How Not To Highlight Women In Perl

Here's the short version: gender anonymity is protection, and in a male-dominated community many women prioritize safety. A machine parsible list of female CPAN authors threatens their anonymity even if they're not on it.

Here's the even shorter version: highlighting gender is advanced and should not be done lightly.

A module was recently uploaded to CPAN whose aim was to provide a big list of female CPAN authors. I believe the author had good intentions, or at least nothing more than "I was curious", and has been quite puzzled at the reaction that it's creepy and the requests for it to be deleted. Fortunately, he voluntarily removed the module when asked. Unfortunately, because the community is not well versed in gender politics, this sort of thing is likely to happen again. Here's an opportunity to talk about it so it doesn't.

Yes, I am deliberately not mentioning the module so as not to highlight the data nor embarrass the author further. No, don't link to it in the comments. The module itself is not the point and it would be best if it just quietly disappeared. There is a far larger issue to be discussed here. And please, commenters, if your comment is going to be about "censorship" or "freedom of speech", just move on. Honor the The Other Perl Motto ("try it") and let other people try something without being drowned out by the usual noise this sort of post attracts. If you must, talk about it on your own blog and link to it in the comments. Thank you for your restraint.

While CPAN gender information may be publicly available, its only available in a form which requires each individual human who wants to use that data to laboriously go through each author name and guess their gender. This introduces a barrier to entry to doing things with that data. That barrier cuts both ways. It prevents people from doing good things on a whim, but it also prevents people from doing awful things on a whim.

Putting gender data together in an easily digestible form eliminates that barrier. Unfortunately, in a community which is extremely male dominated, folks are going to assume the primary application is to stalk female CPAN authors, particularly in the wake of the Facebook/Foursquare stalker app. Whether or not it actually happens that is the perception and emotion and real danger for women. There's no amount of good intention that changes that. A bit of demographic data is not worth the damage.

If the intention was to help raise awareness of female CPAN authors and encourage more women to join, it will have the opposite effect. Some will look at it and shrug, but more will see "creeper app". A lot will see it as an involuntary highlighting of their gender, whether or not the actual process is voluntary. Done incorrectly, this causes women more problems in the community as people see them less as Perl people and more as women to either be barraged with "women in open source" issues, or taken advantage of. See also The Unicorn Law where every woman in an Open Source community is expected to represent women and can't just be left to code.

This is one of those situations where the more out of whack gender balance is, the more sensitive we have to be to gender. The less power and representation women have, the more they have to watch out for being taken advantage of. The first thought is protection, and anonymity is protection. Conversely, in a more balanced situation, this might have been acceptable, or at least not immediately called for deletion, or just laughed off. Fix the gender power imbalance, and we can all relax.

There are ways to highlight women correctly, This Is What A Computer Scientist Looks Like is one example: voluntary, empowering, and not useful to creepers (don't take this as a challenge). This is about crafting a message which is welcoming, empowering and safe. Doing this requires a viewpoint that most of us do not have and cannot imagine but we can learn how to be sensitive to it. It is advanced and should not be taken lightly, but it should be taken on... but not by uploading a module to CPAN.

If you're a guy, and you're considering something like this, don't just do the usual thing and hack it together alone on a weekend. Get some people together and talk about it beforehand. Get some public commentary. Get some women to look at it, not just one woman ("my girlfriend said it was ok" does not work), particularly those outside the mainstream community. Most importantly, get women involved and empowered in the project. Maybe give them the reigns to make the big decisions and you handle the grunt work. If you want to do a project to empower women, it helps if you're empowering women within the project.


For me this isn't about gender. I don't care about most of the gender politics issues you mention.

For me this is about privacy generally: taking a private person's personal characteristics and highlighting them without consent. I'd feel the same if it were a list of authors who were short, fat, gay, Christian, black, attractive, ugly, left-handed, color-blind ... whatever. It's all the same to me, and it is violating their privacy.

Alright, first off, I gotta say, I do see a purpose for a left-handed list of authors. This is vital information!

Now that I'm done making an ass out of myself, Schwern, in continuation of our discussion before parting ways, what you're saying resonates deeply. Being able to just be is simply a necessity. No one in the Perl community knows my name, because I'm also someone who views this ability to be anonymous (though recognized) as the way I can be in this community (and in many others).

And pudge, that is a simplified yet strong and true description of the underlying problem, in my opinion. None of this information should matter to any of us, and none of it belongs to anyone but us, whether we be male or female, black or color-blind (but not left-handed - those peeps aren't cool!)

I would like to see the following modules go up (but I'm not that much of an ass to actually do it):

  • Acme::CPANAuthors::Male


None of your fucking business.

  • Acme::CPANAuthors::Female


None of your fucking business.

@Sawyer X -

I think your idea is hilarious, and at the same time it makes a very powerful and important statement. It might even be a good idea. :-)

I wasn't going to create it, I was simply using humor to express my opinion.

Leave a comment

About Michael G Schwern

user-pic Ya know, the guy who tells you to write tests and not use MakeMaker.