Gender Bias in Nerdville…er…DemoCamp?

Bryce brought to my attention Jennifer’s post about gender bias in the DemoCamp community. You should also read Rohan’s recent post on the subject of diversity and Web 2.0. I think we can agree that there is a problem. The ways to fix it aren’t obvious or trivial, however. My thoughts on the sources of the problem after the jump.

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The fact that BarCamps don’t suffer this problem to the same degree provides a clue, although even there efforts are necessary to encourage more women to come out. But there has been disproportionately high-quality participation by passionate and amazing women in the BarCamp format…many of the best sessions have been led by women. Leila, Sacha and Deb come to mind.

As a gay male citizen of Nerdville, I am sympathetic and have the perspective of a partial outsider that allows me to offer up the following as a theory for discussion purposes. I believe the problem is deeply cultural and embedded in much bigger gender socialization issues that this small group has little power to influence.

Nerd-Boy Bedroom Aesthetic and Playground Peacocks

The DemoCamp format itself is a cultural form based on a particular geek culture that is highly gender-biased. That culture finds its source in a certain nerd-boy bedroom aesthetic and value-system that is deeply embedded throughout the technology industry. The DemoCamp format is about the gears that whir under the hood: it is Meccano, polished alloy wheels or a kick-ass subwoofer.

DemoCamp is first and foremost a form of competition, showing off the gear from that nerd-boy bedroom; it’s about claiming space on a podium and making a claim for leadership on the playground. Camille Paglia would probably argue that this kind of techno-fetishism is about the size of one’s penis, or its symbolic representation. A sweet Ruby on Rails implementation is like the skillful use of the glowing plastic light saber, a phallic playground weapon re-codified into a tool for the 21st century techno-matador.

While our education system and family biases ignore well-behaved girls with good marks, those same institutions fawn attention onto troublesome boys creating havoc inside and outside the classroom, competing for status within the hierarchy of that playground. (Another reason I think Indoor Playground is a bad name for a coworking facility, by the way.)

These nerdy boys, now in their 20s and 30s, carry some playground battle scars with them. They make a world of their own in order to create and conquer; they recreate and relive their childhood dramas and traumas on a new playground with similar features, implicit social rules and resulting gender apartheid. The audience has the bully pulpit, offering often smart but sometimes subtly snide critiques, jostling for position in a male geek hierarchy of playground peacocks.

In a way, the playground rituals of DemoCamp are quite comical and sympathetic, and should be appreciated as theatre. I, and many straight women I’m sure, love nerdy boys just the way they are. Geek culture maintains its boyish charm well into middle age. But theirs is not necessarily a culture to be envied or emulated.

This culture, and its behavioural norms and codes, is foreign to most women who were socialized to get along, to not draw too much attention to themselves, where competition is reserved for intra-gender wars to get the attention of men at the top of the male hierarchy.

A Modest Proposal

I propose that rather than attempting to turn DemoCamp into something it is not (i.e. truly representative or culturally sensitive), lets just do less of them. Lets do more BarCamps and other ‘Camps, where ideas, collaboration, thoughtful discussion and community-building are more important than making the gears spin. Less frequent DemoCamps might also increase their quality, which is another problem noted lately.

And on the subject of diversity, where are all the hot gay nerds, anyway?

Jack: (Quietly) Do you know what we have here? The rarest of all gay subspecies: The Hot Gay Nerd!
Karen: (Gasps) Fascinating. I thought that the Hot Gay Nerd could be found only in the halls of academia or the bathrooms of the Pentagon. Honey, you should ask him out.
Jack: No, no, no. You can’t just ask out a Hot Gay Nerd. The HGN is notoriously skittish. They must be approached slowly and from the rear.

Jack: (Quietly) The Hot Gay Nerd… is unaware of his natural beauty. He hides what appears to be a narrow waist and broad shoulders under ill-fitting khaki. And a belt that clearly came with the pants.

– Will & Grace, The Birds and the Bees

11 thoughts on “Gender Bias in Nerdville…er…DemoCamp?”

  1. I like your modest proposal Mark. I have the same feeling about the quality of the interaction at OtherCamps being better, at least to my taste, than it tends to be at DemoCamps.

    I think it’s just a feature of the format, people showing something off at the podium, while the majority else watch passively, or at most shouting the occasional ‘what’s the business model?’, ‘why didn’t you use Rails?’ question.

    Personally I’m not a show-off-at-the-podium or question shouting kind of guy, so the more inclusive and genuinely interactive nature of OtherCamps suits me better. I guess that means that I should go organise one then, that being the *Camp way ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Patrick, I’m sure you’re not alone. Perhaps the misfits of DemoCamp can gather and organize something else. It’s a good idea. Why don’t we pose the question to the group at the next DemoCamp and invite people to stick around for a few minutes to setup another ‘Camp.

  3. Misfits? You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!

    Actually, MisfitCamp might be really cool ๐Ÿ™‚ The coolest stuff always seems to happen around the edges, where one weird topic runs into another.

    MisfitCamp – The Camp where all the cool uncategorisable stuff lives. Perhaps RandomCamp has less of a branding problem.

    Seriously though, I love hearing about topics that are totally new to me. If it’s a web 2.0 app or a CSS technique, chances are I’ve already read the blog and bought the t-shirt.

    It’s the stuff that’s outside my experience that I want to hear, two of my favourite DemoCamp presentations were hacking disposable digital cameras and classifying modern music. Exactly because those were from outside my area of knowledge and really got me thinking.

  4. I’m finally getting around to reading The Medici Effect, which is kind of related to what you describe. The interesting and truly innovative stuff is at the edges where different ideas and domains intersect.

    So, MediciCamp? The format could be to propose sessions based on a combination of two or more domains, with participants coming from many different disciplines. Audacious enough? Maybe we’ll get MaRS to host and they can hire a professional Open Space facilitator? Hmmm…

  5. You know Mark until now I haven’t touched a computer since doing that GTalk drive-by to you at 1am. I love how you have expressed some of the ideas we share so eloquently. Patrick I am also glad to see that we also share the same feelings. It is good to know that after the incredible year we have had of great events that the community can point out our problems and that we can address them.

  6. Bryce, almost 3 days without touching a computer?! I have a hard time with 3 hours these days.

    When you think about how this compares to the formal organizations out there, I think it’s important to note that the community’s values of openness and transparency are intact and working.

  7. Thanks, Mark. I totally agree with the boredom factor of DemoCamp – I only go for the socializing afterwards, and then only if I have the energy to sit thru the demos!

    I’ll make my facilitation offer once more: Open Space is a way to make the social rules of a BarCamp more explicit and newbie-friendly, and a number of great BarCamps are using it – for example, RecentChangesCamp last year in CA (great video online). I suspect it’s also more female-friendly. I’m open to facilitating a one- or two-day Camp for free, but cannot organize the logistics… It would be fun to do!

    I’m doing Open Spaces in London, England (Qcon), Montreal (for the wiki-crowd) and Toronto (XPday) this year… let’s add TorCamp to the list! (Note: this special offer will expire eventually – it’s a $1000 offer ๐Ÿ™‚

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