Category: Society

Posts about our society.

Trying not to die on Code of Conduct hill

Close to 10 years ago, a number of colleagues and I started a web conference. I’ve written about it before because  we’ve made decisions over time that have resulted in a track record of relatively equal representation of both men and women at the conference.

I dig doing it. I like the people (all of whom are doing this for free) not just because they’re interesting and smart and get excited about the new and old of the web, but because they’re on board with creating a community where more people feel comfortable.

When we heard of “codes of conduct,” we were like — cool, let’s do it. We’d been working hard to make people feel included and welcome for years, so it was honestly kind of a no brainer.  This wasn’t a copy and paste job, because we saw it as a way to verbalize the culture we had already been trying to develop.

Let’s call it a statement of values with teeth.

I like to assume that our attendees can act like the respectful people that they generally are. I also think that because we aren’t a “destination conference,” people aren’t looking to get blotto drunk and behave badly. However, I’ve had my fair share of bad conference experiences and know that it doesn’t hurt to remind people that we have certain expectations of speakers and attendees.

An abbreviated list of completely unprofessional things that have happened to me/in my presence at ostensibly professional conferences in the last four years:

  • Being expected to laugh at the stories of senior men in the field when these stories are demeaning to women. For example: hahaha we told our cab driver to find us prostitutes when we were drunk and he did! or hahaha we took the younger guys (who we’re obviously mentoring instead of younger women) out to a strip club last night!
    Extend these to an irritatingly large number of similar conversations.
  • Being asked if my wife was going to get pregnant “the natural way” (hahaha you’re so funny with talking about some dude having sex with my lesbian wife)
  • Being in a group of men complaining about their wives in all manner of sexist nonsense in a way that is pure macho performance (not enough sex, she spends all my money, blah blah blah) and being expected to not yell at them or even comment on how misogynistic they are
  • Sitting in a keynote where the speaker talks about an amazing program that somehow only had boys in it. When asked why that was, the keynote responded to the effect of “Oh I don’t know. Maybe we need to let girls know they don’t have to be supercoders. They could be writers. Or into art.”
    (I actually don’t even want to add other speakers who have done similar things because it makes me too sad)

Note that these don’t include things I know of that happened to or in the vicinity of other women.

So here’s the thing. I really hate the focus on the argument that code of conduct stuff is about safety — there is certainly an element of that, because people need to know that harassment and/or violence will be taken seriously. However, note that none of my stories are about my physical safety.

My stories, my oh so common stories, are about whether or not I want to be around these people and this environment. In environments that don’t specifically work on inclusion, there is an expectation that I and other women will suffer this nonsense in silence, deferring to the need for men to blow off steam. You can extend this to other populations as well, as demonstrated by the “natural way” comment that was inherently homophobic and misogynistic.

All of this is why a code of conduct (and all the actions you take to make that meaningful) are important: let’s name the playing field. Who is this conference for? Who is this space for? If we say it’s for everyone, then don’t create an exhausting environment. It’s really that simple.

It shouldn’t be hard to put your values down in words.

Change is not accidental

About eight years ago, I sat in the meeting room of Bordertown Coffee in Dinkytown with several people who would not only become my friends, but would be part of creating an event that proved that you can change the face of a web conference. We were all a part of the University of Minnesota and had met in a CSS-focused group on campus. Kris, Eric, Peter, Zach, Dan, Jesse, and I mostly blindly lucked into what has become an amazing annual event. Hard work and always adapting to the changing landscape of what it means to work with the web led us to where we are now.

I’m talking about the success of the conference–it sells out every year and brings in people from multiple industries. Despite our beginnings, only 1/3 of our attendees are from higher education; our speakers also increasingly come from outside education.  However, I’m also talking about our success with women in leadership, as speakers, and as attendees.

Jesse left for the great tech mecca of SF; Peter, Kris, and Zach left the U; all of us have changed jobs since then. We brought on Danny and Gabe the second year; Amanda the fourth year; and Mandi the fifth year, though we lost her to Chicago’s call.

These people have all been integral to what we have become, in both ideas and action.  This year, 60% of our presenters were women and 43% of our attendees were women.  A number of us have been asked how this happened. So here you go:

Eight years ago, I was the only woman on board the self-selected crew that was like “we want a conference that targets people like us–let’s make that!”

Of note: I am fierce. Also of note: all I really had to do was highlight the importance of making the conference about all members of the current and future web communities, note the homogenous nature of most web conferences of that era (and now, sadly), and say we should make it a priority to fix that.

Yes. Duh. Of course.

When I talk about diversity–making the conference for all members of the web community–I am not just talking about gender. Gender is where we have been successful and it is where we started because I brought it up and it coincided with a comment about our first keynote.

In the first year, an attendee commented on the word “craftsman” that Eric Meyer used in his talk as making her feel excluded. A couple people were inclined to dismiss the comment because she was the only one they’d heard it from. However, I was a real live person they could ask — “hey, did that bother you?”

It had, but I didn’t really know what to do about it. In contrast to some of the nonsense that I heard about at other conferences–the nearly pornographic crap people in attendance were subjected to, in one instance–it seemed like a really minor thing.  We’d pulled off a huge event with a big name our first time out. I was willing to chalk it up as something to reflect on for the future until I was asked how I felt about it.

Then I wrote a seven paragraph email.

That was the end of it. Seemingly little things were always addressed after that. If not in the midst of it, then after. Additionally, we were slowly getting more aggressive in promoting the conference to women as something they should submit to.  I went to She’s Geeky and ran an unconference session on getting your talk accepted by a web conference. In doing that, I learned how few women in the group had ever spoken publicly–and how others had negative experiences doing it and gave up.  Our conference doubled down and promoted how we wanted to consider and accept first time speakers.

