Hey, You Guys: A Personal History

Fetus

Being inside a womb by myself, I was never included in group address. Also, I don’t think my parents were the kind of people who talked to the belly or played music to increase fetal development. It was the 70s. While pregnant with me, my mom smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish (her words).

Baby/Toddler

“Be a good girl.”

“You’re such a pretty girl.”

“Kids! C’mere!”

As a very little kid, the only mixed-gender group I was part of was the group with my two older brothers. We mostly were referred to as a group as kids, not guys, so while I was frequently referred to as a girl (and frequently a little girl) when addressed directly, the group address usually ignored gender.

Childhood

“Boys and girls, stand for the pledge [of allegiance].”

“Attention, boys and girls!”

“Okay, kids, line up in pairs.”

“Everyone, blah blah blah.”

As kids in school, we were frequently referred to as boys and girls* by adults. Individually, we were just referred to by name. Kids referring to each other used names individually, and I want to say the plural you for groups without an extra noun. /me thinks backs to elementary school and asking a group of kids to do something. Yeah, mostly the plural you. Very occasionally there would be a, “Hey, you gu-uys,” exclamation, but that was mostly imitation of tv, not a form of address that we used with each other in conversation.

Adolescence

All Boys: “Those boys are jerks.”

All Girls: “Those girls are mean.”

Boys and Girls: “What are those guys doing over there?”

As we grew into adolescence, you guys started making more of an appearance, and adoption rates were skyscraper-high. We referred to boys and girls all the time, but in direct address had started adding guys to the lexicon, including when a group included both genders. This was the turning point for the language in my personal history of you guys as plural noun of direct address. Here’s how it seemed to break down.

Singular Male Plural Male Singular Female Plural Female Plural Mixed-gender
Indirect He, him, that boy, [name] Them, those boys She, her, that girl, [name] Them, those girls Those guys
Direct [name],”Hey, you” You, boys, guys [name],”Hey, you” You, girls, guys You guys

In some cases we’d still use the specific-gendered plural noun, like to ask, “Hey, boys, do you want to play kickball with us?” But, most often, guys was becoming the norm for male plural direct address and for plural mixed-gender references of any sort.

The Electric Company-style, “Hey, you gu-uys!” got a little resurgence in this period when The Goonies came out, too.

Teens — 40

You guys had come to mean any group of people, regardless of gender. It was used on me all the time, and I used it on others. That said, you guys still also served as a plural of specifically male people. In a mixed group, context would determine the intent.

“Are you guys going to Carolyn’s party after the football game?”

Here, you guys meant all members of the group, any gender. (Because everyone was supposed to go to Carolyn’s party.)

“You guys have it so much easier when you have to pee while we’re snowshoeing.”

Even though the group was mixed-gender, the comment was directed only at the men in the group, based on anatomy and its relation to heavy snow gear. Yes, guys = penises in this case.

Occasionally people used gendered plural terms on me like girlsladies, or gals. I disliked them all.

  • Girls sounded like a group of little kids, and by the time I was 16 I didn’t like being called by this label, even though I sometimes still referred to myself (pretty often) or groups of women (rarely) this way.
  • Ladies had all kinds of specific connotations about class, abilities, and weaknesses. I always hated it, and tried never to use it. Primary exception was a brief stint in 1998 when a group of co-workers (including me) would break into Ladies’ Night on a regular basis.

  • Don’t even get me started on what an unappealing word gals is. My first boyfriend’s mom used to say gals all the time, and I flinched every single time.

During this period of time, ongoing socialization around the term you guys and experience parsing its intent based on context caused me to take this as a fluid language thing, and I was never bothered by being included in this form address. I certainly used it constantly on others, including all-female groups. Oddly, while I didn’t mind being included in you guys in direct address at all, I really disliked it when default singular male pronouns like him/his were used in a situation that could apply to me. Despite being a hardcore feminist, I couldn’t quite get on the hir bandwagon, because I thought it was kind of dumb — it looked like a typo for hair or his when written, and since no one around me had ever said it out loud, my reader’s vocabulary assumed it was a homonym for either her or here, which was just confusing.

Aside: during the teens and twenties portion of this period (when I was pretty flat-chested), in the handful of times when my hair was cut very short, I was frequently misgendered and called a boy or a man.

40+

Holy moly, gender diversity explosion and feminist apocalypse and mass confusion.

More awareness seeped into the general population (or at least my portion of it) about transgender issues, non-binary gender identity, etc. People (in some circles, anyway) started paying more attention to pronouns and how they fit with gender identity. At AdaCamp, a conference for women in open tech (woman was later defined as, “someone who identifies as a woman in a way that is significant to them,” to be more inclusive) attendees were asked to put their preferred pronouns on their name badges to prevent misgendering in conversation.

