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For the first time, Berkeley saw an introductory computer science course with a majority of female students – 106 women vs. 104 men. This turnaround signals a promising trend in the male-dominated STEM world. However, Berkeley is an exception: according to the National Science Foundation with just 18.4% of computer science degrees were given to women (as of 2010), a trend that has been steadily decreasing since 1991, when it was a more impressive 29.6%.

Professor Dan Garcia, who taught the Berkeley course last spring, says that he attributes the gender flip to a drastic transformation in the curriculum, including team-based project learning, opened-sourced materials, and opportunities to become teaching assistants. “The course & curriculum really does capture the “Beauty and Joy” of computing; learning can be a lot of fun,” he writes. Worldwide trends in the gender balance aren’t any better than the U.S. Recent data from UK universities, shows that while women do earn a majority of the degrees (60% vs. 40%), they vastly under represent their male counterparts in computer science (82% vs. 17%).

computersciencegender bar chart

The gap has its origins going back at least as early as high school. Statistics, biology, and calculus courses all have roughly equal gender balance, but in computer science, the pie chart skews heavily male. (chart by Exploring Computer Science, with data from the College Board).

ap pie chart

Garcia says there are still barriers to keeping women interested throughout their entire tenure, such as “the lack of female role models in our industry, in our faculty, and in the graduate student population.” Even if they go on to advanced courses, there’s no guarantee they’ll get a job in the cut-throat tech industry. As an important feeder school to Silicon Valley’s top companies, Berkeley’s numbers may result in a positive shift in increasing the proportion of women in top tech companies in the near future.


Once again, Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham’s mouth has landed him in hot water. The loose-lipped Silicon Valley power broker said some dumb stuff about women.

graham tweet

In an interview with The Information, Graham was asked about discrimination in the tech scene. Troves of evidence exist revealing sexism in tech exists, like this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference, as one example. But Valleywag highlighted Graham’s comments that show he doesn’t see sexism as a problem, and in fact thinks women are just naturally behind the hacking eightball. Graham now contends the whole thing is one big misunderstanding.

The Information’s Eric Newcomer asked whether Graham’s startup accelerator, Y-Combinator, discriminates against women, and his answer quickly became a defense of tech culture as a whole. Graham said his company does not discriminate, and that any gender imbalance can be explained by the fact that girls don’t start hacking at the same age boys do.

If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it on their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.

It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.

Later, Graham tried to explain that discrimination cannot exist because girls attend tech conferences too. Besides, the time thing. “We can’t make women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years,” he said, later in the interview.

The notion of limits on when and how one can start coding is astonishing. Coding is supposed to be the one thing anyone can learn and change their life with. What about all the homeless people? Silicon Valley is supposed to be where bootstraps pick themselves up by the bootstraps and change the world. But apparently that’s not an option for women because of they’re too busy not being on the computer at 13-years-old.

People were predictably outraged over Graham’s comments about girls not hacking for the last ten years. A storm is brewing. That these comments are coming from Graham, an extremely important and influential person in the tech world, is especially troubling. ”Here is a hacker hero—the figurehead behind Hacker News!—and he has no clue how to get girls to care about tech,” said Valleywag’s Nitasha Tiku. But maybe they should not be surprising, considering this is the same guy who admitted discriminating against startup founders with foreign accents.

At one point Graham also said startups sometimes don’t hire people who did not start hacking until studying computer science in college. This, according to Graham, is why there’s some confusion. See, he meant to say “these women,” as in the ones who didn’t start hacking until college:

 

(Update, 04/01/2014 at 5:25 p.m. Graham expanded his defense in emails to Valleywag. He was allegedly misquoted during an interview for a profile on his wife.) To summarize: girls aren’t interested in hacking or coding at an early age, but sometimes they start in college, and then they’ll have terrible job prospects because they didn’t start early enough. Or, something. That’s a rough outlook for any women hoping to break into tech’s boys club.

Following Graham’s logic can be difficult. Tiku put it best when she said he’s merely “justifying the status quo,” rather than examining a real problem. Graham has once again proven himself proud to be the champion of everything wrong with Silicon Valley culture. Thankfully, there are people like Elissa Shevinsky telling women they can go to liberal arts school and read Plato and still play with computers.

