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The Self-Perpetuating Myths

G.R.O.S.S. didn’t work for Calvin, and it won’t work for us either. Are we discriminatory because we’re actually racists, or do we only look that way from the outside?

This is your only warning: I’m going to talk about racism and sexism in tech, and there will be some swearing. I don’t mind if you disagree with me, just try to be constructive.

One brown baby, three white. I blame a lot of things on society.

We’ve all heard that minorities aren’t fairly represented in certain aspects of society. There aren’t enough women/brown/gay/whatever on boards, or working in a specific group. We all know that girl gamers get grief. How many of you have gotten asked ‘Are you a girl IRL?’ when you play a female MMO character?

When you look at groups like the Apple execs, it’s white guys across the board. Google? 2/3rd’s white guy. Yahoo!’s surprisingly the same with three out of twelve.

But that name at the top, Marissa Mayer, is the weird one in all this.

Pretty recently she left Google for Yahoo! which was a surprise to a lot of people. Right away, the old snark showed up. She used to blog about cupcakes, and was obsessed to the point of making a spreadsheet about frostings. Seriously? What does that have to do with her ability to helm a company? If anything I’d argue that sort of obsessive attention to detail is what you want. But no, people pointed out it was a ‘chick’ thing. Because a man making a spreadsheet to understand the various pros and cons for armor on an MMO is manly, but food’s a chick thing.

That sounds pretty stupid when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Look, we all know that when it comes to brain-work, there’s no difference between what a woman can come up with and what a man comes up with. If you can’t accept that, you may as well just stop reading this blog now. What makes the difference is how we were raised and where our natural talents lie. Just because I’m not a super psycho coder, and prefer to spend my time helping people with their code, doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than the people who wrote an eCommerce plugin. And yet, people persist in saying I’m in a ‘soft’ technology role.

I think I look at more varied code than the majority of WordPress users. I review plugins and I’m pretty capable of understanding what is and isn’t a safe and secure plugin. I can look at themes and tell you where your code is inefficient. Where I lack is not in my technical chops but in my desire. How I create isn’t with code, or visual arts, but with words. The fact that I happen to be a woman means nothing. Still, you can’t escape things like the Women in Refrigerators syndrome, or how few women write comics (even ones with female leads, like Batwoman and Wonder Woman). So what’s really going on here? What’s being under-represented?

From talking to a lot of group ‘leads’ of software projects, things are still skewed to the white guy, and it shows. If you look at a community dinner I attended, the men were the majority. Then you look at what the women/brown were the leads for, and you come up with the disturbing comment I heard that UI and Support are ‘soft’ tech topics, and that sure made me feel pretty crappy. But I know support isn’t ‘soft’ anything. In support you see more code than just what you and someone else write. At the same time, I’ve been told many times that there’s no coding involved with support.

Edit: Note, the other woman actually was a core-team rep, not UI, which made the comment I heard even stupider.

A lot of this is a self-perpetuating perception issue: If a group isn’t equally represented, then there’s an issue. If women aren’t 50% of the presenters at WordCamp, you’re doing_it_wrong(), people will say. And yet we know that forcing equality does not actually make things equal. The basic idea of affirmative action makes a little sense “If you have a white man and a black woman equally qualified, pick the person who will bring more diversity to give diversity a chance.” Then again, that sounds really fucking stupid when you say it outloud, doesn’t it?

Why do people feel ‘minorities’ aren’t represented? Why do people feel equal numbers means equal representation? What makes equality?

I’ve been involved in technology since I was a kid. My grandmother loves telling the story about how, when I was under-six, I set up her Novation CAT modem, dialed into her IBM server, and entered in all her data so that she could make me french toast. Never once, until I was in my 20s and working for a company, did anyone ever make noise about how I was a woman. My family made no point of it, and neither did my schools, my friends, or the people I talked to online back then. To them, this was not a ‘boy’ thing or a ‘girl’ thing, but simply something that I liked to do. Meanwhile, I was chastised by my peers for being a tomboy, for being the ‘masculine’ one in my relationships (I feel bad, in retrospect, for my ex-boyfriends), and for all those other things where I didn’t fit in with normal. But computers, technology, and everything along those lines were never something where gender-lines were drawn.

Shannon Eastin - NLF's first female ref.All of that changed when I joined corporate America. Within a week, I knew, yet again, I was ‘different.’ I was one of five women in my area, and one of two technical women (the others were managers, though one was a working manager). I was weird, because I liked technology, I liked to play with things, and I’d research when I didn’t know. The more I moved away from Microsoft, the less overt my social oddity became, but it was still there.