The “singular they” became a hot topic, with heads butted between modern grammarians and people referencing Shakespeare’s use as evidence of correctness. I started seeing ze and zir and other gender-neutral pronouns I had no idea how to pronounce. I decided the singular they was a good path when in doubt.

Backlash against you guys started in earnest (again, in my corner of demography). At first, I thought it was kind of silly. For 40 years, you guys had meant any group of people! Common usage, changing definitions, etc. In that same time I’d definitely seen other words change meaning or connotation, so why was you guys being accused of erasing women from the narrative, when it was so harmless and widely understood? That’s what I thought to myself.

Then, at the end of a dev cycle that had included several women developers, a male developer said, “Congrats, bros,” when the release went live and I really didn’t like it. Would “Congrats, guys” have been better? I thought so. Guys had clearly acquired an ungendered usage over time (in my opinion), whereas bros was definitely gendered, and in tech was gendered in such a way as to be pretty problematic (read: sexist dude who thinks women’s role in tech = booth babes or video game rape victims), right? So guys was still okay? Guys vs. bros aside, even though though I had been one of the people pushing for more diversity (including welcoming language) in the project, I was too intimidated by the guy (yes, an actual guy) who had congratulated the dev bros, because I just didn’t have the energy that day to defend against the backlash I expected if I were to bring up that bros wasn’t inclusive language. Why was it all so exhausting and complicated? Argh!

Then, at the Community Leadership Summit before OSCON, a woman gave a lightning talk about you guys, and how it made her feel left out/invisible when it was used as a form of address or reference when she was in a group of male developers. That made me think, “Hm. I don’t want to use language that makes people feel bad if I can avoid it.” I tried to stop saying you guys. Holy crap, so hard. Talking with Leslie at the event, she said she likes to use the word humans, but I think that sounds weird when I say it, plus I think of the Community Human Being mascot, which has always totally creeped me out.

(The “epically neutral mascot” is still referred to as he twice in this clip. Yes, sure, they could be referring to the person inside the costume, but grammatically that’s not what they said, so it comes across as default gendering.)

I tried substituting folks, y’all, people, plural you, generic heya, and other variations into my daily expressions. I probably used one of these replacements about 95% of the time. There was about 5% of the time when I forgot, or when I actually was referring to specific people who were male and used the word guys intentionally.

What happened in the 5% times? There have been a few scenarios.

Scenario 1: I caught myself and then fumbled a replacement phrase.

“Hey, you guy — er, you all, sorry, I’m trying to stop saying you guys to mean groups of people that include women — are you ready to leave for dinner?”

Result 1: A little awkward, but good-intentioned. Responses ranged from casual disinterest to nodding approval to weird looks, depending on the group.

Scenario 2: I missed it and no one noticed, including me.

“Hey, you guys, blah blah blah.”

Result 2: No one noticed, or at least no one brought it up, and since I didn’t notice either, it went uncorrected. In these cases it’s usually people who don’t care, so while I wasn’t setting the best example, I also probably wasn’t offending anyone. Unless there were people in the group who were offended but afraid to say something. Bah.

Scenario 3: I missed it, and someone other than me noticed.

Me: “Hey, you guys, blah blah blah.”

Someone Else: “Hey, you said you guys, and it made me uncomfortable.”

Result 3a: Caught! I apologized, saying something like, “Ack! I try not to do that, thanks for catching it and letting me know, it helps me remember.”

Result 3b: What? I was actually referring to a specific set of people who were male, so you guys was totally appropriate! Wasn’t it? Example:  I meant Barry and Alek, and referred to them as “the systems guys,” meaning “the 2 [male] guys that handle systems on this project.” I explained this, but the idea that the group to which I was referring would always be male-only was at issue as an undercurrent around expectations of gendered jobs and hiring. My brain could follow this, but at the same time, rebelled at the thought that we have to actually remove guys from the vocabulary altogether to prevent misinterpretation. This was the situation most likely to trigger defensiveness for me.

Now

So where does that leave the well-intentioned liberal intersectional feminist? Definitely avoiding using guys to mean a group that is mixed gender or could be mixed gender. Only using guys to refer to specific guys, and not when using any other descriptors that might be non-specific, thus tainting the specificity? I understand not wanting it used both ways (despite common usage patterns), but what’s the ruling on gender-specific usage?

[I really want to embed “I’ve Heard It Both Ways” from the Psych musical episode, but wow is USA clamped down tight on copyright and video.]

Can you have it both ways? If we say don’t use guys to mean groups including women because it assigns everyone in the group with male gender shouldn’t that mean that using guys to mean men is okay?  I find it confusing and exhausting when even the specific use is seen as offensive. The fact that I want to be sensitive to how language affects others just makes it more annoying, because I care about the answer.