Update, 06/01/2014 at 8:55 am: Graham has posted an explanation on his website at: http://paulgraham.com/wids.html


Want to be the next superhero? Aim for a career in science and technology. Natalie Portman and Marvel Comics have teamed up to start the Ultimate Mentor Adventure, a program for high school girls interested in STEM programs. Portman was moved to participate after acting as an astrophysicist, Jane Foster, in the movie Thor and its sequel. The girls who are selected will be paired with a mentor in the science field and will participate in behind-the-scenes events. Forms and videos can be submitted until October 20. Instructions are available on Disney’s site.

via NerdApproved


For women struggling to make inroads in the male-dominated tech industry, a few stunning situations this week have provided some extreme examples of what they’re up against.

Sexist attitudes in startup culture got a major showcase on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the industry’s leading conferences. In a separate incident online, the hateful, bigoted musings of a media company’s chief tech officer got public attention that forced his firing — but he’d been tweeting sexist content for years. They are the latest flare-ups for a community struggling to get more women in its ranks.

On Sunday, after an all-night hackathon at TechCrunch Disrupt, Australian programmers presented Titstare. “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” Jethro Batts explained. He went on to say, “I think this is the breast hack ever.”

The app was dreamed up during an overnight hackathon and presented to an audience of 500. The creators later said it was a parody.

“It’s not. It’s not a funny thing. It’s not appropriate,” says Richard Jordan, whose daughter participated in the hackathon and was in the audience. He says that presentation was actually just one of two disgusting displays.

“A guy got up and presented his hack, which was some game where you shake the phone and compete with your friends to shake the phone. And he simulated masturbation. Complete with noises and sounds in front of the audience. It was a thoroughly embarrassing situation to be in,” Jordan says.

Especially for Jordan, who was seated next to his daughter Alexandra, a programmer who took part in the hackathon. She is 9 years old.

“She’s, you know, she’s a very mature young lady and she sort of shrugs this kind of stuff off. But she shouldn’t have to,” Jordan says. “A lot of people have mentioned, ‘Oh, it’s not OK because there were kids in the audience.’ The bigger point is, that stuff shouldn’t be OK anyway.”

TechCrunch issued an apology Sunday for the “two misogynistic presentations,” acknowledging that “sexism is a major problem in the tech industry” and that the events represented “a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear guidelines for these submissions.”

Alexia Tsotsis, the co-editor of TechCrunch, says, “I personally am sorry. I also was offended.” She says creators of the controversial app didn’t list its name on the presentation list, which is how it avoided raising red flags beforehand.

“It’s sort of symptomatic of a larger problem,” Tsotsis says. “Which is, tech has been a guy, dude-bro area for a while now. Now as it becomes more mainstream, more women join the workforce and are exposed to these locker-room-type attitudes.”

Women are so outnumbered in tech that in 2010, the Silicon Valley Index found that just 3 percent of venture-backed companies were all-female teams, compared with 89 percent all-male teams. It spills into a fratty culture getting a lot more attention lately, as these incidents happen so publicly.

A firestorm forced out Pax Dickinson, Business Insider’s chief technology officer, on Tuesday after his racist, sexist Twitter feed got wide notice. Some sample musings: “Men have made the world such a safe and comfortable place that women now have the time to bitch about not being considered our equals.” Or, “This election will be decided by single women. It’s an epic battle between ‘Jungle Fever’ and ‘Daddy Issues.’ ”

He’d been tweeting such things for years, but it was only this week that it got enough attention to cost him his job.

Programmer Adria Richards says these situations are happening too often.

“It was really distressing and I was upset and I couldn’t believe that this was happening,” she says of the Disrupt incident. “I think a lot of fields have this problem where people just aren’t aware of how their actions or words can affect people in a negative way.”

She knows about negative reactions. A few months ago, Richards tweeted a photo of two men making sexual jokes at a coder conference. One of those men got fired. Richards was then the target of rape and death threats, computer hacks and racial slurs before she got fired, too. Today, she’s speaking out for women in the industry.

“There’s so much tech, geeky things I love. But when things like this happen. I just want to shrink away. I feel like a little kid again. In a bad way though. Like a little kid who feels unsafe.”

Making the tech industry a place where women feel safe and welcome will take more work. But for starters, TechCrunch’s editor says that from now on at the company’s conferences, sexism will no longer get a stage.


This past week, Anita Sarkeesian’s third installment of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series was released, launching yet another fleet of comment threads across the internet about how wrong she is about everything and how she scammed Kickstarter and so on and so forth.

