Women and the backchannel

Yesterday Drew and I were fortunate enough to be invited down to take part in the 12 hour marathon that was the live recording of the 200th Boagworld podcast. It was a brilliant day, great people, a lovely friendly atmosphere down at The Barn, and lots of interesting people coming on the show and talking about a wide range of subjects. Many people on Twitter and in the chatroom on Ustream commented on how the day was just like a free web conference, and it really was a good day. I believe that the full 12 hours was recorded and will be released by Boagworld in the half hour segments in the weeks to come.

For those who weren’t following along, at The Barn was an impressive set up of mics and webcams so the whole show could be streamed live as video, in addition to the audio recording. The show was going out live using Ustream, which also has a chatroom displayed under the video so that the room can join in with the show – something that seemed like a great idea as Boagworld is so much about the community around it. There were hundreds of people watching and a good number commenting given the speed the chat would scroll up off the screen.

Early in the day the chat was very positive. A few moans whenever any technical glitch happened, but generally people were enjoying being part of the show. It was quite difficult in the “studio” to really respond to the chat questions because there were so many people commenting and they would scroll off our screen very quickly. There was a really funny moment at the beginning of our section on eCommerce where somehow the camera that was pointing at me was playing a mooing jingle. We couldn’t hear this in the room at all, so people in the chatroom are complaining about this mooing, pointing out that it was in fact me that was mooing, and we were none the wiser as to what was going on.

Drew and I took a break for lunch as Jeremy Keith and Anna Debenham showed up to do a segment, and then came back to chat a bit about the Joel Test. That was our main segments done but as we weren’t on a deadline to get back we hung around to chip in on various things and generally just to enjoy the atmosphere at The Barn.

I’d noticed the odd stupid comment on the chat earlier in the day, I’m pretty thickskinned about personal comments, and so chose to ignore them. However from this point in things started to get really quite unpleasant. During the afternoon Relly Annett-Baker, Sarah Parmenter and Inayaili de León were all doing segments, on copywriting, iPhone design and CSS3 respectively. All three are established professionals in their different fields, with lots to offer, they did excellent segments on the show. Ah yes, and they happen to be women. As Relly later said on Twitter:

Play the #bw200 chatroom drinking game. Everytime someone says ‘it’s a girl!’ in the chat, take a swig of gin and weep for our industry!

I’m not going to repeat any of the things that were said in the chatroom here, but there were a number of comments that basically suggested that the only reason certain women were invited to be on the show was because of the way they looked, there were comments more suited to an AOL chatroom with regard to what people may or may not be wearing. If the room didn’t like what a male contributor was talking about the comments would be that it was boring or arguing against their point of view, for the women there was this idea that they were only there due to their physical appearance.

We, as a community, need to stamp out this attitude whenever we see it.

I believe that women in any industry should be there due to their own merit, and the same for men who wish to follow a traditionally female career path. That is what feminism has given us, equality. We should stand or fall on the contributions that we bring to the industry and as web designers, developers, scientists, systems administrators etc. our physical appearance is not part of the package.

What frequently happens in traditionally male industries is that women who want to be part of that dress down, become like “one of the lads”. What message does that send out to young women who are interested in careers in IT? Are we telling young women who are interested in looking good, in clothes and shoes and taking care of their appearance, that if they want to succeed in web development they will need to make sure they don’t look too good, as otherwise they will not be taken seriously? This is potentially hugely damaging to the cause of getting young women to consider our industry as a career path, and once they are here to get them to consider speaking at conferences, something which we discuss again and again.

The chatroom on the Boagworld show was essentially a backchannel, and similar issues have happened in conference backchannels in recent months, I believe this is something that needs to be addressed in two ways. Firstly, the community need to be ready to stamp on this kind of behaviour as soon as it is seen. If you are in a channel that starts to go down this line make sure you are not contributing to it, and speak up against it. Can you help to turn the general mood to something more positive? Or offer constructive criticism? I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t be able to disagree with a female speaker! Quite the opposite, we should be dealing with everyone in exactly the same way, I’m not a fan of positive discrimination either.

Secondly I think there are technical solutions to some of this. If you have a live chat or backchannel, people should not be able to post anonymously, or behind nicknames that do not link back to a real person. As a thought perhaps we could have a system where everyone has to sign in with Facebook Connect? Facebook is about real names, real people. Would yesterday’s commenters have been happy for their comments to go out next to their photo, real name and the company they work for? In a conference situation the organisers usually have all those details, so a system can be created that ensured that comments only go out on a live channel that are identified to individuals. There are some people who will quite happily stand behind unpleasant comments but I would suggest they are far fewer than those who switch personalities when they can hide behind an anonymous nickname.

If we are serious about encouraging young women into our industry then we need the women already in the industry to be visible, and for them to be seen as normal. If the female role models are only of a certain type (the stereotypically geeky type for example) then a young woman would be justified in thinking that you need to be like that to be accepted. This is then reinforced by the sort of comments we saw yesterday when young women who do not fit that stereotype were speaking. As a community we need to ensure this behaviour is called out as wrong, every time we see it.


Grant Vandersee: 13 Feb 2010 at 10:36:59

Well said Rachel. I noticed a couple of the early comments before I had to retire for the night, but it obviously got worse. This is indeed a great shame.

