Please don’t be like Dave

If you have a Wikipedia page devoted to your accomplishments it means you are kinda famous. At least that’s my personal barometer of “fame” whatever fame may actually be. I don’t have a Wikipedia page, and if someone tried to make one for me, it would likely get ruthlessly deleted within an hour or so. Which makes sense, seeing how I haven’t accomplished anything noteworthy. I guess it is my goal to one day be a legit entry up there – one with like bunch of separate sections listing all kinds of cool shit I have done. Then I will know that I have imprinted myself on the reality and made a tangible mark on the world.

Dave Winer already has a pretty sizable Wikipedia entry. He is a pretty respectable dude whose work was instrumental in the development and popularization of RSS (to my younger readers – RSS is probably before your time, but look it up as it might become relevant again now that Google Reader is dead) and did some other cool stuff online. He also has a blog where he frequently posts all kinds of interesting musings. Most of these tend to be insightful since Dave has been a successful developer, industry insider and tech evangelist for many decades now…

Then there is his recent post that starts like this:

Dave Winer Foot in Mouth

I predict this post will be full of shit.

Every time I see something like this written by a white dude, I start to cringe because what almost inevitably follows is an embarrassing performance that involves author putting his foot in his mouth, being called on it and then digging a deep, deep hole in the comments.

But let’s see what Dave has to say on this topic:

Dave Winer Foot in Mouth

Let me preface this by saying “no homo”.

So, Dave opens the discussion about gender inequality in technology industry by ensuring his readers that he really, genuinely likes women. Like, you know, in that way. For some reason it is important to him that we know that he is 100% heterosexual and can provide references if his sexuality would ever come into question. I don’t really know how this pertains to the topic but the fact that that it is so important to Dave is rather telling. The irony of opening discussion about gender dynamics with a “I really like women, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, smiley face” type joke completely escapes him.

In fact, I’m not even sure how this could ever come up in the discussion. Typically on the internet everyone assumes that you are heterosexual, cisgendered, white male unless you explicitly state otherwise. This is one of the many shitty things about internet culture in general that makes it, and by extension the software ecosystem built around it hostile to anyone who does not fit into that demographic. Dave doesn’t seem to notice that at all. But let’s move on.

Dave Winer Foot in Mouth

Probably sexism, but not really.

Ok, so far so good. Dave admits that our industry is super sexist. It is not actually something that is up for a debate mind you. It is a very well documented fact. If you don’t believe me, pop over to any programming forum and I guarantee that within the first five minutes you’ll be able to find some sexist comments, inappropriate jokes, gender policing and the like. Better yet, attend any bigger industry conference and see it for yourself with your own eyes. I don’t actually think that we had a single major conference (be it technology, programming, gaming, etc..) in recent years that went by without some sort of incident.

Sexism in the tech industry is not just prevalent – it is rampant, uninhibited and often ignored and dismissed as non-issue – much like the way Dave dismisses it in his post. While he admits that sexism in the industry exists, he thinks it is not the most significant factor for the gender imbalance. What does he think is the real problem then?

Dave Winer Foot in Mouth

Iz because womenz can’t be focus or patient.

Ah, got it! Evolutionary psychology. Dave figured it out guys! It’s because menz used to be hunters, you see, and that made them focused, patient and awesome, whereas womenz are none of that. But it’s ok, because they are specialized for other girly stuff like… Well, I don’t know but I’m guessing cooking and giving births probably. Case solved! Hurray for Dave and his manly focus skills for reasoning this out for us.


Facepalm Dot Gif (not animated for maximum facepalm impact)

Dave’s entire post is a textbook example of how privilege looks like in the wild. This sort of ignorant mansplaning is really common on the internet – reddit for example is rife with this sort of thing. Not a day goes by without some dudebro who has never experienced sexism or racism or any kind of discrimination or marginalization first hand trying to “explain” how it works according to some brilliant theory he just came up with while watching a special about wolves or lions on Animal Planet. Because fuck sociology and diversity studies – let me tell you why men be like this, and women be like that using simple “bio-truths” I just made up and unshakable second hand anecdotal evidence that supports them.

