I was messaged yesterday on Skype by a friend who pointed to an exchange in the #wordpress irc chat room. The exchange went as follows:
Person 1: Need to ping siobahn !
Person 2: The hot chick or the other one
Person 1: The WP organizer for WCLND
Feel free to go back and read that again if you need to. In case you’re missing the problem – someone was looking for me, and the means for identifying me was not any of the things that I do, but my looks. And not just my looks (i.e. the red-headed one or the blonde one) but based on someone else’s opinion of whether they think I’m attractive or not.
This bothered me – not because I care whether someone thinks I’m hot or not – but because I honestly think of the WordPress community as a place where things like that do not matter.
In a working space, which the community is for me (as it is for many others) it is not appropriate to distinguish between people based on their looks – any people of any gender. But, let’s also be clear, we live in a society in which women are more often judged by their looks than men, and that judgement can have an impact on their career. Whether that’s in sport, television, or web design.
Let’s take a step back and look at the above discussion again – “the hot chick or the other one.” We can reframe it as someone looking for a man from the community:
Person 1: Need to ping ryan !
Person 2: simple pie ryan? WP Candy Ryan? The ryan from New Zealand?
Person 1: No - the Ryan who made WordPress Ryan
What any of these guys looks like doesn’t matter. The same goes for our Andrews or our Matts or our Bens or whoever. I’ve never distinguished between men in such a way. If I was to have to articulate the different between between Simon Wheatley and Simon Dickson, or Andrew Nacin and Andrew Norcross, what they looked like would have nothing to do with it.
As a woman, you grow up aware that you are compared to other women, compared to other girls at school, compared to the images on the front of magazines, to the women in movies. And you brush it aside, and you deal with it, and you accept the fact that no you’re never going to look like Audrey Hepburn, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. You realise that while society appears to value female beauty over almost every other female aspect (maternity excepted), the individuals that you meet aren’t like that – they think beyond the norms that are so frustratingly baked into society’s structure. People treat you with the same level of respect that they would expect themselves… except that sometimes there are those that don’t.
And you know that it’s not because they intentionally hate you or intentionally discriminate against you, but because they are thoughtless and their frame of reference is limited. In the workplace, however, there are rules that protect you from feeling uncomfortable or objectified. And these rules are important because everyone should have the opportunity to go about their job, or be a part of a community, without having to deal with behaviour that makes them feel bad.
When the “women in tech” issue is raised there are the inevitable objections that there is nothing excluding women from technology, that if we want to be involved we can. But if I was someone with an interest in getting involved with WordPress who went to the IRC chat room and saw women in the community being distinguished on the basis of their looks, I’d just think “oh hey, here’s another place that I’ll be judged based on what I look like – screw you guys, I’m going home.”
After I read the above exchange, which was bad enough (or as my friend described it, crass), I took a look through the IRC chat logs to see what else had been said about people.
<Joe> You wish you were as hawt as me
<Bob> interesting fact
<Bob> when I see someone hot
<Bob> I don't wish that I was as hot as them
<Bob> I wish I was inside of them. I'm an adult.
<Joe> you dont get inside a hot chick without being at or above their number..
<Joe> or without being rich
<Bob> I can't complain :-0)
<Bob> a little bit of column a, a little bit of column b
<Joe> if the girl's a 7, you better hope you are as hot or hotter..
<Joe> you can't be a littel hot or a little rich..
<Bob> Joe, are you in a dry county?
<Bob> They have a thing here that levels the playing field, it's called alcohol
<Joe> Ummm no. That works for guys on girls.. but not girls on guys
<Joe> or RARELY girls on guys
<Bob> my old lady is smoking, I'm just happy
<Bob> Joe, as an adult, I can vow that it has worked more than a handful of times with females
<Frank> I wish I could build plugins as gracefully as wordpress developers
<Frank> then I might get a raise
<Frank> Guys, wtf is a hook?
<Frank> If WP was a hooker, I would give it away
<Paul> wordpress is pretty much just shove that sql into your template
<Frank> open source sluts
<Frank> Paul, I don't treat wordpress like a lady. Balls deep, first push.
<Paul> man you are 100% agreed to catch something
<Paul> pretty sure I have lowered my life expectancy from working with wordpress
<ipstenu> Frank: That language is not welcome here. Please stop.
(note: I changed people’s names. The intention isn’t to shame any individual but to draw attention to a problem).
This sort of stuff goes on in the IRC chatroom all the time. There’s a whole spectrum from judging women based on their looks to sexualised language to sexual banter between people in the chat room. If we are serious about creating a community that is welcoming to women (or to men who are uncomfortable with this sort of atmosphere) then it needs to go.
It’s also worth pointing out that many people who are prominent in our community sit all day in #wordpress (myself included), and this activity goes on right under our noses. I know that we just don’t pay attention to the chat room. How are other people to know that though? How does it not look like we condone such behaviour?
This needs to be called out in the WP community, like it ought to be anywhere else. The community is incredibly welcoming for women, I absolutely don’t deny that. But we’ve become very good at patting ourselves on the back about it. We’re in danger of creating a situation in which women who do feel objectified or discriminated against don’t feel that they can speak up about it. After all, who wants to be the person to ruin the party?
If anyone does feel that they have been discriminated against or made to feel uncomfortable then please let myself or someone else on the project know. We do care, and we will listen. I have had my own experiences of uncomfortable conversations or being sleazed on at WordCamp after parties, so I’m sure that there are other women who have too.
Jen has started an initiative around community expectations, and I am joining the team working on it. Not because I hate men or because I’m angry at society, but because I expect better, and I expect better for others too.
Too often we act as though the world is the way that it is by virtue of some natural law. We shrug our shoulders and say “oh well, that’s just the way things are.” But the world isn’t just the way it is, it’s become that way, it’s constructed – we made it. All of us have the capacity to change things – sometimes we can do it subtly, and sometimes we do it with a hammer. Sometimes we emphasise the positive, and other times we have to point out the negative.
Women and men are not yet treated as equals, it’s a slow, iterative process, but I strongly believe that we can get there. In our small community we should continue to redress the balance so that all of our spaces are welcoming, no one feels discriminated against, and so that when someone is looking for a woman, the first way to distinguish them from someone else isn’t how they look, it’s what they do.
In the meantime, here are some useful ways to describe me: red-headed Siobhan, WP History Siobhan, Docs Siobhan, Siobhan who makes up stupid names for people (like Zazzles and Hanzo), Siobhan who tamed Rarsty, Audrey Siobhan, Siobhan who eats her steak blue, Siobhan the writer, Siobhan who cooks awesome dinner, Siobhan of the terrible singing voice, clumsy Siobhan, world-class-list-maker Siobhan, WordPress Siobhan, extreme walker Siobhan, WCEU Siobhan, WCLDN Siobhan, Irish Siobhan, Northern Irish Siobhan, too-many-degrees Siobhan, Smashing Mag Siobhan, Siobhan McKeown.