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:
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.