In this issue
Issue #24 August 29, 2013 Aug 29, 2013 Aug 29
Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #24 August 29, 2013

Hacked Off

The hacker-activist community seems to leave no safe place for women. Can it grow up?

By Rosie J. Spinks Twitter icon 

When information activist Asher Wolf wrote her blog post “Dear Hacker Community, We Need to Talk,” she wasn’t feeling particularly levelheaded.

“If you look at my Twitter feed during that period,” Wolf says, “it involved me saying ‘f--- you’ over and over to male hackers in the community.”

Wolf, who describes herself as a citizen technologist and internaut, is the founder of CryptoParty, a privacy-education program that teaches people how to use cryptographic tools to secure their online communication. The platform, which was born from a casual Twitter exchange in late summer 2012, quickly went viral.

Despite being passionate about her work and pleased about CryptoParty’s success, Wolf was fed up. This wasn’t the first time she had noticed different treatment in the hacker space due to her gender. She’d already experienced a huge shift when she removed the gender ambiguity of her pseudonym, Asher Wolf, by changing her Twitter avatar to one with female attributes. But this marked the first time she’d acted on her disgust.

After working on CryptoParty for months, Wolf used her “Dear Hacker Community” post — published in late December 2012 — to announce that she was quitting her role as CryptoParty’s organizer. She cited as the main reason the “sexism and unacceptable behaviour,” including stalking, doxxing,1 and the unbridled hurling of sexist obscenities, from some of the people involved with running Cryptoparty chapters.

“Inequality doesn’t just spring up without a context,” Wolf wrote in her post. “And women don’t just opt out of hacking and hacker communities because of the tired rhetoric ‘maths and hacking is boys’ business.’ No, women stay the hell away from hacker spaces, conferences, and tech initiatives because of ongoing experiences of misogyny, abuse, threats, put-downs, belittlement, harassment, rape.”

She published her post on the same day as the annual Chaos Communication Conference, an international hacker conference in Hamburg, Germany, but it wasn’t intended as a commentary on that event. When a featured speaker, who was unaware of Wolf’s blog entry, mentioned her work favorably in his talk, her post began trending on Twitter. One of Wolf’s colleagues explains that the impact was akin to “letting off a flash grenade in a pond.”

“I got 44,000 hits on my Web site that day,” she says in an interview. “It was overwhelming — I was front page of Hacker News and I got called a troll. But the truth is I didn’t have an ideal outcome in mind when I wrote it. I wrote it because I was angry.”

And when it came to what her online tormentors were willing to target, Wolf said nothing was off limits.

“What I found they went for was the lowest target, which was my son,” Wolf says. “Quite often, they’d say things like, ‘Wait you tweeted for X amount of hours today — who looks after your son?’ Well, frankly, it’s none of your business, and I didn’t ask who looked after your son today.”

Barriers to entry

Wolf is far from alone in her disillusionment with the male-dominated hacker space and the tech world at large. For her, the outrage her blog post elicited is indicative of the generally fraught relationship between women and tech. The US tech sector largely eschews boardrooms and hierarchy; CEOs wear hoodies, not suits. With so many of the world’s major industries still run by white men, one might think that if any field could buck that trend, it would be tech.

This, however, doesn’t ring true in the tech world at large — where women in the United States held only 25 percent of professional IT-related jobs in 2009, down from 36 percent in 1991 — or in the more insular world of hacktivism. But while the small numbers of women getting tech degrees or obtaining IT/programming jobs may contribute to both the under-representation and the hostile treatment of women in the hacker space, it doesn’t seem to explain it completely. After all, this is a culture in which it’s often more sensible for a woman to pretend, as Wolf once did, that she’s not a woman at all.

“The more I reached out into the world through blogging and attending conferences, the more my gender began to play a part,” she says. As male colleagues learned her gender, she says many interacted with her differently than they once had.

Nowhere is evidence of this anti-female ethos easier to find than in the Internet’s most high-profile and highly organized subverters: the hacktivist group Anonymous. Anonymous’s roots lie in the profane message board known as 4chan, where jokes about rape, porn, and homosexuality are for nothing other than the “Lulz,” or gratuitous laughs. When 4chan factions morphed into Anonymous, the entity gradually gained a political activist-minded consciousness.