What’s even worse — I have typically used dudes interchangeably with guys as both a non-gendered and a gendered pronoun, so I have been trying to stop using that one, too. Even though it is super fun to say! And has a lot of really specific cultural reference points for my generation!

Oddly, when referring to multiple animals of the same sex, I totally say girls or boys instead of guys, but then that brings up a whole different set of confusing language issues around anthropomorphization and infantilization that are far too obnoxious to think about when I should be having brunch.

3 cats snuggling together on a bed.

The girls.

Have a great Sunday! :)

*Does anyone else think it’s weird that we do that? Boys and girls, I mean. Would we pick any other difference and use it to segment a group of kids (or adults, for that matter, as with ladies and gentlemen)? No wonder we grow up so obsessed with that difference. What if classes were started with, “Attention, short kids and tall kids!” Or fat/skinny, rich/poor, white/black, outgoing/shy, funny/boring, or any other binary that’s really a spectrum? Sorry, tangent.

Looks Like Diversity (or Does It?)

Over the past two years, some of my work has been focused on trying to increase diversity in the WordPress open source community. This has included trying to get meetup and WordCamp organizers to commit to more diverse organizing teams and speaker rolls, something that has been a bit hit or miss. In some cases, giving some advice about how to reach out to different communities has been enough for someone to go all in and come up with groups of people that don’t all look the same or have similar backgrounds/experiences, while in others it has felt like we were wasting our breath, and that unless it was mandatory, the organizers would just choose from the people who applied rather than doing the extra work to reach out for a more varied slate of presenters to represent the community. It is a bummer when the latter is the case, but there’s only so much we can do when there are relatively few people who get paid to work on this stuff (and they are all juggling way more wp hours than a normal 9-5 would take) and the rest are volunteers.

The thing is, what does it mean to have diverse speakers?

In terms of gender it’s pretty simple — don’t have only men, include women and people from elsewhere on the gender spectrum. At the very least, it should not be hard to find women speakers if you take the time to go looking for them, because there are women doing cool stuff with WordPress everywhere.  Many women who’ve gotten involved with the project have said that seeing a woman on stage at a WordCamp was the thing that made them feel like there was a space for them here. Mel Choyce’s post about women in the WordPress community and her first WC experience echoes what I’ve heard from many women.

Or is gender simple? As more and more people come out as trans, it’s important to make sure they feel welcome and included in the community (well, assuming they’re into WordPress and would like to be part of it), and visible representation is a part of that. But many people, while wanting to not worry about being treated poorly due to their trans status, don’t really want to talk about their trans status all the time, or include it in bios on speaker pages. And why should they? Do other bios say, “John is a man from Idaho?” No, They say, “John is a web developer from Idaho.” No gender reference at all! So if we have do have speakers who identify as trans, but their outward appearance reads as pretty straightforward male or female, how do potential trans attendees (or contributors) know there are people like them on stage, and that they themselves might have a place there someday?

Likewise, the question of invisibility around race/ethnicity/sexuality/etc gets blurry when the average attendee just can’t tell. I was at the Community Leadership Summit last year before OSCON and I was in an unconference session about diversity at open source conferences when one of the participants, a black man, asked if choosing diverse speakers mattered if no one know they were something other than generic WASPs. In his part of the country especially, it’s not uncommon for people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds to pass (unintentionally) as white. So, for example, if they had a gay Cuban man, a trans man, a dude with Asperger’s, and a light-skinned black man on the speaker list (along with other people), but the audience read all of them as generic white guys, what would that say about the diversity of the speaker roll (knowing that references to the various diverse statuses would appear nowhere in the bios or in the presentations themselves)? Instead of looking like people from varied experiences (which they were) it looked like they were more of the same old same old, and he was worried people would complain about lack of diversity, especially since they had set out to create a diverse speaker list. We didn’t come to any kind of satisfactory answer in that session, but I think he raised a valid question about the idea of checkboxes on a census form vs. the way someone is perceived by others, and what representation really means. It’s so hard to figure out!

Privacy is paramount in all things; if someone doesn’t want to put some aspect of their demographic profile in their biography — gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity/race, disability, age, whatever — then they shouldn’t, period. And no one should feel like they have to represent a whole demographic slice because they’re the only one on the lineup (or ever, but that’s a separate issue). This is even more true when the status in question has absolutely nothing to do with their topic. The expertise of someone speaking on “how to choose a theme” is in no way affected by almost ANY of those things (well, maybe disabilities, if they were looking at accessibility/usability). Sure, if you’re speaking at a conference about power dynamics in a multi-gendered world, your gender status makes a big impact on your relevance to the topic, but with WordPress stuff? It really doesn’t, except in the more general “WordPress is for everyone” sort of way. Trotting out speakers with diverse backgrounds — “Ooh, look, not only do we have a pretty even gender balance, but we have an African-American and a Latina, too!” — just to show how progressive you are is just exploitive and sucky.

