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.
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 PULLS KAREN TO THE SIDE)
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 IS STANDING IN THE BUSHES WATCHING AARON, SPEAKING INTO A POCKET TAPE RECORDER)
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