This behavior does not replicate within the WordPress Community in the same way.

Oh, it’s still there, don’t get me wrong. If you want to go search through the forums, there are some awesome posts where a guy goes from totally respecting me to insulting me, and the trigger is when someone mentions in passing that I am of the female persuasion. But in the WP ‘core’ team, I’ve never met anything but respect and friendship. Now these guys are, predominately, white men, and just by their nature, lack the ability to know what it’s like to be a woman. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact. I can’t know what it’s like to be brown, they can’t know what it’s like to be a woman. But like attracts like, and it’s not surprising that the leads end up being white males.

Most groups work this way. You want to work with people you can get along with, so you pick people similar to you that add value to the party. Again, nothing’s wrong with that! Does that mean minorities get under-represented? Yes. And there is something wrong with how we’re skewed, in that way. It’s not really their fault. Like I said, I blame society. I can’t help but see the world as a woman who’s been treated like crap for being a woman, and white amles can’t help seeing the world as anything but who they are either. And I don’t think ‘forcing’ people to be diverse helps at all. It just sets up a whole mess of problems.

What can Open Source do?

So far, I think they’re doing it right, and much of that has to do with the need-based drive of technology. We need solutions, we don’t care who comes up with them, so long as they work and are secure. Also, because a lot of these developers are distributed, we lack the inherit problems of sight-prejudice, that is, if you can’t see I’m a minority, you rarely assume I am one. I become judged on the character and quality of my communication. This has drawbacks, of course. The lack of visual cues makes many of us seem like assholes (text is a terrible communication medium, as it leaves the reader to interpret what they will from what they read), when all we are is being direct.

It could be better, of course, but I don’t feel that forcing integration is going to do that in a way that won’t leave us with lingering animosity. The problem I face is that I don’t know the answer. I see the problem, and I feel, on a visceral level, the solutions we’ve made aren’t working. I rage against ‘Political Correctness’ because as we take away more and more ‘bad’ things to say, we’re left with a neutered society that lacks the ability to express their thoughts. You can’t say retard, lame, gay, or a hundred other words to express how stupid you feel something is, and with understandable reason. But saying ‘drat’ just doesn’t feel strong enough sometimes, and you want to shout ‘mother fucker!’ We lose freedom of expression in our quest to be fair.

This brings us back to my three questions:

  • Why do people feel ‘minorities’ aren’t represented?
  • Why do people feel equal numbers means equal representation?
  • What makes equality?

The fact is, I don’t know. I think the answer is numbers, but that feels less right when I say it. It’s both in value of work and volume, certainly, but neither one is more important than the other, when we get around to it. Like I said at WordCamp San Francisco: WordPress would be nothing without the devs, but it would also be nothing without the users, and without the people who offer support. We all work together. And thankfully, for the most part, Open Source gets this.

My suggestion to minorities, of whom I am two, is that sometimes when we feel we’re being persecuted, or picked on, it’s actually not that at all. We may be reading a personal attack into something that wasn’t meant that way. Take a moment to reason it out.

My suggestion to the majority, of whom I am one, be careful when you make assumptions. When you look at the world from a place of privilege, it’s incredibly hard to see things from that other perspective. Also take a trip to where you’re the minority. It’s enlightening.

I call these self-perpetuating myths because they make themselves more important. The more white-guy-only groups, the more white-guy-only they remain, and the more minorities feel/appear undervalued and underrepresented. Like begets like, and so on, until finally all we have is a steaming pile of angry. I leave this open ended, as the development of humanity is ongoing, and I hope in a decade, I can come back and look at this in a new way.

15 replies on “The Self-Perpetuating Myths”

Then you look at what the women/brown were the leads for, and you come up with the disturbing comment I heard that UI and Support are ‘soft’ tech topics, and that sure made me feel pretty crappy. But I know support isn’t ‘soft’ anything. In support you see more code than just what you and someone else write. At the same time, I’ve been told many times that there’s no coding involved with support.

Except where in order to do really good support, you have to not only understand the code, but also how to explain it to lay people.

Siiigh.

Tons to think about.

…”a man making a spreadsheet to understand the various pros and cons for armor on an MMO is manly”… — It is? To me it sounds slightly retarded or at least very immature. Certainly not manly.

What are you talking about? I gave you an honest opinion, and you insult me. At least that is what you seem to be doing.

I said it is childish to devote excessive energy and time to something as useless as some game — whether you are male or female. I said nothing about minorities.

I challenged your unqualified characterization of MMO fanaticism as “manly”. So tell me again how it is me and not you who perpetuate stereotypes.