Once you wade past all that, I’ve found her videos so far, all three parts focusing on “Damsels in Distress” in video games, to be rather fascinating. To sum up the hour’s worth of videos to date, it’s not that the act of rescuing a princess by itself is necessarily evil, it’s the fact that it’s been used for basis of hundreds of games over the years, and still persists to this day. Women in these types of damsel games are objects that are kidnapped, imprisoned or outright butchered to create conflict for the male hero. Saving a girl from such a fate once is alright, but to have it be the plot of a seemingly infinite amount of games is a problem with the industry.

This third video finally had a few examples of games Sarkeesian thinks represent women well, even if they are few and far between. She likes Beyond Good and Evil, Braid and Monkey Island, which have damsel aspects to them, but are twists on the idea that don’t make women appear to be helpless objects. Also in this video, Sarkeesian even comes up with her own concept for a reverse damsel game where a princess waiting to be rescued engineers her own escape, dons some armor plating, and takes the hurt to the bad guys herself.

I’m curious to see what’s going to happen as the series moves out of damsel territory and into other tropes. I’m sure there will be a multi-part segment on the sexualized representation of girls in games, but I want to hear what other games Sarkeesian think portray women well presently, even if there aren’t all that many.

It is hard to think of many women in games who haven’t been damselized or sexualized to annoying degrees over the years. You have Samus, the badass alien-killer in power armor now stripped of her plating and squeezed into a skintight bodysuit. You have the tomboyish Lightning of Final Fantasy XIII now starring in a quasi-sequel where the designers are most excited about her now skimpy outfits and boob jiggle physics.

In my own experience, there are female leads in games that have really made a lasting, positive impression on me. Unfortunately, I had to create them myself.

I’m talking about a pair of series here, Mass Effect and Saints Row. Both games allow you to create your own character, and in both, I created a female leading lady for at least one of my playthroughs. Characters in both games can be any race, any gender, allowing for a diverse palette of hero options you simply don’t see in most games that lack this feature. Honestly, I made two woman in these games, a blonde in Mass Effect and an Indian woman in Saints Row, because if I was given the choice, I wasn’t going to purposefully play yet another grizzled white male character in a game.

Now I’m not some politically correct tool who is trying to assemble the United Nations of video game characters with my hero design. Rather, I’m genuinely tired of playing the exact same sort of protagonist in almost every other title I boot up. For a guy like me, this allows diversity of play. For a girl, it allows them to play as a hero that vaguely resembles them for a change, rather than just controlling another white guy like me.

Creating a character allows you to connect with them in a way you don’t with premade heroes in games. When you’re given a character, like say, Joel in The Last of Us, you’re playing his story. When you’ve made the character yourself, it feels more like you’re playing your own story, and that’s a lot of reason these two female leads have worked so well.

The other thing about these create-a-character titles is that no matter what gender or race you chose, the dialogue is almost exactly the same. The writers had to write for just a strong lead character, not produce completely separate scripts for both men and women. Sure, in Mass Effect you’ll have different romance options and in Saints Row you’ll occasionally say something like “damn I chipped a nail!” but for the most part, these roles are written without the sort of tropes that normally plague women in video games.

An example of this in pop culture is Alien, where all the roles were written for the characters themselves, not for the gender of the characters. Ripley’s role could have easily been filled by that of a man, and that’s how it was written. The end result was just a badass collection of characters, free from preconceived notions of how men or women specifically should act due to their gender. (Though the film may lose a few feminist points for Ripley’s cotton underwear scene in the finale).

The point is that for better or worse, I’ve found the best written female characters in gaming to be in games like these, where your character is a badass without it really mattering what their gender is. In Mass Effect, my female Shepard can be a kind-hearted savior or a merciless hardass, and there’s no jiggle physics or slinky costumes to be found. Saints Row is a much different type of series, and you can indeed make your female character prance around in a string bikini holding a pair of submachine guns over her double-Ds. But to be fair, you can also make her an obese Latina woman, a rail thin black woman or an 80 year old tiny white lady wearing Samurai armor. But no matter which you choose, your leader of the Saints will kick ass and almost never get caught up in tropes herself, even if the game she stars in has more strippers and sex toys than the entirety of Las Vegas.

I don’t think this is how it should be. I think there should be female characters that are specifically written as female, but also empowered, strong, multi-dimensional and all the other adjectives we normally associate with our grizzled white male leads. There are a few, sure, but again, there’s an obvious, massive imbalance that no amount of YouTube trolls can wish away. It’s just the reality of the industry, and I think that Sarkeesian is doing a great job shining a light on the issues facing women in game. No, she’s not 100% right all the time, and not every example she uses works, but her videos are overwhelmingly enlightening, as is the backlash she’s received because of them.


