Women, WordPress, & the Web

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.

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21 thoughts on “Women, WordPress, & the Web

  1. I’m really glad to hear this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ve always thought that the WordPress community was ahead of the curve in this regard, but as so much anti-woman negativity happens in private interactions (like the bar encounter Sarah Parmenter mentioned), I wasn’t sure if I was getting a skewed picture (well, of course I am, but I wasn’t sure how much it was skewed).

    I’m also intrigued by your comment about visible women, and how that affected your level of comfort in the community. My instinct is to go for a “if you build it, they will come” approach (meaning, build a welcoming community and traditionally underrepresented people will join), but that might be too subtle an approach as compared to highlighting individuals who have risen to prominence and having them signal to others “no really, you’re welcome here”. After all, most organizations claim to be welcoming to people of all types — maybe that kind of openness needs to be demonstrated to establish initial trust. On the other hand, I don’t want anyone to feel forced into being a role model. Some people just want to make things, and that’s fine too.

    1. I’ve been thinking more about levels of comfort in a community recently. I’m also of the “build it and they will come” mentality in my natural state, but I’ve come to see that level of comfort is defined differently for different types of people. For some, nothing makes them uncomfortable, and they boldly and publicly make their way (yep, that’s me). For others, seeing peers in prominent positions helps enforce that they can do it, too, whether or not in a public light. And for yet others, they are not bothered by a lack of representation, but are also not up for being in the limelight or being held as a role model. Everybody is different, and we should recognize and support that.

      I have a similar feeling about support, actually – I see lots of “why can’t they learn to use the forums/my proprietary venue/something else” complaints, but the reality is that different users are comfortable looking for help in different ways, and there’s something to be said for opening up and respecting all those different avenues of approach.

    2. I use to be of the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy as well, until I started co-organizing WordPress DC. After our first year, I noticed that despite having had close to twenty speakers, we had zero female speakers. And it wasn’t because we had zero female attendees (I would say we are somewhere between 60/40 and 40/60 any given month). We had to start actively asking woman to speak. Once we reached out to one of our long term attendees, others started to volunteer. Sometimes as a part of building it, you also need to ask the pitcher to take the mound.

      Mel – Thanks for speaking up about the positive experiences you’ve had. I hope I can attend your talk at the next WordCamp we both attend.

  2. Thank you so much for calling out the WordPress community as one that’s more gender-balanced and welcoming than many. This has been my experience as well. There are proportionally way more women attending WordCamps and WordPress meetups than any other kind of tech event I’ve been involved in.

    That said, I have attended WordCamps and other WP events where there were very few women speakers or none at all. That’s what prompted me to start applying to speak. I think that generally a lack of women speakers at tech conferences is simply a reflection of the industry – there just aren’t a lot of women in tech and that becomes really obvious under the magnifying glass of a conference. However, there are a LOT of women in the WordPress community and I’d like to see more of them up on stage.

    1. I think Courtney Stanton went about getting more women speakers the right way. I think a lot of women don’t even consider speaking just because they think they’re not ready for it yet. It’s totally fine if someone is uninterested in public speaking — I know a lot of people who wouldn’t be caught dead on a stage — but there are plenty of women would would enjoy and be good at speaking and just need a little push to get there. I’m really hoping speaker mentorship gets off the ground.

  3. I’m so glad you’ve had a positive experience thus far! I also think our community is unusual(ly awesome) :) We discussed “Women in WP” at the Community Summit and decided that our action point would be to encourage women to get up and speak in our local communities, and not be afraid of sharing the awesome things that they are doing / creating.

    Just to be honest, every so often I get a few weird/kinda creepy comments (from both men and women), but its nothing like what Sarah Parmenter or others have faced. Its more out of ignorance. Blog post like yours, helen’s , and others will only help relieve these tensions. So really, thanks for sharing & making our unusual(ly awesome) community a better place :)

  4. I kinda fall into the category of “I just want to make stuff”, that Mark mentioned – but this is encouraging to read. I read Sarah Parmenter’s post – and I’ve read several similar articles, and always find myself wondering … Where on EARTH do these women work and who are they working with to experience such tomfoolery??.

