It seems like every other week I’m reading a blog post from a person who went to a tech conference, or a meetup, or heard a talk, and was rightly offended that someone made a tactless joke about women, either about women in general or about specific women. It is disheartening to hear that any group would be made to feel less worthy of respect in our circle, especially at a time when our industry is undergoing one of the most massive and impactful revolutions in decades, and at a time when we need new blood the most. Every person in our industry should be fighting for inclusivity and should welcome new members with open arms and helpful tutorials. Why there aren’t more people pushing for this, I don’t know.
It is equally saddening to hear so many respectable people jump to conclusions about what your actual motives might be when trying to have an adult discussion about this sensitive subject. I’ll make no qualms about it; I’m a born-middle-class white guy, so right off the top, there will be people who will read this under the pretext that I’m either a misogynist or that I’m some kind of “Internet white knight”. As a middle-class white guy, my exposure to injustice and inequality has been limited. I cannot possibly know how it feels to hear words thrown around that minimize the role of women in tech. But I also have rarely been a presenter; who am I to say that I know what Noah Kagan’s motives were when he put “faceless bitch” on a slide at a recent conference? He could’ve been trying to lighten the mood, he could have a vendetta against women in tech. I don’t know.
I’m inclined to believe that incidents like this, such as where women are mocked by a presenter, are isolated events perpetuated by a non-representative group of a few people. When I go to conferences, I keep an active ear open for slurs against women, and have yet to hear any. But what’s fascinating to me is how women are the group continually called out. A demographic survey created by A List Apart shows that women made up 17.8% of respondents; the same study also showed that Asians, blacks, and Hispanics each represented no more than 6% of the group (which is itself a completely separate topic of inequality that seems to be forgotten in these discussions). Yet women are the demographic so frequently mocked and shamed. It probably boils down to sex and the fact that the people that connect to this industry tend to be more introverted, but I don’t know.
The only two things that unite everyone in this industry are that 1) we are all fascinated with high technology, and that 2) we are all humans. As humans we have cognitive biases which prejudice us towards recognizing things the way we’d like them to be. So when we hear that, over the course of several conferences, jokes were made that denigrate women, we’re biased to believe that these events are misogynistic in nature, and that repeated incidents show a trend of sexist men trying to keep out women. It’s possible that’s what’s happening; I think the truth is that these people generally are poor communicators and entertainers put into a role of communicating and entertaining, and failing. But I don’t know.
I don’t know the solutions to the problems we face, but I do know a few things that we all can do better, no matter what subset of demographics you belong to.
- Actively call out unacceptable remarks when they’re perpetuated at the expense of any group within our community. Whether that’s at the expense of women, men, Android fans, Windows fans, Apple fans, anyone. There is no logical reason for our fledgling industry to show animosity towards any group.
- Fight the groupthink mentality to label anyone who screws up . Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Few people are truly evil and rotten. I’m reminded of this YouTube video on race; watch, but replace “racist” with “sexist”. Address what they did, not who they are. Let’s address individual problems without calling into question someone’s motives, unless someone makes the same mistake over and over without remorse.
- Consider not just on how your message is delivered, but also on how it will be perceived. Your audience will contain not only women, but members of every race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Joking at the expense of other groups is juvenile and unbecoming, and will reflect negatively not only on the speaker but on the tech community as a whole.
- Mentor young people who are interested in high technology, and help them learn how to become successful and open-minded. This is something that we should be doing a better job of as an industry as a whole. A teenager who wants to become a software engineer will learn acceptance if they are accepted into a group dominated by grown-ups.
More non-middle-class-white-guy people in our industry will only benefit everyone, from developers to designers to companies to customers. We must be vigilant to keep prejudice out and embrace every single person who wants to contribute to this revolution. But we must be similarly careful not to vilify people for mistakes; hindsight is, after all, 20/20. Of course, maybe I’m wrong. I just don’t know.
Be excellent to each other.
Thanks to Faruk Ateş, who has spoken at length on this issue, for his feedback on this post.