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Among Code Warriors, Women, Too, Can Fight
From: InfoSec News <isn () c4i org>
Date: Thu, 7 Jun 2001 17:13:24 -0500 (CDT)
By J. D. BIERSDORFER
June 7, 2001
WHEN Sarah Flannery was 16 in 1999, she won Ireland's Young Scientist
of the Year award for her work in Internet cryptography. Although she
is described in a recent book, "The Hacker Ethic," as "a 16-year-old
hacker," Ms. Flannery, now 19 and studying computer science at
Cambridge University, isn't quite sure how to feel about that
"I haven't read the book," she said in a phone interview. "I've been a
bit confused about what a hacker really is."
She is not alone. The word "hacker" calls to mind two stereotypes. The
first is that hackers are bad guys. (Among those who call themselves
hackers, a "hacker" is generally defined as someone who loves to write
precise programming code and takes joy in exploring the nooks and
crannies of the Net including places that some would prefer they not
explore.) The second is that hackers are guys.
In fact, women who consider themselves hackers, as well as women like
Ms. Flannery who just plain enjoy math and technology, have been part
of the computer world for decades. Some are prominent for their
accomplishments; all tend to stand out in their field just because
they are women.
Ms. Flannery, who was obviously never given a "Math is hard!" talking
Barbie as a child, has written about her adventures as a young
mathematician and cryptographer in "In Code: A Mathematical Journey,"
a book written with her father, David Flannery, and published this
month in the United States by Workman Publishing.
In her book, she writes of her experiences in Dublin during a stint at
Baltimore Technologies, where she began to work seriously on what
became her prize-winning Cayley- Purser algorithm (named after a
mathematician and a cryptographer), which could be used for faster
encryption of information on the Internet. (In the spirit of the
hacker ethic that information should be free, she declined to patent
her algorithm, so that it would be available to anyone.)
Most of her work with the company was, not surprisingly, alongside
men. "The women tended to be managers and secretaries and not to be
involved in the technical side of things," she recalled. "I wasn't
treated any differently for it, though."
But women with longer tenure in technology say that for better or
worse, it is still hard to avoid being a curiosity. "The assumptions
made about you when you get into a technical field are that you're
either a feminist," said Carole Fennelly, 39, a Unix programmer since
1980, "or you're trying to make a statement, or you're some sort of
"I'm in technology because I happen to like it. I'm not trying to make
a statement, and I don't want to be treated differently. Technology is
about facts and has nothing to do with gender." Ms. Fennelly is a
partner in the Wizard's Keys Corporation, a computer-security
consulting firm in Tinton Falls, N.J., that she founded with her
husband in 1992.
Jude Milhon is a longtime programmer who taught herself the Fortran
computer language from a library book in the 1960's. Although she was
told to fetch the coffee for a roomful of men at her first
professional programming job (but spilled it so deftly on the table
that her boss wisely opted to have somebody else bring it for future
meetings), Ms. Milhon went on to work as a programmer and was an
editor at Mondo 2000, a cyberculture magazine published in the early
"As soon as I got away from businessmen," she said in an e-mail
message, "the world was different: respect for geekliness, double
points for female." Female programmers are cherished, she said,
explaining, "You're still a rarity: a blue rose, a precious freak."
In addition to being an author and a programmer, Ms. Milhon, who is
widely known by her online name, St. Jude, has been cited as one of
the first known female hackers, by Steven Levy in his 1984 book,
"Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution."
"My own definition of hacking," Ms. Milhon said, "is the clever
circumvention of imposed limits, whether imposed by your government,
your own skills or the laws of physics."
Of course, the stereotype says a hacker is a solitary teenage boy who
stays up all night in his bedroom trying to knock the Pentagon's Web
site off the Net, and indeed, Ms. Milhon said, the image is not
altogether false. Teenage boys, susceptible to boredom and a feeling
of powerlessness, "are the universal soldiers of hacking," she said.
"I think more teenage girls can accept the idea that 14-year-olds
don't have lives," she said. "Also, girls tend to be better at finding
But there are women who hack, and many learn their skills where they
are handily outnumbered by men: in the rough-and-tumble online
enclaves that hackers frequent or at hacker conventions. A spokesman
for Defcon, the annual hacker gathering in Las Vegas, estimated that
the event drew eight men for every woman.
An Australian hacker in her early 30's who goes by the online handle
Blueberry has similar memories of her early days in the hacker
stomping grounds in the Internet Relay Channel chat areas, which she
compares to a men's smoking room.
"You throw open the door and everything stops," she wrote by e-mail,
"all eyes are turned in your direction, and you could hear a pin
drop." (Like many hackers, Blueberry chooses to be known simply by her
online name for reasons of personal privacy and security.) But she
persisted in her pursuit of arcane hacker knowledge, learning the
computer inside and out with help from male hackers online.
She put her skills to work with some friends in 1999 by starting a Web
site called Condemned .org, which helps the authorities snare people
dealing in child pornography over the Internet by using legal hacking
techniques for tracking files.
Though they could remain anonymous, some women hackers refuse to hide
their sex online, even if it means drawing unwanted attention.
Blueberry said women could silence derogatory comments from older
hackers by proving their technical prowess on the PC. "You have to
earn the respect," she said. But a female technophile may have to
overcome the perception that she hangs out in online areas dominated
by men so she can meet men with the potential for hefty stock options
not because she is really interested in computers themselves. The
quality of her hacking may also be questioned, and she is likely to
draw chauvinistic comments.
"The hacker scene tends to be a younger, male-dominated scene," said
Ms. Fennelly, the computer-security consultant, who counts a number of
male hackers among her close friends. "I hate to talk in generalities,
but a lot of times, younger guys just aren't experienced with women,
and they're still kind of focused on that whole thing. There is more
sexism in a younger atmosphere. That said, there are a lot of hacker
guys who are great."
In her years in the industry, Ms. Fennelly has had plenty of time to
observe Mars and Venus in the workplace. While women can write
programs just as nimbly as men, other skills can become evident, she
said. "Social engineering is a big deal in the computer field
manipulating people to do things," she said. "Women can understand
that pretty well. Men are supposed to be better at cognitive thinking.
You need that mix."
But Dr. Mary Bucholtz, an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M
University who has studied the attitudes of women online, said women
were less likely than men to say women had a different approach, good
or bad, to hacking.
"Interestingly, it's often men rather than women that suggest that
women bring something unique or different to hacking by virtue of
their gender," she said in an e-mail message. "A lot of female geeks
really object to the idea that women and men are essentially
different. They've spent a lot of time combating that ideology in
their own lives."
Women who are geeks and who simply want to be themselves might take
comfort in the old maxim, Knowledge is power. "Being able to answer
computer questions for your male friends generates a lot of respect,"
Ms. Milhon said. "It breaks the female stereotype, and every time you
can break the stereotype, you must. Stereotype-wrecking helps push the
past behind us, helps speed the future. I love the future more than
Sarah Flannery, part of the future herself, states her own goals very
simply in her book. "Ultimately," she writes, "I would like to be one
of those lucky people who get paid for doing what they love."
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- Among Code Warriors, Women, Too, Can Fight InfoSec News (Jun 08)