But! (There’s always a but.)

Given what we know about the sociological mechanics behind people applying to speak at events, it’s pretty basic stuff to know that speaker applications come mostly from the people who are already comfortable in the knowledege that there’s a place for people like them on the speaker roll, in whatever sense they define “people like them” in the moment. That means that to find the hidden gems — or frankly, not really hidden, just not on our personal radar — who don’t have that level of confidence already and/or aren’t so ridiculously overexposed at conferences (usually minorities), we have to work harder to find them, encourage them, help them if needed, and commit to not just looking at applications that came in over the transom.

So when someone says something like, “I can’t help it if 90% of our applications were from white dudes, we said in the post that we encouraged women and minorites to apply to speak!” it makes me purse my lips and remind myself to take a few deep breaths while I remember that part of diversity is having different beliefs and backgrounds, and that many people haven’t read all those studies (or any of those articles summarizing studies), and that other people may have but just really think diversity is not important and/or not their job. Side note: It’s at  those times I briefly think to hell with diversity, the world would be more peaceful if everyone thought the same thing (wouldn’t even matter what we all thought as long as it was the same). 

In preparing to select speakers for an upcoming conference, I have had these thoughts in the back of my mind a lot lately. We weren’t even doing speaker applications in this case, it was all by invitation, but we did take recommendations from some colleagues with good instincts and connections. Perhaps not shockingly, many of the recommendations happened to be upper middle-class white people. Not because of any explicit bias, but for a lot of the same reasons (I think) that have to do with why people from other backgrounds are less represented in our contributor communities as well, tied to cultural norms around being more exposed to and/or drawn to people like yourself, income/time availability, social connections to help publicize their sites/blogs, and let’s not forget the big one — they call it a majority because there’s just plain more of them.

So we’ve been doing some work over the past couple of weeks looking specifically for bloggers from underrepresented groups. Here’s what I’ve observed so far.

  • There are so many people blogging out there! When there are so many blogs, it is really overwhelming to go looking for new talent, as you have to wade through a lot of junk to find it. There is a reason there are whole organizations and conferences with staffs of people whose sole job is to read blogs and discover new talent.
  • There is some great content housed by really ugly sites. Like, really ugly. So ugly you look at it and think, “This person has no taste.” You know what, though? A lot of published writers probably have crappy taste. It’s not like their publishers let them design their book covers. And look back at your first website. Was it really the bastion of good taste and advanced design you sport now (if you do)?
  • There are a lot of talented bloggers that are on Blogger or Squarespace (and others, but those two came up the most often when I viewed source). I kind of want to have a team that just finds great bloggers — not famous people, or super-high-traffic sites, just good bloggers — and helps them switch onto WordPress. I also want there to be some really nice documentation that explains what WordPress has that those others don’t, with an easy step-by-step guide for making the switch.
  • Blogging is about having something to say. Looking at upper middle-class white people vs people from low-income backgrounds or less academically-inclined lives, the spelling and grammar is in some cases a big differentiator. It’s easy (because we’ve been trained this way) to look at the one with all the perfect sentences and say, “This person is the better writer.” But that person might not have the better story, or be the better storyteller. Let’s face it, the one thing blogging exposes vs. professional publishing is the writer’s spelling and grammar. Anyone who gets published by a magazine or book publisher has an editor that fixes all the errors. Having worked at a publishing house, I can confidently say that some brilliant authors are terrible spellers/grammarians. But we as readers don’t judge them based on spelling or grammar, since we never see it. So suspending judgment a little bit in that area, as hard as it is for me (because I really love good spelling and grammar), might lead to finding some great stories and storytellers on blogs.

Diversity, yep, we’re all different. Except we’re more the same than different, so it’s dumb to feel threatened by diversity. See: The Sneetches. Promoting and exposing people of different backgrounds doesn’t mean less opportunity for the folks in the majority demos. It just means they’ll have to work a little harder to rise to the top, which seems about right. And if the mission is democratizing publishing, then it seems like equalizing the opportunity for exposure and promotion goes hand in hand with that.

How diverse will your next conference be?

Doctor Who’s a Dude; Get Over It

I’m nerd enough that I watched the announcement of who would be playing Doctor Who once Matt Smith leaves the role after this year’s Christmas Special. Like others, I followed along in the weeks preceding as geeks, bloggers, and celebrities all speculated on who would land the part. I had a wishlist of casting choices just like everyone else. None of my dreamdocs were chosen, alas, but you know what?  It’s not my show — I don’t get to choose.

Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor

Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor

That doesn’t mean the choice of Peter Capaldi was bad, or insensitive, or unfair. On the contrary, the choice was brilliant, and one I didn’t even think of. So why are so many people feeling okay about denigrating Capaldi’s selection?

