Today’s comic addresses the incredibly delicate topic of gender representation in web development in the most logical of locations: the women’s bathroom. It happens to feature Elaine Nelson, Nicole Sullivan, Naepalm (the chinchilla version of Janae Weidmaier) and the Squirrel wearing a pink bow.
Disclaimer: It uses the word penises.
Which may be inaccurate. Is the plural of penis actually penii?
I’m going to now take a moment to strap on the sort of safety helmet that special children get to wear, because I’m about to do something extremely questionable: offer my opinion on the subject of gender and the workplace. It’s based on my experiences, on the conversations I’ve seen from others on the topic. It may have some suppositions, but lacks any sort of hard research as I left my lab coat in the wash.
First, the topic recently reared its head in my field of vision with the post Woman in Technology by Nicole, which discusses exactly that. Joe Clark took some issue with some of the post’s points, and wrote his own piece My fundamentalism is better than your fundamentalism. Lastly (well, this stuff never ends, but lastly in the chain I’m addressing) Elaine took issue with Joe’s piece and added her own voice to the discussion with Reaction Rant.
Where I’m Coming From
When women in web technology rises up as a topic, I get nervous. The Squirrel is a male red squirrel, but Kyle Weems (aka me) is a straight white middle-class American male in his early thirties. I’m the sort of person that women turn to and inform is the reason society is where it is today (and usually not in the positive feedback sense.) No, really, I’ve had female friends tell me my people (white males) are the reason the world is messed up. With more cuss words.
So when the storm hits I’m usually looking for a tree to hide in before the lynch mob arrives.
The topic becomes more surreal for me because I work at Mindfly Web Design Studio, a company that makes websites that is based in Bellingham, WA. I am the only male employee of the company. Granted, two of the three owners are men. One is a woman. But each of the other four employees are women. I’ve taken advantage of the situation to twice write about Ada Lovelace Day to discuss the identities of my female coworkers, but to quickly lay it out, they are: project managers, designers, coders, content writers and content strategists. If a bus hit the men at my workplace, the women could make a website without us.
Mindfly organizes and runs an event called Refresh Bellingham, which is to promote and inform people about web development. It’s really geeks and beers talking about making websites. Despite what you may think when you hear “geeks and beers”, and although the attendee population of the event is more male-skewed than my company, it still has a notable percentage of female attendees. Something in the 30-50% range most of the time.
So when I hear about women in technology being an issue, I’m in a place where I can understand the issue exists in the same way that I understand that tiger attacks are bad. I’m intellectually aware of the problem without facing it personally.
Inclusion For Women
So we’ve got a problem in the world at large which is not enough women in computer sciences, specifically in web development (for the purposes of my conversation). Ok, this is a fact. Or, rather, that there’s proportionately few women in the field is a fact. Nicole’s article doesn’t ask for a specific ratio of men to women in the field, actually. She rather asks that the criteria for joining the field (aka, the schooling) be focused more on gender-neutral traits rather than the “code-cowboy”. (I’ve actually never seen code-cowboy behavior as she lists it being rewarded, so I’m taking it on faith that this system exists.)
Joe’s response is more pointed, challenging the concept of under-representation and in his words:
“Any claim that women are “underrepresented” in a job is actually an order issued to women to make a career choice other than their own. It is an order, to paraphrase Sullivan, to become not a veterinarian’s aide but a vet, not a dental assistant but a dentist, not a medical assistant but a doctor. It’s also an order to fire men to make room for women, since no job category has unlimited growth (and to achieve a desired 50/50 split would require hiring nothing but women for years or decades). That’s what you’re really saying when you make the claim that women are “underrepresented”: That women haven’t made the right choices and that men need to be displaced.”
I’d say Nicole’s article is more about encouraging more women into the field than setting targets on acceptable levels that must be maintained. (I couldn’t find a reference to under-representation or a desired ratio in her post at all.) So Joe’s rhetoric seems more broadly aimed at past discussions on the topic than Nicole herself.
My thoughts, fueled by only a single frappacino this morning, are that an attempt at an even ratio is at best an artificial effort that’s potentially as pointless as making sure that fifty percent of all nurses men. There just may not be enough proportionately even interest between the genders to make that realistic without essentially forcing out interested people of one gender for disinterested people of the other.
But on the flip side, we should be doing are best to ensure we’re not selectively removing the opportunity for women to enter the field by encouraging bad traits that (a) women are less likely to have and (b) aren’t really that beneficial to anyone anyhow. (Really, read the “code-cowboy” section of Nicole’s post and ask yourself if you’d tolerate that dick. I wouldn’t.)
I’m not sure, myself, what tools best provide opportunities for both genders, but I found that Nicole’s “good developer” qualities are things that anyone I’d want to work with would possess, regardless of what is in their underpants.
The Nagging Fear of White Men
Where things start to get ugly is when opportunities start becoming crafted for one gender only to help fuel this effort to bring more members of that gender into the industry. Nicole references Google sponsoring female students to attend JSConf, which apparently was a trigger for a lot of the ugly behavior that followed.
Why does this make men nervous, disdainful or petulant?