Just in case you needed any further evidence and commentary on whether smartphones are emasculating, Sergey Brin gives his thoughts while give a TED talk on Google Glass (above).

He explained the motivation behind Google Glass saying that he didn’t think  the best way to interact with people and technology was by staring into a  phone.

Sergey Brin Google Glass

He also said he thinks there’s something emasculating about the smartphone.  You’re just rubbing this featureless piece of glass. As we noted back in  February, it’s a weird choice of words since it somehow suggests  Google Glass is manly.


“Is Your iPhone Turning You Into a Wimp?” is the provocative title of an article from Harvard Business School’s Monday newsletter, Working Knowledge, and in it you can hear echoes of Sergey Brin’s contention that smartphones are “emasculating.” But this time, our smarter-than-thou technologies aren’t sapping our confidence by making us depend on them, like megalomaniacal red wheelbarrows. They’re changing the hormonal chemistry of our brains through our posture.  

I’ve written before on the Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy and power poses—I’ve even tried them out, at some cost to my dignity but gain to my dry-cleaning pickup skills. The idea is that certain body stances, such as standing with your legs apart and your hands on your hips, or opening up your chest area, bathe your cortex in testosterone, a hormone associated with assertiveness and the willingness to take risks. Meanwhile, they also reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. On the other hand, low power poses—crossing your arms over your chest, say, or bunching your shoulders—increase neural levels of cortisol and reduce testosterone, resulting in more stress and less confidence.

How is this relevant to an afternoon frittered away in the company of cute pigs and Angry Birds? All that time spent hunched over a tiny screen might actually drain your confidence by forcing you into a low power position, according to a new study by Cuddy and Maarten Bos, a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard Business School. Bos and Cuddy asked 75 volunteers to perform a battery of tasks on one of four randomly assigned devices: an iPod touch (small), an iPad (a bit bigger), a Macbook Pro laptop (even bigger), or an iMac desktop (biggest).

According to Working Knowledge’s Carmen Nobel:

After five minutes of using the assigned device to take an online survey, each participant was given two dollars, along with the choice of keeping it or gambling it in a double-or-nothing gambling game with 50/50 odds. Next, the participant continued with a few other tasks and a final questionnaire, all on the assigned device.

The question: Would people who played the betting game on bigger screens get a confidence boost from their superior, expansive posture? Would they be likelier to gamble?

The answer: Nope. (“The experiments showed no apparent effect on participants’ gambling behavior,” reports Nobel.) But the study wasn’t over. After the game, a researcher instructed each participant to wait while he (the researcher) fetched some forms. “If I am not here in five minutes, please come get me at the front desk,” he told them. Sneakily, though, he did not return after five minutes. He stood at the front desk for a maximum of 10 minutes, keeping track of whether and when each participant arrived to meet him. Nobel:

Of the participants using a desktop computer, 94 percent took the initiative to fetch the experimenter. For those using the iPod Touch, only 50 percent left the room.

What’s more, among those who did leave the room, the amount of time they waited to do so increased as the size of the screen decreased. For instance, while iPod Touch users lingered for an average of 493 seconds before going off in search of the researcher, the average desktop user stuck around for only 341 seconds.

What’s going on here? Bos and Cuddy hypothesized that it takes some time for the effects of good or bad posture to sink in, which would explain why screen width didn’t seem to influence betting behavior, but did correlate with how aggressively participants sought out the tardy experimenter. (Previous studies show that people are more likely to gamble after assuming high power poses and less likely after taking up low power poses.) I also wonder whether using a personal device like an iPod Touch or iPad made the research setting seem less formal. If so, perhaps the researcher’s charge not to wait around, but to “come find me at the front desk” translated as friendly politeness, rather than as another instruction. Or maybe working off a large monitor boosted confidence in a way that bypassed power posing entirely. (Think guys who feel like Kings of the Universe when they take the wheel of an SUV.)

Given how much time we spend interacting with various screens, though, it is helpful to know that lolling in front of a large glowing window could be preferable (from a confidence perspective) to hovering crampedly over a small glowing one. Unless you are a tardy experimenter, that is. Then maybe you should force all your test subjects to painstakingly twist out answers on an Etch-a-Sketch keychain—they’ll never bother you again.

Katy Waldman at Slate


You say there’s a problem getting women into technology? The real problem might be the (some) men.

The tech industry – more specifically the chunk of it located over on the US west coast – has hardly covered itself in glory.

