Since my first Programming 101 lecture at college 10 years ago where I was just one of five women in my class, it seems not a lot has changed.
Back then, the stares of a hundred pimply nerds trying to pass off bum fluff for facial hair burned my skin. No doubt they were all wondering what the hell I was doing there, invading their territory, their space to avoid the needless stress of making small talk with the opposite sex.
Gender inequality in tech is nothing new. All of my computer science lecturers, bar one dalek-obsessed woman with a hint of a moustache (“It’s dah-lek, not day-lek!”), were men.
So when I went along to a friend’s computer science college graduation ceremony recently, I was disappointed to watch as, one by one, men crossed the stage to receive their degrees.
And where else is there usually a sausage-fest of men? Oh yeah, WordCamps.
Where are the women? Has really nothing changed in 10 years?
Are Women Their Own Enemy?
At last year’s first WordPress Community Summit, a gathering of the who’s who of the WordPress world, just 12 of the people there were women. Naturally, they got together to talk about that fact.
They discussed the lack of women applying to present at WordCamps, where speakers are usually men on the developer track. It’s an issue for the tech industry as a whole, where conferences are usually a flood of white men. It’s been said that women often turn down invitations to present because they feel the need to have a PhD on a topic, whereas when men are asked they’re more likely to say, “Yeah, I know a bit about it. Sign me up.”
Then there’s “imposter syndrome.” When women are complimented on their skills, many immediately think to themselves, “I’m not that great.” Most guys accept the compliment and believe it.
It was also noted at the summit discussion that many women don’t think they’re smart enough and feel like outsiders despite the incredible work they do, and some women who work in development tell people they’re not a developer.
More Women Need To Get Involved
This month, Shannon Smith of Cafe Noir Design will run her third unconference in three years exploring the role of women in the WordPress community and the fact we make up more than half the bloggers but only about a quarter of WordCamp speakers and an even smaller number of developers, coders and contributors at WordCamp Ottawa this month.
“Where are the women? Why aren’t they participating? And when are they participating? Why don’t we see them? And more importantly, how can we even out that imbalance?” Smith says.
“Tech dominates our lives, our society. It influences the way we live, what we learn and how we live. At the moment it is directed by, organized in the benefit of (though perhaps unconsciously), and produced by an unequal segment of the population.
“Until technology is controlled by a diverse cross-section of society, it cannot serve all of society. Blogging, by its nature, encourages a diversity of voices. It would be great if that diversity in blog production was also reflected in a diversity in blogging tool production.”
Why Do We Need More Women?
So why exactly do we need more women in WordPress? I’m glad you asked…
1. Diversity Improves Performance
A Cornell University study proves diversity improves performance and morale, not to mention the end product. And since 39 per cent of visitors to wordpress.org are women – and probably even more are users of WordPress software – it makes sense that women are more equally represented in creating the end product. More women engineers means building a better WordPress and improving it for society as a whole.
2. Future Jobs are in Tech
As Sara Chipps points out, there are six million information technology jobs in the US, up from 628,000 in 1987, and then 1.34 million in 1997. At the moment, jobs in the tech sector have half the unemployment rate of the rest of the workforce, and this ain’t changing any time soon.
If growth continues at the current rate, it won’t be long before women won’t be able to find work if they are not qualified to work in tech. We need to better educate girls and encourage them to get involved in communities like WordPress now so in the future they are not the poorest members of society.
3. Women Bring Diversity of Thought
Women think, act and approach problems differently to men. While men, in general, are naturally more prone to risk taking and competition thanks to their increased testosterone, whether it’s cultural or biological, women tend to be more emotionally and socially sensitive, empathetic, are better collaborators and are better at achieving long-term results. Diversity of thought in business and having a company made up of people who approach problems in different ways can only be a good thing.
4. Women Can Talk to Women
Women make up more than half of bloggers, including many small business owners who need websites. If no one can understand their needs, can talk their talk or build and design appropriate products for them, then that’s a massive chunk of the market — and not to mention profits — that WordPress is missing out on.
Take car manufacturers, for example. They have quickly cottoned on to the fact that women influence 80 per cent of car purchases and have changed their designs and marketing campaigns accordingly. Even Volvo, marketed for its solidity and reliability, employs more women. When my heavily pregnant sister-in-law went looking for a new car, she wouldn’t look at any other make of car.
5. Women are Good for a Company’s Bottom Line
After years tracking the performance of about 200 of the Fortune 500 companies, a 19-year Pepperdine University study consistently found the correlation between high-level female executives and business success was “consistent and revealing.” And the better a company was at promoting women, the better it tended to rank in terms of profitability.
This is something WordPress should certainly take note of — WordPress’ core and contributing developers and developer emeriti are all men. Just two women are part of the core team.
