Discrimination – four recent tech community controversies

Recently, four controversies have swept the tech online scene: They were about perceived discriminations against women, people who prefer not to drink, and homosexuals. This blog posts describes the controversies and mentions the most interesting commentaries on them. It concludes with thoughts on how we might learn from them.

Controversy: “women” as a “perk” at the Sqoot Boston API Jam

[2012-03-20] The event description of the Sqoot Boston API Jam, mentions “women” as a “perk”: “Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.” Quoting “How Casual Sexism Put Sqoot in the Hotseat” by Joe Brockmeier for ReadWriteWeb.
It has been damaging for the company, and in record time. Since this morning, several companies have pulled sponsorship from the company's event. Heroku, Apigee, and MongoHQ have pulled sponsorship from the event. Update: also CloudMine, which has a strong statement about pulling its support from the event.
That’s humor gone really wrong. You can guess the organizers’ non-offensive intentions, given that there are few women in tech circles. But it still sounds creepy.

Controversy: video ad for Geeklist with a woman in underwear, dancing

[2012-03-22] Quoting “Sexism, Words, and Marketing” by Isaac Z. Schlueter:
The problem, however, came about when Geeklist decided to use a women’s underwear commercial as a marketing technique for their own product, which is a social networking website for people in technology.
You can read the Twitter exchange that started the public discussion. Shanley Kane’s request to “please take [the video] down, it’s fucking gross” was unnecessarily aggressive, but in no way merited the awful reaction it got (thinly veiled threats and all). Schlueter’s point is a good one: Shanley Kane is Geeklist’s target demographic, they should take her feedback seriously.

Controversy: too much alcohol at tech conferences

[2012-04-02] Quoting “Our Culture of Exclusion” by Ryan Funduk:
It's the booze. You can't go anywhere, do anything or talk to anyone in the tech industry these days without a drink in your hand. If you try to fake it with a soda water you may as well give up trying to have insightful conversations after the first hour, because everyone else is wasted.

Bubs thinks you should just go out with the bingers and act like a crazy person right along with them – they won't know the difference! Fair enough, but I'm not interested in 'partying hard', I want to talk with like-minded people about subjects I don't necessarily get to talk about at the office. For example, we don't use Node.js at work – so I go to JSConf to chat and learn about it in a casual atmosphere. Except I don't get to do that. It's always the same: talks, then binge time.

Counter-point: There were many simplistic and defensive answers to this post. Mikeal Rogers has written a thoughtful one. Quoting “I drink for a reason”:
We organize events for the community. The goal of the conference is to increase social and personal connections among the attendees. Having readily available social lubricant helps that, especially when the audience has a hard time loosening up without it.

Controversy: Brendan Eich supports Proposition 8

[2012-04-03] Quoting “Mozilla founder Brendan Eich was pro-prop 8” by Deborah Netburn for the Los Angeles Times:
... it recently came to light that back in 2008, [Brendan Eich] made a $1,000 contribution to support Proposition 8.

The record of the donation has been available since at least 2008, but it was rediscovered by the Twittersphere last month and the information – and outrage – has continued to spread, with more than 5,000 people tweeting about Eich's contribution Tuesday.

Some reactions were harsh (nominalized four-letter words...). Rebecca Murphey wrote the insightful blog post “JavaScript: It's a language, not a religion”. She first mentions her background and expresses her feelings:
I am in a committed relationship with my partner Melissa. We will celebrate six years together on Sunday. We contribute frequently to political causes.

I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn that Brendan Eich contributed money in support of a political initiative that sought to rescind the court-established right for same-sex couples to marry in the state of California. It has changed my view of him as a person, despite the fact that we have had a positive and professional relationship and he has been a great supporter of my JavaScript career. I think he is on the wrong side of history, and I hope that courts will continue to agree with me.

This is how she acted on her feelings:
I had a frank, private, and face-to-face conversation with Brendan about the issue during JSConf. I shared my disappointment, sadness, and disagreement.
Response:Community and Diversity” by Brendan Eich. Quote:
I’m not going to discuss Prop 8 here or on Twitter. There is no point in talking with the people who are baiting, ranting, and hurling four-letter abuse. Personal hatred conveyed through curse words is neither rational nor charitable, and strong feelings on any side of an issue do not justify it.

In contrast, people expressing non-abusive anger, sadness, or disagreement, I understand, grieve, and humbly accept.

Thoughts on discrimination

Controversy #1 and #2 are relatively mild examples of sexism. So you might ask: “What is the big deal?” Marco has written a great answer. Quoting his blog post:
Some men find it hard to understand why women can still be made to feel uncomfortable or offended. Aren’t we past that (No)? Haven’t we done a lot for gender equality (yes, but not enough)? Even if there are still some cases that are bad, aren’t we being overly sensitive (maybe, but mostly no)?
Let’s go back to that “woman in a room full of men” thing. Why is she apprehensive about the prospect that these men might be looking at her with arousal? It is because men can exert power over women.
Whoa, back up. This is sounding bad right? But stay with me. A woman knows that at any time, if she’s in the wrong situation with men, or just one man, they could decide to take away her control. Simply by virtue of being stronger.
Jokes can go wrong. If people are offended, you should try to find out what was offensive. Consciously or subconsciously, jokes can be disguised attacks or criticisms.

However, I was also surprised how easily people condemned someone. Alas, that’s the automatic response by a society whenever someone does something that is perceived as inappropriate. It is usually better to condemn the act, but not the human being behind it. No human being will ever neatly fit into pigeonholes such as “all nice” or “all discriminatory”. As a point in case, all of the people involved in the controversies mentioned above are widely described as very nice people. Quoting “Arguments on Twitter are causing more harm than good” by Christian Heilmann:

My favourite simile there is that people think racism is about being good or bad – there is nothing in between. And if you are not racist, then all is fine forever more. Jay calls that the tonsil argument. You have them removed – all is well. You can’t however have your racism removed. You get influenced all the time – like plaque setting on your teeth and rotting them. So we should deal with argumentation and loaded discussions not with the tonsil solution in mind but apply an oral hygiene approach instead.
In other words, most people are affected in one way or another. Note that I’m not saying that one shouldn’t have to face consequences for one’s actions, I just don’t like simplistic all-out condemnations – they are hateful, too.

The tricky thing about discrimination is that it usually does not happen consciously, it seems the “normal” thing to do. A common cause is subconscious fear or insecurity. Most people are awkward, be it towards women, be it towards homosexuals, be it towards others in general. With awkwardness, defense mechanisms kick in. One of the comparatively harmless ones is clumsy jokes. If something offensive happens then that should be a conversation-starter, not a conversation-stopper. However, due to the often subconscious nature of discrimination, we also have to find appropriate ways of educating about it, because (conscious) arguing will not always be effective. Two examples:

  • Educating about homophobia. Quoting Srdjan Dragojevic on his movie “Parada”:
    I wanted to show as many people as possible how the majority treats the minority and I've achieved that. In Serbia alone, around 330,000 have seen the film. Of that figure, the majority are, in my opinion, homophobic. Despite this, the feedback has been almost entirely positive. A friend of mine told me that his teenage son came back home in a bad mood after seeing “Parada”. The teenager said he thought the film was shit because after seeing it he can no longer hate gays. I made the film for such people.
  • Educating about racism. Jane Elliott has devised the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise:
    Jane Elliott ... exposes prejudice and bigotry for what it is, an irrational class system based upon purely arbitrary factors. And if you think this does not apply to you. . . you are in for a rude awakening.

    In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. over thirty years ago, Jane Elliott devised the controversial and startling, “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise. This, now famous, exercise labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority.

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