Another “Obstacle for Women in the IT Industry”

Recently Russell Coker blogged about “an obstacle for women in the IT industry”, where the obstacle in question is apparently how women sometimes respond to men like they are trying to pick them up. On one hand there is certainly a point to be made about people (men and women) who assume the worst when someone is communicating with them and then close down communications. However, I think Russell used really bad examples which end up making his post pretty upsetting for a lot of women, and pretty dumb for general readers. My synopsis of the unfortunate points is below to help Russell and others avoid such divisive writing and hopefully better understand the issues:

  • Saying that “well according to Pia’s research, statistically less than 45% of linux.conf.au attendees are likely to be trying to pick up” doesn’t make it a non-issue. This is unfortunately saying “so only 200-300 people might try a come-on line”. Yeah, that really makes women want to attend linux.conf.au! For the record I’ve never had someone try a come-on line with me at linux.conf.au. I’m sure it happens but there are by far more awesome people at linux.conf.au than not :) and I would hate to think that comments like this turn women off coming to linux.conf.au and miss out on such a fantastic experience!
  • Citing a couple of examples doesn’t mean you’ve proven something conclusively – Russell basically says “this Lenovo guy found that a woman was uncomfortable when approached in an airport” and “well I had an experience with a woman at a FOSS conferences and they told me they had a boyfriend when I was just trying to talk!”. He seems to think this conclusively means all women are doing this to themselves in the IT sector. It is worth mentioning most people wouldn’t feel comfortable if a salesperson came up to them in an airport unsolicited, the Lenovo guys post only mentioned _one_ incident of this which wasn’t even the point of his post, and as Matthew Garrett points out in Russell’s comments, Russell has an overly familiar approach even to strangers, which I can imagine would make a person feel a bit uncomfortable, and if some women decide to say they have a boyfriend (or girlfriend) to preempt the behaviour, then that isn’t exactly unexpected. Actually, I’m not sure why this would be offensive anyway. They’ve made clear what this isn’t to avoid any confusion, and now you can get on with discussion.
  • On this last point, there are unfortunately still (and will always likely be) jerks who do try to come on to other people without any invitation or interest (male and female) and as there are more men than women in many IT and FOSS communities, the statistical probability of a woman having already had this annoying and sometimes horrible experience is much higher than a guy, so isn’t it far better if the person you are talking to gets this possibility out of the way if for any reason she/he feels concerned about it? Don’t be so egotistical to think “but I wasn’t!” because how would she/he know and what experiences have led them to be concerned. Isn’t this a great reason to say “wow it is sad that some women in our community feel uncomfortable about this, what can I/our community do about it?”, rather than saying “I’ve got it! Women just need to stop assuming the worst!”.
  • The Lenovo guys post didn’t talk about this issue at all, in fact most of the examples he gave weren’t gender specific, so assuming “gifts of free hardware and advice on technical issues related to computers were provided only to men because the reaction of women was bad enough that it wasn’t worth the effort!” is completely bogus.
  • The majority of experts in the IT industry are male in Australia, but not all countries. In countries where IT isn’t as gender associated as it is here there are a lot less problems.
  • Women, like men, come in all different types. We can be shy, outgoing, confident, confused, strong, crass, polite, etc, etc. Please don’t assume that any experience with one woman speaks for all of us. That goes to everyone. If a person of any category does X, it doesn’t mean that category all do X.

Ultimately Russell says this is a problem that needs to be improved. I think that the less contentious point about people (including women) trying to not assume bad intentions when talking to new people is a good point. It is true that some women miss out on opportunities to learn because either they assume a male is approaching them inappropriately, or because someone is approaching them inappropriately. Some women miss out on opportunities to learn for a plethora of reasons from different communication styles, to feeling uncomfortable to ask a question (from what I’ve seen some women can be turned off IT and FOSS from only one or two sexist or sleazy people if the behaviour goes unchecked). Wouldn’t it be great to focus on how we can ensure our community is a comfortable place for all people so they don’t miss out on opportunities to learn and contribute? My suggestions would be:

  • Be understanding – people go through a lot of different experiences. Try to understand it from their perspective and it’ll help you approach them appropriately. This goes for everyone!
  • Be polite – flaming someone is never appropriate. It is never successful or constructive either. Think about ways to communicate to achieve what you want without making the environment ineffective to work in.
  • Be respectful and inclusive – some women feel quite isolated at geek conferences because they are treated differently. We are all part of one big community, so just treat everyone respectfully, and be welcoming. A girl geek is no less interested in technology as a guy geek, so be inclusive.
  • Encourage positive behaviour – encourage newcomers to your community to do the right thing by others in the community. For example, often a code of conduct can help keep things relatively positive and effective. Particularly remember that silence is default acceptance of behaviour. Letting sexist or racist jokes slide on IRC or mailing lists turn people off, effectively and silently.
  • When it comes to women in particular, try to remember some women in our community have been through a lot, often just for being female and being in IT. Some of us have had abuse, an assumption that we’re stupid, idiotic and unsolicited sexual advances, frustrating assumptions (“you’re too pretty to use mutt”), death threats and a whole lot more. If you feel so miffed about being told a woman has a partner, try to think about what she may have been through to get this response.