I really admire the work that you and Anna & Relly & Molly have done (haven’t learned much about Sarah & Inayaili yet, but I’m sure they are awesome too – or they wouldn’t have been on the show to discuss it all!) and many other people too – male and female.

I am so sick of gender stereotyping in jobs from both sides (what IS it with the name “Male Nurse” – I mean aren’t they Nurses like the others!)

Positive and Negative discrimination have no place in the workforce, or indeed anywhere.

Keep up the excellent work.

PS. I really enjoyed the earlier segments with you and Drew.

Tomaz Zaman: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:46:15

Amen to that. But you also need to realize that speakers on the boagworld are also role models to some of the young geeks that apparently don’t know how to behave. It’s best just to ignore all the hormones speaking out of them.

Oh and Relly, Sarah and Inayaili, you should take comments like those as a compliment we all know how boys mostly react to the girls (women), we like :)

James Stiff: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:48:17

It’s disappointing to hear that your enjoyment of the podcast was spoiled by the ignorant, cowardly, sexist comments of what I imagine was a small minority of webchat participants. I agree that the only way to stamp out such behaviour is to bar anonymous posting. Make people accountable for their comments and suddenly they start acting like rational human beings.

Aaron Witherow: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:52:35

I agree that this needs to be stamped out, our industry is a very male dominated environment and we need more women to be a part of it.

I didn’t get to see too much of the live feed as I am in Australia but I got to see some of it including your segment on the joel test. I felt at the time that some of the comments were inappropriate and made me cringe. For the first time I realised how hard it is for people in our industry to put themselves out there and be in the firing line for these types of comments.

Comments got a little nasty, not only for the female guests but for many of the male guests who had given up their time to be there. Even Pauls wife was spoken about in a derogatory way which I though was not on.

Generally our industry is quite positive, everybody is free with information and tries to help each other out but most of the comments were not even remotely on topic.

I commend all the guests that gave up their time and made a great episode of Boagworld and I think it needs to be said loud and clear that it is not acceptable.

Tom: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:53:19

Unfortunately this is something that plagues not only our industry, but as you say we have the advantages of having the skills required to restrict these people’s anonymity thanks to technology.
These people are only limiting the diversity of our community and the difference points of view that variety brings, be it from an attractively dressed man or woman, straight or gay, single or married, with or without children.
I agree completely with disallowing anonymous users, let people at least take responsibility for their opinions and be picked up for them in person if they are out of line.

Scott Jordan: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:53:48

As a male participant in yesterdays chat stream, I would just like to say I totally agree with Rachels post.

Some participants acted like they were silly boys in the school playground.

Over my many years in the IT industry (30+) I have seen an increase in the numbers of females entering the industry, and they have brought a much needed breath of fresh air (sometimes literally) to the profession.

Peter Barnes: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:54:03

Followed boagworld tweet to your post …

This beggars belief, it really does.

Maybe third party services are way forward as you can report abusers and perhaps get them kicked off Twitter etc, as well as embarrassing them publicly. I’ve not come across this issue on conference Twitter backchat yet, but if I do some sorry soul is gonna get a roasting! If the abuser was in the same physical room, I’d challenge them to dare repeat their comment to my face …

Emma Boulton: 13 Feb 2010 at 11:54:10

Excellent suggestion Rachel. I wholeheartedly agree that this has to stop. We were discussing this at the recent CardiffGeekGirl event which is a supportive group for women in the tech/online/media industry. 30-40 normal, smart, funky women in a bar discussing their industry made such a refreshing change!

Comments about appearance of either gender certainly shouldn’t be allowed on the backchannel and your solution seems a good way to stop the cowards.

Peter Barnes: 13 Feb 2010 at 12:02:21

In case my previous comment seemed a bit aggressive – I should also say a polite/positive approach is the best approach to avoid poisoning the general mood, but then zero tolerance towards those who don’t take the hint … Not surprised you’re moderating comments ;-)

wanyax: 13 Feb 2010 at 12:12:54

Great post. I totally agree with the sentiment expressed here.

One of the most attractive features of the Boagworld community is that people generally tend to be very friendly, helpful and, most importantly, mature. It’s almost uncanny how the forums have managed to steer clear of flame wars and general churlish behaviour. I was therefore deeply disappointed when I logged on to the stream last night only to find a bunch of immature comments messing up what was supposed to be a civilized gathering of mature people. Granted, there are many teens and pre-teens who get into web design these days and there were probably a couple online at the time. However, I have a nagging hunch that many of the less than flattering comments were from people beyond their teens. Maturity isn’t just about age.

The beauty of the web is that it’s free for all. Granted, “free” is a relative term. However, juvenile behaviour of this nature will probably lead to the erection of new barriers to entry. What makes it worse is that the people who are behind this nonsense are supposed to be the very architects of our digital future!

I believe the only true way to create a fun, safe and open playing field for all it to play fair. If you can’t have a stranger say something about your mother or your sister or anyone near and dear to you for that matter, don’t say the same about someone else. At least not in a setting like this one. It’s as simple as that. If you really must vent some venom, there are places online set up specifically for that purpose. Seek them out and be as lewd as you please. (Personally, I’d recommend going to a shrink, but what do I know?)

Rant aside, it was really good to have a meetup where we all could participate for free from wherever we were in the world at the moment. I hope to see the adoption of this approach (with better technology) across the web through this and the coming years.

Leave a reply