In the pre-decision weeks, Helen Mirren and John Barrowman (love them) both advocated for a female Doctor this time around.* Idris Elba was a frontrunner among those who wanted to see the racial barrier knocked down. And then there were less-political people who just felt the character of the Doctor had waited long enough, and it was time to let him regenerate as a “big ginge.” :) Personally, I would have been happy with any of those directions, if the person chosen was the one who best fit the direction Stephen Moffat planned to take the 12th.

I know that there’s not a level of diversity in television and film programming that reflects the actual demographics of society (side note, if you haven’t yet, check out the Fresh Air episode with Geena Davis on women in movies), but the negative, bitter backlash from diversity activists (and the non-activists who mostly just retweet things) when it was announced that Peter Capaldi — a 50-something British white dude — would be taking the role was pretty sucky.

Look, I was rooting hard for Chiwetel Ejiofor to be the 11th back when Tennant was leaving, and I was bitterly disappointed when Matt Smith was chosen (though he grew on me once his episodes started airing). I know that there’s precedent for a Time Lord becoming a Time Lady on regeneration, and Moffatt has said himself that he could see it happening. But listen: we are not entitled to determine the creative decisions of artists based on our own socio-political agendas. They’re artists for a reason… they have ideas they want to express. We are all free to do the same. So just like there’s no reason an Italian restaurant should be told to serve borscht just because I really think beets are underrepresented on most restaurant menus,  people who write and cast tv characters shouldn’t be beholden to the agendas of some audience members at the expense of their creative vision.

Frankly, I wish the Doctor would be a  vegetarian this time around. If he hates killing so much, then why is he so willing to eat the flesh of dead animals? He doesn’t eat onscreen often, but it’s happened a few time and it’s included meat. But that’s my agenda, not Doctor Who’s. It’s not up to me.

The Doctor is a character that’s been around for 50 years. 50 years. He’s had a rotating cast of companions and guest stars more diverse than most US tv shows. And he’s a British dude. So far, a white one. At some point the right actor (male/female/trans) could come along and wow the showrunner/writer/producer, and then maybe The Doctor will be a Black British Dude. Or an Indian British Woman. Or an Asian Trans Brit.** Or whatever set of demographic descriptors apply to the actor who blows up the audition and wins the part.

But in the meantime, the person who wowed Stephen Moffat this time was Peter Capaldi, an actor with a pretty great pedigree, and who, yes, I can already see as the Doctor even though I’m not very familiar with his previous work. He’s a fantastic choice, and ought to bring a shift in tone that will be cool. And as far as diversity goes, I’m pretty psyched they went with someone older for a change. If nothing else, I’m thinking it will change the romcom tendencies that creep in with all the younger companions that fall for the Doctor.***

Complaints that the Capaldi choice was generic, safe, wrong, an insult to women/people of color/name-the-underrepresented-group-you-were-rooting-for are just plain mean and narrow-minded, the opposite of what the complainers try to espouse, and really insulting to Capaldi and Moffatt — what makes any of us a better judge of how to cast the Doctor? Have we done it successfully? Written scripts like Blink? It’s just conceited to think that our personal opinions on this are more valid and our agendas more important than the professional opinions of the people who are doing the job.

If I want to get borscht on the Italian restaurant’s menu, I don’t just go in and tell them to put borscht on the menu, and get all my friends to blog and tweet the same thing. Then I’m just demanding an outcome, not helping the deciders see things my way. No, I need to talk to the owners and convince them of the inherent awesomeness of beets — they are the most intense of vegetables, after all — so that they will want borscht on the menu if it can be fit in without ruining the balance they’ve worked hard to create with the existing dishes, or at least so they can start thinking about gradually shifting some menu items so the borscht will eventually be a seamless addition that makes the menu more robust and diverse, rather than everyone reacting with, “Why is there Russian beet soup on this menu? It’s never been there before!”

Likewise, criticizing a professional for choosing an actor that doesn’t meet your idea of what demographic quotas need to be met is uncool. If you want to change the decisions, convince the people who get to make the decisions that your point of view is worth adopting. Then let the pro cast the right actor, whoever it is, safe in the knowledge that the diversity question was factored into the weighty decision.

Would I have been thrilled (still) with Chiwetel Ejiofor? Fuck, yeah. Would I have swooned if it had been Emma Thompson? Holy hell, yes. Or Gina Bellman? There are no words that express how fast the swoon would’ve felled me. But I’m not the showrunner, and neither are you. Congratulations to Peter Capaldi, and good choice, Moffat. For #12, Doctor Who’s a white dude again; time to get over it and start looking forward to the new episodes and the 50th Anniversary special.

White dudes can be good actors, too.

* In Barrowman’s case, do you wonder how much of that was just him hoping for more Captain Jack sexytime? 

