When I fly, I often do so with Continental Airlines because 1) I tend to like their international flights 2) they have many flights at convenient times to San Juan, PR where I head to around 4-6 times a year.
Like most airlines, their food is nothing to be desired but their gluten free option is about some of the worst food I have ever tasted. The chicken is cooked to death but otherwise entirely buck naked. Like there is nothing on it, they throw some rice in the container, and sometimes (and only sometimes) a packet of Mrs. Dash. The best part of the meal, is a coconut macaroon. After about five years of this meal (usually putting it to the side but sometimes forgetting my food and suffering from hunger) I decided it was high time to take action; I could no longer confront the bleak reality of nude rubbery chicken. So I wrote them letter.
I kept it brief and knew boring would not advance My Cause, so I just decided to add some rhetorical flourish and, naturally who else came to mind than the grand master of rhetorical flourish, Mr. T. After providing the basics, like describing the truly offensive nature of nude and rubbery chicken, I drove the nail deep into wood by stating : ‘I pity the fool’ that has has to survive through their gluten free meal and that naked chicken sucked more than the word “suck” could ever really convey (though I did duly note my appreciation for the gluten free option and that I generally liked their service).
After sending off the letter I forgot about it almost immediately nor did I fly with them again for many months (not because I boycotting, I just found cheaper flights). I recently flew to Puerto Rico and lo and behold have found the gluten free option has taken a drastic turn … for the better. In fact, not only was the chicken no longer naked it was… in fact, fully clothed, blackened chicken, spiced to no end. And the cherry on top was a gluten free blueberry muffin and some nice fruit. Go Continental.
I will never know if my letter touched the soul of some Continental office employee, working in some nameless faceless, practically windowless office park, one whose life of labor is a bit like that gluten free chicken that I so despised, rubbery and naked, in other words with no flavour or spice. But I will forever think that a dash of spice, that with the aid of the badassery that is Mr. T, one can lightly kick corporate ass to take action.
I came across this quote while wrapping up Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, one of my favorite books on the craft of writing. The quote is remarkable not only for its content, which is spot on, but its.. clarity and grace:
The secret of the enjoyment of pleasure is to know when to stop … We do this every time we listen to music. We do not seize hold of a particular chord or phrase and shout at the orchestra to go on playing it for the rest of the evening; on the contrary. However much we may like that particular moment of music, we know that its perpetuation would interrupt and kill the movement of the melody. We understand that the beauty of a symphony is less in these musical moment than in the whole movement from beginning to end. If the symphony tried to go on for too long, if at a certain point the composer exhausts his creative abilities and tries to carry on just for the sake of filling in the required space of time, then we begin to fidget in our chairs, feeling that he has denied the natural rhythm, has broken the smooth curve from birth to death, and that though a pretense of a life is being made, it is in fact a living death.
Alan Watts, The Meaning of Happiness.
Whenever I attend Debconf, the first day is always a bit disorienting due to the confluence of jet lag with the sea of male programmers swarming at the venue. I am not sure I should be admitting this but one of the first things that pops to mind is the very cheesy one hit wonder whose video is filled with many bikini clad men, Its raining men.
So for a few hours, maybe a day, I sometimes feel out of place but this this first wave of discomfort usually gives way to comfort. This is not only because I connect with friends but because Debconf as well as many other hacker events—and this sits in marked contrast to professional academic conferences—are remarkably accepting of diversity and difference, at least that has been my personal experience. Most notably, people could care less about how you look, disabilities are consistently accommodated, and some things, like gender changing, which would raise serious eyebrows for instance in most academic conferences, is accepted with next to no gossip.
I raise this because this is how I personally have experienced the world of Free Software: overwhelming male but overwhelming accepting of difference as well. So even while I think it is key to confront the problems of discrimination in this world, it is not a simple story, for again, it is an environment that is also accommodates difference and quirkiness to some notable degree.
The question of gender in F/OSS is complicated one and here I am not going to ruminate on sources of gender bias except to say that I am sure there are some in operation (as there are in most domains)–some of which are internal to Free Software and other’s external to Free Software. But what I have been struck by, especially over the course of the summer, is the explosion of sites, blogs, and debates that have confronted gender in Free Software. It has been nothing short of astounding and a really positive turn.
The most notable example is this AWEEEEEEEEEEESOME pair: a wiki and a blog that confront gender head on. These are notable because the wiki, for example, catalogs all sorts of controversial events, comments on them, leaving a very visible trace of debate, one that is necessary to change the gender make-up and dynamic within Free Software project.
Along with these, the FSF is finally hosting a min-summit, which is great (less great is that participation seems invite only but perhaps they have some good reasons for doing so). And today I just learned of this diversity page coming out the Python project.
These are perfect examples of the recursive public in action raised in Chris Kelty’s work. And I have long been impressed with the dialogue that has followed from some controversial events in the world of Free Software, including those related to gender and this summer seems to be a watershed of sorts and I look forward to their developments over time.
Indeed and this may be controversial as well, but I think my academic field—of media, law, and culture –has something to learn from these gender politics for there are some very real, though probably unintentional forms of discrimination that are not under that much active discussion.
The most glaring problem is the underwhelming presence of female scholars during conferences (and as we know, conferences are exceedingly important for one’s professional development and career). What I find most striking about this trend is the number of female scholars is significant. That is, when it comes to scholars and this seems different from the world of tech, there is a sizable community of women scholars and activists so when there is a 5% female participation , as for example, with this event, one has to wonder why is it raining men at these conferences?
It also seems that while the debate exists, it is not as vibrant as with what is going on right now in F/OSS. Take for example, this recent mailing list post which unapologetically highlighted the lack of female presence in the up and coming Free Culture event at the Berkman Center.
While the post generated a handful of thoughtful responses, including this supremely classic, biting, and quite clever response from Georgetown professor Julie Cohen, the debate did not linger on (however short, the posts and discussion were quite fruitful).
What to do? Frankly, blame and finger pointing are pretty counterproductive, mostly because the “discrimination” is quite unintentional and I believe change can be brought about via more constructive paths. More important is we need to make the issue visible, identify some possible sources, and then create projects that can remedy the problem. Along with Elizabeth Stark, who has also been keen to note and change the gender problems, I am currently whipping together a wiki with a list of female scholars, leaders, and technologists as a resource for folks organizing conferences. We already have a base list (with a remarkably long list of folks) and will hopefully in the course of the next month throwing it up on the wiki. I don’t think it will ever be as cool as the Geek Feminism Wiki but it will hopefully do some good!