A Simple Commitment

What’s missing from the conversation about sexism in tech-related fields?
Many articles have appeared recently describing examples of sexism in programming and other tech-related fields. We have read explanations of why it exists, and suggestions for what individuals can do to make the situation better. What has been missing from this conversation is something specific that individuals can do, which could turn into an identifiable movement that makes things better. What is missing is a simple set of commitments that people can sign on to, and a way to make that commitment visible.

The commitment each of us needs to make
There are three commitments that individuals in technical fields need to make in order to improve the situation for women:

  • Commit to treating women as professionals in your field.
  • Commit to calling out situations in which women in your field are being treated unprofessionally.
  • Make your commitment visible somehow.

There are three corresponding commitments that companies and organizations need to make:

  • Commit to maintaining an organizational culture that treats women as professionals.
  • Commit to quickly and appropriately addressing issues that arise regarding the treatment of women as professionals.
  • Make your commitment visible somehow.

These commitments are worth elaborating on, but many people are already doing that right now. We can easily compile a list of what it means to treat women professionally. We can just as easily describe the specific ways that individuals can speak out effectively when women are being treated unprofessionally. The difficult part is making the commitment of individuals and organizations visible on a larger scale. I don’t know exactly how to do this, but we can sketch out a brief plan:

  • Create or adapt a logo or an icon that stands for the commitments described above;
  • Put the logo or icon wherever it makes sense, so that our personal commitments become visible all around us.

Making our commitment visible on a large scale
There is already a strong element of branding in the hacking community. Surely we can find a way to “brand” these commitments, and let women know how seriously we are taking this issue. Once we have a logo or icon that people can stand behind, we need to start putting it in places where everyone will see it. We need to put it on stickers on our laptops. We need to put small versions of it on the back of our conference t-shirts, along with sponsor icons and the icons of other projects we support. Companies need to put it on their websites and on their job posting pages, perhaps with a link to a verbatim listing of these commitments.

The logo needs to be seen by women every day so they know who around them has already made a commitment to treating them professionally. It needs to be seen by men who want to speak out, so they can see who around them is also likely to be supportive. It needs to be seen by men who would consider speaking or acting in a way that treats women unprofessionally, so they know their comments and actions will not be taken lightly.

If you agree with these commitments, are you willing to make your stance visible? Is there a way we can all do it in the same way, so that our individual commitments are recognizable as part a larger movement?  If so, it seems we might be able to make significant progress on the issue in a relatively short amount of time.

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About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
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3 Responses to A Simple Commitment

  1. rubin110 says:

    Hi there. My name is Rubin and I’m part of the hacker spaces scene that’s been sort of turning more and more into a globally neat thing. I really appreciate your post and hope that I don’t look like spam.

    Some time in August at the Chaos Communication Camp outside of Berlin, after hearing a radio program recorded there of some friends of mine discussing queer geeks in the hacker scene, I decided that there are a number of issues facing our community and no good place to talk about solutions or to form up help solving them. I went ahead and bought out http://hackerequality.org and poked some folks who were on the radio show, one of which created a mailing list.

    My general idea on the site/community is a central place where we provide information and participate in discussion regarding how to tackle problems of discrimination within the hacker (spaces) scene. The criteria I want to focus on are particular key points that are fairly heated right now, such as gender discrimination/intimidation that your post has described out pretty well, and others like sexual preference, skin color, age.

    Additionally I want to expand out to criteria that isn’t as obvious, but in my experience has seen discrimination in some form or another previously. The biggest reasoning behind this is to make the issues more real for everyone…

    * Types of hacking – Being pushed out of a space/community because someone wanted to bio hack or craft but the group thinks hacking means software and security
    * Preference in operating system – *nix versus the world trolling will drive people away and insane
    * Choice in programing language or text editor
    * FOSS versus closed source
    * Religion – Surprisingly a bigger deal than some think
    * etc

    The idea is to make these primary issues more real by providing other more tangible examples for others (as such regarding your post, I can’t say that I’ve been discriminated much due to my male bodied gender, but I’ve been hated for and have hated others when operating systems come up in the past, and that’s one way I could possibly relate to the larger problems in hand).

    Anyhow, I’m kind of going over my elevator speech limit. Not really asking anything of you, but if you do feel like it, as I’ve said we’ve got a public mailing list you’re more than welcome to join in on. There really isn’t much of a site yet, I hope to fix that soon but time versus number of projects is problematic. If you’ve got any other content and would like somewhere central to post it, let me know. Additionally it’s 02:00 and I’m sure I’m missing something here.

    Thanks for reading.

  2. ehmatthes says:

    Hi Rubin,

    Thanks for the detailed response, and thank you for sharing what your group is doing. I completely agree that the larger issue is about all under-represented groups in technical fields. I believe there is a role for specific groups such as PyLadies for women in python, and more generalized groups or movements.

    I am envisioning a movement that non-minority groups can join as well. For example, men can support a group like PyLadies, but they really shouldn’t have a big role in that group. If you haven’t read my previous post, I went into a little more detail about it.

    I signed up for your mailing list. My next step, unless I hear it is already being done, is to set up a site around the commitments I listed, that people can actually state their support of. I will make an announcement on the mailing list when I have a draft of that site set up. As you said, this is around the rest of my working life. But if this idea is getting any consistent attention, I will make it a higher priority.

    Thanks again, and I am very happy to know about the work you are doing.

    - Eric

  3. tensory says:

    Instinct tells me that activism is more likely to be successful when the message is clear… but I’m not sure about that, really. GeekFeminism.org is an interesting, friendly, supportive community that’s good at calling out and analyzing issues in public. I doubt most people commenting on nerdland’s sexist fail of the week on YCombinator/Reddit/whatever are even aware it exists.

    Rubin’s Hacker Equality concept hits a bunch of issues that were called out on the Queer Geeks panel at 28C3, slightly more recent than the CCCamp. My takeaway from that discussion was that sexual identity and queerness (for that couple of people on the panel) has been less contentious or painful for them than a generally hostile attitude towards religion, certain definitions of “hacking”, level of FOSS adoption — all basically ideological platforms, where some people make a persona out of behaving hostilely to what they see as irrational. (I was surprised that religion was brought up on the Queer Geeks panel, but it makes sense — admitting irrational thinking is deeply uncool around people obsessed with “fact” and “reason.”)

    Ageism and racism also seem like dramatically underdiscussed topics, next to sexism. I’m twenty-seven and white, and pretty much lack exposure to obvious instances of those — though I do see plenty of interconnected social issues in a bunch of predominantly white hackers moving into predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods and disinviting the locals from their new space.

    The tone of the Queer Geeks panel was that we can do better by being kinder and more accepting of other people’s choices. I feel a lot of hacker-identified types (and also activists, relatedly) derive a good chunk of their identities from what they can interfere with and what they are strongly against — otherwise we’d be happier with statuses quo, and wouldn’t be trying to roll our own software or run IT services for social movements. I want to see a discussion on balancing passions like that with this idea of kindness.

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