On The Similarities Between Girls And Aliens

I discovered, through the power of the search words that lead to my blog, that there was an incident at JavaOne that once again opens the can of worms that is Sexism In IT.

This Makes Me Sad.  I had a really positive experience at JavaOne.  In fact, I would say it was the one conference I’ve been to in the last 12 months where I felt like my gender wasn’t a problem - I even got away with wearing hotpants (tweed is business-casual, right??) without being mistaken for anything other than a developer.

I know incidents like this cause a lot of tension, and I want to explore why.  Get ready for some gross generalisations: women get upset because they feel they’re being marginalised or treated differently; men get upset because they think we’re being over-sensitive, especially when the cause is something unintentional.  I sometimes wonder, as I’m sure other people do, if perhaps picking up every incident harms our cause more than advancing it.  But then I feel that the unconscious stuff is exactly the stuff that needs to be pointed out - if you don’t realise you’re causing a problem, you can’t change your behaviour.

So what I wanted to do was… well, what I wanted to do was not rant about gender (again) and be a good little non-gendered programmer.  But then I thought that spreading a bit of understanding might be A Good Thing.  After all, we’re all about continuous improvement, right?

I’m sure many people have been one of a minority at some point in their lives (brace yourselves for a litany of stereotyping) - the only man at their daughter’s dance recital; the only white guy on a basketball team; the only straight guy in a gay bar (accidents happen!); the only girl on the development team… Speaking for myself, in those situations I’m not actually looking for things which prove that I’m Not One Of Them. I’m sub-consciously seeking reassurance that I’m not an alien, a freak of nature, the odd one out.

I’ve been in mostly male environments for the last 16 years - this is the norm for me, it’s my life.  It freaks me out if I’m surrounded by women actually.  What’s jarring and uncomfortable is when the difference of your gender becomes apparent: when all the t-shirts are boy-shaped and boy-sized; when someone makes a joke about “women”; when someone addresses the room with “Gentlemen” - or worse, they try and make up for it: “Gentlemen.  Oh, and Ladies.  Well, Lady <nervous smile>”.  Thanks, that doesn’t make me feel like an outsider at all.

Something else that really highlights the difference in genders is when you have plenty of women at the conference… but they’re not the attendees.  They’re manning the booths (marketing/sales or just plain hired “help”), they’re taking tickets, they’re dishing out the lunches.  In these cases, it becomes normal to assume that “girl” = “staff”.  Not guest.  Not equal.

TradeTech was one of the worst examples of this that I’ve experienced.  Those (wo)manning the booths had been chosen for their aesthetics not their knowledge.  There was even entertainment consisting of scantily clad stilt-walkers - at a financial conference!  I made the mistake of turning up in a skirt - for those who know my dress sense, it was not one of my arse-length ones, it was just above my knees - and everyone assumed I was selling something. I had a job to persuade them that I had actually paid for my ticket.

So.  What am I trying to get at?

  • We’re not trying to make you uncomfortable when we point out tiny accidental possibly maybe sexist or sexist-seeming comments/incidents.  We’re trying to stamp out behaviour that can subconsciously be pushing women (or other minorities/groups) out of our industry.  We like it here, we want to stay, and we want others to join us.
  • It’s very easy to alienate people who are not 100% comfortable in your environment.  Every time I see t-shirts in boys size only I’m reminded I’m Not One Of You.
…and what can we do?
  • Well, the t-shirts is an easy one.  So easy, and so stupid, you might not think it’s worthwhile.  Especially as people like me don’t even want your free t-shirt.  But I want to feel like you wanted me to want it.  Please stock some skinny-fit tees in multiple sizes, and stock smalls and mediums of the normal shape.  There are guys who would like this too.  Even if you can’t get rid of your skinny tees, it will do wonders for your image.
  • Never assume your audience is all male.  Never even assume it’s “mostly” male.  If your sister/girlfriend/mother/daughter might frown at something you’re saying, don’t say it.  You’ll look like an idiot.  You can assume your audience is all technical, and joke about managers, or is all Java, and take the mickey out of C#.  Don’t draw arbitrary battle lines based on gender/race/origin - any jokes should make all the audience feel included, not like specific individuals are excluded.
  • There’s already been a lot said elsewhere about encouraging women speakers at events.  I’m totally behind this, but it’s a fine line because I’m also totally against positive discrimination.  For the purposes of this blog, I would just say make sure you have some women on your speakers list, in the same way you would probably ensure you have a Java 7 talk, or a talk on the shiniest new technology, or other miscellaneous checkboxes you need to tick in order to make your conference a success.
  • Not sure what to suggest around many of the girls there being staff… I guess something simple like clear uniforms would stop people assuming female delegates are there to hand out lunch.  And making sure that your staff/helpers/organisers are of both genders too.
If you’re interested in this whole topic, or want to tell me I’m wrong to my face, come along my panel at Devoxx - Why We Shouldn’t Target Women.