June 9, 2000 -- For women hackers, there’s a different kind of glass ceiling to break.
Hacking has traditionally been a man’s world. But women are quietly breaking into the hacker subculture, a loose group of computer enthusiasts who meet in online chat rooms and at real-life conventions.
Not surprisingly, as in other male-dominated spheres, these women are often harassed and mocked by certain insiders — though here it is by teenage boys, who make up most of the “entry levels” of hackerdom.
The chat rooms where beginning hackers often learn technical tricks are stocked with “little hacking boys from hell … how awfully rude they are, and how intelligent they are,” according to a hacker who goes by the handle Natasha Grigori and heads antichildporn.org, an organization of hackers who track down child pornographers on the Net.
But the few female hackers don’t network with each other — in fact, some of their greatest trouble comes from other women, called “scene whores” — hacker groupies who use sex to get ahead. Fortunately, the few women who break through to the “elite” ranks of hacking find that at the top, what matters is your technical skills, not your gender.
“If you can match their [male hackers’] skill level and better it, they’ll give you every ounce of respect. … It’s when a female comes in and tries to play on her being feminine, that doesn’t get you anything,” says Blueberry, a 32-year-old woman from Brisbane, Australia, who founded condemned.org, another anti-child porn organization.
ABCNEWS.com spoke to more than a dozen female hackers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand for this two-part series. Last week’s piece (see related story, right) looked at who the female hackers are; this week, we examine the challenges they face.
A note about names: Like most hackers, these women choose to go by online handles. Real names will be specifically marked as such.
Hackers vs. Scene Whores
There are plenty of women at hacker conventions — they’re just not all hackers. Some are girlfriends, some wives. But the female hacker’s nemesis is the “scene whore.” These latex-clad hacker groupies haunt conventions and offer teenage boys cybersex in chat rooms to boost their own self-esteem, female hackers say.
“The average woman, in today’s society, could remain unnoticed,” says Blaise, a 29-year-old woman from New Zealand. “Looking at an average woman in a computer society that consists of mainly antisocial men, she will be the center of attention. It’s those girls that give every woman a reputation...and that’s what you have to prove yourself against before you gain any respect.”
And the prevalence of scene whores has shattered any female solidarity that might exist among the hacker community, as groupies fight over the most highly skilled men and real female hackers fight the boys’ assumption that all women in the scene are groupies.
“When I first started in the scene, this one person said, you know, you can be my cyberwhore and you’ll be elite through association,” says Blueberry, who says she rejected the advance.
Dark Tangent, head of Defcon and a prominent male hacker, remembers a “scene whore” having videotaped sex with a male hacker in an elevator at the convention’s Las Vegas hotel. He warns of “evil groupies” who condition poorly adjusted male hackers to think of women as sex toys.
Natasha says she regularly has to throw women out of the IRC chat room that she hosts because they disrupt the tech talk by offering cybersex to her teenage charges.
“It’s really bad as far as the women ripping each other to shreds. This whole cybersex thing really bothers me,” Natasha says.
“A_kitten,” a 34-year-old woman from California whose Web site features sexy photos of herself, has been described as everything from a “scene whore” to a “cult leader” by terrified male hackers unwilling to give names to a reporter for fear of her “legion of groupie script kiddies” who used to crash sites on her command.
She doesn’t deny using her femininity to get her way in a male-dominated society.
“People just assume that since I am a girl and I have that power that I must be abusing it,” she says. “I think some guys are intimidated or offended by the natural power that women possess.”
But “St.” Jude Milhon, a prominent hacker from Berkeley, Calif., doesn’t see using feminine wiles as part of the spirit of hacking. “It wouldn’t be sporting. Simply be present, honest, reasonably competent, female, and everyone’s aghast.”
Fighting to Be Heard
But it’s a hard battle for women to be respected in a culture dominated by teenage boys. The experience of women at the “entry levels” of the hacking scene, mostly in online chat groups, is one of relentless sexual harassment.
British sociologist Paul Taylor, author of Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime, terms this the “Wild, Wired West,” a rough-and-tumble social environment determined by the attitudes of insecure teenage boys trying to impress each other with “typed testosterone.”
“It’s almost like some Lord of the Flies-type environment,” he says, referring to William Golding’s novel about a group of teenage boys who descend into feral savagery when cut off from civilization.
The anonymity of online interaction also fuels sexual harassment, making it more difficult to enforce social rules and freeing the most maladjusted young men to take out their sexual frustrations on people with feminine handles, Taylor says.
“The first time I posted, I posted with a woman’s nickname. I was ripped to shreds: ‘You’re a woman, get off here, we’re not going to help you,’” Natasha says.
When RosieX, founder of the Australian cyberfeminist magazine GeekGirl, got into the online bulletin board scene in 1990, she found women so intimidated by that attitude that they pretended to be male to avoid harassment.
“I was frustrated, because I wanted to learn skills and all the boys wanted to do was f---,” she says.
Even a_kitten, who takes pride in her power over those boys, sneers at them.
“For every 50 jerks on IRC, I stumble upon one nice guy that I can talk to,” she says.
But the sexual gantlet seems to fade with experience. Defcon’s Dark Tangent says top-rank hackers generally stay away from the IRC channels, waiting to see whose thirst for knowledge is great enough to survive the savage atmosphere. To them, skill is all that matters, not the body it comes in.
“When you interact with people such as the L0pht, or the cDc or the most experienced members of the hacker culture, gender is a non-issue. It’s what you know that matters, and less who you are,” says Javaman, a Philadelphia-area hacker. “There is sexism at the lowest levels, but among the more skilled people, the more able people, it really is a non-issue.”
And at conventions, hackers seem to love nothing more than a woman who can fix a network breakdown. Though they’re tormented online, for some reason the rare women in hacking are treasured in person, female hackers say.
“Girls are victimized only in the bodiless state … in the flesh, they’re objects of wonder and fascination,” says Milhon.
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