    I’ve been working with WordPress since 2003. My very first conference and ‘public speak’ (in this industry) was SXSW Interactive in 2006 and have spoken extensively at WordCamps and other conferences since then…and of course, the books.

    In 2012, alone, I spoke publicly at various tech events 18 different times and never once felt I was being judged because I am female. Maybe I was being judged and I didn’t notice?

    Hmm… Ok…once. And it was kind of a humorous thing and I can pretty well guarantee you that he learned his lesson and will never make that same mistake again…heh. But it wasn’t horrible and it was dealt with, and then we all moved on. Which is how I prefer to deal with such matters.

    My experience is generally limited to the WordPress world and community – which has grown by leaps and bounds since I first started (also awesome!). I can say that I have never once had an experience that I can point to with horrified disgust at the way I was treated, as a woman, in this community – ever.

    On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that I have my own (conscious or unconscious) pre-conceived notions about men in tech (or kids in tech, or green aliens in tech, etc) and have probably, inappropriately, acted based on those assumptions, unknowingly – until someone set me straight – which doesn’t make me a monster, but rather a flawed human being with room to learn and grow.

    Without experience working in other areas of tech, I cannot make an informed, sweeping statement that it (inequality) doesn’t exist, because I know it does – I’ve read all about it, too many times to count. What I can say with certainty is that being a woman in the WordPress community isn’t at all hard. I find everyone to be open minded, accepting, willing to share knowledge and even at times when I felt intimidated by being around some of the minds far greater than my own in this community – – those have been the very people who have made me feel the most at home and comfortable with learning and growing in my craft. I have to say that I appreciate it a great deal, especially in light of some of the things experiences I read from other women in other communities.

    I am not afraid to admit what I don’t know or ask questions to continue my learning. I have never once felt like I’ve been judged for that — not as a woman, or just as a person in tech. That is a huge compliment to the community, overall. I hope that no one else does, either. I mean, I think it’s just human nature to not want to be judged – in particular on an intellectual level. Face it, when you’re in the same room as Mark Jaquith, or Nacin – it’s hard not to feel a little….small. Not because I’m a woman – but because, brains. I feel the same way about Jen Mylo – it’s hard not to be impressed with what she has accomplished in this community – it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a gal – it’s damn impressive.

    These people, and so many more like them, will probably forget more about WordPress (and PHP and MySQl, et al) than I will ever know in my lifetime – – but that is ok, too. I can approach Mark, or Nacin or Jen, and ask a question and know that I will receive a genuine answer (it’s probably a good thing to gauge their mood at the time, tho…and a please and thank you goes a long way, too – and that’s not a sexist thing – – it’s just a life/human thing).

    I don’t know what’s different about WordPress – – why other women seem to have it so much more difficult in other sectors? Is it the nature of open source? Is it the leadership at the helm of the WordPress project? Is it because WordPress has, typically, been a smaller community? Maybe I’m not exposed to it as much because I’m isolated from it by working from home…attending (mostly) smaller WordCamps (in comparison to some of the much bigger tech conferences out there)?

    Is it the BBQ?

    I don’t know – but find myself wishing that some of these women who write these articles about their awful experiences could experience what I have experienced in this community. Acceptance. Open mindedness. A willingness to teach…to share knowledge – and do it without belittling you for asking questions. An environment like this removes the fear of feeling stupid and encourages growth, education and progress.

    Anything other than that is probably Nacin’s fault.

    1. See Fake Geek Girl. Or GoDaddy. Or my old company.

      I think it’s pure chance that WP is better at this than other places, though. It was luck that the people who started it cared more about minds, and the people who came along weren’t misogynists or misanthropes. It’s still luck that the people who steer the community are ‘modern’ people who understand the value of work and respect.

