We found women in tech, so why are you still not reporting about them?

A Guide to the UnconventionalThere’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 both in 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.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

34 thoughts on “We found women in tech, so why are you still not reporting about them?”

  1. To be fair, a lot of folks in the German Barcamp community would agree with you and have been trying very actively to tackle this issue.

    Cologne and Frankfurt did a slightly better job with a little over 10 percent female participation. And that’s after what seems to have been a lot of effort was put into reaching out to women.

    Upcoming Barcamp Hamburg looks like they will fall into the same range (barely).

    So, yes, maybe a 80-2 ratio is unacceptable, but you’ve got to start somewhere (and make progress from there). I’m confident Nuremberg II (should they ever do one) will be more diverse than the first. 😉

  2. Great article Chris, thank you for putting it out there.

    As someone who headed up an all women tech team, they were quite simply better at the job, I hope I’m never offensive to anyone. I also hope that if I was, someone would have the guts to pull me up on it.

    – Neil.

  3. You have to stay vigilant and I think you worded yourself well. Not too many deep barbs, and it’s quite to the point.

    We need great women leaders in the community/industry and I don’t want to see us go down further tubes like what happened to Kathy Sierra. You shouldn’t have to grow a kevlar coat or stay invisible to exist here.

  4. Chris, a similar write up regarding women in IT was made in Australia (Sydney Morning Herald’s Next section – the business IT supplement) specifically targeting gender issues but also looking at where they stem from.

    There is still such a massive social stigma against women getting involved in highly technical positions which I think is exceedingly unfortunate. Doesn’t matter if they have a penis or not – it’s how they perform in the job (without the sexist comments that make ones life hard in a very male industry).

  5. Ever read about the Implicit Association Test (IAT)?

    I have to wonder if many reporters have implicit associations wrt men vs women in the space of tech.

    A typical consciousness raising / activist-y effort would be then to aim for further education, but anecdotally I have heard reports of at least one set of professors that were conscious of their own gender bias and yet when they looked at how they rated “average” prof job hires, the gender bias was still there.

    I think there’s two points two infer from that bit of data. One, that being a “superstar” in a field outweighs some gender bias, as it’s clear if you’re awesome you’re just awesome.

    But if you’re just a bit more typical, /even if you’re conscious of your own bias/ you still may be affected by it.

    Another point suggested by a PhD candidate here at TheFarm who studies, specifically, women in tech (Sapna Cheryan — http://www.flickr.com/photos/wu_135/471800970/) is that environmental factors such as what items are placed in a room seems to affect young women’s measured interest in majoring in Computer Science.

    That said, I do think education is important, even if it may have a limited impact on the older generations. I also think it’s worth having some understanding of how power dynamics tend to work, and how top-k “merit-based” sampling for speaker/member selection can lead to a poorer result (working on this paper now).

    And of course there’s homophily and all that jazz…


  6. Chris,

    Thank you for your insightful posts on this issue.

    It is curious (and discouraging) that the number of women at some of the European events is so low. I would have thought that countries that have managed to get a reasonable amount of women into physics would have more women in tech as well.

  7. Great post Chris.

    I wonder if we should start taking more accurate headcount at events in Toronto. If you look at the events surrounding BarCamp Toronto Techweek. You can see that some evens have more balanced ratios then others. Maybe we can compare the attendees of Drupalcamp (Walkah give me numbers), InteractionCamp and the EnterpriseCamp events.

    Toronto has tried to tackle this problem as well as acting deplorably in the past and we need to take responsibility somehow.

    I know data collection is not a solution but it is where I think I will start.

  8. In a quarter century of community organizing in the tech world, I’ve found this to be a chronic issue. With any user group/conference/process, there are many sorts of filters that people apply in deciding whether or not to attend, including:

    – who are the organizers? (seed group/core) It is harder to diversify if the priorities/interests/styles of whatever group you are missing is not in there from the beginning.

    – who do people know? As commented above, people tend to bring friends and people they are most comfortable talking with and who they feel would fit in. Conversations and relationships crossing the gender line perhaps experience static or obstacles relating to motivation and experience.

    – Priorities, choices:

    This situation is not universal to the format. I believe FoodCamp was much more gender balanced; Mobile Persuasion Camp as well.

    There are creative solutions. A Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer trying to achieve ethnic diversity at an event would allow allow nonminorities to register if they brought along someone of a different ethnic background. Distribute the problem, make it everyone’s responsibility.

    It helps if the beneficiaries of bias in the system get some perspective/training so they can recognize that they are indeed, benefiting from the system (so much is just implicit/taken for granted that it is sometimes hard to see)… and so they can see what they’re missing as well.

  9. We’ll get there, not by sitting on our hands, but I am pretty determined to bring more women to our next BC (Nuremberg II & Munich)’s tables.

    Not because of this particular post or what Aaron or Philip or whoever said, but because I personally see the sharing folks behind our *camps as a movement towards a nicer, equal and grand society for people and businesses (and therefore people again) alike, but what the heck, we need and want everyone, no matter what differentiation.

