In the past couple of days the developer sphere has been ablaze with fury over sexism. Two days ago, startup Sqoot made a carelessly sexist statement in an event description. As a result, a number of high-profile sponsors including Heroku immediately pulled out of the event and a minitornado of fury was directed at the fledgling company.
Today, ire is building over the actions of the founders of Geeklist after someone pointed out the sexist nature of a video that was posted with their branding. I’ve yet to see how this one is going to turn out, but I’ll tell you what I did personally: I tweeted at them to disable my private beta account and let them know that it was because of the emerging story.
It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized just how much of an opportunity the development community has. We have long suffered from a terrible lack of gender diversity. This lack of diversity is an incredibly complex subject and I can’t begin to understand all of the contributing factors; however, the casually sexist and man-culture attitude assumed by developers certainly isn’t helping things. This issue has been slowly heating up in the past months (even years) and I think it’s finally at a boiling-over point. The furor in the past few days paints a picture of a developer community with an emerging zero tolerance policy for sexism.
But, you might say, aren’t we getting a bit extreme here? Sure Sqoot did something careless, but wasn’t the response a bit disproportional? Yes, and that’s exactly the point. A zero tolerance policy is not about the specific cases, it’s about changing the behavior of a group as a whole. If we as a community make the punishment for even casual sexism swift and incredibly harsh, we will change behavior. A simple complaint is likely to make a specific person or company think twice about behavior (although it seems less clear that this is the case with Geeklist), but an internet firestorm that results in a measurable impact (lost sponsors, lost users)? That has the power to affect the whole community. People who see these acts even from the sidelines will think about how little they want to be in the shoes of Geeklist and Sqoot and, as they interact with the community, they will be a little more mindful not to make the same mistakes.
I’m not advocating political correctness, and I think that women are (chauvinistically) painted as being oversensitive and needing to be treated with kid gloves. I love that we can say fuck in our talks when we feel like it and I don’t want to see that change. Far more harmful is language that, without ever swearing, simply assumes that women aren’t a part of this community. Until we can purge that completely from our behavior we can’t honestly say that we are doing all that we can to encourage women to join us. I’m committed to that outcome, and I think that more and more we all are.