My Interview on Women in WordPress

I was interviewed for Raelene Wilson’s recent article on women in WordPress on WPMU.org. As an ex-WPMU.org writer, I was happy to answer all of the questions. Just one small quote made it into the article, and since I wrote a lot (I’m an expansive interviewee 🙂 ) I thought I’d post the interview in its entirety. The final article didn’t reflect my personal experience of the WordPress community, and I wanted to share that.

Note: I’m keeping the comments closed because I don’t want to get into a debate. I just wanted to share.

When did you first start working with WordPress?

I first started tinkering with WordPress back in 2008 – just building websites; I guess the same way that most people get into it.

How did you become involved in the WordPress community?

My first foray into the WordPress Community was right here, on wpmu.org. I was doing freelance writing and James was looking for someone to blog about WordPress. I figured that I know about WordPress and I’m a good writer, so I applied and he took me on. Last year while running Words for WP I became much more actively involved with the documentation project, which escalated even more quickly after attending the WordPress community summit in October.

You’ve been involved in WordCamps and written about your experiences. What prompted you to present at one of these events for the first time?

I like speaking publicly, so I guess that’s the primary reason. It’s fun to get up in front of people and share your experiences with them. Also, WordCamps are a very friendly platform for public speaking. I’ve spoken in the past at academic conferences and find them to be much more combative. A WordCamp is filled with people who want to listen and learn. It’s a great place to speak.

In a recent post Matt Mullenweg wrote about how difficult it is to get women to present at WordCamps [Note from S: this was a collection of notes taken by Matt at the WordPress Community summit. He didn’t necessarily say it – someone at the table did though]. I went to an International Women’s Day event recently where one of the speakers talked about problems the Wheeler Centre — a Melbourne writing centre — has trying to get women to speak on panels. Whenever the organisers ask women if they’re interested the response is usually along the lines of, “I don’t have a PhD on that topic so I don’t feel comfortable speaking”, whereas men will say, “Yeah, I know a bit about it, sign me up”. Do you think this happens at WordCamps?

This is a difficult one, and I guess without a study done it’d be difficult to get a definitive answer relating specifically to WordCamps. I believe that there is a general feeling that it is more difficult to get women to speak for precisely that reason. It’s certainly something that I think about when I’m putting together a presentation – do I really know enough to be able to present on this as an authority? But for me that’s usually solved with research – if I don’t know enough I find out what I need.

I hope that by telling people that WordCamps really are friendly spaces to present, that word will get out and more people, whether they be women or men who simply lack confidence, are encouraged to speak.

* Has your gender ever been an issue with your work? Have there been any instances where you’ve experienced discrimination?

In WordPress, I have never felt discriminated against on the basis of my gender. It’s just never been an issue. I don’t feel that it’s held me back or caused me any problems. I wouldn’t say that I’m “one of the guys” but I’d definitely say that I’m one of a diverse group of people. If anything, any discrimination I’ve felt is because I’m not a developer, not because I’m not a man. One developer thought it was ridiculous that I attend a hack day after a WordCamp. Another developer assumed that I didn’t know what HTML was. The assumption is that as a writer I don’t know what code is and have no business being around it. This is the exception though, not the norm.

While I’ve never been discriminated against in the tech industry, I can think of one occasion in which I’ve felt excluded because of my gender. This will probably chime with many women – I was at a tech conference (not a WordCamp) and we were having a great time in the bar. We all get chucked out, and a few of the guys suggest going to a strip club. As one of the few women there I was shocked. Okay, we were all hanging out as friends, but this was a professional event. I called them out on it and they were totally blank-faced, like they didn’t get it.

That left me with two choices – go to a club with a bunch of guys that I didn’t know to watch women take their clothes off, or leave. Being around guys staring at bodies that look like my own doesn’t really do it for me, so I took the second option. I think what bothered me the most was that these guys didn’t see what the problem was. Their actions totally excluded me. Just because someone doesn’t say “you can’t be part of this” doesn’t mean that you’re not excluded. Of course, there are a multitude of men who would feel similarly excluded, because not every guy likes a strip club. They’d probably feel that they couldn’t get out of it though.

