Sexism in the Tech Community

As a woman in technology I feel pretty lucky. I know that my field is dominated by men and that there are pockets of sexism, but I am fortunate enough to work with a lot of women and with men who are feminists. So I was pretty shocked to read this post about the really atrocious sexism in the open source community, especially since I am a huge fan of the open source philosophy. The post describes FOSS conferences in particular and the “creepy” behavior found there:

What kinds of creepy are we talking about here? You name it: guys taking upskirt photos, guys showing slide shows of bikini models, guys inviting strippers… to parties (ostensibly because stripping and programming Ubuntu go together like chips and dip). Several of the women have been physically assaulted.

Hopefully this is not representive of the FOSS community as a whole, but I think we can all agree that even a little of this kind of behavior is too much.

The post also links to the inspiring Geek Feminism Wiki, which includes an awesome timeline offeminist geek activism, beginning in the late 1980’s, which I promptly added to our case study list for the Global Digital Activism Data Set.

This got me thinking about what leads a community (online or offline)tointolerant behavior. A commenter named fakeplastictrees had an interesting insight:

As loath as I am to say the following, it seems to me that this is a result of not working with women as often as necessary. I am not implying that men immediately resort to being dicks when women aren’t around, but I think this is just a very extreme version of normal male behavior when women aren’t around.

It’s not that male programmers and developers are inherently sexist jerks (some are, but most aren’t). There’s something about a homogenous social environment that brings out the worst in people. When interacting with other people in a community, we communicate based on a perceived set of shared norms. This includes perceptions about “insiders” who aremembers of the group and “outsiders,” who aren’t. Polite as we may try to be, we are more likely to express a negative view about outsiders than about insiders – it’s part of how we identify ourselves as members of the group.

In a group that is homogenous (based on religion, gender, sex, age, ethnicity, class, what have you) there are many more outsiders than insiders and thus many more groups that one can criticize safely. Not only willtrash-taking outsidersnot threaten a fellow group member, it will probably increase group cohesion, as every statement underlines not only a “them” but alsoan “us.”

Now imagine acommunity which is diverse along those same perameters. The number of outsider identities is relatively small and the number of insider identities is relatively large. In fact, if the group is diverse enough, the individual members may not even know the identies of their fellow members (for example, if a member is gay or politically conservative).

In this context trash-talking any particular identityrisks offending a member of the group and casts a stigmaon the critic for threateninggroup cohesion. This is why diverse communities tend to be more tolerant, more “politically correct”. If you know you are in a diverse community, it’s best to play it safe and notsay things that might threaten the group or one’s standing in it.It’s just the evolutionary adaptation of a social species.

There are now a lot of feminist techgroups, like BlogHer and WomenWho Tech, who are supporting women in the tech space and encouraging new ones to join. But it is probably the gender trends that will defeat sexism in the long run. Froma 2008 article in theNew York Times:

Research shows that among the youngest Internet users, the primary creators of Web content (blogs, graphics, photographs, Web sites) are not misfits resembling the Lone Gunmen of “The X Files.” On the contrary, the cyberpioneers of the moment are digitally effusive teenage girls.

When there are more women in computer science classes and, a few years later, going to those tech conferences, I bet the amount of sexist behavior will take a nose-dive. In a community which accepts multiple genders, a sexist would label himself as an outsider, and even a geek wouldn’t want to do that.

Jumo: Who Needs Whom?

Jumo is a new web portal for social change organizations, which founder Chris Hughes told The New York Times, will “do what Yelp did for restaurants,” indexing these organization “to help people find and evaluate them.” The debate up to this point has been “Does the nonprofit sector need Jumo?,” but the better question is, “Does Jumo need the nonprofit sector?” TechPresident has a nice run-down of opinions on the first question, which range from the extremely negative to the wait-and-see skeptical:

Mobile Active‘s Katrin Verclas:

What is the need for Jumo that is not already served by organizations such as Idealist, VolunteerMatch, and Change.org? Note that Chris went out his way NOT to talk to any of the three in his ‘research” Overhyped, and underdelivering – and worse, not meeting a discernable need.

TechSoup‘s Daniel Ben-Horin:

I sensed [Chris] had received blowback for not having talked to enough NPO [nonprofit organization] folks and was remedying that, but was very much in love with his concept, and wasn’t really open to revisiting his paradigm….But I think we should take a long view here…. This is a different environment than the more or less purely social one of FB. With all his dough and pedigree, Chris and his team will still have to earn trust in order to succeed, and it’s not clear to me how well they understand that or how they expect to address that need.

In the TechPresident piece, Nancy Scola notes that “the existence of MySpace and Friendster didn’t obviate the need for Facebook,” and this is one way to look at Jumo – as a design update that makes it a threat to these older organizations. It certainly has a richer and more “Web 2.0” interface than Idealist (founded 1995) and VolunteerMatch (founded 1998), two older nonprofit search engines with designs to match. Change.org, born in 2006, has the most similar style, though Jumo’s organization pages are snazzier. (See design examples here, here, here, and here).

However, the real difference between Jumo and Idealist, VolunteerMatch, and Change.org is how they perceive social change organizations. Though we have not coded the data yet, I would guess that less than 50% of the 1000+ digital activism cases from the Global Digital Activism Data Set were initiated by incorporated nonprofit organizations. The rest were started by ad hoc groups, individuals, and all-volunteer organizations. While Idealist, VolunteerMatch, and Change.org are still stuck in the nonprofit world, Jumo recognizes that social change need not come from formal nonprofits. According to Beth’s Blog,

The platform was seeded with some initial organization profiles and a focused set of issues. The organizations are a combination of smaller, progressive organizations like Ushahidi and the Sunlight Foundation and large venerable institutions like NPR and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Anyone can set up a profile for an organization (it prompts for an EIN [tax identification] number (but not required) and Facebook account url)…

By contrast, Change.org does request an EIN to register and its database of one million nonprofits is drawn from GuideStar‘s database of US-based 501(c)(3) organizations. VolunteerMatch also requires an EIN to register and recognizes only two organizational groups, nonprofits and corporations. It is clear that Idealist is wrestling with the role of informal groups in activism, and has come up with the rather vague term of “affinity groups” for “people who want to share ideas and resources get involved in local or global communities, and help create opportunities for others to be involved.” These organizations can register, but must have a permanent staff member in order to do so, which is unlikely for truly grassroots causes.

One way to look at Jumo is as the Facebook to Idealist and VolunteerMatch‘s MySpace and Friendster, offering an aesthetic and usability update (and also a threat). But the more significant update is how Jumo defines what it means to be a change-making organization. The gatekeepers of tax status and government authorization are no longer a necessity. In the digital age of low-cost access and instant organizations, social change is an open door, and at Jumo anyone is free to step through and give it a shot.

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