The difference is that Dave has a Wikipedia page. Dave helped to make RSS happen, and ran a number of successful web companies. He has been around the block and worked in the industry for many years. He should know better than this. The fact that he was never, ever exposed to actual gender diversity discussion re: technology industry is deeply saddening. Think about it: Dave apparently never, ever read a blog or a column representing feminist view on the gender issues in our field. He has never listened to anyone talk about this subject and somehow managed to block any news headlines about sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior at programming conferences. He managed to work for several decades, and be deeply influential in shaping of the internet as we know it today, without ever leaving his cognitive bubble or realizing how insanely privileged he actually is.

This sort of privileged ignorance is precisely part of the problem. The notion that women are somehow inferior, and biologically ill suited to the task of programming is not a fringe belief. It’s something accepted as a fact by most of the members of the community. And the worst part is that this community is almost incapable of realizing it’s own bias. Every time you put them on the spot, they will play semantics, and accuse you of splitting hairs and blowing things out of proportion.

For example, every time I politely remind someone that using Lena Söderberg’s photograph in an image processing presentation is a bit inconsiderate I always get the “but it’s not explicit” argument that invariably leads into “OMG, political correctness gone mad, stop censoring me” thing. And it’s not that these people are jerks (though some actually are) but that they just don’t get it. Their privilege completely blinds them and makes it virtually impossible for them to even entertain the idea that there might be another point or view. Being a white dude myself, I’ve been guilty of the same on more than one occasion. I like to think I got better at checking my own privilege, but I’m sure I still slip up from time to time. But I have learned to keep an open mind and listen.

And I think that’s the answer to Dave’s question. The way we can improve the gender imbalance in our field is by educating male programmers to check their privilege, and listen to opinions that might challenge their preconceived notions with an open mind. There is nothing about programming itself that makes it repellent to women – it’s the community and the attitude it has toward gender roles that are the big problem. This is what we have to work on. But in order to fix it, we first have to admit the problem actually exists. And that’s the hard part.

For example, despite a rather heated, but insightful discussion in the comments on his blog post Dave still does not get it:

Dave Winer Foot in Mouth

This is what he wrote after he closed the comments on his post.

In his original post, Dave solicited opinions from from his readers. He got them. People chimed in, called him on the internalized sexism, and proceeded to teach him about privilege and gender essentialism in order to help him understand the issue better. His response? Stop telling me what to think! Don’t tell me to shut up. If you don’t like my opinions then STFU and unsubscribe! Way ahead of you Dave – I already did. Apparently you didn’t actually want real answers but were instead fishing for confirmation of your own bias.

It’s unfortunate though. Folks in his comment stream were mostly polite, and very calmly explained why his words were offensive. He seems to have read through all his comments, he responded to many of them, and yet he completely failed to understand why people were so upset with his “opinions”. He is still whining about people misunderstanding him, splitting hairs, playing semantics, trolling him and etc. In a follow up blog post he was even claiming people were being sexist because they called him on his ignorance. Not even for a second he seems to have entertained the idea that what he said was deeply offensive (even if he did not meant it to be so). He is still upset that no one “answered his question directly” and he is still trying to figure out what we can do to get more women interested in our field.

If he actually listened to what his readers were saying, and took their comments to heart and apologized for his “opinions” this would be a good step towards exactly that. It would be a public example of an influential voice in our industry learning a valuable lesson about privilege, gender essentialism and casual sexism. Young, impressionable male programmers following his blog would see it, and perhaps revise their own preconceived notions about gender roles. Unfortunately it is always easier for a person from the privileged group to change opinions within it, than it is for an outsider. Dave could have really made a difference with his post, even if (or maybe especially because) it was originally so shitty. But he didn’t. He shut himself off and refused to learn anything.