Consider the following: According to A List Apart’s 2008 survey (which admittedly may not represent the entire industry), 16.2% of the respondents were female. If for the sake of encouraging diversity 50% of the scholarships, sponsorships and conference panel slots went to women for the sake of improving visibility and access to the industry, that means that 83.8% of the industry’s population is fighting for half of the opportunities while the other 16.2% got the other half.
Now, that’s an arbitrary percentage of numbers. It could be argued that for the social, greater good this is a needed effort to improve the ratio in the industry and provide role models for women. But for John Doe, it may not be to his perceived personal good when he finds he’s got a disproportionately smaller piece of the pie because he has the audacity to be born with a penis, and now has to fight even harder for his piece of the pie.
You can say that it’s all good, because there’s enough Johns being represented out there, and it’s high time Jane got her due. Awesome. Yes. I agree Jane needs more face time. But it still hurts for you when you didn’t get to go to a conference because you couldn’t personally afford it. If you’ve been excluded before for your gender as a woman, you should consider that it doesn’t feel any better for men either when they come up against it. And just because there’s a million successful men at the top doesn’t mean the men at the bottom are getting an easier time of it. When enough of these highly visible opportunities appear that you’re by default excluded from, the fear kicks in: Am I going to have to do this all on my own?
The above was an explanation of where the ugly can come from: fear. It is not an excuse. It does not excuse petty, jealous, bigoted or ugly behavior.
I am personally glad female students got an opportunity to go to JSConf. Would I have loved to have someone pay my way? Absolutely. Could I afford such a trip on my own? No. Does it suck for me? Sure. But taking that out on people who equally deserve an opportunity is just low caliber behavior, and I won’t be a part of it.
Petty Goes Both Ways
It’s not just men, though, that are at fault with the poor behavior.
Rebecca Murphey participated in a Twitter exchange on this topic, sending off a response to John-David Dalton that went as follows: “having to like dick jokes, having no peers, having ppl make sexist jokes & grope you .. definitely not barriers, nope.”
Now, the tweet Dalton wrote about perceiving no barriers to women in CS professions was (in my opinion) incredibly naive. But there’s nothing more distasteful to me than a lump statement about men that makes us into sexual predators or highschoolers. Every time the topic of gender in the industry comes up I see someone using this argument: the concept that men are predatory, juvenile, hostile workspace-creating monsters.
Let’s get this straight. Some people, of both genders, are predatory and juvenile. They represent, at best, a small fracture of most of society. The fact that men dominate a field does unfortunately means that the bad apples in that field are going to be men. But I’m tired of being lumped in with them. I’m not a groper. I’m not telling dick jokes around the ladies. I’m not putting bikini shots in my presentations. These people exist, and they need to be called out for the monsters they are by members of both genders. But to use them as an example of how all men are bastards is as irresponsible as using shrill prima donnas as the example of how all women are bitches.
If we’re going to responsibly tackle the difficult topic of gender in the industry, we need to engage one another in good faith. Period. Knocking over burning barrels of trash isn’t going to elicit the kind of reaction anyone wants, and the fact that our field of debate is the Internet means the fires always burn hotter.
Elaine’s response to Joe’s post loses some of its credibility due to this very issue. To quote her: “Fuck you. No, seriously. Fuck you.”
I get it. It’s a rant. It’s also going to get this dialogue nowhere fast. Right when I hit this phrase, I started losing sympathy for Elaine’s post. This is a shame, because I 100% agree with the “TLDR” statement she used to sum up her rant: “Men and women need to be able to pursue the careers that are most fitting to their talents and interests. They aren’t always able to do so now.”
I feel sorry for her mother’s experiences, but when she told Joe to fuck off, she lost any maturity points she had above the jealous, petty men who got ugly about Google sponsoring women conference attendees. If we can’t respect the people we’re in a conversation with, we have no chance to create a common ground for the future. This constant need to burn down our ideological opposites in every arena is what makes the Internet so damned burdensome at times.
Also, last I checked, it never solves anything. Let me check here. Joe, did you turn around your views from being cussed at? No?
Cake: Eat It or Have It
Lastly, I want to address an issue of hypocrisy to me.
Recently I participated in a short Twitter dialogue about Girl Geek Dinners, which Nicole made a tweet about desiring to attend. I found it somewhat hypocritical to advocate inclusion for women while practicing exclusion for men. The responses from women I got were to the effect of “standard geek dinners are by default male geek dinners.” This may be true elsewhere, but see my bit near the top about my own experiences. Also, if it were explicitly “men only”, would it be sexist? Would it be exclusion?
I encourage female participation in any form of geekdom. I encourage making it explicitly female-friendly to ensure a more likely attendance ratio. But to quote Matt Wilcox: “Gender based exclusion is sexist, whichever way around. Can’t cake and nom.”
* Yes, I’d prefer to see more women in the industry, and encourage good developers over code-cowboys.
* Petty, ugly discriminatory or inflammatory behavior from both genders makes the discussion more difficult and solves nothing and regardless of what sort of fear motivates it.
* Constructive dialogue is important.
* You cannot practice exclusion while preaching inclusion without losing credibility.
* Cake is delicious.
Edit: John-David Dalton clarifies his experience and viewpoint on the women in web development issue at his blog here. Sometimes we all (myself included) forget how unforgiving 140 characters can be. Knowing where he comes from puts a much better perspective on his participation in this most recent process. Thank you, sir, for elaborating.