Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Thoughts on #metoo

If all women who have been sexually harassed/assaulted wrote "Me too" we might get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.


I write that hashtag with very mixed feelings. Because I know acquaintances, friends, and family members who have been sexually assaulted, and I'm wary of diminishing their pain by lumping their trauma together with the far lesser one of being verbally harassed that I've experienced. And because, perhaps because I've worked most of my adult life in female-dominated professions (publishing; teaching; romance writing), I've not experienced the micro and macro aggressions of daily sexual harassment that many of the people using the #MeToo hashtag write about. I want to support other women in speaking out about their experiences with rape culture, but I don't want to co-opt their struggles or their pain, or claim that I've been its victim except on a small scale.

Yet, I do have memories of being sexually harassed. The one that resonates the most for me is from my early teen years, when I went over to the house of my friend and neighbor on Christmas to check out his holiday haul. Ralph was part of a large Italian family, and many of his relatives had gathered at his family's house for their traditional holiday dinner. As he and I headed upstairs, away from the holiday hubbub, I heard one of his older uncles call out, "Hey, way to go, Ralphie!" The implication being that Ralph was taking me upstairs to make out, or score with me sexually, reducing me to an object of his nephew's desire. This memory stands out for me because it was the first time that I was aware that what I was experiencing was the result of sexism, rather than some out of the blue aggression, someone talking about me as a sexual object, right in front of my face. The incident was upsetting and demeaning, but I felt like I gained some control over it by being able to name it, to label it, to understand that it was not (or not just) about me in particular, but about this larger malignant belief in our culture, this belief that male experiences were of more value than female ones.

So, I'm wondering—when do you first remember not just being the victim of sexual harassment or abuse, but when you were able to understand that you were on the receiving end of a specifically sexist act?

I've also been thinking about being sexually harassed indirectly, through the pages of romance novels. Twentieth-century romance novels have a long history of romanticizing rape, holding up as heroes men who commit violent acts, and women who equate so-called alpha male behavior with caring. Men who beat up the purely evil villains who rape their beloved heroines are the ones that really get on my nerves here; I'm sure you have your own pet peeves. Many proponents of the romance genre argue that it is inherently feminist, because it is a genre for women, by women, and about women, a genre that centers female experiences and concerns. But it is also a genre that has many, many examples, not only in the Old Skool past but also in the present, of idealizing behaviors for which many using the #MeToo hashtag are taking others to task.

In her piece on the #MeToo movement in The Guardian earlier today, Jessica Valenti argues that it's time for women to start making and sharing lists of the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, rather than speaking out yet again about their experiences of being on the receiving end of such harassment and assault.

I've always tried to emphasize the positive on this blog, but perhaps it's time to start making a list of romance novels that do the same.

What books would you put on such a list?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Urge RWA to follow up on "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing"

Last Thursday, The Ripped Bodice, the new romance-only bookstore in Culver City, California, published a fantastic (or, rather, fantastically dismaying)  4-panel infographic entitled "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing 2016." The infographic opens by explaining "It has become abundantly clear that there are racial disparities in mainstream romance publishing. We have found it difficult to continue the conversation without hard data."

Hard data that neither publishers, nor professional organizations such as the Romance Writers of America, have heretofore made the effort to collect or to publicize. So Bea and Leah Koch, owners of The Ripped Bodice, decided to do the research themselves. Taking a page out of the Cooperative Children's Book Center folks, who have been collecting and publishing data on diversity in children's literature since 2002, the Kochs contacted and polled 20 commercial romance publishers, asking them to supply data on how many authors of color their houses published in 2016; collected data on books published from publishers who declined to participate; researched how individual romance authors self-identify, racially; and then compiled and analyzed the resulting figures to present a snapshot of the state of racial diversity in the romance publishing field.

And pretty sad figures they are. The low end of the scale dips distressingly low: 1.8% for Random House; 2.8% for Avon Romance; 3.9% for Berkley; and a dismal 0% for HQN & Tule. The high end is worth noting: 12.2% for Crimson Romance; 17.5% for Forever/Forever Yours; and 19.8% for Kensington. Yet those three presses account for only a small fraction of the larger market, and are the only houses out of the 20 featured whose 2016 titles included at least 10% by of authors of color. Half of the publishers surveyed had fewer than 5% of their books written by people of color.