First there was the example of Sqoot, which earlier this week made a rather weak joke in a call for an event called the Boston API Jam: “Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.” As Betabeat points out, this quite quickly lost them a couple of sponsors. Sqoot said sorry, in a Google doc and on Twitter; the discussion then carried on over to Hacker News, where you’ll find that quite a few commenters … don’t quite get it. Such as this one:

Actually that’s the funny part, this “joke” was in no way belittling women, it’s idolizing them. It was made at the expense of the stereotypical male geek to whom women are otherwise inaccessible. Somehow it was appropriated as being about the female attendees.

Oh, man. How to explain this? Ah, someone did, almost at once:

Yes … it’s idolizing women … as sexual objects offered as a perk to male coders so that they can serve the men. As a female coder, I’d rather not be offered as a perk to male coders. So, yeah, this is belittling.

Let’s understand it again: being female isn’t a disadvantage in coding. If you have to ask, consider that Ada Lovelace was arguably the first programmer, and that Grace Hopper only, you know, invented the compiler, among other things.

To bring things up to date, the UK has a couple of women making a big difference in our access to coding and data – Emma Mulqueeny, who runs Rewired State, and Emer Coleman, who was very influential in getting the London Datastore opened up and is now working away inside government getting data pushed out in the same way.

But while being a woman in programming isn’t like living under the Taliban, it clearly carries its own frustrations. A link on Twitter to a blogpost by The Real Katie expressed her annoyance as a female coder as being told to “lighten up”:

Let me tell you, I love coding. Been doing it since before I hit puberty. I did it when I barely had the money to keep a server up. I do it on the weekends and evenings, and I’m teaching my kids how to do it. I’ve spent thousands of dollars to go to conferences so I can learn more about it. Why would I ever leave the profession where I got paid real money to do what I love?

In short, I got tired of being told to ‘lighten up.’

This industry is one of subtle sexism. I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out. The subtle barbs are usually dismissed as something I need to not care about. It was a joke! Sheesh. Why are you so sensitive?! All I did was make a joke about you needing to be in the kitchen!

There’s plenty more; it is a story of the frustration of being female in a role where gender should be utterly unimportant and yet weirdly is. It’s a sort of background hum of sexism; the sort that can drive people out of promising careers, and leave the “brogrammers” looking at each asking “where are all the women?”

Having read that I followed a tweet by Kevin Marks which plunged me into what seems to me a quite amazing Twitter conversation, where an initial trigger – a video that really objectifies women – leads quickly down a dark path of implications, accusations, excuses, sidestepping and lines like “I have a family!”

It was kicked off by a tweet from @shanley – Shanley Kane – towards Christian Sanz and Reuben Katz, who run a company called Geeklist.

Charles Arthur compiled the whole back-and-forth over at Storify. If you’re male, the real question to ask when you read it, is: how much of this behaviour goes on which you just don’t notice?

The backlash has been quite dramatic – so much so that Katz has quickly moved to apology mode, with a post entitled “public apology” which says:

We never meant to offend any woman and are very sorry as we clearly have.

We did not create the video at question. It was created out of love for Geeklist by a great Woman entrepreneur. Support for her company. Design Like Woah. She makes shirts and made awesome ones for us. She also goes way out of her way to help us ship to our men and women alike globally who love our brand.

They’re trying to take the video down, though it’s complicated as it’s actually owned by the videographer friend of the woman who sells the T-shirts.

Katz continues:

As for our handling of the twittersphere. We could have handled it better. I know Shanley personally, have skyped and emailed her many times and interviewed her for a job at Geeklist. She is an awesome candidate that as a startup I was very sad the timing was not right to work together. Of our 5 person team 2 are women and I am certain they can speak on our behalf as respectful gentlemen in the workplace who create a welcome environment for all. I also own a business with my wife where we have over 350+ women employees. I’ve built my career over 15 years working to make this world a better place for women, mothers, and children.

In my wildest dreams we would never wish to offend any woman. The initial request made sense and we were discussing finding Gemma to take it down, when we got taken off guard a bit by her continued comments. We handled those poorly, but felt we had to defend ourselves. We apologize as well if our handling of the tweets offended anyone.

It’s good that Katz (and, one feels sure, Sanz too) has recognised that they handled the whole thing badly. In some ways this could be looked at as a “brand management” issue – if the person who had complained to the Geeklist duo had been male, how would it have played out?

And meanwhile ask yourself whether there’s really no sexism in computing – or whether the answer to “why aren’t there more women in technology” might have anything to do with the people who are already there.


By dealing with violent misogyny on a “case by case” basis, Facebook sends the message that the wider ideas are OK, writes Jane Fae.

