Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, February 27, 2007
# 10:20:00 AM:

Fifteen years, same issues, different places

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In 1992 I was part of a university task force which said that the Internet of the time excluded women and non-whites, and that needed to change. While the Internet as a whole has improved in 15 years, software and web development still have some work to do.

Dan Farber writes about Dave Winer's tenth blogiversary coming up soon. This website, too, will be ten years old in a few weeks, although it's only been a blog since 2000, and when I started building the HTML here a decade ago it only existed on the hard drive of my Macintosh Centris 660AV. The site wouldn't be on the Web itself until later in the spring of 1997. But some smidges of that HTML code still live here, so I think the ten-year anniversary is legitimate.

Almost five years before that, in late 1992, I was a member of a committee at the University of British Columbia, called in haste in response to the appearance of pornographic material in Usenet newsgroups. (The World Wide Web had been invented about a year earlier, but wasn't much a factor since it had no pictures yet.) In our conclusions, we wrote that:

...many of the issues concerning offensive material on the Internet may be related to the relative narrowness of its community of users. The community tends to be male, of European descent, middle-class, scientifically-oriented, and North American and European in location. Thus the culture that has evolved does not include a large part of the wider diverse community. Inevitably, the preoccupations and prejudices of the largest group of users have coloured the character and development of information- technology-based media. Fiat will not change this orientation, although it would undoubtedly bring about some degree of subterfuge. [...] Information technology will better serve the entire community if its users represent the community's diversity.

We were talking about the whole Internet, and what we hoped would happen actually did happen—far more than we hoped, actually. Those who use the Internet may still not accurately represent the whole population of the world, but we're a hell of a lot closer than we were 15 years ago. And, of course, there are orders of magnitude more porn out there too.

Yet at the building end of the Web, where the architecture and infrastructure and design happen, things haven't changed enough. In software and web development, you don't see a lot of women, and in fact the vast majority of attendees and speakers at conferences are young white men (like me, though I won't be able to say young for that much longer). In a way it reminds me of when I returned this past summer to the private all-boys high school from which I graduated in 1986—like a stifled, rarefied enclave divorced from the real world.

Dori Smith has been covering this topic longer than most, and has lots of intelligent things to say, but recently the subject has found a higher profile, spurred by big-time blogger Jason Kottke and responses from the (notably male) web-guru likes of Eric Meyer (with great followup), John Gruber, Anil Dash, Dave Shea, and Jeffrey Zeldman, as well as Virginia DeBolt, Shelley Powers, Ryan Carson, Digital Web magazine, Kimberly Blessing, Nicole Simon, and Elisa Camahort.

But I think Dori still has the best line, in her 2005 post about a Google recruiter at an event she attended:

They had a guy there whose title was "Technical Recruiter." He talked a lot about how cool it was to work at Google, and all the benefits, etc. And he looked straight at me (I was sitting near the front) and made a point about how they were trying to hire more women. So I raised my hand and said, "If you want more women, try describing the company in a way that doesn't make it sound like it's hell on earth."

Evidence indicates that I, even though a white guy, would probably have been a crappy programmer if I'd tried to be one, but I might have been a decent web designer—it's something I still hack away at. Yet I never pursued either those fields as my career regardless, because I wanted to have a life, and I was the one staying home with the kids (both daughters, by the way) when they were young. I've ended up peripherally involved in web design anyway. It remains something of an old boys' club.

Yet if standards-based web design and software development are fields that need the skills of a broad range of people (and I think they do), then those of us involved in the field need to look at whether the culture we have built and help maintain is conducive to that. And if it's not, we need to decide if that's something worth changing. I think it is.


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