Anonymous has always been a shifting entity, defined by whoever decides to participate on any given day, making proper accountability nearly impossible. Using devious tactics and a middle-school sense of humor (such as sending hundreds of unpaid-for pizzas to a target’s address), the amorphous group carries out a diverse range of well-publicized actions (or “AnonOps”), such as targeting the Church of Scientology’s Dianetics hotline or impinging on the operations of PayPal after it suspended payments to Internet messiah Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.

“Kat” is a member of Anonymous and a self-described online activist. (She notes that she does not break into systems, nor does she approve of illegal tactics, so she demurs at the term “hacktivist.”) Her induction into the group happened on an IRC channel (an internal chat room) where much of Anonymous’s self-organization plays out.

Four years on, her gender is now known to most in the community, but she says that for females starting out, the choice to be open about their gender is likely to invite trolling. She cites the crass ultimatum of “show me your tits or get the f--- out” as a common rite of passage for many new female users in IRC rooms.

“I know some females who have shown themselves because that’s part of their personality — they don’t care either way and see it as just a body part,” Kat says. “And then there are some that do it because maybe they want people to like them. It’s usually the ones that do it because they want people to like them that end up not necessarily earning respect.”

Straight white males only

Adrian Chen, a journalist who covers Anonymous and hacktivism extensively for Gawker, believes that the Anonymous demographic — as well as its most influential members and Twitter account controllers — are “overwhelmingly male white twenty-somethings.” He isn’t convinced that adding more female members to Anonymous’s hive mind would be enough to reverse the organization’s core ethos.

(On a recent evening, Kat counted the female members in the IRC channel she was connected to. Out of 40 to 50 Anons, she counted seven known females, a number she knew to be quite high compared to other servers.)

Chen sees Anonymous as a direct descendant of hacker culture, a male-dominated space where “showing off, screwing with people, pranks, and being very aggressive and sardonic” are de riguer. For that reason, he says, it’s no surprise that a female entering this space might find her gender being used against her.

While the “brogrammer” culture of Silicon Valley makes sense when viewed in the context of inherent male privilege, Anonymous’s misogyny seems somewhat incongruous. It is, after all, an organization that bills itself as inclusive, transparent, grassroots oriented, and non-hierarchical, and yet, it uses tactics and language that are deeply offensive and alienating for essentially anyone who is not a straight white male.

Aminatou Sow is the co-founder of Tech Lady Mafia, an online platform for female hackers, programmers, developers, and the like to cross-pollinate ideas and raise the profile of women in the technology sector. As someone who advocates against the marginalization of women in the tech world at large, Sow finds the blatancy of Anonymous’s misogyny a challenge.

“With Anonymous it gets really dicey because it’s this behemoth that looks different every day and so intentions are not clear,” she says. “For a lot of us that work in social justice, that’s really problematic.”

Sow believes that the ethos underpinning technology and specifically hacktivism — which values self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and, above all, subversion of the status quo — contributes to a culture of entitlement, one in which white males already have a huge leg up.

“I think that sexism is more blatant in tech because the technology world believes that it’s a meritocracy,” Sow explains. “The number one resisting factor I hear all the time is bros saying, ‘I worked really hard to be here, and if everybody worked as hard as me, they would also be here.’ The problem is they don’t fully understand how ‘hard work’ looks different for a woman or for a person of color.”

Revenge of the nerds

Gabriella Coleman holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, where much of her research focuses on Anonymous. She says that despite Anonymous’s origins, it’s dicey to stereotype its members as engaging in a kind of white male nerds’ revenge.

“If we are going to critique gender dynamics, as I feel we must, stereotyping hackers as sickly pathological narcissists is something that must be avoided,” Coleman explains via email. “All too often, this is the picture that gets painted instead of looking at the structural barriers within and outside of these domains.”