** Come on, the Doctor will always be a Brit.

*** Though, oh, Capaldi and River Song? Can’t. Wait.

P.S. The 50th Anniversary Special airs during WordCamp London. Who’s rigging up a projection? Tammie Lister, I think it’s your turn this time. :)

We Need a New Study

or, Expedience vs. Accuracy

I’m at Open Source Bridge this week — one of my favorite conferences — and less then 2 weeks age I was at AdaCamp SF, which was also great. Both events involve a lot of people I respect who are dedicated to increasing diversity in the contributor pools of open source projects, which I love. Many of them keep referencing a stat that I think is outdated and mostly irrelevant, which I don’t love. Yes, I’m talking about FLOSS-POLS. That 1.5% number (percentage of FLOSS contributors who are women) is based on research that doesn’t represent the open source community today, so whether the current number is closer to 1.5 or 10.5 (and yes, I would guess that overall, especially in the developer segments, it’s probably still on the lower end) doesn’t matter; we shouldn’t be using a number that is outdated when making a case for why change is needed.

The FLOSS-POLS study was conducted from 2004-2006 over a 24-month period. The survey execution was completed within the first year, followed by interviews and analysis leading up to publication that took more than a year. So we are now talking about results based on a survey that is almost ten years old. Things change in a decade. Would we reference stats on mobile browser usage from 2004 to frame a discussion on why responsive design is important? Only in that 2004 would be a point on a graph showing the change in mobile browser usage stats over time. We don’t have that when it comes to assessing the percentage of women in open source projects because we need a new study.

“But, but —” you may sputter, “everyone knows that the mobile browser stats from 2004 would be irrelevant because the iPhone didn’t come out until 2007 and that was a game-changer. We haven’t had a game changer yet when it comes to women in open tech and culture.” True, that example may have been selected as an outlier where change happens so rapidly that stats from year to year are dramatically different. The number of women showing up on project leadership teams isn’t growing by those same leaps and bounds, but things *are* changing, and without tracking those changes, how can we really speak intelligently about the state of things? Looking at the numbers over recent years in specific programs like OPW, it seems obvious to me that we are in a pivotal time, and we should be collecting data like our lives depend on it so that we can look back at this time with accuracy, and so that future generations can learn from it.

Another problem I have with the FLOSS-POLS study is the methodology as outlined in Deliverable D 16: “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings”

This report primarily relies on anthropological research carried out amongst F/LOSS participants in France and other parts of Europe in 2004 and 2005

Yes, I know there are a lot of open source project contributors in France and Europe. Yes, I know Americans are often ethnocentric and think we rule the world (sorry about that, by the way, many of us know we can really suck and are embarrassed by that). Yes, I know that was the participant pool they chose for a specific reason:

The FLOSSPOLS project aims to support Europe-wide goals, and clearly needs to be conducted at a European level.

from Project Outline

To be fair, the report states that while the offline research was mostly in France:

parts of it were also conducted in other European countries (England, Wales, Germany and the Netherlands) as well as other countries (North America and India)

That’s all well and good, but this study gets referenced as if it’s the Bible of open source gender stats, and it just isn’t, given the geographic focus when many FLOSS projects are decidedly more distributed than their coverage. Also, note: “North America” isn’t a country.

Another issue is numbers, specifically this number: 1541 participants. That number just seems laughable to me. Hell, WordPress and Drupal alone could get more contributor survey responses than that — especially if we extend our definition of contribution to include more than just core development — and we’re just a couple of CMS projects that started in 2003 and 2001, respectively. Oh, look, two really big FLOSS communities that were barely off the ground in 2004. Here’s where that mobile browser comparison starts to not look like such an outlier.

In 2004, WordPress had a handful of contributors. In 2013, WordPress has hundreds of core contributors with each release, and the project as a whole has thousands more when you roll in the developers of plugins and themes at wordpress.org, the mobile apps, the docs and support teams, the event organizers/speakers/volunteers, the teachers, the translators, and all the other people who contribute to WordPress. So I take back what I said before about WordPress and Drupal together being able to get 1541 contributor survey responses… I think WordPress could get that many all on its own.

So, yeah. I don’t think this study is up to date, or particularly relevant to discussing the current state of things. Relevant to discussing trends? Yes! It’s now historical data. Historical data is the foundation of analyzing progress. But we need current data to know what the state of things really is.

I have a lot of other issues with the FLOSS-POLS study being taken as current-day truth, but I’m thinking that a) you don’t want to spend another hour reading this and I don’t want to spend another hour writing it, and b) you get my gist.

So how do we get new information to plot on the timeline of progress?

We need a new study.

