There’s a good article on unconferences by Scott Kirsner in next week’s BusinessWeek. He talks about what an unconference is, discusses the rise of the wider community and the potential threat to the traditional conference model.
All in all, he does a pretty good job capturing an accurate picture of the “unconference scene” and it was great getting to talk to Scott about his piece.
I did want to take issue with his singling me out of “two fellow Web2Open organizers”, and bring some attention to gender blindness in media stories such as this one.
As with many stories in the popular press, it’s fairly typical to rest the foundation of a story on one or two key individuals; it keeps complexity low and avoids getting bogged down in details that are only of import to the characters of the story. And I’m sure that Scott didn’t intend any malice, but that Ross and Tara, who both stood on those chairs with me went unnamed strikes me as a missed opportunity to highlight not only the hard work that lots of folks have put into building this community, but in particular undermines the credit that Tara deserves for the incredible amount of work that she did to make Web2Open happen. If anyone, she’s the one that really deserves to be called out in the article.
But there’s a second and more insidious issue that I want to raise now, while the issue is relevant… If you read over the article, with the inside knowledge that I have of the background that went into the article, it’s doubly unfortunate that Tara wasn’t given more credit as a female organizer when she did far more than I did to pull off the conference; on top of that, the mention of Web2Open attendee Sudha Jamthe (a previous BarCamp organizer, no less) and Tara Dunion, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, seem to paint them as bit players when compared to white guys like me, Dave Winer and Doug Gold.
Now, maybe I’m just over-sensitive to this kind of stuff, building mountains out of molehills and all that, but I suppose that’s the price of vigilance. And it’s also something that I can’t ignore when BarCamp is not and has never been solely about individuals, but about what we can do together, when serving each our own’s best interests. And this is especially relevant if you read Aaron Swartz’s thoughts on mysogny in the tech community:
If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.
I really noticed this when I was at foo camp once, Tim O’Reilly’s exclusive gathering for the elite of the tech community. The executive guys there, when they thought nobody else was around, talked about how they always held important business meetings at strip clubs and the deficiencies of programmers from various countries.
Meanwhile, foo camp itself had a session on discrimination in which it was explained to us that the real problem was not racism or sexism, but simply the fact that people like to hang out with others who are like themselves.
The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. And I should be clear, it’s not that there are just some bad people out there who are being prejudiced and offensive. Many of these people that I’m thinking of are some of my best friends in the community. It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.
Promoting women when they’re doing great things in the tech community has to become a top priority. Providing and seeking out the women who are serving in backbone roles within our community and bringing the spotlight to them and supporting them must become a shared priority. Working with women’s groups to create both inviting events and interesting opportunities to draw out and inspire the reluctant or hidden female talent is something that conference and *camp organizers alike must attend to.
I think I’m extra sensitive about this particular case for two reasons. The first is that we tried really hard and went out of our way to encourage and create diversity both in Web2Open and in the Web2Expo. It was certainly a challenge, but I’m proud of the progress we made. I personally had the privilege to work with three incredible women on the designer track (Kelly Goto, Jen Pahlka and Emily Chang) and I think that made all the difference. The second issue probably stems from the Schwartz interview where Philipp Lenssen (the interviewer) reports:
The last barcamp I was at, in Nuremberg, had a men/ women ratio of about 80/ 2. It was quite sad, and I was wondering what the cause of this was. Is it partly also a problem of the hacker culture, to behave anti-social, and that this puts off more social people? Many good programmers I know, for instance, aren’t too social.
To which Aaron astutely replies:
I think that’s probably part of it; many people don’t have the social skills to notice how offensive they’re being. But even the people who are quite social and competent misbehave and, furthermore, they support a culture where this misbehavior is acceptable. I don’t exclude myself from this criticism.
Now, for a BarCamp to have an 80-2 male-female ratio is unacceptable as far as I’m concerned. And I would hope and challenge the BarCamp community, in particular, to do whatever it takes to work to remedy a condition like this. There are simply no excuses, only constant improvements to be made. And if any community were up to the challenge of taking head on and reversing this long term, systemic trend of making women effectively invisible, I should hope, and moreover expect, that it would be the BarCamp community to take the first worldwide steps towards addressing this critical matter and setting some baseline priorities for how we’re going to improve this situation.