I teach college kids about technology, and sometimes I jokingly complain how that’s always an uphill battle. But folks in the humanities have it even harder – at least I don’t have to push against the cultural biases and deeply internalized beliefs to get my point across. I would like to give kudos to all sociology professors and anyone who is teaching anything touching on diversity, gender dynamics and etc. You’re doing this world a service.

This is one of the reasons why I always stress that well rounded liberal arts education is very important. Science and Mathematics help you to understand the nature and inner mechanics of the universe around you. Humanities teach you about the inner workings of civilized societies and the problems they face. Arts teach you introspection and self reflection. To reach full potential as a human being you need to immerse yourself in all of the above. Being accomplished in one of these fields doesn’t mean you can ignore the others. If you do so, you do it at your own peril.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you have a blog or a an online platform, and people respect your words, don’t be like Dave Winer. Don’t be a smug technologist who thinks he can reason out solutions to real world social issues without even attempting to do any kind of research. If you have a Wikipedia entry, it means you are a person of public interest in your respective field. People listen to what you say. You have a platform. And with a platform comes some responsibility. What you say is significant, because it helps to shape the dialogue and opinions within the community. Your voice is heard and amplified much more than an opinion of some no-name blogger lime me.

Why are there so few women programmers? Well, maybe part of the problem is that the field is dominated and led by folks like Dave Winer: white men who will make sexist remarks in public, refuse to apologize and vehemently argue that they have the right to say whatever they want.

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9 Responses to Please don’t be like Dave

  1. Victoria UKRAINE Safari Mac OS says:

    Well, I am not a programmer per se, but I am a woman in IT industry :) When I started my education in the university, the male/female student ratio was 50/50. When I was graduating, there were 3 of us girls left for the fifth year. That proportion has held up until recently. Have I ever faced blatant sexism directed at me? Almost never. Why? I’m rather intimidating in person. So much actually that my fellow colleagues supress in their minds the whole aspect of my being a girl. There was an amusing couple of times when the guys started with the jokes and I was like, well, hello? And they went with surprised ‘but you’re one of the dudes’. So when such people can’t ‘sexism you out’, they ‘forget’ you’re a girl :)

    But: on the positive side – I am a lead for a small front-end team, and two of five are girls (not counting me). So, it’s gonna be better. The process is slow and painful, but it’s not dead.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria:

    I think part of the problem is that the sexism is often indirect. As you said yourself, you sort of need to “become one of the guys” and sometimes have to put co-workers in place when they get out of line. This is unfortunate. Men who enter the IT field do not need to face this type of pressure to fit in or to constantly feel like they need to prove they can do the job just as well as any of their coworkers. Or that everything that they do reflects on their entire gender.

    Often this sort of discrimination is not out of malice, but simply a result of ignorance and misinformation. That of course doesn’t make it any less wrong or hurtful. Which is why I think it’s important to call out people like Dave Winer on when they are being shitty on the internets.

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  3. fundamental UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I find it interesting that you bring up the Lenna test image. I heard about the origin story once before, though to be honest it seemed like a rather inconsequential and somewhat comical (due to it’s taboo nature) piece of trivia. Certainly this can lead to some unequal footing and some people being bothered by it, though the context that it lives in is certainly key. In all the cases that I’ve seen it used it would work approximately as well if the human element was completely removed and only a floating hat with perhaps a wig was left. This could be seen as an argument to replace the image with something else, but the Lenna image has quite the bit of inertia behind is as IMO it seems to demonstrate some very nice textures and contrasts from a purely mathematical perspective. This may simply be my own biases, but from what I can tell, something like that image as it is used within the community that I have observed can in the worst case only serve as a catalyst to bring out ill founded attitudes that were there to start with.

