paddle”. The 2600 was different, though. We played the hell out of the few games we could afford: Frogger, Kaboom!, Pac-Man. We never did get Dig Dug, though. That still required quarters and leaving home.

From there, it was games on the Atari computer, then Macs, then Amigas, then Macs again. When I didn’t have the money for the computers that played fancier games, a friend usually did. The PlayStation 2 marked the return to consoles—and beginning of the end of high-end games being ported to or developed for Macs. These days, there are Flash, phone, and tablet games too. There have been puzzle games, strategy games, adventure games, platformers, third-person and first-person shooters, and hybrids of all of these.

It was 1985. I had used punch cards as my scratch paper most of my life, but no one had suggested I learn programming myself. BASIC was my first opportunity to take a class. I took it. I aced it. I asked for and received extra assignments because I finished mine more quickly than the rest of the class. I traced contingencies, debugged, and learned to model what my code was doing.

When I got to college, I ran into a roadblock with a Pascal class that assumed knowledge not taught on campus, but programming has never been far from my professional life. I’ve written countless queries and drafted algorithms for programmers who took the final step of turning it into code. I’ve built complicated logic into Excel spreadsheets, creating modelers responsive to changing assumptions and conditions. When a prospective employer asked whether I could code in VBA, I said, “Yes”, having tweaked enough of other people’s code to be comfortable learning the rest on the job. We both more than agree that I was right. Now I’m looking for a project that will motivate me put my theoretical Java knowledge to practical use.

I’ve spent decades now in spaces that women are supposedly only recently entering or trying to enter. I’ve resided all this time in places men claim I now want to usurp from them.

I shouldn’t have to say that I wasn’t the only woman in these communities, but I will anyway, because apparently it’s required. Other women have always been my companions through this. We have read and written and squeed together. We have played games together. We have written algorithms and programmed together. Always.

I shouldn’t have to say that I and my peers weren’t pioneers, but I will anyway, because apparently it’s required. Lore of the Witch World was a collection of stories set in a world nearly a decade old when I was born, and Andre Norton had been published for decades before that. She was writing in a genre pioneered by a woman, a genre filled with women even when they had to disguise their feminine names as Norton did.

The fandom in which I found myself had always been organized by women. They may not have been the majority, but they were always central—to conventions, to fan writing, to zines, to filk, to cosplay before it had any name at all, to fic, to slash, to organizing fans. Women were behind the campaign to keep Star Trek on the air when NBC threatened to cancel it.

Women have played video games as long as they’ve had access. Ms. Pac-Man was an attempt to cash in on the already-existing love of Pac-Man among female gamers. One of the first video-game songs was “Space Invader”, sung by Chrissie Hynde.

Women have been programming as long as there has been programming. Algorithms, ENIAC, UNIVAC, English-language programming—all of this was created by women. I don’t mean that they contributed alongside men. I mean that individual women and teams of women did this work. Period. Back in the days before we had standard hardware and intuitive languages and good debugging tools and big libraries of code available to us with an electronic search, women were the people who did all of our computer programming. Women developed the field of computer programming.

So what the hell happened? How did we end up in a world where men get paid to write whiny, ahistorical media pieces about how women are presumptuously beating at the doors to their clubhouses?

Two things happened. The first is simply that the contributions of these women were, by and large, never written into history in the first place. It’s easier to lose what you never celebrated or recorded.

The other thing that happened, however, is that these activities became more valuable. F&SF films own the box office these days, and 2014 New York Comic Con had a population higher than that of 24 states’ capital citiesVideo games are approaching movies both in number of consumers and in revenue. There is so much money in the tech industry that people can’t seem to find enough sensible things to spend it on (though no doubt biases dictate that many worthy projects still go unfunded).

When that happens, the gender dynamics in a space change. Valuable spaces are redefined as male spaces. The women within them are redefined as oddities and interlopers.

This process has been well-documented in programming spaces. In his book, The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger showed how male programmers used a call to “professionalism” to declare that the women who had built the field were unsuited to it.

Eager to identify talented individuals to train as computer programmers, employers relied on aptitude tests to make hiring decisions. With their focus on mathematical puzzle-solving, the tests may have favored men, who were more likely to take math classes in school. More critically, the tests were widely compromised and their answers were available for study through all-male networks such as college fraternities and Elks lodges.

According to Ensmenger, a second type of test, the personality profile, was even more slanted to male applicants. Based on a series of preference questions, these tests sought to indentify job applicants who were the ideal programming “type.”