    You could also argue that there were hardly any “black” people or only 10% where beyond the age of 35 etc – what we ultimately need is a way to reach everyone else that is not a “white guy like me.. and you”… and we should invite everyone to participate in this discussion. We’ve found a weakness, let’s fix it!


  10. I should add that articles like the Business Week one are total wipeouts to a girl’s self-esteem. Did I not appear to be in charge? I thought I spent most of my time talking to Scott – several hours, in fact. I didn’t even deserve a mention?

    My inner Gollum starts thinking, “Well, maybe you just aren’t that remarkable. Perhaps you should just throw in the towel.”

    I read that article and my heart dropped. Being one of two other unnamed people standing on a chair after spending months of energy, time and heart and soul working on that event makes me bitter and angry. Not a positive outcome.

    Dammit…I’m even aggressive about being out front. And, as Chris knows, this ain’t the first time.

  11. Chris, as I said in my post that you commented on, I had really hoped that this was a serious problem only in the world I work in…the world of the church. I had high hopes that technology (and by extension it’s world) would level the playing field. Apparently not. I have spent 10 years being a pain about this (may be the reason I am no longer invited to be on planning committees 😉 but someone has to do it. I appreciate you taking the influence you have and making this an issue.

  12. This is great stuff. Here’s the bender that’s getting me hung up.

    I really just want to see individuals. I don’t want to see men. I don’t want to see women, or race, or class.

    Yet to address these issues, I have to use the very categories that are used by the very people that make glass ceilings.

    Is there a better way of talking?

    We’re asking “Why aren’t you reporting about women?” And Chris does a great job of pointing out particular people, like Kelly Goto who does awesome design work.

    How do we liberate ourselves from categories of race, class and gender?

    Why isn’t society at large ready to ask, “Where are all the awesome people?” and have that be code for the everyday, wrong things that we want to change?

  13. When I started software companies in the 1980s we had a great male/female mix – probably 40% female, even though we were a software company. Why? I think it’s because we threw everyone into the same mixing bowl and the geeks taught the non-geeks – and vide-versa – we sent the geeks to the trade shows to talk with the customers, which turned the geeks into market-aware product developers. In my peak productivity period, Heidi Roizen, Esther Dyson and Ann Winblad were among our heros – maybe y’oughtta ask them why today is any different than then. My guess about today’s poor ratio is that, as I would guess, there are still far more male programmers than female and perhaps “geek” is too closely aligned with “programmer.” Gotta just broaden out the topics of discussion and get beyond coding. Get Ryanne in there about video. Get Kaliya in there about identity. Reach out and bring in the people who can make the meeting(s) even more “reachy” and interesting. And productive.

  14. Thanks for this post. It’s nice to hear a guy saying this for once rather than the girls having to do all the fighting. It was also good for me to hear it – I have been dealing with this for a long time and honestly, I’d been beaten down enough that I’d stopped fighting. I was ok with getting excited if there are more than 10% women in the room with me. I was prepared to deal with the constant machismo/sexism/mild misogynism. But now I’m all fired up – thanks 🙂

    I believe one of the fundamental barriers to women in tech is the lack of a supportive community. Certainly I’ve felt like an outsider in this industry forever. Last night, I went home and wrote some code, then I did some sewing. I’m currently looking for a suitable Louis Vuitton handbag for my new Macbook. It feels like I’m a walking contradiction – yet why should any of these activities feel contradictory?

    Women are not going to participate in tech until they can feel like they can be themselves. From my involvement with the Melbourne IEEE Women in Engineering group, I know that this is a very culturally specific thing – our colleagues in India for example don’t even understand the necessity for such groups, given that there are more women than men in EE engineering over there. And while “women in tech� type activities are necessary and useful, I don’t think they are an answer. I don’t think we can solve it in a blog post, but in general we need more open mindedness, and more challenging of stereotypes.

    Some interesting data – out of a sample of 40 active Twitterers in Melbourne, Australia, 32 are male, 7 are female and 1 is a company. (Caveat – this data was collected very roughly, based on who was visible on twittermaps at 1:30pm AEST Friday 11th May. I assumed that the gender of the person in your photo was your actual gender. I dare say that there are far more non active Twitterers in Melbourne, but I didn’t think that level of activity and gender would be strongly correlated, so I think the data is still reasonable.) A ratio of 5:1 is actually pleasantly surprising, but still not good enough. Let’s not just talk about it – let’s make the change happen.

  15. Thanks for the lady love 🙂 It’s a secret pet peeve of mine actually…since I’ve been accused of not doing my own writing a few times. I guess I look too female to be smart.

  16. Thank you for this article. Sometimes I really think the fact that I am female, short and look younger than I am is *the* main reason I had such a hard time finding work last year. While I work more in the film/video end of the tech spectrum, it’s much the same in that industry, if not worse.

  17. It is undeniable fact that we are contorting the image of women through a fixed ideology or inherited culture in which they find them selves more restricted in all field,However,that not good for our progress.Women should not be discriminated or excluded from tech community in order to reach the top priority.

    Armand Rousso

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: