Girls at Devopsdays (see what I did there?)

Ben Hughes (@benjammingh) of Etsy, visiting from SF to speak on security, tells me he is horrified by the pitifully small number of women at the conference. He says he thought New York was bad 'til he saw London. I saw, maybe, six female persons here, among several hundred male ones. Personally I don't notice this much - and if I don't experience any direct discrimination or signs of overt sexism I tend to see people as people, regardless of gender. I don't see me as part of a minority, so maybe I forget to see other women as such. Talking with Ben has made me think this isn't too good.

As someone who's done a fair bit of hiring, and never had a single female applicant I shrug, I say "what can I do? They aren't applying". But after talking with Ben I'm thinking that's a lame cop out too. Something needs to be done and just because it isn't my fault as an evil misogynist hirer, doesn't mean I shouldn't be trying to make improvements. I think it's a slow burn. It probably requires a culture shift with girls moving nearer to the model of the classic teenage bedroom programmer, and boys moving further away from it, until they all meet in the middle in some kind of more social, sharing, cooperative way of being. Hackspaces for teenagers? With quotas? It probably also requires more, and more interesting, tech in schools; programming for all. Meanwhile, I'm going to start with my small daughters (and sons), and to set them a good example I'm going to upskill myself. I'm going to get around to learning Ruby, as I've been meaning to for years.

Oh but wait... did I say there was no overt sexism here at Devopsdays? So as I'm writing this there's an ignite talk going on. It's a humorous piece using Game of Thrones as a metaphor for IT company life. It starts ok - Joffrey, Ned, Robb and Tyrion get mentions as corporate characters, it rambles a bit but it gets some laughs, including from me. But then suddenly this happens...

The presenter shows a picture of Shae, saying "...and if you do it right you get a girl." Oh, you GET a "girl" do you, Mister Presenter? That well known ownable commodity, the female human. Oh and apparently you get one who's under eighteen... that's a little, er, inappropriate, isn't it?

And then, as if that wasn't enough, the presenter shows a photo of Danaerys Targaryen, saying "And here's a gratuitous picture of Danaerys". Danaerys is gratuitous apparently! Well who knew! Not anyone who's read or seen Game of Thrones. Oh and wait, it gets better - the guy now tells us, "if you do it really well you get two girls."

So, firstly in the mind of this man, women are present in fiction and in IT only as prizes for successful men to win. Secondly women can reasonably be described as girls. Thirdly, he assumes that his audience is exclusively male (I was sitting in the front row - he's got no excuse for that one).

So I spoke to the guy afterwards, and he didn't see a problem with it at all, happily defending the piece, though he did finish by thanking me for the feedback. I guess the proof will be in whether he gives the talk again in a modified form.

Such a lost opportunity though - GoT is packed with powerful and interesting women, good, evil and morally ambiguous. He could so easily have picked half and half. It's like he read it or watched it without even seeing the non-male protagonists.

Hmm, i just used the word guy... We say "guys" a lot round here, and i mostly assume it's meant in a gender neutral inclusive way. That's the way I take it, and use it. But now I'm wondering how personally contextualised is our understanding of terms like "guys". Atalanta management once upset a female colleague by sending out a group email, beginning, "Chaps...". She felt excluded, whereas we assumed everyone used the word as we do in a completely neutral way. But both terms of address are originally male-specific, so it should be no surprise that some people will understand them to be either deliberately or carelessly excluding.

I don't know... This is the kind of small detail that tends to get written off as irrelevant, over-reacting, being "touchy", political correctness gone mad, and so on. But in the absence of really overt sexism - leaving aside Game of Thrones guy's show - maybe we do need to look to the small details to explain why tech still seems to be an unattractive environment for most women.

I nearly proposed an open space on this subject, but a few things held me back. Firstly, which I'm not proud of, I thought "what if nobody cares enough to come along? A) I'd feel a little silly, and b) I'd be so disappointed in my peers for not seeing it as important". I should've been braver, taken the risk.

More importantly though, I think it's really important that this isn't seen as a "women's issue", to be debated and dealt with by women, but rather as a people's issue, something that affects us all negatively, reflects badly on us; something we should all be responsible for fixing. And for me, the only female person in the room at the time, to propose this talk felt like ghettoising it as a women-only concern. I may be wrong. Maybe lots of people would've seized the chance to work towards some solutions. I wish Ben had been around.

So, I didn't propose a talk. But what I did do was put on my organisers' t-shirt and silly hat, so at least it was visible and clear that there are female persons involved in creating a tech conference in London. Even if there weren't enough attending.

About the Author

Helena Nelson-Smith is CEO of Atalanta Systems, she's also, by some people's definition, a "girl".

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