This piece contains descriptions of, and links to, extremely disturbing imagery of sexual violence from the very start. Reader discretion is strongly advised.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but what do you do after raping a deaf mute? Simple: Break her fingers so she can’t tell anyone!

That – and here I’ll apologise both for that opening and for what follows – is vile. Beyond belief that it be accepted as humour in this day and age. (Although I’ll note, in passing, that it is also staple fare for some of our supposedly “edgier” comics, who get away with such stuff because their quick-fire style means they deliver one obscenity and are on to the next before you realise what you’ve just heard).

And its by no means the worst. Facebook is awash with such viciousness. Images of women beaten, bruised, murdered, raped in all their technicolour glory.

If you have a strong stomach, WomenActionMedia! (WAM!) have been collecting examples.

Only, these are jokes, doncha know? Because they carry witty captions such as “She Broke My Heart. I Broke Her Nose”, or “Women deserve equal rights. And lefts”.

I am not even going to try and analyse. Some of it makes me angry beyond words; some just makes me want to cry.

Instead, let’s pull back a little and understand why, suddenly, the issue is making news. I first encountered instances of this particular misogynistic trope on the #silentnomore hashtag: that was an attempt by women, including survivors of abuse and violence, to create a space where they could speak about their experiences.

Bad idea. Women speaking to women clearly enraged some men, who bombarded the topic with “what about us?” rhetoric – and witty links to this sort of imagery. I complained to Twitter: nothing happened. The pictures stayed.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, these pics have been proliferating. Sometimes, its blokes – y’know, regular kind of guys – sharing them “for a laff”. Sometimes, they are used more aggressively, to attack and humiliate “uppity women”. Women, in turn, have been noticing. A joint campaign, organised by Everyday Sexism, WAM! and Soraya Chemaly has condemned this material as gender-based hate speech: their campaign, asking advertisers to boycott Facebook, is gaining support and increasing in effectiveness.You can follow what’s happening on #FBrape.

As for Facebook, they have spluttered highmindedly about the difficulty of negotiating a pathway between interest groups: how they must balance individual rights against the imperative of free speech. Interviewed by the BBC, one spokesperson rejected calls for them to censor “disturbing content”, or “crude attempts at humour”, because “while it may be vulgar and offensive, distasteful content on its own does not violate our policies”.

Still, they acknowledge officially that much of this material is “abhorrent to many of us who work at Facebook”. A spokesperson added: “These cases test all of us, because they can be deeply jarring.”

Do you not feel their pain, caught between a rock and a hard place?

Besides, they claim, the vast majority of this content has been taken down already. Although, in what looks like a serious attempt to have their cake and eat it, they further add: “removing content is not the solution to getting rid of ignorance. Having the freedom to debate serious issues like this is how we fight prejudice”.

Silly me! I must have missed out on the serious debate about whether it is appropriate to break a woman’s nose if she fails to make a sandwich right, first time of asking.

There is no serious issue in play here, beyond what should be the limits of free speech and what is acceptable within a relatively open online space. I have a smidgeon of sympathy for the US-based Facebook, nailed to a US legal perspective on free speech whereby only material that shows direct harm can be prosecuted.

facebook down

But that’s only half the story. Facebook has a long track record of somewhat heavy-handedly imposing heteronormative values and attitudes. Breastfeeding groups have been taken down, as have all manner of pages celebrating the female body in art and more generally, while soft porn remains. As does some hate speech, magically disappearing only when a journalist mentions it to their press office.

Laura, organiser at EverydaySexism, tells me today about the different treatment of two cases. Complaints about the content of “Black bitches and dogs” led to content being removed on a picture by picture basis: whereas the organiser of “Amazing Women” found her page supporting the #FBrape campaign, with some images added as political statement, taken down – and her personal account suspended.

Suspicion remains that Facebook have only intervened more publicly in response to the #FBrape campaign, issuing soothing words to calm their advertisers.

In the end, though, what’s truly problematic is this idea that all speech is equal, and speech that encourages abuse and violence against women is every bit as worthwhile and protection-worthy as any other form of speech. It isn’t – that’s an 18th century argument still getting too much unquestioning support in an internet age. Speech and publication mean something very different from what the US founding fathers meant. It’s a very laddish argument, which is not to say that women may not also support it: but the fact that Facebook relies on it means they are not listening to women and to an alternative perspective that women may put.

That’s the real issue here. Facebook needs to start listening to women. No joke.

Jane Fae's picture

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae. Via NewStatesman