And just so you can stuff me even deeper into that box of yours, I am a “white guy”. Fuck me, right.

An insult would have been direct. I thought you were giving an example…

Childish. That’s an interesting choice of words. What’s wrong with being childish? I should point out that I play Role-Playing games, and see nothing wrong in them. But maybe I should have said more socially acceptable. A man who plays an MMO is, generally, not perceived as being more, or less, of a man. A woman is a slut. Unless the man plays a female character, then he’s a fag.

Everything is, to one extent or another, totally useless. This blog is useless. It does nothing to make the universe better. I’m not curing diseases, or saving the whales. I’m discussing technology, and sometimes our community therein. A couple weeks ago, I was contemplating the idea of banks. How on earth did humans, as a whole, get to a place where we thought ‘money’ was this important thing. Money buys us ‘stuff’ which we don’t need, but we want, and if we have it, we can get a better job to make more money.

Talk about your self-perpetuating myths, the one about how anything has any value will break your brain if you dig too deep into it.

The only box I’ve put you in is ‘Hates MMOs’

+1 to what Mel said.

And just to add that being in minority brings all sorts of confidence issues (whether it’s because of class, gender, race, or whatever). It’s hard to speak up when it looks like people like you don’t get listened to. This means that there can be very talented people who feel like they don’t have a voice; this sucks for them as it can be frustrating and dispiriting, and also sucks for the wider community (whichever community that is) as they’re missing out on that person’s talent.

There is a certain amount of responsibility of people who are in charge to seek these people out and talk to them and get them involved (whatever their background) – and in WordPress I think people are pretty good at doing that. Equally, I think that those of us who are in minorities and don’t feel such confidence issues can help to make it easier for others.

Great post.

One problem that’s endemic to open source projects is the fact that the “egalitarian” developer groups admit new people to their ranks based on the merit of contributed code. That’s fine… except for two factors.

One, women tend to have less formal education in programming, because they drop out of computer science programs due to the lack of support and/or outright harassment they encounter in school. (Ask me about my undergraduate advisor sometime.) Or, they don’t enter the program to begin with, for various reasons.

Two, women who seek to teach themselves online encounter still more harassment if they do so using an obviously feminine username or avatar. (Or when their sex is pointed out by another commenter, as you described.)

So, you end up with newbie developers who need a lot of beginner-level documentation. The more experienced developers tend to reply to questions with variations of “RTFM.” But the Codex, by design, does not include tutorials, only code examples. And a beginner without a proper background in programming logic (never mind PHP syntax) can’t be expected to dive in by reading the source code and doc blocks.

At a recent WordCamp I attended, as the speaker described something that theme developers commonly do wrong, the dev sitting next to me muttered, “Yeah, because they’ve been reading tutorials.” Of COURSE they’re reading tutorials. What else are they supposed to read? That’s how newbies learn! The problem is that there are a thousand sites competing for search engine traffic, and what makes a good headline is not necessarily a good practice. Without some effort to draw people’s attention to the better tutorials, we end up with a lot of misinformation floating around… and poor contributions from hopeful developers who don’t know yet that Otto, for example, is a more credible source than some random dude on Smashing Mag.

TL;DR: the merit-based philosophy unintentionally includes more barriers to women than men. The solution is not to use some sort of affirmative action to include more women without the proper merit, but to make it easier for women to overcome those barriers. (Which incidentally makes it easier for EVERYONE to overcome them. Kind of like the way making something accessible benefits everyone.) And we can do THAT by answering forum and IRC questions kindly and as fully as possible, making an effort to call out harassers, and providing (or at least providing links from the Codex to) quality tutorials.

I’m really glad the handbook projects are making progress. I think that’s going to help address the tutorial problem.

The solution is not to use some sort of affirmative action to include more women without the proper merit, but to make it easier for women to overcome those barriers.

YES, exactly. You’ve nailed it in one sentence.

No reply link, this is in response to Ipstenu.

“What’s wrong with being childish?” I really don’t know what is making you infer and imply and generally make stuff up. Did I say it was wrong? Did I not just explain that the point of my comment was to refute a claim that *you* made, which was itself a good example of prejudice and unsubstantiated myth?

Look, a man who spends all his disposable time analyzing virtual armor falls short of being ‘manly’. He displays some degree of retardation, if not mental then at least in a maturity sense, because what he is doing is not productive or physical or anything else you might associate with being a grown man. He is still a child. Nothing wrong with that, I still waste time playing Quake 3, timing powerups and shit, and I’m proud of that part of me. But if something makes me a manly guy, that part sure as hell isn’t it.