One of the bigger surprises for me: the low figures from LGBTQ publishers Riptide (1.4%) and Dreamspinner Press (5.8%).

That two bookstore owners, rather than romance's own professional organization, felt the need to take on this work is more than a little sad. I hope members of RWA will urge the organization to work with The Ripped Bodice to build on this preliminary research, so that the group can be an informed, as well as a passionate, advocate for romance authors of color.

In addition to conducting a yearly survey of the state of diversity in commercial romance publishing, RWA seems in the ideal position to gather information on:

     # of POC on the lists of small press publishers
     # of POC as Independent/self published authors
     # of POC Membership in RWA

What other research do you hope RWA (or, in its absence, The Ripped Bodice or some scholarly researcher) will undertake to call attention to the immense racial disparities in the romance field?

You can find the full pdf file of the infographic at the Ripped Bodice store website, here.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Gender Gap in Tech: CD Reiss's KING OF CODE


Whenever my significant other, a tech geek who does advanced computer development and research work, attends an academic or commercial conference, he likes to text me the number of people in the audience at each workshop or presentation he attends. That number is always preceded by a much smaller figure: the number of women in each room. Three out of forty. Two out of twenty-seven. Zero out of sixteen. Two out of 19 on stage during three general session meetings. The only room during the conference that had more women, he tells me, was the one in which the "Women in Tech" breakout session was held.

Such numbers are more than a little disheartening, especially for those who like to believe that gender discrimination is far less of a problem in the workplace than it was 50 years ago, or even 20. In some professional fields, such as law, medicine, and the physical sciences, the gender gap has decreased. But not in computer science. In fact, computer science's gender gap has actually increased since 1984:

Why has women's participation in computer science declined over the past thirty five years? Many different reasons have been proposed: the advent of home computers; computer games that focus on competition rather than collaboration; social discourses that code computers as masculine, just to name a few.

In her latest contemporary romance, King of Code, CD Reiss highlights yet another reason—sexism among male computer coders. Our introduction to the book's narrator, Taylor Harden, comes as he's engaged in sex with the sole female employee in his small computer start-up company, in the company supply closet. After he's finished, Taylor muses about the experience:

Raven looked great walking into the hall after she'd just demanded I rip her apart with my cock. I had no feelings about her whatsoever, and that lack was mutual. Working sixteen-hour days in the same office meant we fucked each other or didn't fuck at all. This was why I didn't hire women, besides the fact that they turned nerd IQ points into premature ejaculations. I usually wound up fucking them. But my lawyer had said to hire one, pay her well, and not fuck her. I'd taken two-thirds of the advice. Raven had needs, same as I did. She was so anti-drama, she practically had a dick. (Kindle Loc 173)

I'd like to believe that Reiss was exaggerating Taylor's sexism for dramatic effect. But my spouse was not at all surprised when I described this scene and others that highlighted Taylor's gender stereotyping throughout the opening pages of the novel. Such overt identification with male goals, male feelings, and the male gaze, and the consequent objectification and denigration of anything labeled female and feminine, are all too prevalent in large swaths of the high tech field, his anecdotal evidence suggests. Especially in smaller start-ups, where work environments can feel more like carry overs from a frat house than professional adult spaces, the idea that women are distracting, dangerous and even a potential legal liability is far too often the norm rather than the depressing exception. To be a King of Code, one must banish all potential queens and princesses from the room.

Taylor's start-up is on the verge of making a big public splash with a new, non-binary, and above all non-hackable computer system: " 'Quantum Intelligence Four is pure virgin code.' It bleeds when breached. We said that a lot around the conference table room, but not in front of Mona Rickard," Taylor notes while giving a tour of the up-until-now highly-secret company to Mona and several other reporters from Wired magazine (281). Computer guys may make sexist jokes, and reinforce gender stereotypes, among themselves, but most know better than to say what they really mean in public, especially where a woman such as Mona might hear:

"You're pretty sure of yourself."
     "I'm sure about these guys on the other side of the door."
     "I hear it's all men."
     "I hire the best regardless of gender."
     "And all the best had dicks?"
     Someone on her team snorted with laughter. The elevator doors opened, and I led the group to the cage doors.
     "Google hires all the girls," I said.
     "I'm sure." She folded her pad and pencil against her chest and smiled. We saw right through each other, but she couldn't print what I wouldn't say. (249)

Male techie contempt for "girls" is an open secret in the high tech community, one that many men have learned to talk around, in order to maintain plausible deniability—and to maintain their all-male privilege.

