The tech world needs a “white ribbon” project

Support for women in tech-related fields needs to be made visible

white ribbon image

The White Ribbon campaign aims to end violence against women worldwide.

I am not a big fan of ribbon campaigns, but they do get one thing right. They make it clear, before any words are spoken, that someone is supportive of a particular cause. The White Ribbon campaign is a movement by men who want to end violence against women worldwide, and who commit to doing something about it. Wearing a white ribbon is a visible pledge “to never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.” Male programmers do not need to start wearing white ribbons, but we do need a way to make our support for women in tech-related fields more visible.

I have been thinking about this issue recently for a number of reasons. I went to PyCon for the first time this year and learned about the existence of PyLadies and the Boston Python user group workshops that have been quite successful at bringing more women into programming. The issue of sexism in programming and tech-related fields has been all over Hacker News, twitter, and tech blogs lately. But this problem is nothing new. I studied physics in the early 90’s, and the same issues popped up repeatedly back then. The problem is not sqoot’s hackathon where “friendly female event staff” will bring you beer while you program, or this ridiculous brogramming meme, or any other single event. The problem is the culture of male-dominated intellectual fields in general.

I was inspired to think of something specific that men could do after seeing a lively discussion on HN get killed. I usually stay out of these discussions, but I decided to participate for once, only to see the discussion killed after 90 comments had been made. I posted a followup question asking why the thread had been killed, and I really couldn’t argue with the reason someone offered:

The issue of how women are treated in tech comes up every other day. It is discussed and argued over in each thread, nothing changes, and it comes up again two days later with same results. At some point, there’s nothing new to learn about it.

I respect the HN community for focusing on getting things done, and not getting pulled into flame wars and religious debates. Seeing that discussion end so abruptly got me thinking about what could actually be done to help the situation. It became clear that we need concrete action, something to do and see, rather than just something to talk about.

A simple but meaningful icon

What I imagine is a simple icon that clearly and quickly communicates our support for women in technical fields. The logo needs to be tied to a clearly-articulated set of principles and guidelines. These guidelines verbalize the commitment a person makes when wearing the symbol, or a company makes when displaying the logo. The logo does not need to be prominent; I am not envisioning people wearing shirts with just this logo on it. I am imagining a little logo that companies can choose to put on the back of their shirts, where we normally see sponsor icons. People could put a small sticker on their laptops, which would be quite visible at conferences and hackathons if they appeared in large numbers. A logo by itself means little. But if people wearing the logo speak and act in accordance with the values that it represents, then the logo begins to have power. Women can walk into a conference, or into a company’s offices, and know that they can expect to be treated professionally. They don’t have to wait for an incident to occur, and then see if anyone acts in a supportive manner.

The power of such a symbol goes beyond just welcoming women, though. It is also a silent cue that sexist jokes and comments, the subtle “little” incidents that end up driving women out of the field, will not be laughed at. At this year’s PyCon, I watched a respected male member of the Python community introduce himself to a small group at a meeting one evening. He was holding one of the plush python dolls that were being sold at the conference. After introducing himself, he held the stuffed toy up for a moment and said something along the lines of, “And this is my one-eyed snake; the ladies love him!” I wonder if he would have said that had he seen a “white ribbon” on half the t-shirts and laptops in the room, if he could see ahead of time that such a comment would not be laughed at. For the record, no one said anything – almost everyone laughed for an awkward moment in response. I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t say anything either. I am a teacher, so I have been outside of the technology world for most of my adult life. This was my first technical conference, and I was too intimidated to say anything. When I mentioned to a group of people after the meeting that comments like this are the reason that groups such as PyLadies exist, people just stared at me. They seemed to have no idea what I was talking about.

This is not about calling out every slightly offensive remark anyone makes. It is about making our support visible to women, to men who would consider making unwelcoming remarks, and to men who want to speak up in support of women but are unsure if they themselves will be taken seriously. I have learned in teaching that the best way to confront bullying is not to butt heads with the person doing the bullying, but to reach out to the person being mistreated. This is a way to reach out to the women in our field and build a supportive community rather than trying to fight mostly ignorant, and sometimes hostile behavior. Many of us are on your side, and we need a way to show it without having to say anything.

The core values we should commit to

The exact wording of what this symbol would represent should come out of a collaborative process, but it’s not hard to come up with a meaningful starting point by looking at the work that has already been done by groups such as the White Ribbon campaign, PyLadies, and Women Who Code:

  • Individuals
  • I commit to treating women as professionals in my field.
  • I commit to calling out situations in which women are not being treated professionally in my field.
  • Companies and Organizations
  • We commit to maintaining an organizational culture that treats women as professionals.
  • We commit to quickly and appropriately addressing issues that arise regarding the treatment of women professionally.

We need a few definitions and examples to go along with this, but this gets at the core of what men need to be doing.

A little logo or icon won’t fix things overnight, but that’s not how we take on “frighteningly ambitious” problems anyway. We chip away at them until we have chipped so much that the problem is largely behind us. Let’s find a way to make it visibly clear who among us has made a commitment to chipping away at this problem.


About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
This entry was posted in programming and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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