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.

Diversity Specs

W3C HTML WG decisions and the ARIA meltdown

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

One last decision I want to touch on, for now, was the decision related to Issue 129 on ARIA Mapping. In the decision, the co-chairs sided with the change proposal that added new role mappings for several elements. An uncomplicated change proposal that should require only some small edits to the ARIA mapping table.

However, things are never as simple as they seem.

First, the change tracking shows the addition of interesting new editorial comments related to this change:

These are issues that are known to the editor but cannot be
currently fixed because they were introduced by Sam Ruby
acting as chairman of the W3C HTML Working Group as part of
the HTML Working Group Decision Process. In theory we could
fork the WHATWG copy of the spec, but doing so would introduce
normative differences between the W3C and WHATWG specs and
these issues are not worth the hassle that this would cause.
We’ll probably be able to fix them some day, but for now we
are living with them.

In addition, evidently the changes made to the HTML5 spec didn’t agree with the change proposal, as noted by Steve Faulkner. To make a long, sad story short: a request was made to revert the changes and the editor must bring whatever changes he makes to meet the decisoin to the working group, first, before applying to the document.

I’m, personally, less bothered by the editorial errors than I am the discussion about forking. In many ways, this only demonstrates why the license discussion, which also seems to be never-ending, is essential: forking a specification is not the same as forking software. And there’s too much of a tendency among some folks in the WHATWG to want to fork, first, and then work through the issues.

I’m also concerned that these issues will continue to arise, time and again, because folks at the W3C are dancing around the edges of the problem, rather than confronting the problem directly. However, if the W3C does respond assertively, there is a very real possibility of one or more browser companies taking their marbles and quitting the game.

It’s a damnable situation.



Women in open source at OSCON

Excellent presentation at OSCON by Kirrily Robert: Standing out in the Crowd about women in open source.

One very interesting graphic in the presentation shows that 80% of women in open source noticed sexism or gender discrimination, compared to only 20% of men who noticed. This pretty much backs up what I’ve found every time I’ve pointed out diversity problems: all of the guys tell me how wrong I am.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Diversity Technology

Open Arms

Regarding the recent Golden Gate Ruby Conference…

Sara Allan

The second low point was Matt Aimonetti’s talk “CouchDB + Ruby: Perform Like a Pr0n Star.” It is unfortunate that he took this joke too far. What might have been a short, juvenille, eye-rolling bit of humor continued throughout the talk to become increasingly disturbing. Amidst this normally warm, welcoming community, I spent an uncomfortable half hour wondering if I had somehow found myself in 1975.

If he had left it at a few introductory jokes, I would be writing a very different post. Instead the porn references continued with images of scantily-clad women gratuitously splashed across technical diagrams and intro slides. As he got into code snippets, he inserted interstitial images every few slides (removed from the slides below). The first time it happened, he mentioned that he wanted to keep everyone’s attention. It had the reverse effect. This technique was distracting and disrespectful to an audience who, frankly, is turned on by code.

Audrey Eschright

Here’s another problem in this tangle: Ruby (and Rails in particular) loves the rock star image. You see it in job posts, how people talk about their work, and the way Rubyists rant on their blogs. It’s macho, it can be offputting to both genders, and it makes it easy in this kind of situation to say, “what’s your problem? I’m just busy being awesome”. It’s also a significant barrier to adoption for people who aren’t already a part of this culture, and don’t find it appealing.

Mike Gunderloy

For what it’s worth, I think the original presentation was an inappropriate and regrettable mistake. However, far more disturbing to me are the reactions to the discussion on the part of some of the Rails community.

Folks, the idea that women are disproportionately underrepresented in engineering and software in general, and open source development in particular, should not be new and controversial in 2009 – anyone who cares to look can find such things as the FLOSSpols findings, or any amount of academic literature on the subject. Anyone who cares to take the time to actually talk to the women who are a part of the open source community will have no trouble getting an earful about how challenging it can be to participate.

But unfortunately for me, in parallel to the public discussion there have been private ones. I can’t reveal details without breaking confidences, but suffice it to say that a significant number of Rails core contributors – with leadership (if that’s the right word) from DHH – apparently feel that being unwelcoming and “edgy” is not just acceptable, but laudable. The difference between their opinions and mine is so severe that I cannot in good conscience remain a public spokesman for Rails.

