Dev8D: where were the women? A response.

I’m writing this in response to MShaw’s post on DevCSI asking why there were so few women at Dev8D. I’m answering over here rather than over there because this is something I’ve been pondering for a while. And, as my colleague John Robertson pointed out on twitter:

Appropriate for International Woman’s Day? discussion on devsci blog about proportion of women (~7%) at #dev8D

Over at the DevCSI MShaw notes:

The technology/web development industry is notoriously male-dominated, but even in this context the gender imbalance at Dev8D seemed disproportionate.

And asks:

Are we doing enough to attracted women to these kinds of events? What could we do to improve the gender balance? Do you even think it’s an issue?

I think it is in issue. I’m not entirely sure what we can do about it, but I certainly think it’s something we should consider closely.

There are a lot of complex and interconnected issues which I can’t possibly hope to untangle here. They include: are fewer women really attracted to careers in technology? If so why? Is it something to do with the discipline itself? Or is it more to do with the culture of technology industries? And I include educational technology here.

Obviously I do work in technology, I have done for some time and I am one of those women who did not attend dev8D. Why? Although I work in technology I do not consider myself to be a “techy”. I am most definitely not a programmer and have often joked in the past that I couldn’t implement a spec if my life depended on it. Having said that, I am not remotely afraid of technology and I enjoy talking and working with developers. I’ve run more than a few codebashes in my time for heaven’s sake! You don’t get much more techy than that. So while on the one hand I may consider myself “not techy enough” to play with the boys at Dev8D, on the other hand these are the same people I have enjoyed working with for the last ten years or so.

The logistics of the event also made it difficult for me to attend. Although I used to travel a lot I now have a small child to look after and a partner who works long shifts so arranging childcare for anything longer than a single over night stay is difficult if not impossible. Logistics and responsibilities can’t be ignored.

MShaw’s post also brought to mind a CRIG Unconference I attended a couple of years ago. The focus was repositories, a technology domain where I think women are reasonably well represented. However of the 40 or so people who attended there were only 4 women: me, Julie Allinson, as sociologist who was there to observe the event and the administrator, who took names at the door and handed out stickers and badges. Not very encouraging.

At the time there was something about the lack of women at the CRIG Unconference that concerned me. I used to spend a lot of time on the road participating in international standards meetings, where I was frequently the only woman in the room. This was such a common occurrence that eventually I scarcely noticed. So what what was it about the Unconference that bothered me? I’m still not sure. I hesitate to say it but there does seem to be something a bit blokey about the format of some of these developer events. Although to be fair, at the recent CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards event women were as poorly represented as at Dev8D and the Unconference.

I can’t help being reminded of my previous career as an archaeologist. Although I did most of my field work in Scotland I once worked on a survey project in the South Hauran desert in the north of Jordan near the Syrian border. We stayed in a tiny one horse town called Umm el-Qetain where we rented the top floor of a typical house from a Bedouin family. Our hosts were extraordinarily welcoming and offered us hospitality at every opportunity. What was interesting is that these traditional houses are normally quite strictly segregated with family rooms, women’s rooms and the men’s rooms. The only woman allowed in the men’s room was the eldest matriarch of the house and even then she appeared to observe certain conventions of behaviour. However the three women in our field crew were treated exactly as men. We were regularly invited into the men’s room for mint tea and pastries and none of the men ever commented on our unusual behavior. (However they did howl with laughter when they saw our male colleagues washing their own socks.)

I’m still sometimes reminded of sitting in the men’s room in Umm el Qetain when I attend certain technical events. Everyone is welcoming and hospitable to a fault but you can’t help being aware that you are the minority and that somehow you are “fitting in” or rather being slotted into a space that doesn’t quite fit.

I don’t think I’ve expressed this very clearly, primarily because I don’t have a clear idea of exactly what is going on here. Hmmmmm. If anyone can enlighten me please comment.

8 thoughts on “Dev8D: where were the women? A response.

  1. Hi Lorna

    I think I share your confusion! I didn’t got go dev8D but I did go to the linked data meeting on the first day and was pleasantly surprised by the number (by no means 50/50) of females in the audience. I’m not sure why this didn’t prevail throughout the event. I don’t have the same home constraints as you but I would find it hard to justify taking 2 or 3 days our for this event. There were some female developers there, but I suspect that it’s just a reflection of the imbalance between male and female developers.


  2. Good to see that a little discussion on these issues has sparked off over on the original DevSCI post. I’ve also had a couple of interesting comments on Facebook. One (female) colleague who works with a (female) developer mentioned that the developer has no interest in attending these events but she’s not sure why. Another colleague posted the following:

    “In a previous life (14 years in IT tech/user support), I spent most of them as the only woman in the team. That changed only in my last role, which was my first brush with a HEI – they had a female mac specialist. A bit sad, in a way, that this is still a concern. I used to attribute it to when computing was first taught in schools – always by (male) maths teachers, always in ways appealing to boys. Can’t surely still be the case…”

  3. You’ve reminded me of the book ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox a while back. There was a really interesting section about how all male groups, all female groups and mixed groups behave. Worth digging out if you haven’t read it! Really fascinating book.

    Like any woman in this area, I’ve had lots of experience at being the only woman in a group of men. Sometimes it’s totally fine and I’m completely unconscious of my gender – our team at work is an example of this. But on other occasions, I’ve been acutely aware of it. I haven’t been able to put my finger on what separates the two though.

  4. Thanks for the comment and the book recommendation Juliette. I’ll add it to my ever growing pile to books to read :)

    I know exactly what you mean about not being able to identify why you feel comfortable in some events or situations and not in others. It’s tricky, but I think we have a responsibility to try to articulate what’s going on so we can be more inclusive. Not easy though. Hmmmm…

  5. Pingback: Sheila’s work blog » Ada Lovelace Day

  6. Thanks for this post Juliette, I think you’ve done an excellent job of highlighting factors that make any community inclusive as opposed to exclusive. Something for us all to aspire to!

  7. Maybe the lack of representation is down to the affects of inequality in the workplace. From *harmless* banter, which undermine’s self-belief in one’s ability to downright derision that goes on to female programmers in Support Services within HE. It’s a bit of a double whammy I think. Being within a ‘support’ role and not an academic is the first blow and then being a female in that role and profession is the second. Academia is full of egos and more so in the development community. Women, in my experience, are very hard pushed to sustain their confidence and enthusiasm when other factors, whether overtly or not, seem to knock individuals down.

    In my experience, it is co-developers who support each other but there is still sexism which exists in the workplace from managers and snobbery within academia. In this environment coupled with the current financial climate, it would be nearly impossible for a female developer to request 2 or 3 days off to attend a developers forum.

    … I also like to think it’s because they (managers) know they have to leave the women at work while the men the go off on a jolly – because who gets all the work done anyway!!!!!

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