Things have only ramped up since then. Amanda brought fresh eyes (and energy) to our group and is a sponge for ideas. We have increased our already existing support for local groups, including the Overnight Web Challenge, Social Media Breakfast, Ignite, Girls in Tech, and She’s Geeky. We added the workshops. We piloted a speaker mentor program this year that went really well, where speakers from previous years could coach new speakers who were accepted and provide them with advice and support.

We started paying attention to the demographics of our session presenters. After all was hashed out, what were our ratios? We had always paid close attention to keynotes in order to keep the gender balance 50/50 over time, but we hadn’t been tracking our session speakers.

The vibe feeds off itself. Women know this is somewhere they will see themselves, they have seen women present there, so they know they have a chance. What happens when we look at the session board now is that the results turn out to be about 50/50 over time. We don’t even have to consider gender when we’re debating the merits of sessions.

Increasing the diversity of your pool while increasing your pool of applicants means more representation and higher quality sessions across the board.

The solutions are so simple. They take time, but they are simple. The people who make the decisions change the face of your organizations, whether it’s a conference or a business, and if all the people who make decisions look the same–that email, that first opportunity to really discuss what it’s like to be omitted by language choice from a talk about the work you do (unintentionally, of course, and Eric was an amazing keynote and is an amazing person), it probably would not have played the role it did.

Or maybe it would have. The guys who work on MinneWebCon care about diversity. They are solid and staunch advocates for diversity in technology and how important it is that this become the norm. What we did is not something one woman could have pushed for on her own. It needed everyone to be on board.

I heard a couple people joking about the code of conduct this year. But these are the kinds of things you do to make people welcome. These are the things you do to create change. What do you value? What do you stand for? We learned a great deal early on with the disastrous Hoss Gifford session at Flashbelt in 2009. We did not want to wind up in reaction mode because a presenter took advantage of the freedom he had. Who wants to deal with that kind of mortification and community damage?

We create our values in actions and words.

Change is not accidental. It is also not immediate happy unicorn land. And it is slow. It is full of mistakes and frustration.  I have anxiety over our gaps, but what is constant among this group of people who put massive amounts of volunteered time into the event is reflection on where we are at and what still needs to change.

Anxiety and being afraid of criticism are paralytics. Be willing to charge into the danger of trying to change even though you might fail in small or spectacular ways the first, second, third, nth times. Be willing to be made fun of for being overly earnest. There will always be a way in which you are subject to criticism, there will always be criticism that is incorrect or based on lack of information, there will always be times you screw up out of ignorance or simply running out of time and being preoccupied.  It’s worth it, though, because you get to be part of charting new courses.

The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

–Paul Wellstone

One last thing: if you did not see topics you wanted to see, if you did not see yourself represented, if you want sessions that operate in ways you think would be better, please submit a talk next year. Do not sit on the sidelines. Be a part of creating this community.

Whip it

This isn’t really a movie review.

I sometimes wonder why sooo many crappy awful movies for dudes get made. And then I came across statistics – via Traction – that in 2008:

  • Women comprised only 16% of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films (a decline of 3% since 2001 and of 1% since 2007).
  • Only 9% of directors were women – no change since 1998
  • 22% of the films released in 2008 employed no women directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, or editors. No films failed to employ a man in at least one of these roles.
  • 90% of the films had no female directors.
  • 43% of the films had no female producers.
  • 79% of the films had no female editors.
  • 96% of the films had no female cinematographers.

If you take a moment to think about what that means – that the vision behind the movies, how things are interpreted, how things are portrayed, how our attention is directed, how a story is cut, how a story is told, who the protagonist is, who we should care about, who we should forgive, all of it is predominantly controlled by the male perspective – it’s a bit overwhelming.

It seems beneficial to remind ourselves that as self-congratulatory as we can be about women’s progress, we started at such a position of disadvantage that we’re still not even close.  Actually, there was an article in Jezebel back in August that got this topic stewing around in my head.

In an article about an NY Times scan of the big studio schedules by Michael Cieply, they highlight one of his paragraphs trying to explain the disproportionate dominance of male directors.

In one respect, homogeneity among its film directors might actually help Hollywood in a business sense. Studio films, year in and year out, continue to pull in crowds worldwide at least in part because they look, sound and feel like what has gone before.

What can you say to that? I’ve been under the impression that Hollywood has actually not been pulling in the box office numbers they need to in order to sustain their business model, but whatever. It also completely ignores how movies influence our culture at large, and how alienating it is for people to rarely see accurate representations of their lives in film. That was one theme that came up in The Celluloid Closet in regard to queer representation in film – that there were almost no representations of real queer lives in film (this was in 1995ish).

So when we went to Whip It last night, I was thinking about all of this and paying attention to how the movie showed women’s bodies, lives, sexualities, and humor in a female-directed, female-written film. I’m not saying that the movie was some groundbreaking work of feminism – it was a fluffy, feel-good, entertaining movie – but the representation of these different aspects that I noted were actually significantly different from other mainstream films I’ve seen recently.

  • The skating scenes, of which there were many, were striking in that they focused on the competition, athleticism, brutality, and sexiness of roller derby – as opposed to focusing just on the sexiness and turning the female characters into playboy versions of roller derby girls
  • It is really nice to see the quirky, female character as protagonist – the character that gets to develop and discover aspects of herself and become a more complete person – rather than as the girlfriend of and foil for male protagonist development
  • Speaking of that, it’s also nice that though the romantic relationship had an impact on the main character, it wasn’t the core of the female protagonist’s transformation. I hate how hugely rare that is, but it’s refreshing to see
  • I just really liked the range of female characters, the ways the different ages of the female characters contributed to friendships and relationships and their interactions with each other

What I want: more movies with female protagonists, written/directed by women. Let’s just balance things out.

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