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April 25, 2013

[eim][misc] Too big to categorize

Amanda Filipacchi has a great post at the New York Times about the problem with classifying American female novelists as American female novelists. That’s been going on at Wikipedia, with the result that the category American novelist was becoming filled predominantly with male novelists.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the dumb sexism that thinks that “normal” novelists are men, and thus women novelists need to be called out. And even if the category male novelist starts being used, it still assumes that gender is a primary way of dividing up novelists, once you’ve segregated them by nation. Amanda makes both points.

From my point of view, the problem is inherent in hierarchical taxonomies. They require making decisions not only about the useful ways of slicing up the world, but also about which slices come first. These cuts reflect cultural and political values and have cultural and political consequences. They also get in the way of people who are searching with a different way of organizing the topic in mind. In a case like this, it’d be far better to attach tags to Wikipedia articles so that people can search using whatever parameters they need. That way we get better searchability, and Wikipedia hasn’t put itself in the impossible position of coming up with a taxonomy that is neutral to all points of view.

Wikipedia’s categories have been broken for a long time. We know this in the Library Innovation Lab because a couple of years ago we tried to find every article in Wikipedia that is about a book. In theory, you can just click on the “Book” category. In practice, the membership is not comprehensive. The categories are inconsistent and incomplete. It’s just a mess.

It may be that a massive crowd cannot develop a coherent taxonomy because of the differences in how people think about things. Maybe the crowd isn’t massive enough. Or maybe the process just needs far more guidance and regulation. But even if the crowd can bring order to the taxonomy, I don’t believe it can bring neutrality, because taxonomies are inherently political.

There are problems with letting people tag Wikipedia articles. Spam, for example. And without constraints, people can lard up an object with tags that are meaningful only to them, offensive, or wrong. But there are also social mechanisms for dealing with that. And we’ve been trained by the Web to lower our expectations about the precision and recall afforded by tags, whereas our expectations are high for taxonomies.

Go tags.

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February 19, 2013

What’s not ok even with the door closed

Sarah Parmenter has posted about just how ugly it gets for women in tech. She recounts a horrifying story about how as a speaker at a tech conference she was methodically assaulted online. I want to believe that this was a rare and random act, but apparently it happens more than we know because it’s not something generally the victims want to get yet more publicity about.

Thanks to the rise of feminism, the change in behavioral norms over the past 50 years has eliminated many of the superficial, public expressions of misogyny. Not all, of course, but in the circles that I’ve moved in, the change has been noticeable. There are many fewer casual male expressions of discomfort around women, many fewer belittling or sexually objectifying comments. That’s good, but it doesn’t tell us if private expressions have changed, and, more important, how thoroughly the disempowering assumptions and structures are being undone. (And, yes, I know that I must certainly be blind to my own pernicious assumptions.)

For example, I remember in the late 1990s going on a media call to the Boston Globe with a group of male developers with whom I worked. The reporter had some cutting questions about the utility of the software and about competitive threats. The five of us walked quietly back to our car, but as soon as the door was closed, the guys had a good time dismissing the editor’s comments because “she must be on the rag.” Also, she was attractive and several of the lads expressed a desire to relieve her of the stress that brought her to under-appreciate our offering. Needless to say, not only were the editor’s comments perceptive and accurate, had they come from a man we would have taken them as a conversational challenge to which we would have risen, rather than as dismissing them as carping by a bitchy, hormonally-prejudiced girl.

These were young techie men who I’m sure sincerely supported gender equality policies. The degree of their discomfort and, yes, loathing of women had never manifested itself before. This was not acceptable banter, any more than, say, racist comments would have been. Yet when the door was closed and it was just us guys, it might as well have been 1950. I was shocked.

I have to say that I haven’t seen that sort of behavior among men with the doors closed since then. I don’t know if that incident was anomalous, or if I happen to travel in circles that don’t tolerate that type of sexism, or at least don’t tolerate the overt display of it. Or maybe as I’ve become old, my presence drives all the boyish “fun” out of the room — you can’t really talk about girls when Dad is in the room. I’d like to think we’ve changed. But it’s so hard to know what goes on behind closed doors.

Until someone opens them, even at personal cost. So, thank you, Sarah.

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