Women Have Run Out Of Excuses
We know there are women out there quietly working with WordPress, tapping away on their keyboards, creating beautiful websites and playing with code. I want them to come out of hiding.
There is no excuse to sit back and let the boys have all the fun. There are plenty of ways to get involved in the WordPress community.
1. Share your knowledge. At a recent London WordCamp Siobhan McKeown outlined ways people can contribute to WordPress:
- Developer (Core, Documentation, Plugins, Mobile Techno)
- Designer (User Interface, Documentation, Mobile Design, Theme Review)
- Writer (Codex, Handbooks)
- Linguist (WordPress Translation, Document Translation, Plugins, Multilingual Support)
- Teacher (Teaching, Sharing Courses, Support)
- Organizer (WordCamp, Meetups)
2. Get Involved. Getting involved is as simple as clicking “Get Involved” at wordpress.org. Joe Foley has a ripper write-up about it.
“I knew there must be other people like me looking for design topics, so I decided to give a few,” says user interface designer Mel Choyce who presented at New York and Philadelphia last year. “There’s a good chance you’ll feel totally unqualified, but everyone thinks that at first. Many people still feel that way. You have nothing to lose from applying to speak.”
4. Meetups. With 430 WordPress Meetup groups listed online, there’s bound to be one in your area.
On the first Monday of every month, members of the Albuquerque’s women working with WordPress “sister” Meetup group get together to pick each other’s brains. Organiser Karen Arnold says this month the ladies met to discuss their current projects.
“One woman had a website she wanted feedback on so we pulled it up on the projector and as a group we helped her solve some issues she’d been having,” Arnold says. “Another woman shared a project she’d been working on that she just wanted to show off since she was so excited about the project.”
Co-organiser Samantha Metheny says women often feel more comfortable about their place in the tech world when they see how many other women are involved, too.
Getting involved in the WordPress community might seem daunting at first, but everyone’s been there. It’s not as if you’re going to receive a formal invite for exclusive access to the secret WordPress society. WordPress is open source – by the community for the community, so just get stuck in.
“I think the WordPress community is encouraging to anyone who is jumping in and getting involved. This has nothing to do with gender,” Untame partner and developer Sarah Gooding says.
It’s Not All Doom And Gloom.
A handful of successful woman offer a glimmer of hope.
Lisa Sabin-Wilson’s story is almost legend — she was a registered nurse for 12 years and worked on websites in her spare time before walking into her boss’ office one day to hand in her 30-day notice of resignation. She has since written five editions of WordPress for Dummies and is a partner at WebDevStudios.
Then there’s Andrea Rennick, who started out as a blogger in the homeschooling community. Rennick wanted to start a website for other parents who were homeschooling and stumbled across the early stages of the WordPress Multisite project. She works with Copyblogger and has co-written several books on WordPress.
Another success is McKeown, who started out as a writer on this very website. She has gone on to run Words for WP, is an editor at Smashing Magazine and recently started a new role at WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s angel investment company Audrey Capital.
McKeown says the growing number of women prominent in the WordPress community due to their skills and expertise — not the fact they wear a bra — provide excellent role models for young female techies looking to get their foot in the door.
“Their very presence shows what is possible and makes it easier for women who are starting out to see themselves inhabiting that role,” McKeown says.
Automattic’s Jen Mylo can’t be left off this list. She has been the UX and community lead for WordPress for several years, more recently taking on a greater role focusing on encouraging women and diversity in the WordPress community. In her pre-web life, she was a cook/baker and managed healthy cafes and kitchens in tourist lodges.
“When Matt (Mullenweg) 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,” Mylo says on her blog.
“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.
“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.”
Since that post, Mylo launched her first initiative, a workshop series open only to women, in Washington DC and San Diego last month. The troubleshooting workshops helped participants learn about common errors, CSS fixes, software conflicts and hacks and viruses.
So What Next?
It’s all well and good to have women-only workshops, but getting a handful of women together in Washington DC to pick through their CSS isn’t exactly groundbreaking.
What we need is a plan to lift the number of Women actively involved in the WordPress community. This is what I propose:
- More women at the top. We need more women in the core team developing WordPress. We need to push female developers who are sitting back and watching to get more involved and show us what they can do.
- Set quotas for women involved in WordCamps. Positive discrimination is not only symbolic but will give women the confidence and encouragement needed to voice their ideas and opinions to the community.
- Target school age girls. We need to target girls early and educated them about tech and the WordPress community and the opportunities available. Workshops and talks at schools giving girls the chance to play with WordPress and learn how to blog would be a great start.
- A roadmap with achievable targets. There’s no point throwing around ideas if we don’t have something to work towards. Since half of bloggers are women we should work towards ensuring half of those involved in the WordPress community are also women.
Tell us what you think below.
Photo: negative from BigStock