Diversity Technology Web

Speak softly

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Interesting writing and discussion on another perspective about women in technology. This is from the DevChix group, and though I really dislike the use of ‘chix’ and ‘grrl’ when referencing professional women, it’s a good site to discover women working in the newer Web 2.0 technologies.

In the essay, the writer who goes by gloriajw, believes that one of the reasons women have been dropping out of the field is the hostile nature of most tech environments. She addresses this from the perspective of what makes women’s only groups more approachable:

The material for this article came about through my participation in both women-only and mixed gender groups of many kinds. When I wonder why tech groups aren’t tolerable for many women, I look at the inverse of the problem: What makes women-only tech groups more tolerable for women?

Of the behavioral patterns she’s identified in said groups, she mentions a strong sense of community, and in particular how communication is managed:

Destructive criticism is the best way to keep a site predominantly male. It implies that there is no concern about whether a person can learn from a response or not, or whether they would find offense. It is an outward display of ego, a territorial “pissing rite” in which most women do not and will not participate.

In such groups, the author states, bad behavior is seldom called and typically ignored. Contrastingly, in women’s groups:

If you do something awful to one woman in a women-only community, all will hear and know about it, and you are ousted. Most of the time this is first discussed and voted on by many group members. Many times the women’s group will even make an effort to explain the offense to the oblivious offender. But if the offender is still oblivious and/or offending, the offender is out. This is done to protect the interests and goals of the group. Many male dominated online groups don’t run this way. Most if not all women’s groups run this way, whether online or off.

There is a reason why I won’t join such women’s group, and this paragraph more or less sums it up for me. This ‘group think’ way of dealing with difficulty I find, frankly, repugnant. I happen to agree that ignoring a person who exhibits ‘bad’ behavior is one of the better approaches to take. I’ve seldom seem a troll continue when no responds to what they say.

And what is ‘bad’ behavior? When does such voting take place? In the last week I’ve been called both mean and vicious because of my criticism of a company and a company’s actions. Is it then that one must preface all criticism with something sweet and fluffy in order to ease the difficulty of the words? I can’t think of any better approach to shut down all discussion than to have to struggle through some inner debate about how to coach criticism in ‘nice’ terms in order to express such. Weblogging has demonstrated that nice is relative–having to do with popularity, as much as tone and word usage.

gloriasw, has four suggestions for online discussion areas to make them more inviting for women:

  1. Immediately delete offending and off-topic comments
  2. Return aggressive or overly hard comments back to the creator and have them re-phrase
  3. Treat the space like a community, which I presume means to monitor
  4. Explicitly state the site is ‘woman friendly’

She also has approaches to take for men to communicate with women:

  • Don’t assume when a woman is enthusiastic about their work, they’re hitting on you or has to do with you
  • Leave your libido at the door
  • Women aren’t dressing the way they do because they’re sending you signals
  • Something about guy humor can be OK if the first three items are kept in mind

There is some of this I agree with, but I have to ask the question: do women spend all day running from the men in their groups? I’ve rarely had issues of being hit on, even when I was younger and considered ‘purty’. I’ve rarely seen this happen with other women. Is this happening, now, among the younger men? Younger tech guys, do you spend all your time hitting on the women at work?

Too much emphasis lately on women being perceived as sexual object or victim’, and way too much emphasis on how the problems women are having in technology are because men see us as sex objects. I’m sorry, this is not my perception. I’ve been in the industry 25 years, and I’ve rarely seem women hit on at work, nor do I see such behavior in most of the discussions I get involved in.

Does it exist? I imagine so, but I seriously doubt this is the reason women are not joining and are leaving the tech field. Why? Because such behavior is everywhere–it’s not unique to Web 2.0 environments. The feel of titanium or the glow of an LCD does not trigger men into being primal savages.

As for the aggressive nature of the discussions, again, considering that I’m also seen as a ‘aggressive’ communicator, I don’t know if communication style is the problem as much as lack of respect and the communication only reflects this. To me, the larger issue is that women in tech are not as respected as the men, and hence our work is more easily discredited or ignored, our contributions downplayed, our participation compromised. Worse, when we do get into passionate discussion, our arguments tend to be discredited using the too typical ‘shrill’ or my personal favorite, ‘hysterical’.

What concerns me about writings such as gloriasw’s is that this can actually make things worse, rather than better.

The first writing I ever did on sexism in this weblog was related to Doc Searls –yes beloved, gentle Doc Searls. Doc Searls is a nice man, and yes, he does reference and link to women–more than a lot of other guys. But he’ll never get into a discussion with a woman. He will never debate a woman. In close to seven years of off and on reading of his site, I’ve never seen him actually have a truly engaged discussion with a woman. To this day, I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t respect us, professionally. Or if it’s because he doesn’t know how to have such a discussion without coming across as bully or being abusive. By not engaging with women, though, he does us more harm than if he wrote that we’re all skanky bitches.

If we keep emphasizing about how women need ‘safe’ places, we’re going to get exactly what we’re asking for: safe, isolated, segregated spaces where we never have to worry about harsh words. We’ll also never have to worry about reaching the top positions in our fields, becoming as well known, being invited to conferences, and so on, either.

Respect is the key, not tone of voice, or words used. If a person respects you, it comes across in how they respond to what you say. They may get angry, and they tell you you’re dead wrong, and they may even say you’re being an idiot in this situation. However, if the overall interaction is one of respect, it doesn’t matter the tone in any particular discussion. That’s the real problem we women have: we don’t have the respect that, frankly, we deserve.

Case in point is the Devchix site, itself. This site has been around almost a year, and covers all sorts of topics, including those of interest to the Ajaxian set. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen any of this site’s writings linked by sites such as Ajaxian. In fact, the same looks to be true for each individual contributor’s weblog–I can’t see that any of these women have been linked by some of the more dominate or well known tech weblogs.

I first found out about this writing at Simon Willison‘s weblog. Yet this is the first time (that I can find through the search engines) that Simon has ever referenced a writing from the site. Or, from what I can see, the individual weblogs of the authors. Yet they write on many topics related to the tech that Simon is interested in.

Simon does point to the Reddit thread, as demonstration that this confirms the writing, but really doesn’t this just confirm that discussions at Reddit (and Digg) tend to degenerate into three year olds flinging shit no matter what the topic? Frankly, as much as I’d like to blame Reddit or Digg or even Slashdot for women leaving tech, I find it unlikely.

Men and women are both equally capable of being aggressive and mean, and though society has educated each sex to express such in differing ways, we need to stop pointing how women are fragile flowers who can’t handle strong disagreement, while all men do is go toe to toe and spit at each other. What we need to question is when there are women in the field, writing on the topics, speaking of such, going to the conferences, why aren’t we given the acknowledgment? Why aren’t we given either the respect due us as professional or the attention we deserve as active participants. At a minimum, why, in this supposedly equal world where no one knows you’re a man, woman, or dog, why aren’t we given the links?

For all that I disagree with gloriasw, I appreciate her post. At a minimum, it highlights yet more women who are working with the Web 2.0 technologies and such attention is a good thing. I just wish when members of the site write on technology, they would be equally as noticed.

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