Before moving onto what I think we should do about this, I’d like to take a moment to address a point raised in a session the other day by Kronda Adair in her session Expanding Your Empathy, and that we talked about a bit afterward. She was recounting how she’d tweeted that women still earn .50 on the dollar compared to men, and how someone replied asking what her source for that stat was, that according to CAP stats it was more like 96.7 cents on the dollar. Here’s the set of tweets from her slide:
screenshot of tweetsIn the session, Kronda posited that the reply was derailing the conversation, that the important nugget in her original tweet was that there was inequality, and that the respondent shouldn’t try to cloud that message by focusing on specific numbers. She also (rightly) pointed out that while .50 may not be the average in our industry anymore, that some women somewhere were earning at that ratio, some were earning more, and some were earning less, so unless you were going to be very specific about the group being referenced, saying that pay is still unequal was still an important message. I do agree with that. I disagree that the numbers don’t matter.

When you use numbers to make a point, they just have to be accurate, or you’re setting yourself up for your entire statement to be distrusted. If I can’t trust the numbers you’re quoting, can I trust your overarching statement? Oh, you weren’t quoting numbers, you were just repeating something you’d heard without researching it to verify? Okay, but now everything else you’re saying will be judged by that oversight. Just saying, “Women still make less than men 50 years after the equal pay act,” would have made the point. Not as dramatically, but that’s the power of stats, and that’s why it’s important they be accurate.

Just as I keep hearing people talking about how they would like to stop being distracted at work by having to discuss the issue of being a woman in technology and just get to focus on the actual technology, inaccuracy in talking about these issues is a distraction that pulls focus from the central problem, that there is imbalance and bias and discrimination and all those things that we want to correct moving forward. So let’s remember that what we say (not what we think) is what people hear and what they will use to judge our veracity, and try to be accurate in the words — and especially the numbers — we use.

Note: I loved Kronda’s talk and thought it was one of the best so far. Would love to see her give it at WCSF or the community summit if/when we do one again. I also already shared my thoughts on the importance of accuracy with her directly. I hate it when people deconstruct what someone else said without talking to the person directly.

Now, back to FLOSS-POLS and how I think we need a new study.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.  The draft post from when I first started trying to sum up my thoughts on this is from November. Much of the following is taken from that draft.

If we’re going to try to grow the numbers of women in open source projects and want to know our level of success/failure in that regard, we need to have a baseline number against which we can measure. We need good stats. We need reliable data. And we can’t count on a university funding a study once a decade. We need to take responsibility for measuring our own progress.

“Wait,” you’re thinking. “Isn’t that what the Ada Initiative is there for now? Won’t they take care of all that stuff for us?” Dudes — and I say that in an entirely non-gender-specific way — be realistic. Look at the Ada Initiative mission, look at all the projects they have going, look at the fact that it’s two passionate people trying to raise enough money to do awesome things, and think about what it takes to run rigorous academic studies, conduct data analysis, and to do it every year.

The Ada Initiative’s opening action was in fact a survey, the Ada Initiative Census of open technology and culture in March 2011. They surveyed a bit fewer than 3000 people about attitudes and their experience within their open source communities. The oft-cited FLOSS-POLS study surveyed just over 1500 (mostly in Europe). But we all know that if you tallied the contributor lists from all the open source projects, or even just the ones that, say, have participated in Google Summer of Code, we would have a community of many more thousands of people, probably tens of thousands of people, especially once we loop in the project contributors who focus on support forums, design, documentation, QA, etc. So how can we get the most useful data?

I dunno.

I say that semi-jokingly, but the truth is, we should all be asking what data is needed, and what the best way to acquire it is. Many people don’t want to ask contributors to identify themselves by gender (or race, or age, or sexuality, or education level, or socioeconomic status, or any of the other demographic slices in which one group dominates others) because we think it’s the work that matters, not the profile. And that’s true. But if we want to increase diversity — and pretty much everyone agrees that we ought to — then the profiles clearly *do* matter, or we wouldn’t go on about how we need to work for change. You see the conundrum?

My proposal: We form a diversity coalition of F/LOSS projects, with a rep from any open source project that is willing to be involved (hopefully, most of them). We consult with the Ada Initiative, and we consult with some lovely academic researchers who love open source (or who just love one or more of our projects, whatever) who would be willing to put in some time to help formulate a repeatable study plan and ongoing data collection mechanism. We do whatever we need to do to get contributors to our own projects to pitch in and agree to an annual diversity census and/or private, opt-in demographic  information being stored with their contributor profiles. We round up appropriate  researchers (volunteer? paid? either would work) to collect and analyze the data. We release the results to the F/LOSS community each year, so that each project has an accurate baseline against which to measure progress in their own project (if they are so inclined) and in relation to other projects.

This is kind of a giant proposal, I know. It would require working together with a lot of people, and it would require a lot of work in general. I’m basically at the point where I’ve stepped back from core UX to focus on increasing diversity and participation in the WordPress community, so I’m already prepared to say yes to this on behalf of WordPress (unless that statement gets me fired, in which case I’m prepared to say yes on behalf of just me). The question is, do other projects want this information as badly as I do?

