Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Witches and Wizards and Women in Tech

I promised more on women in technology, but I'll set that aside for a moment to broaden the discussion. Is female representation still an issue? Of course it is.  Do I have anything more to say to my fellow AV professionals who complain that groups for advancement of women in the industry is somehow sexist? Only that I long for the day that we no longer need them - and on the day when an all-female panel addresses a gender-balanced audience on technology I'll know that that time has come. I feel that it is still a long way away. For more on representation, I'll direct you to programmer Hope Roth, who I quoted earlier this week. This is more her story than mine, so you should read her words.

No, today I'm going to talk about an old critique of the first Harry Potter books and how they apply to the discussion at hand.

Way back in 2000, Christine Shoeffer wrote a critique of Harry Potter from a feminist perspective, with which I not quite all agree. One part that does resonate with me is the idea that traditionally "female" forms of magic - divination, for example - are given less respect and attention than more typically "male" forms. 

Sybill Trelawney is the other female professor we encounter. She teaches divination, a subject that includes tea-leaf reading, palmistry, crystal gazing — all the intuitive arts commonly associated with female practitioners. Trelawney is a misty, dreamy, dewy charlatan, whose “clairvoyant vibrations” are the subject of constant scorn and ridicule. The only time she makes an accurate prediction, she doesn’t even know it because she goes into a stupor. Because most of her students and all of her colleagues dismiss her, the entire intuitive tradition of fortune-telling, a female domain, is discredited.

This is a valid criticism. In fact, the very symbol of wizardry is the phallic wand, while the cup, a feminine tool, is pretty much ignored. Women, though assigned the needlessly gendered-name "witches"  do get to wield wands and perform "wizardly"  magic aside their male peers.

Putting a want in a witch's hand and giving her access to the male form of magic is an improvement in some ways, but a furthering of harm in others. It's sets the male-dominated hermetic magic tradition as the only valid one, casts aside women working in female traditions. Women can earn respect, but only by becoming more like men.

Contrast the depiction of witches and wizards in the late Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Pratchett's wizards were, at their best,  studious, and intellectual. At their worst, they were prone to petty squabbles, professional maneuvering and backstabbing at their "Unseen University", and as often as not cause trouble by experimenting first and thinking about the possible repercussions second. Pratchett also writes about witches. They have many traditional witchly trappings: the broomstick, the cottage in the woods, knowledge of herbs and such. At their worst, witches can be meddlesome busybodies. What's more interesting is that at their best, witches become part of the glue that hold communities together and empower those around them. Some of the most sympathetic heroes in the books - including Tiffany Aching of the young-adult subset of the Discworld novels - are witches. It's an aspect of Pratchett's writing which shows great respect for and elevates that status of traditional female roles.

Yes, I know. You're wondering what this has to do with women in technology. Fighting for a women's role in STEM fields is a bit like letting women into Hogwarts to wield wands and mix potions. It's vitally important for the women with desires and aptitude for that work AND for those of us who will benefit from their skills, but it isn't the entire story. There's a whole world outside of traditional STEM which doesn't always get the respect it deserves. Physicians are highly respected and highly paid, but mental health practitioners aren't. Schoolteachers receive minimal respect and even more minimal money. Big budget films are created from traditional boys' toys and cartoons created for the young males of yesteryear.

I mentioned Hope Roth at the opening of this piece. Her role is important, and it's important for her to be allowed it. She's a talented programmer; she's Hermione Granger, wielding her wand alongside the boys. We need to respect and honor her efforts, but we also need to find the Tiffany Achings, the Esmerelda Weatherwaxes, and to honor them equally.

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