I am constantly made aware that I am a women in IT. Not just an IT professional, not just a FOSS advocate, but a woman and many women in IT and FOSS feel that constant assertion of our gender placed upon us when most of us just want to get on with working, hacking and enjoying our chosen careers and tech lifestyle. I love the FOSS community and the fact that I can go anywhere in the world and talk with people that have a common vision of freedom, opportunity and openness, and I firmly believe we have a platform in FOSS for creating a better world through those shared ideals. A world where anyone can achieve their maximum potential through their own efforts, and are not limited by their gender, religion, culture, disability or any other factor. If the question is “what needs to be improved?”, then look at your own communities, codes of behaviour, personal behaviour, and ask yourself how you can act better to help our community be a great and comfortable place for everyone.

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12 Responses to Another “Obstacle for Women in the IT Industry”

  1. The Lenovo guy describes one problem dealing with a woman in a bit of detail, but later in his post notes that he had other issues. the thing to note is that his post wasn’t about those things it was about doing Thinkpad marketting.

    As for whether the “I’ve got a BF response” is offensive, the comments on my blog and on reddit about reactions to that really say it all.

    A comment on my blog from a sales guy about how to manage women who react that way (and possibly get laid) demonstrates that the guys you probably don’t want to talk to will not be put off.

  2. greebo says:

    Hi Russell, if your comment above is all you can get from my blog post, then unfortunately you’ve missed the point again. I hope you can get something from this over time.

    The reddit comments are in some cases interesting, and a lot of the time disturbing and representative of some of the issues.

    Finally, guys that are offended by this are being touchy. It is just clarifying the terms of engagement in communication to clearly ensure there isn’t any misunderstanding. I think that in some cases it is indeed meant to get rid of an unwanted discussion, but sometimes it is quite innocent too. Again you are generalising.

  3. No, the above is not all that I get from your blog post, merely all that I’m going to write in a public comment.

    For the benefit of random people reading this. Pia and I get along well when we meet IRL. We are discussing this issue via private mail.

  4. “Finally, guys that are offended by this are being touchy.”

    Wow, now my usual fear of approaching people I don’t know at LCA (and anywhere else) without a particularly compelling technical reason has been ramped up a notch.

    I’ve not personally experienced this before, but now it’s in my head that the first reaction I might get from a member of the opposite sex is “I assume you’re being led around by your hormones”. This adds to my long mental list of things that might go wrong in conversation with strangers.

    I’ve probably got the wrong mental image out of this, but I’m picturing someone interjecting before I’ve gotten my larynx moving with “Just before you start, I’ve got a partner. You may take this opportunity to walk away if that interferes with your nefarious intentions towards me.” or similar.

    (I a longer comment, but I think my browser ate it before I submitted it… -_-)

  5. greebo says:

    Hi Paul, a few people have brought that point up, and it’s funny because it is really a side note to the whole piece :) Please don’t feel inhibited by this possibility, there are always things that can go wrong in conversation, this isn’t the top of the list.

    Just to make clear as well, I think a hostile “I have a boyfriend (you sleaze)!” approach is not appropriate, and would think that most women wouldn’t do this really agressively. I and others I’ve chatted to might mention a partner as part of the discussion both because our partners are a huge part of our lives and because it just ensures that nothing untoward is assumed. It is annoying that this can be necessary, but that is unfortunately where we are at. This latter approach is not nasty or uncomfortable (except for cases where the attitude is nefarious :) ).

  6. Leon Brooks says:

    If it helps, I met a girl on the train in Sydney who uses mutt – & is stunningly blonde/beautiful to the point where judgements based on appearances would be utterly, utterly wrong.

    Your own pragmatic approach to things could, I think, lead numbskulls to assume that because the comm is simple, the whole idea must be simple. Anyone with the wits to watch for 5 or 10 first would not be so easily fooled.

  7. Leon Brooks says:

    Paul, my ESHO of the TTMGR is that the list is more extensive than we can possibly imagine, yet things evidently happen anyway so the obvious conclusion is that not everything will go wrong.

    No pain, no gain – no guts, no glory – etc.

  8. Mikey says:

    I had a very brief chat at the Linux Conf Au Professional Delegates Networking Session (whew) with Pia around this topic. I was encouraged by what I saw as an increase in the numbers of female participants and by a generally high level of consideration for others shown by everyone there. In short, the gender imbalance was being addressed and the guys were behaving themselves.

    By an improbable coincidence, my male colleague and I departed the venue shortly after, and found ourselves in the company of two young women who happened to be conference speakers. Amelia and Kate were two thirds of “Tux’s Angels” and both experts on system penetration who immediately impressed us with their good humour and intellect. Andy and I both expressed our regret at not having seen their conference presentation (though I have seen the video now – they rock!) but we all enjoyed a few minutes of respectful, civilised conversation.

    My point is that bad behaviour is perpetrated by individuals and not by male geeks in general. I know an awful lot of male geeks, and as a class I believe that those I know are more considerate people than the broader male population.

    Having rambled from pillar to post, I’ll just add that the signs are good on the gender front. More women at LCA is definitely a good thing. Here’s hoping that as a community we can encourage all interested people to be involved and do what we can to make all of them feel comfortable.

  9. zhasper says:

    <mode=dirty_pedant>

    where the obstacle in question is apparently how women sometimes respond to men like they are trying to pick them up

    “they” and “them” here are ambiguous. I think you mean “women sometimes respond to mine like the men are trying to pick the women up”? I initially read it the other way around

    </mode>

  10. Fred says:

    biggest issue is the lack of a penis…

  11. Mackenzie says:

    Penis envy, Fred? Yeah, like I’d want one of those getting in the way.

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