That type was the geek who preferred social isolation. The same stereotype is currently used to tell girls and young women that they don’t really have an interest in programming and adult women that they’re a poor “cultural fit” for one of today’s most lucrative creative jobs. This is the reverse of the process that took teaching and clerical work from engines of economic and social advancement for educated men and turned them into poorly paid pink-collar jobs today.

The processed of turning F&SF and gaming into male-identified spaces was different, mostly involving advertising that elided female fans of both. We’re not talking mere subtle biases, either, though those play a role. We’re talking about executives stating outright that they don’t want female audiences.

This happened in organized atheism as well (where I am more of a newcomer myself), with the women who built and ran and wrote and sued for the early atheist movement eclipsed when atheism became culturally relevant enough that several male authors came together as the “Four Horsemen”, anointed “thought leaders”. Atheism became a brand, and that brand was male. According to the media, it remains that way three years after the death of one of those original horsemen, even though the base reality is different.

We women have always been here, in all these communities. The number of us in any given space has changed over time, but the fluctuations aren’t due to any inherent lack of interest on our part. We’ve been welcomed, though not necessarily rewarded, when our work has been wanted. We’ve been subject to gatekeeping methods from invisibility to harassment when the rewards of participation have increased. But we have always been here.

We aren’t interlopers in your spaces, guys. They weren’t yours to begin with, and many of us have been here since before many of you were born. All your tears over having to share only serve to remind us how little you know about these communities you claim to love.

We Have Always Been Here

15 thoughts on “We Have Always Been Here

  1. 1

    If you remember Sierra Games (Gabriel Knight, Where is Carmen San Diego, King’s Quest, etc) it was run by women, and women designed and developed most of those great games of the 80s.

  2. 2

    This, by the way:
    Essential facts about the computer and gaming community

    It’s really really interesting stuff. I’ve had a number of fun discussions with “hard core gamers” and tried to get them to define what “hard core gaming” is. Usually it boils down to: “plays a lot” Oh, so Candy Crush players are the world’s most “hard core gamers”? It quickly becomes circular: hard core gamers are hard core because they play hard core games. What is a hard core game, you ask? It’s what hard core gamers play!

  3. 4

    This is a well-written article, and it deserves to get plenty of links to it. It says things that need to be said.
    However, it could use a bit of proofreading first.
    “This is the reverse of the process took teaching and clerical work”

    Sorry, I’ve been grading essays all week.

  4. 5

    It’s always worth it to note the effect of the Video Game Crash of 1983. Up to that point, Atari (an American company) had been dominating the market. At the end of the crash, Nintendo moved into the void. And while I refuse to state that Japan is ‘more’ patriarchal/sexist than the U.S., those forces manifest themselves differently in Japan. And one thing that happened is Nintendo very deliberately decided to not include girls or families in their marketing strategy. It was all about directly targeting boys.

  5. 6

    Fixed, brucegee1962. Thanks.

    freemage, Atari basically pioneered entitled brogrammer culture. Atari Game Over makes a very good case, albeit unintentionally, that it’s what killed the company. It would be interesting to compare their advertising to Nintendo’s, though.

  6. 7

    SVan@#6 – NPR Planet Money did a pretty good show on gender differences in programming.* I think they oversimplify the situation but what they describe is a perfect storm of marketing combining with the creation of a new industry and America’s tendency to favor men as ‘entrepreneurs’

    There are a lot of horrible ads from the 1970s e.g:

    And everyone’s favorite serial rapist:

    And everyone’s favorite serial sexual assaulter at conferences not named Ben:

    This one takes the cake: Stevie Wonder, “if I could play computer games, I’d play Atari”

    (* http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding )

  7. 12

    Thanks for writing this. You sound like you got a few years head start on me. But there are a lot of similarities as well. I went from The Velveteen Rabbit to A Spell For Chameleon and it was a Commodore 64 I stayed with until everyone else was well into 486’s. I actually didn’t do anything serious on computers until the late 90’s when I picked up Linux and ran with it.

    Partway into that I met my first Linux expert: a woman who set me straight about a couple things. That may not sound like much but they were tasks that were frustrating me and holding me back from learning other things. If I’d gotten a bit more frustrated and stopped learning there I never would have started a career in IT. And that would have strongly impacted several other people who I’ve helped in significant ways since. I wish I could say she was one of them but unfortunately she got into a complicated personal situation with a manipulative jerk and wasn’t working anymore last I knew.

  8. 14

    Would you believe I am practically in tears at finding someone who even knows who Andre Norton is? I too grew up reading her stuff, only a couple of years ahead of you. She and Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall books (which I liked far better than the Dragonrider stuff) gave me a window into a much different sort of thing from what people like Heinlein, Tolkein and so forth produced. And for a physically isolated rural teenager with unrecognized gender issues, that counted for a lot.

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