Tangent: And could we pool some money to buy floss.org and make it the home of a F/LOSS coalition in general? We should be collaborating on more than diversity. Just think of how awesome it would be if we collaborated on improving the tools we all use, contributing to upstream projects, and ways of making our projects better? It could be like an online cross between OS Bridge and CLS all year long!

WordPress was founded almost 10 years ago when Mike Little agreed with Matt Mullenweg about a need for something, and said so in a comment on a blog post. Could this post be the start of a coalition of open source projects? That would be so ridiculously great I don’t even have a word for it. If anyone from another project is interest in talking more about this idea, leave a comment and I’ll follow up with you. If you’re at Open Source Bridge this week, let’s talk about it in an unconference session on Friday. Maybe we can make this happen!

Footnote: I would like to end this ardent cry for better stats with something my wonderful friend Andrea Middleton wrote to me a very long time ago when trying explaining to me how she, a poet, had fallen in love with a statistician. It sums up most of my feelings about stats perfectly, since I care more about people and interactions than I do about numbers. She said, “Statistics are like poetry, beautiful but useless.”

Changes

Today I turn 41. It’s also the end of my quasi-leave of absence, and on Monday I’ll be returning to full-time work at Automattic on the Dot Org Team. When I do so, it will be in a new role; I’m posting about it here so that all concerned will know what I’m doing, why, and that yes, it’s intentional.

For 4+ years, I was the UX/Design lead for core. At some point in the first year or so, I also started project managing the core team/core development. Then I started doing some community work, events, and general contributor community management. There were also other things here and there, like trademark for a while, being the team lead of the Dot Org Team at Automattic, and various design forays. You might remember that this was too much. I’m not ashamed to admit that I burned out, and needed a break.

It’s my birthday, so it’s a natural time to reflect on where I’ve come from, where I’m at, and where I’m going. When Matt convinced me to take the job at Automattic, one of the things that got me in was that he said I could work on programs to bring women and girls into the WordPress community, especially around programming. In that lunch on a San Francisco sidewalk, I laid out a vision including mentoring programs, school projects, summer camps, trips to the moon… okay, not trips to the moon, but just about everything under it. And then I never did any of those things because I didn’t prioritize it over my work on core.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think core is mega-important. Core *is* WordPress. Without it there would be no community. That said, core doesn’t need me to pour my life into it; my offering feedback, some sketching, and advice occasionally can be as much of a help as my doing research, creating wireframes, reviewing every trac ticket, and testing every ui patch.

In 3.5, I was meant to be on leave (aside from the summit planning), so I  answered some questions and gave some feedback early in the cycle to Dave/Helen/Chelsea/Koop, but otherwise stayed out of it. (P.S. Kudos to Nacin on the project management of 3.5!) My only real involvement was at the end of the community summit, when I spent several hours the last morning sitting with Koop going though the media uploader screen by screen, asking questions (“What about _____?” “What problem does that solve?”), sketching alternate approaches, and generally dumping every reaction and idea I had about it into Koop’s head before he left for the airport. Then I didn’t think about it again. From Skype a few weeks later:

Andrew Nacin 11/27/12 12:28 PM
feeling good about 3.5?

Jane Wells 11/27/12 12:31 PM
i wasn’t really involved with it aside from media morning with koop before he left tybee

Andrew Nacin 11/27/12 12:31 PM
that morning was huge. completely re-shaped a lot of our thinking.

That has me thinking that 4 hours here and there will do just fine instead of ALL THE HOURS.

So! Where does that leave me, if I don’t need to do core design or project management anymore? I keep going back to that sidewalk lunch and how exciting it was to talk about possibilities around using WordPress as a gateway for women, girls, low-income kids, and minorities of all stripes who are under-represented in our community to get into the web industry (see also #2 in this post).

My first week back at Automattic (starting Monday) I will be doing a week’s rotation on wordpress.com support with my team, but will then be jumping into a new role focused on our contributor community. It will involve a lot of projects, but one of the first will be aimed at increasing diversity in the contributor groups, starting with the gender gap. These efforts will all happen under the aegis of the new Community Outreach contributor group, so if you are interested in working on this with me (and Andrea Rennick, and Amy Hendrix, and Cátia Kitahara, etc), please join us! I’ve got a giant list of projects that I’d like us to tackle in the new year, and we’ll need people to help make things happen.

But what about core? And other stuff? I’m reserving Wednesdays to do design so I don’t get rusty. These “office hours” can be used by the core team to have me look at something, or by an Automattic team. Otherwise, I’ll use that day to work on designs to improve areas of the WordPress.org site to help with our goals, and/or tools to help us get things done.

So that’s the plan.

What do you think?