Diversity HTML5


homogeneity: noun

composition from like parts, elements, or characteristics

Not long ago, Molly Holzschlag tweeted an innocuous comment:

I’d love to see a woman or group of women edit the HTML5 spec. It’d make for an interesting social experiment. Certainly would be a first.

I re-tweeted her without additional comment, and that started a sequence of responses that surprised me in their vehement rejection of “positive discrimination”—as if the only way that women could possibly be involved in editing the HTML5 spec is because of the result of some kind of reverse discrimination.

Craig Grannel caught the byplay and sent me an email asking if I’d be willing to be interviewed for .net magazine, not only about the tweets, but comments I made about the W3C and sexism. Discussions on this topic have not gone well in the past, and I didn’t expect any positive dialog from this interview, but as the saying goes: hope springs eternal.

The interview appeared in Call for greater diversity in web community. I thought that Craig did a decent job of taking my disjointed thoughts and punching them into a coherent whole, but I also decided to publish my full comments. There were a couple of points I made in my response that I wanted to emphasize.

> – How do you think the HTML WG would benefit from female leadership, or, at least, more women being involved? In what ways do you think the “dynamics of an all male leadership” have been negative?

I can’t give you a sound bite, because there is a back story to these communications. I guess I’ll have to trust that what I write will either not be used, or won’t be used in such a way as to cause more problems.

Women are underrepresented in the tech field, but they’re even more underrepresented in W3C working groups. Even with the recent addition of a woman to the TAG group, men in leadership positions in the W3C and in W3C working groups is disproportionate.

Unfortunately, women also underrepresented among the W3C representatives from the browser companies, which is why I believe the HTML WG is so badly skewed towards the masculine.

The group’s entire focus the last few years has been on basically giving the WhatWG members representing a few of the browser companies whatever they want. The procedures put in place to demonstrate a more “egalitarian” viewpoint have actually done the opposite.

If you’ve followed along the effort over the years, the debacle over the longdesc attribute, an accessibility aid, is representative of how badly the change process procedures have failed.

And that might be one key to some of the problems women have had in the group. Most of the women participating in the HTML WG have come in from the accessibility movement, and the people interested in accessibility have long been recipients of disdain and derision–typically expressed outside the group, true, but impacting on group dynamics.

However, what happens in public concerns me less than what happens in private. I’m not the only woman who has received a “tsk tsk, must behave better” email from the HTML WG chairs and members. The chairs say they’ve sent emails of like nature to guys, too, but there’s a different flavor to the communications–a patronizing tone that just sets my teeth on edge.

One time, I addressed some of my concerns in an email to www-archives–the dump hole for W3C communications–about my perceptions of sexism in the HTML WG group, and a W3C staff member wrote me to chastise–literally chastise me–telling me that he showed the communications that led to my emails to his girlfriend. and she didn’t see anything sexist about them.

As if we women all think alike, like some kind of single celled organism that shows absolutely no differentiation.

Tell me something: do you think the exact same thing as all the men you know? Do you perceive writings the same way? Do you all share the exact same opinions? Then why the heck would any of you expect the same from women?

I actually did formally complain to W3C leadership about my concerns about the HTML WG and underlying, subtle sexism, and their handling of the complaint was appalling. They turned around and communicated my complaint to the HTML WG co-chairs, one of whom sent me a blistering email in response. It was impossible to work with the group after that, and I’ve had little respect for the W3C management since.

Now I’m greatly concerned, because I’m seeing the same disdain and patronizing attitude directed to an HTML WG member who has been with the group for years, fighting for accessibility. I’ve watched her become disillusioned, and go from being an active, engaged member, to someone who rarely participates at all.

It’s not right.

Can more women in leadership help? I honestly can’t say whether we could or not, but I’d like to think it would help to have more women in positions of responsibility and authority. At a minimum, we couldn’t make it any worse that what it is. Frankly, the group is too homogeneous. It really doesn’t represent the broader Web community.

> – You said: “How about encouraging more women to get involved, rather than chasing out most who were?” What did you mean by that? (Note: from some of the responses in your feed, I can certainly infer, but it’d be good to get your thinking on this.)

I don’t want to speak for other women, I can only speak for myself.

I left the HTML WG group. I just couldn’t handle the emails telling me to behave, the chastisement, as if I’m a little girl and they’re all Daddy. I have better things to do with my time than be condescended to.

What’s been frustrating about my decision to leave, though, is people telling me now that “If you don’t like what’s happening with HTML5, get involved”, when I was involved at one time, and had to leave.

What’s even more frustrating is an attitude I see from many men and women involved in technology, especially as it relates to the W3C: unless a guy points out that sexism exists, it doesn’t exist.

Sexism isn’t always overt. It isn’t always some guy showing a slide with a naked woman’s bum during a tech conference. Sexism can be as much slow erosion as sudden explosion. Women feeling as if we’re ignored, that we’re patronized, that our contributions weigh less–sexism is as much about subtle perception, as it is about blatant acts.

In my opinion, the W3C, in general, and the HTML WG, in particular, have problems with sexism.

And every time I say this, I get slammed. So here we go again.

Ian Devlin wrote what I felt was a disappointing response to the .net magazine article.

What I did have issue with however, was what I saw as the implied notion that a woman would be better at doing the job of HTML5 editor simply because of her sex.

Isn’t that just as bad as saying that a man would be better at the task at hand simply because he is a man? Such a comment would, quite correctly, cause uproar. Granted the implication probably wasn’t intended, but I think that it was this perceived attitude that started the debate.

No one ever implied that women would do better just because we’re women. This was never said: in Molly’s comment, in my responses, or in the article. The real focus in all of the remarks was on the lack of diversity in the W3C leadership and among the working groups. Not only are women not well represented, but even among the men there is little diversity. Those who have defined the HTML5 spec display a remarkable similarity in thought and opinion, matched only by an almost complete lack of empathy.

Could women help? Good lord, we couldn’t make matters worse.

There’s a second component to my comments, though, that I wanted to re-emphasize: that sexism isn’t always overt acts. In fact, I don’t really care about overt sexism. Acts of this nature tend to self-implode, and they don’t need me to light a match. No, it’s the subtle form of sexism that bothers me. As I wrote in the interview response, subtle forms of sexism erode over time. There is rarely anything anyone can point to and say, “Aha! Sexism!” But in the back of your mind, there exists a feeling that no matter what you do or say, you won’t be heard, your concerns will not be addressed, your input really isn’t welcome.

You just kind of drift away.

Even now, when we have a fresh opportunity to discuss the issues, to address the lack of diversity in the W3C, our concerns are rejected as “positive discrimination”. That’s the same as saying how dare we hit that fist with our face.

Just as an aside: I did volunteer to be a co-editor of HTML5, back in 2008, I believe it was. My offer was rejected.