Coleman says that one of the reasons gender inequality seems especially rampant in the non-hierarchical structure of Anonymous has to do with its sovereignty from any form of governance or regulation. Unlike what would be required in a Silicon Valley corporation, there is no “mechanism to redress inequality” built in, such as an enforced anti-harassment policy or a diversity office — nor is there any culture of accountability.

Many in the tech industry can relate to this experience when they attend conferences, some of which also operate without any sort of established policies of inclusion. Such events have historically suffered from a similarly gender-disproportionate speaker and attendee list. Asher Wolf notes that at Ruxcon 2011, a Blackhat Infosec conference in Melbourne, Australia, she was one of just six women in a crowd of a thousand. Blow-up dolls, booth babes, and lunchtime trips to strip clubs often serve as an IRL manifestation of what one might have found on the boards of 4chan.

Power shift

While improving the gender ratio of tech conferences has a more clear-cut answer — both Sow and Wolf personally ask their friends and colleagues to refuse invitations to speak on panels which include few or no women — the amorphous “hive mind” of Anonymous is nearly impossible to influence externally. There are, however, hints of change.

Chen recently wrote at Gawker about a high-profile AnonOp; his piece was partially responsible for helping law enforcement bring two teenage rapists to justice in a highly publicized trial in Steubenville, Ohio. This, Chen wrote, represented Anonymous’s broader “turn towards fighting rape and cyberbullying, an odd reformation for a group that started on 4chan.”

Wolf believes the number of women that are active in Anonymous may grow, abetted by well-publicized ops like the one above. This starts to erode the idea of it as explicitly anti-women. She points to the fact that several of the last few major AnonOps were run by women, and that it is possible that there are many more who are leaving their gender out of their actions altogether for fear of being ostracized or having their hacking work diminished.

“I think there are a lot of successful Anonymous ops that have been run by women,” she says. “However, I often think women step back from the limelight because their sexuality is used as a weapon against them when they become public figures. It’s why real anonymity is so important: it provides people with a voice that is often threatened by their day-to-day personal circumstances.”

Wolf points to something that perhaps lies at the root of the problem: by necessity, many women in the hacker space have grown accustomed to accommodating a culture that isn’t particularly accommodating to them.

Kat shows this when she speaks of Anonymous’s internal lexicon, in which calling someone “new-fag” is just the same as calling them “the new guy.” She never uses this language either on- or offline, but admits that she is no longer bothered by it either.

“I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten used to it or because I know the people who are using it don’t mean it that way,” she says. “It’s taken away the negativity of the word.”

It’s a troubling status quo: in order to effectively do their jobs and not be fighting a constant battle, women in this space must either remain genderless or prove they are undeterred by rampant abuse until it finally (hopefully) relents. All this to attain something that male members have at go: a chance to be taken seriously.

There are plenty of admirable and effective movements designed to help girls get into the tech world at large, but entry into groups like Anonymous, by definition, must happen organically. And yet, it’s unclear whether a mere increase in numbers would change the underlying ethos that is so alienating to many females. But Sow believes that being outspoken about the challenges of being a woman in this space has the potential to change the consciousness.

“Representation is the issue — it’s true that there are not a lot of women, but what is even more true is that we’re not telling women’s stories,” Sow says. “It behooves us to make sure the world knows that women are the ones doing this too. I think there’s something about it that’s paradigm shifting — about letting people know that women are capable of this kind of work.”

Illustration by Amy Crehore2.

  1. Doxxing is the publication of details about someone, such as a home address, social security or national ID number, or other information that could be used for harassment. 

  2. Oregon artist Amy Crehore creates fine-art paintings, book covers, a children’s book, art ukeleles, and more. Her illustrations have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Business Week, Esquire, GQ,, the New York Times, and many other publications. 

Rosie Spinks is a Los Angeles-born, London-based freelance journalist and storyteller. Insatiably curious and optimistic, she writes about sustainability, women's issues, social justice, tech, culture, and design for outlets such as GOOD, Dwell, EcoSalon, The Ecologist, and Sierra Magazine. She loves keeping things simple and hates staying in one place.

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