A man who plays with a female character is a fag? Oooh boy, my friend wouldn’t like to hear that. He always used Crash because when she jumps she kind of moans and the thought of sex made him play better he said. Hmm, maybe it was really me he was thinking about…

Since apparently you missed the boat, let me explain.

Because a man making a spreadsheet to understand the various pros and cons for armor on an MMO is manly, but food’s a chick thing.

I was engaging in mild hyperbole to provide examples of how different types of totally irrelevant time-wasting activities can be seen as male or female past times.

Cupcakes == girls

MMOs == boys

And the reason I picked those examples was because they are clearly totally wrong. There’s no gender divide on cupcakes any more than there is on playing MMOs, save the crap you get from people telling you that you’re a fag/girly-man if you’re a guy who makes cupcakes, and you’re a slut if you’re a woman who plays MMOs (or a poseur, take your pick). They’re absolutely ridiculous statements, but they’re exactly what happens every day.

I call these ‘Self Perpetuated Myths’ because once a man is told that making cupcakes isn’t a manly thing to do, he stops backing.

Or becomes Duff Goldman, which is far healthier. Except for all the bacon Duff eats.

That you continue to harp on what is and isn’t manly is a VERY strong example of a self-perpetuating myth. Who determines what is manly or girly and what isn’t? Isn’t it a personal concept? Why project it onto others? Why do we even have to talk about it at all in the first place?

Your comments smack of immaturity, a fundamental disagreement with the premise and driving ideas behind this post (which is fine, except that you aren’t just outright saying so), and purposefully being obtuse and reading around intent and instead extrapolating and conflating statements out of context into whatever works for you to make what you seem to be considering outrageous inflammatory statements. So, meh. Go be manly, or something. Internet commenting probably doesn’t fall into that category.

While I don’t think it’s the job of the community to necessarily actively seek out minorities to contribute — communities should be organic, not forced — I do think communities should make the effort to make it more attractive for minorities to participate. I can only really speak from the position of a woman in this instance, but here’s what has attracted me to WordPress as a community, beyond just WordPress as a CMS:

Women are visible in the WordPress community at every level. When I saw women like Jane and Helen in active, integral positions, it signalled to me that women are welcome to contribute. Each WordPress I go to, I am delighted to see the number of women in attendance, whether they are webmasters, designers, developers, content strategists, bloggers, etc. Women use WordPress. Women talk about WordPress. And the more women get involved in WordPress, the more attractive it is for other women to get involved.

I think a lot of women get discouraged easily in tech environments. We’re used to assuming we’re not welcome, or we’ll be ignored. Like you said, it’s self-perpetuating. Because we expect to be rejected, we fail to reach out. I think going to a women’s college was an invaluable experience for me if only because it taught me to ignore the tiny part of my brain that whispers, “You won’t be welcome there. You’re not good enough. Don’t even try.” Now there’s a competing, aggressive portion of my brain going, “Fuck that!”

That said, there are more men in the WordPress community than women. It would be awesome if there were more women actively engaged in the WordPress community. It would especially be great to get more women speaking at WordCamps and contributing to core. I think we have a responsibility as a community to help encourage and foster women/minorities to get involved. I’ve found that women generally need a little more support and encouragement to participate.

Jane posted about having a speaker mentorship program, which I would love to see happen. Additionally, if we see someone we think is skilled, we as community members should encourage them to apply to speak at a WordCamp. I know a lot of women speakers I’ve talked to feel like they have a big case of Imposter Syndrome. Mentorship and support could help this.

Know a woman who codes? Encourage her to jump into the core dev chats. Know a woman who designs? Tell her she should check out the upcoming week’s UI chat. Know a woman who is particularly good at answering WordPress questions? Show her the support forums. There are many ways for women to get involved in WordPress, and sometimes we just need to be shown where to go.

It is personal conception that drives one to believe something is manly or girly – agreed but then aren’t personal conceptions driven by society and people around you?

The best way to move forward is to remove the barriers and provide support to minorities and women. This would bring about a change, though slowly, but surely vs just ensuring that the there is proper representation for them which would end up with things being a mess. Removing the barriers would benefit everyone as the barriers would be removed not only for the minorities or women but for everyone – including white males (newbies) and that is good – I cannot see anyone complaining.

aren’t personal conceptions driven by society and people around you?

Precisely. Society tells us that these falsehoods are true, and we believe them. But we know that a cupcake doesn’t change your manliness, anymore than liking cars makes you less feminine. But still, we persist in following these stereotypes. And that, I feel, is where all the mess starts with.

Mind you, I hate Political Correctness (I understand it as an idea, I don’t agree with it’s end result).

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