This morning, Sarah Parmenter, a talented female web designer and frequent conference speaker, spoke up about the disgusting, abusive and degrading experiences she’s had as a female speaker. These kinds of experiences are not uncommon for women in tech. Women are underrepresented at conferences, and often when they are represented, they are sexually harassed, verbally abused, or are just plain talked down to. Attempts to discuss the lack of diversity and problem women face in tech conferences have even been met with disrespect and ridicule. (Aral Balkan does a good job of summing up that entire debacle.) It’s no wonder there aren’t as many women itching to speak at conferences:
There’s many questions around why there aren’t more females speaking in this industry. I can tell you why,they are scared. Everytime I jump on stage, I get comments, either about the way I look, or the fact that I’m the female, the token, the one they have to sit through in order for the males to come back on again. One conference, I even had a guy tweet something derogatory about me not 30 seconds into my talk, only for me to bring up the point he had berated me for not bringing up, not a minute later – which caused him to have to apologise to my face after public backlash. I’ve had one guy come up to me in a bar and say (after explaining he didn’t like my talk)… “no offence, I just don’t relate to girls speaking about the industry at all, I learn better from guys”. Sarah Parmenter
I want to talk a little bit about my experiences, specifically in the WordPress community. To start, though, here’s a bit about me. I’ve been taught from a young age that women are awesome. Though my mother might not have been the best parent as I was growing up, she is and always has been an incredibly strong woman who taught me, quite frankly, not to take shit from anyone. It’s something I internalized early. I spent thirteen long years as an active girl scout, being encouraged that whole time to be a strong leader and activist. This encouragement extended into my college years at Smith. Smithies are known for raising a raucous, and boy, do we like to give “the man” hell. Needless to say, I’ve never really been intimidated by “male spaces”.
This leads me to WordPress. One of the things that immediately attracted me to WordPress was the number of visible women. I went to my first WordCamp (NY ’10) along with some coworkers. At that point I had probably spent about a year working on and off with WordPress, and had enjoyed it, but I wasn’t really in love with it like I am now. WordCamp NYC changed that. Part of it was the excitement, camaraderie and learning that comes along with any tech conference, but a bit part of it was who specifically was there. I was a little in awe of Jen Mylo, Automattic employee and the UX/UI lead for WordPress for several years. I still remember Sara Cannon’s session, Beyond the System Font. Women were involved with organizing the conference, women were volunteering, and women were speaking. It was my kind of place.
I think one of the unusual(ly awesome) things about the WordPress community, in contrast to the overall tech community, is just how easy it is to find amazingly talented women to look up to. They’re everywhere: From designers like Jen Mylo, Sara Cannon and Chelsea Otakan, to Helen Hou-Sandi, rockstar core contributor, developer, and current UI team lead, to Siobhan McKeown, an amazing web writer now an editor at Smashing Magazine, to Lisa Sabin-Wilson, author, really dynamic and personable speaker, and now partner at WebDevStudios. I could go on listing people. The number of women working with, writing about, and speaking on WordPress is huge. WordPress really helped my find a place in the overall tech community. It really inspired me to start speaking, which is something I want to continue to do as I grow as a designer and a community member.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying the community is a bubble immune to discrimination, harassment, or all the other nasty things that plague the tech industry. I’m sure we have a lot of things we’re doing wrong. But my experiences within the WordPress community have helped positively shape me as a designer and as a woman, and for that I am thankful.