So long as this sort of implicit exclusion of women continues, explicit exclusion of men in the form of workshops for women in the tech industry are necessary. I’d love to be in a world where we can get rid of both.

* Have you ever felt like you’ve had to prove yourself more than men who also work with WordPress? For example, some women working in tech have commented that they feel like they have to work twice as hard to gain the same level of respect.

I work really hard anyway: that’s not because I feel like I need to prove myself, but more because when I commit to something I feel a sense of urgency about seeing it through. I hate to start something and not finish it – and since I commit to a lot I end up working all of the time.

I’ve never felt in competition with anyone – that’s probably because what I do is very specific. There aren’t many people who write content solely about WordPress. The great thing about having your own niche is that you get to compete with yourself on your own terms.

For other people, I’m sure it’s different. Maybe if I was a developer I would feel that I need to compete more, I really couldn’t say. We live in a complex world with lots of different personalities and opinions. There are many more prominent men than women in WordPress, and the wider tech community is even worse. This could be discouraging to young women who don’t see a place for themselves within that structure. However, the growing number of women who are prominent within the WordPress community, (due to their skills and expertise, not due to their gender), provide excellent role models. Their very presence shows what is possible, and makes it easier for women who are starting out to see themselves inhabiting that role.

* What kind of support have you received from other women in the WordPress community? Have you been to any women in WordPress meetups?

I haven’t been to any women in WordPress meetups, but I would if I was invited to one. I think they’re a great initiative. If you feel that gender isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an issue in your locale or community, take a look beyond your own borders. It’s easy for people to forget that the WordPress community is global, and what happens ripples out across the world. WordPress.org is at the heart of that global community, and holding workshops for women sends signals that WordPress is a welcoming community to women in countries where they are actively discriminated against, and even persecuted. That can only be a good thing.

I’ve found the women that I’ve encountered are very supportive. There are many women that I admire in the WordPress community. Many of us have quite differing perspectives on this and other issues, but this doesn’t prevent us from getting along, working together, and having fun.

Do you think women really are downplaying themselves and aren’t promoting the great work that they do achieve?

Possibly. I don’t personally do that. I’m good at what I do and I’m not afraid of saying it. I also know my limits, know when to ask questions, and know who to ask – I think that’s a big part of being good at what you do. Sticking within the bubble of your own knowledge gets you nowhere.

However, I do know talented women who are fantastic at what they do and don’t put themselves forward. Perhaps they don’t know how to slot themselves into a male-dominated framework, or perhaps they don’t believe in themselves. That said, I know men who are exactly the same, who lack confidence and who don’t realise how amazing they are. So this really goes both ways.

* You’ve had fantastic success running Words for WP, writing for Smashing Magazine and now your role at Audrey Capital, along with all the other work that you do. Has gender ever been a barrier along the way or is it just not an issue at all?

Honestly, I can say that it hasn’t been an issue. Or, if it has, I was never made aware of it.

* What advice would you give to women who are only now joining the WordPress community? How should be get involved?

I’d give them the same advice that I’d give anyone. Read about the community, follow the make.wordpress.org blogs, and see where you can find a home in the community. Take the time to learn about the community before just rushing in. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming, but coming in with the grand idea getting rid of the Codex and rebuilding docs in your own proprietary system (true story) is not going to do you any favours. Figure out the best way in and follow that path.

If you do want to get involved and you lack confidence, whether you’re a women or a man, reach out to someone in the community to see how they can help. I’m happy to help people out, and there are others like Andrea Rennick and Mika Epstein who have been very supportive of me and who I’d recommend wholeheartedly as helpful and empathetic people. You can also try the #wordpress-contribute chat room on irc.freenode.net where there are sometimes people available to point you in the right direction.

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