Women, Diversity & Discrimination

Background: Presentations that include female nudity and references to porn in professional presentations. The first incident occurred at GoGaRuCo the Ruby conference in April, the second and far more blatant one at the Flashbelt conference just two days ago.

This is my take on the issue, and my personal experiences with these kinds of incidents.

Incident one: I had gone to the Bangalore FOSS.in conference about two years ago. An extremely attractive lady from linuxchix came up on stage to speak on The Black Art of Makefiles. As has happened many a time before to many a speaker’s laptop, hers refused to play nice with the on-screen projector and the slides just wouldn’t come up. Yes, probably a screen resolution mixup. What was unusual though was the ten guys who rushed up on stage and started working on her laptop. They tried for a minute or two to fix the problem (without success) before the lady eloquently managed a few keystrokes in. And voila, the slides came up and the crowd dispersed, sheepishly. Yes, the lady knew best—it was her laptop after all.

Incident two: One of my friends is studying for her MBA at a good institute where companies come up to place people for summer internships. An interesting statistic: 80% of people who got placed in high-profile companies were girls, and a reputed technical MNC only gave out internships to girls. I theorize that this is because as a rule, girls sell products much better than guys.

Fact: There are subtle (and not) gender differences in the technical community that’s visible every day. While most often this is genuine discrimination, sometimes (as in incident two) it’s biased towards women too.

Fact two: Not all discrimination is deliberate. I’m pretty sure the Ruby presenter was just trying to be “edgy” (Ruby is much more conducive towards such non-mainstream behavior) but ended up offending the women in the audience. I’m not sure many women realize this, but men do not have an internal radar on the things that offend women – this is a general extension of the “cluelessness” that is often attributed to us, albeit with more serious consequences in this case.

Whatever the case may be, there’s one solid fact. We genuinely need diversity in the technical community – a broader opinion and insight on every topic just leads to a better community and this is true however cutting-edge it might pretend to be. Most of the people do want to encourage this diversity too and not make women uncomfortable at formal presentations and in a crowd which is >80% men.

One suggestion. I know women are not confrontational, but early intervention will help – if you feel uncomfortable, speak out, and the earlier the better. If you are in a mailing list and there’s a sexist troll, speak out and say you are not happy. Some men do listen (and those men are usually the ones who are in charge).

I’ve got to admit the blog posts and news coverage have made me think on what is appropriate behavior in public. Some people want to portray conforming behavior as a dampener to creativity but that’s hardly the case – you always follow some sort of rules (for e.g. imagine a guy taking off his clothes on stage – I’m certain the 80% won’t be amused). Creativity within constraints is a challenge and if you want a discerning minority to listen in and come up with suggestions, make sure your slides do not offend too.

One more thing—As many women have pointed out in the Flashbelt incident comments, it’s not the bawdy humor that’s the problem—it’s the context. If you want an analogy, imagine yourself as the only person in a crowd of women all laughing at a joke about how size does matter after all.

Identity Changes

So I was a very early Internet user. Not so early as Tim Berners Lee, but early enough to see Internet access begin in India – those dialup modems were excruciating: they promised much but delivered little. I remember a service early enough in the Web 1.0 era that allowed people to register domains for free (yes, without paying a buck). These guys (I’ve forgotten the name) made money by framing the site contents and delivering flash and scroll ads up top. Needless to say, they quickly went out of business. But I remember I had a vishnugopal.com registered with them way back then.

Since I’ve been “alive” on the net for close to ten years now, I’ve left traces under many different identities. Very early on, it was uncheckedramblings, which was the name of a blog that I made at blogspot.com – vysnu.com evolved from those humble beginnings. Concurrently, my primary identity on the web was thehitchhiker and the necessary variants that had numerical prefixes, suffixes and substitutions to it. My Yahoo ID until a couple of years ago was thehitchhiker_123. I had another alias during this time created for shady purposes. I used q— to write unconventional stories. Then (in a fit of originality) I combined that ID with thehitchhiker to create QHitcH (often spelled all lowercase as qhitch). That is still my Skype ID.

So just to recap, until now I’ve had four identities on the web. Till recently, I maintained my portfolio site at vish.in, my blog at vysnu.com and my twitter account was named vishmaker.

While it’s nice to be creative, it’s also nice (and SEO sensible) to be consistent. And what better name to brand than your real name? So it’s vishnugopal everywhere from now on.

Inspiration: The excellent Securing Your Online Identity article, an extract below:

Ideally you should implement one consistent online name that can be used across many different platforms. It's best if your online name is the same as your offline name, but you may find it necessary to make them different for certain reasons. You may also decide to use a different name for your business presence and your personal communications. Generally the higher the consistency you can achieve the better.

via Securing your online identity | creativebits.

Aside: It’s a sad fact of the web that none of those early avatars are visible now. It’d have been nice if HTTP behaved more like source control – web.archive.org didn’t consider any of my sites important enough to store.