After such an introduction to the sexist Taylor, (female) readers are primed for him to be on the receiving end of some pretty major payback. And payback comes, early and hard, as Taylor's purportedly un-hackable system is hacked—right in front of the eyes of Wired's reporting team.

Luckily for an enraged, humiliated Taylor, his hacker seems just as cocky as he is, leaving a clue in the text of The Complete Sherlock Holmes posted in the comments section of the hacked code: Geohash coordinates. Taylor knows that wherever those coordinates are pointing, he has go to face his tormenter-hacker and force him to give back the keys to the code he's locked Taylor out of.

Taylor's hardly expecting the geohash coordinates to lead him in Nowheresville in the Great State of Nowhere, USA, i.e., Barrington, a down-on-its-heels town economically reeling after the recent closing of its one remaining major employer, a bottling plant. Barrington must be just a stop on the way to some bigger town, Taylor insists; no way could a person with an IQ high enough to hack Taylor's code live in such a dead-end town.

Neither is Taylor expecting to find a woman like Harper in Barrington, a beautiful, sexy girl ready to help him discover the identity of his hacker. Or is she? Things get a little confusing when Taylor gradually gets beyond his own sexist assumptions to see the truth: Harper is not just physically hot, but smart as hell. In fact, it's she, not some faceless geek guy, who is actually his hacker. And Harper has some prior history with Taylor, history that Taylor, in his blinkered, sexist bubble, has found it far more easy to overlook than Harper has.

Just who is Harper? How does she know Taylor? And what does she want from him and from QI4? Quite a few very important things, it turns out, including economic opportunity, lots of hot sex, and a recognition of the needs of small towns like Barrington, towns often overlooked in our shift from an industrial to a communications/service economy. Not to mention a little bit of self-reflection on Taylor's part about how his bro-dude attitudes towards girls and women are less about a common-sense approach to ridiculously restricting political correctness and more about maintaining a space where men are not forced to confront the discrimination against women both past and present upon which their gender privilege rests:

    "Honestly? Can I say something honestly without you destroying my life?" [says Taylor to Harper]
     "Sure. Why not."
     "If I'd noticed you, I would have fucked the shit out of you."
     "Thanks. I think."
     "And if you were in SanJo when I staffed. . . I might have hired you. But the 'wanting to fuck you' thing would have been a problem."
     Her jaw tightened, and her face hardened as if she didn't believe me.
     "That's not comforting," she said.
     "I didn't say it to comfort you."
     "You need to fix that, Taylor. You need to grow up and stop letting your dick run the show. It's pathetic."
     I'd been told that before, but her disgust sent the message right into me. I was ashamed. Deeply ashamed. I carried my cock as if it was the president of the company, and I didn't make any excuses for it, but now I wanted to curl into a ball and think about all the decisions I'd made because of where I wanted to stick it.
     I'd thought I was making sure the workplace was appropriate, but what I'd done was make it safe for the impulses of the least appropriate person: Me.
     And. . . Raven. Of course I'd made sure there was one consenting partner in the office just for me.
     Nice leadership. Real nice. I didn't blame Harper for being disgusted.
     "Yeah. Well. I guess, when you put it that way, you're right." (2559)

Why does it matter whether women go into computer science or not? Because, as Forbes magazine notes in response to the study put out by Girls who Code that first called attention to the gap in high tech, "that gender gap not only impacts women's career prospects and financial lives, but the U.S. economy as a whole. Keeping women on the sidelines means more computer jobs will go unfilled, reducing innovation and global competitiveness. It is already happening: in 2015, there were 500,000 new computing jobs to be filled but fewer than 40,000 new computer science graduates."

Perhaps after reading King of Code, a few more women might be inclined to pursue such jobs.

And perhaps a few more men might stop standing in their way.

Illustration credits:
Women Computer Scientists: Girls Who Code

Without Women, Computer Coding: Women Who Rock Science Tumblr

Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?: The Atlantic

The Case for Computer Science in the Classroom: Robomatter.com

King of Code
Flip City Media, 2017