(Not so) fascinating, Captain

Wifi was spotty at the Web 2.0 conference, but I enjoyed meeting people and listening to talks in the Web2open part of town. My coworkers Luke and Kirsten and I gave an off the cuff demo and talk about wikis, blikis, and various ways of looking at wiki content. I came away thinking further about measures of wiki health, tightness, outward or inward-lookingness, and the idea of a wiki having periods of growth or pruning.

I caught part of Rashmi Sinha’s talk, “Massively Multiplayer Object Sharing” and am hoping to hear more on the same themes of designing for large systems. It’s such a pleasure, because I have been thinking and talking for a while now in an amateur way about having many different metrics and algorithms to rank and measure value – in order to counter some of the flaws of complete democracy. I just talk about it, while people like Rashmi and Mary Hodder actually put these ideas into practice!

The only other talk I caught was part of the “Invincibelle” demo. While it is a lovely idea and I’m all for it, I was somewhat turned off by the line “After all, women love shopping…” Yeah okay, er… Did I really just hear that! But I’ll put that aside. Invincibelle has some great interviews with interesting women working in tech. It is a great idea but I have some (I hope constructive) critiques to offer. The site needs good navigation and stronger linking between people. Why not make this an actual social network site? So far, it’s just a custom-built blog with good interviews, a forum, and an rss feed of some job postings. Another thing that could be improved – how about adding some links to the women featured and their web presence? They have companies, blogs, contact info, presumably – but I can’t find that in the interviews. Why not make a nice sidebar with feeds from all the featured women’s blogs? Then their voices would be heard even further! Scalability is another concern. I would love for this site to grow. But when it grows what will it look like… where is a coherent directory of the people of this network – for example I would like to be able to click on profession titles and read about all the chemists or physicists or programmers and perhaps also by country, as I imagine people from particular countries might like to find each other. Maybe those features will get added and the site will move a little further into the “2.0” philosophy. I could say the same (a critique, with suggestions, and with love) for sites like el Salón de Belleza which has similarly inspiring portraits and profiles and interviews with amazing women (thought not focused on tech.)

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far far away, across the Expo hall, someone from this company was asking the audience for its demo, “should we search in our social software for swimsuit issue models, or victoria’s secret?” Apparently a segment of the audience indicated its preference for lingerie soft porn over bathing suit soft porn. Some women walked out. Maybe some men did too – I hope so. The subtext is not subtle to me. Who did the speakers think they were talking to?

In the context of all the years of discussion about “how to get more women at tech conferences”, this was an amazingly ignorant thing to do in a professional talk. I like many of the comments from my fellow geek and techy women in the comments here, for example, the calmly and neatly expressed simple statement by Nicole:

As an engineer and woman who uses the internet daily for work and personal I am still blown away by these ridiculous portrayals of women as objects in tech ad campaigns.

Some more on this, a quick roundup:

Ah! Here’s the women of Web 2.0!

Men (and a few women) of Web 2.0. This is so odd; it’s a photo of the crowd for a keynote, and the crowd is overwhelmingly male.

Meanwhile, Christine Herron posts about the gender ratio at the conference. This year, women made up 18% of the conference attendees.

I was on the Web2open side of the conference all of Tuesday, there were a ton of women, I didn’t feel outnumbered or out of place, and quite a lot of the speakers and presenters were women; in fact, more than half. I have a few thoughts on why this should be so. One is that women might be more likely than men to not be able to afford to go to the main conference if the fee was not paid for by their company. On that note — info I can’t source at the moment but that I’ve often read — women in companies don’t push to be sent to conferences while men do, because of self-judgements of level of expertise (Eszter Hargittai has some good research data on self-perceptions of competence and expertise in tech, though). Another crucial element that helped the gender ratio at Web2open; Tara Hunt actively recruited – repeatedly – women in online forums, in public and private, to participate, and pointed out the other women who were coming. That level of active outreach is very important and is part of why SXSWi had such success in increasing participation by women in the industry.

And back to the annoying lingerie model issue: I’d like to point out that O’Reilly’s screenshots were interesting and demonstrate the cleverness and interest of the product in the exact way that the demo didn’t. Doing a beavis and butthead style sniggering soft core porno “women as consumable objects” search only revealed what will end up being the ugly side of identity aggregation and search sites; using the web creepily to stalk & harass women. When this happens it won’t be the fault of the software or of the internet, it’ll be a mirror that exposes what goes on at all levels of society.

One more post, from SFWoW:

unbelievable that MCPs are still willing to show their stripes in SF these days; but there is no accounting for cluelessness among the supposed-Digerati.

Yeah there is some anger out there. And as anyone with half a brain should know by now, it is unsafe professionally for women in the field to indicate (even very calmly) that they are annoyed (even very mildly) by sexism.

I think some of the anger comes from our (speaking for women in tech) high expectations. We want to believe y’all utopian-thinking techie web 2.0 dudes are somewhat enlightened and we want to believe you see us as human beings. It is disappointing when those wishes and beliefs are proved wrong – over and over. I look forward to hearing more men say “actually that’s not funny” to each other. I don’t want to become the enforcer. The point is not for guys to watch what they say in front of women like me. That will only result in even less real communication. The point is to accept the criticism, to wipe the big green embarrassing booger of sexism or racism from your nose and say “oops sorry about that” and then move on from there. (YES please click on that link and read it – and then look at the defensive reactions every time women speak up and point out misogyny – for example what do men do but deny, claim they meant well, accuse women of being “too sensitive”, and then find women to defend them and testify how non-sexist they are. The point is not that you “Are” the point is how you BEHAVED just now, which in this case, was dumb and sexist.)

How many times do we have to say it? Talk about our work and contributions, not about our looks. Link up to and highlight women’s thoughts and writings, respond to the substance, rather than just going “har har har, beavis, of course we want women at our conferences (so we can hit on them).”

I would like to close by mentioning, for any geeky women reading this, systers and the Anita Borg Institute once again. They rock, there is no nonsense about nail polish or whatever, it is just a very practical network and resource for women in tech.

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