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Call for greater diversity in web industry

Underrepresentation breeds disdain for and disillusionment among women

The web continues to rapidly evolve in terms of technology, but there are suggestions it needs work regarding diversity. Tech writer and self-described "HTML5 WG irritant" Shelley Powers recently noted on Twitter she got flack for retweeting an off-the-cuff remark from Twitter: senior web accessibility strategist and open standards advocate Molly E. Holzschlag had said she’d “love to see a woman or group of women edit the #HTML5 spec”, noting it would “make for an interesting social experiment”.

Powers at the time wondered if it was “so painful for people to contemplate women in editorial [positions]”, but has told .net that this is merely indicative of a wider problem within the working groups and the industry as a whole.

“Women are underrepresented in the tech field, but they're even more underrepresented in W3C working groups. Even with the recent addition of a woman to the TAG group, [the number of] men in leadership positions in the W3C and in W3C working groups is disproportionate,” she said. “Unfortunately, women are also underrepresented among the W3C representatives from the browser companies, which is why I believe the HTML WG is so badly skewed towards the masculine.”

Patronising attitudes

Powers told us these dynamics have resulted in women becoming the recipients of disdain and derision: “I’m not the only women who’s received a ‘tsk – must behave better’ email from HTML WG chairs and members, and while the chairs say they’ve sent emails of that nature to guys, too, there’s a different flavour to communications [to women] – a patronising tone that just sets my teeth on edge.”

On addressing concerns about sexism to www-archives, Powers said she was further chastised by a W3 staff member, who’d argued he’d shown emails to his girlfriend, who'd said they were OK, “as if all women think alike”, and a formal complaint to W3C leadership about the “HTML WG and underlying, subtle sexism, and their handling of the complaint” resulted in a “blistering email in response”.

Powers said this attitude is frustrating, because it stops women being involved: “I’m seeing the same disdain and patronising attitude directed to an HTML WG member who has been with the group for years, fighting for accessibility. I've watched her become disillusioned, and go from being an active, engaged member, to someone who rarely participates at all.”

More diversity needed

Holzschlag told us she’s fortunately had relatively few problems directly related to gender while working in the industry, but nonetheless agreed more diversity is needed; she added she was hopeful for the future: “I believe women have a lot of opportunities right now, particularly if they are willing and able to become visible leaders in the industry. I see that happening more and more, so I'm optimistic.” On the tweet that sparked the Twitter debate, she simply opined that women having more editorial influence in HTML5 “might make an interesting experiment to see how women would deal with the power and control issues, and how they might or might not spend more time working on issues such as HTML5 accessibility and security”.

But in a more general sense, Holzschlag said she knew certain women have been treated very badly, and it’s a “wound to dismiss someone based on gender, particularly when they are an asset to the community and actively proving interest and participation”. She hoped the community would rally to improve things, encouraging more diversity on stage and in leadership roles: “This gives a better message to all people, and especially children and young adults considering their futures.”

In the meantime, Powers told us that attitudes need to change and those within the industry must recognise when sexism exists. In the past, she's said there's essentially an attitude that "unless a guy points out that sexism exists, it doesn’t exist [but] sexism isn’t always overt. It isn't always some guy showing a slide with a naked woman's bum during a tech conference. Sexism can be as much slow erosion as sudden explosion. Women feeling as if we're ignored, that we're patronised, that our contributions weigh less. Sexism is as much about subtle perception, as it is about blatant acts.

“In my opinion, the W3C, in general, and the HTML WG, in particular, have problems with sexism. And every time I say this, I get slammed. So here we go again.”

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