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.
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?
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.
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.