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  4. joek UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    The problem with the Lenna image, Fundamental, is not so much that it’s of a PlayBoy centrefold, but that it’s clearly a photo used for the fanservice. While it is (allegedly — I’m not involved in image processing, so I don’t really know) true that the image contains a sufficiently wide range of colour and shading or whatever for it to be a useful test image, it’s still giving off the message that the only use women are in the field is to act as eye-candy for the (implicitly heterosexual) men. When asking why women are put off from STEM, it’s simplistic to say that it’s because of the overt sexism — while that is a problem, it’s not acknowledging the institutional and internalised sexism one sees in the field. Just using the image as an industry standard is giving off the message that this is a field in which we objectify women, whether or not white middle class males are aware of it…

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ fundamental:

    Here is why the image is problematic:

    – The picture is a cropped version of Playboy centerfold and many professors/presenters are fond of mentioning this fact as an anecdote. While it does not contain explicit nudity, it is certainly sexualized image. The fact that nudity was removed by cropping does not really change the fact that the original was intended to be suggestive. As such it doesn’t really have place in a professional setting. Think of it as of that SFW Pr0n meme in which people take explicit pornographic images and MS-paint clothes over them to make them appear as something else. But everyone knows what these images are. This is kinda like that. Even though there is no nudity there, the intent of the photograph was still to objectify the model for the benefit of the male gaze.

    – The use of a playboy centerfold as a test image makes the presentation seem targeted primarily at heterosexual males. This is a form of othering. Women and non-heterosexuals in the audience may feel excluded. They know they are not the target audience of the implied “wink, wink, nudge, nudge – you can check out the full image after class” thing.

    – The Lena image features stereotypical model pose by a conventionally attractive woman and it plays into body image concerns.

    – It has been criticized by prominent women in the field including Dianne O’Leary who said:

    If a professor makes a sexist joke, a female student might well find it so disturbing that she is unable to listen to the rest of the lecture. Suggestive pictures used in lectures on image processing are similarly distracting to the women listeners and convey the message that the lecturer caters to the males only. For example, it is amazing that the “Lena” pin-up image is still used as an example in courses and published as a test image in journals today.

    That’s sort of the gist of it. The fact that it has nice textures and makes a good image is inconsequential since it should not be difficult to find another image that has similar properties. The argument that it is a “tradition” is also moot, because traditions that are are inconsiderate or discriminatory should not be perpetuated. The fact that a lot of men in the field completely disregard all of these concerns and immediately write them off as silly nitpicking is an example of the deeply internalized sexism in our field. It’s very hard to make our industry more welcoming to women if every time someone points out a problem area we immediately dismiss it and keep doing what we were doing.

    @ joek:

    Thank you. That’s exactly the point. From what I gather the image is still fairly popular. I still see it cropping up online all the time. When I took a grad school level image processing back when I was working towards my masters we spent almost an entire semester processing Lena in a myriad of ways. And the professor explained in detail the history of the image.

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  6. fundamental UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Thanks for the elaboration.

    As one clarification, I do not mean to argue that things should change or not simply due to tradition. All I wanted to note there is that a tradition does exist, which one way or another results in the tendency for changes to be slowed down, not as an individual’s choice but due to a large group’s slow convergence.

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  7. Timberwolf UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Unfortunately this is so true and not just in the IT industry. The sexism and racism in this world is bad, it is getting better each generation, but its not fast enough. Our world would be a better place if we could eliminate all forms of discrimination.

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  8. Alphast GREECE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    My ex-wife is a very successful programmer but has had to face all kinds of discrimination and obstacles, from the day she entered the IT faculty. She was the only female in a group of males. And the harassment was pretty much constant. It was shown in small details, sometimes, which can seem trivial but were very off putting for her. For instance, there were no toilets for female students, only mixed ones. You can imagine the filthiness of them after a day of male students going there… She was getting mad about it but they were just laughing at her.

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  9. I think a big problem is that this guy doesn’t seem to want to have more women in his career field because he wants them to contribute in their own way, but rather wants to have sex with them. :\

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