Victoria Wang, in comments

DHH’s attitude seems to say that the more we lower ourselves to the most base level of marketing scum in the name of entertainment, the better, even if at the end of the day there are no more women, or anyone worth knowing, in the room. It kind of makes me want to never touch Rails code again.

Rev Dan, in comments

What chaps my ass about the whole thing is that it’s doing little more but reinforce the bullshit “developers are immature, overgrown 14-year-olds” stereotype. I’m sick to death of that one, especially because I run into that type of jackass more often than I care to.

We kinda have a “chicken and egg” scenario going on here… unless there are more women who attend these things then the few women who do will always feel like outsiders… but if the few women who attend now are offended, then why will more attend?

Matt Aimonetti’s response

In the case of my talk, people knew what to expect, they *picked* the talk, and were warned by the organizers before I started that I would be using imagery potentially offensive to some. The topic of my talk was obvious, and I would have hoped that people who were likely to be offended would have simply chosen not to attend my talk or read my slides on the internet. It’s like complaining that television has too much material unsuitable for children, yet not taking steps to limit their viewing of it. You can’t have it both ways.

We can argue forever about morals, professionalism, ethics, respect, etc., though this is all a distraction from the real problem that was raised by Sarah, namely that we have very few minorities in the Ruby community, especially women. Minorities do need to be more represented!

Ryan Bigg

I fear that it will rip a community apart. A community that should be working together on getting past this issue and bettering themselves, not regressing to childish bickering. That’s what gives this community an “immature” stamp by the [insert other programming language here] groups.

All I ask for you guys is to…


Sho Fukamachi

Other reactions include pathetic “I am being victimised” attention-seeking, lame attempts at demonstrating how much “I truly care about women” etc, hilarious “I am leaving the Ruby community and re-installing Visual Studio” threats (please do!), and every combination thereof. I cannot help but think that if Matt’s presentation has the effect of getting rid of these disingenuous wowsers then he should henceforth be invited, nay required, to present at every Rails conference.

DHH, the father of Rails

But wait…there’s more…

Alpha Male Programmers aren’t keeping Women Out

You certainly have to be mindful when you’re working near the edge of social conventions, but that doesn’t for a second lead me to the conclusion that we should step away from all the edges. Finding exactly where the line goes — and then enjoying the performance from being right on it — requires a few steps over it here and there.


Excellent aggregation of opinions from women in the Ruby/Rails community. Particularly liked Amy Hoy’s take in comments

If you are going to try to be edgy and push boundaries and shit, you should at least be sure you’re good at it and know how to handle that kind of content, first. Otherwise, it’s just destructive.

Diversity RDF W3C

The intent speaks louder than words

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I was thinking about taking a shot at writing my own use case or use cases for RDFa in HTML5 until I spotted the recent entry at Last Week in HTML. The site posts an excerpt from an IRC discussion related to the ongoing exchange about RDFa and HTML5.

* hsivonen is surprised to see Shelley Powers use a pharse like ” most pedantic specification ever derived by man”
hsivonen: (the “by man” part)

annevk: hsivonen, what is special about that part?

hsivonen: annevk: she has a history of pointing out sexism, and expressions like “by man” where ‘man’ means humans in general are generally frowned upon by English-language feminists

annevk: oh, didn’t know that

Rather than respond to any of the arguments and concerns expressed in several comments at Sam’s, or my own long writings on the issue of RDFa and HTML5, the only part of my writing that’s mentioned or referenced in this ongoing discussion is the fact that I used the generic “Man”, to represent humankind.

Actually most English-language feminists aren’t necessarily uptight about the use of “Man” when used in the generic sense, such as in the common phrase, “known to Man”. Or, at a minimum, the use of this common phrase isn’t one of our more pressing concerns. We’re more uptight about our work, writings, and opinions being undermined via the use of irrelevancies. To the true feminist, intent means more than words.

So, to return to the use case: I could spend a considerable amount of time trying to recap the issues related to Qnames and CURIEs, technical concerns versus biases, and generate a longer, thoughtful use case, but unless I use a Word in it, or perhaps a humorous misspelling or funny use of grammar, the work would most likely be disregarded.