      While I don’t have a problem speaking out (heh), I know other people do, and I know many more women are told growing up and working to be quiet, to be demure, and to not be so outspoken. I want to take the people who tell them that and lock ’em up with my grandmother for a couple hours, though. But at the same time, I know this is a thing, and I feel that if we don’t keep aware of the fact that it IS a problem, we may not be lucky forever.

      1. I’ve worked in various areas of the dev/design industry over the years. I recall the days of irc non-gender nicknames – life was just easier to not be seen. Was that right? No? Does it still happen? Yes. I’ve not experienced sexism for a while as to be honest been focused in this community but I certainly have before.

        The community in WordPress to me is a precious thing but what it needs to do is not sit back and go “Well we’re doing it right look at all these women”. We need to be mindful it stays a safe place and encourage those that do find it more difficult to speak up. Not everyone finds it easy and I myself found it a very very hard thing to do. Educating the next generation of women and for that sake any minority (of whatever format) or anyone in the next generation should be a priority for us to ensure this safe spot grows and spreads.

        We are so lucky to have some women I wish as a kid I could have looked to in our community and even now am so please I can look up to them. Growing up and moving into the early days of the web there were so few women to look to, we have some great examples in our community.

  5. Mel and other commenters, it is encouraging to hear that at least in the WordPress community things are better than elsewhere.

    Here in the UK, we have always had a women involved in the organising and running of our WordCamps, but we can still do better encouraging women speakers (three women in five talks last year).

    I certainly think Matt and I have always had the right attitude and I recall in the early days of b2 and then WordPress there were a lot of women on the scene (at least in the forums), perhaps that helped the community grow more even handedly.

    I ran a WordPress training course last weekend and women outgunned the men 11 to 4 (iirc), and in my WordPress meetups, we regularly have 25%-50% women.

    I think that even within the WP community we have to be more proactive.

  6. I want to print this and frame it:

    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… Women were involved with organizing the conference, women were volunteering, and women were speaking. It was my kind of place.

    More specifically, I want to send it to every WordPress Meetup and WordCamp organizer as proof that including women on organizing teams (which generally leads to more women speakers as well) does, in fact, make women feel more welcomed at our events, and that this could be the place for them.

    It takes a lot of work to proactively include women in visible roles rather than waiting for them to put themselves forward — and those two years I organized WCNYC there were fewer prominent women in the community to feature than we have now — but it is so important, and is at the heart of the work of the community group Andrea linked above. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and validating that we’re heading in the right direction.

    1. Thanks for all of your work on improving the openness of the WordPress community and making it easier for people, especially women, to join in and get involved!

      I think NYC was extra exciting for me because it was also my first time contributing anything towards a WordCamp. I really enjoyed collaborating with people to create the NYC skyline graphic and am grateful you asked for volunteers to help with that.

  7. I was certainly pleasantly surprised by the percentage of women I encountered at WordPress meetups, WordCamps, etc. relative not just to other tech environments but to other business environments. I come from a humanities background, but clearly remember being one of a handful of women even attending, never mind speaking, at a conference (and one of the youngest, at that), and thus assumed to be the administrative assistant/coffee fetcher–by other women, even. Maddening.

    Given that you can get a fair way with WP without actually knowing PHP, I think it’s less intimidating than some areas of tech, and even other areas of web development. Lots of people come to WP from design, or from journalism, and then get sucked in.

    These days I rarely encounter the kind of we-doubt-your-competence-because-you’re-female attitude that was so common 20 years ago. Maybe some of that is because I’m older, and maybe times have actually changed a little. The founder of the East Bay WordPress Meetup was male, but no one suggested that another man should take charge when he moved to LA; he’d already made me associate organizer because I was better at the organizing thing than he was, which mattered more to everyone than whether I was the best developer in the group. No one here in the small town I now live in, which in many respects hasn’t left the Fifties, suggested that I was too young, too female, or even too new in town (I’ve been here less than 2 years) to become president of the Chamber of Commerce.

    But I absolutely agree with the people who say that if we don’t invite women to speak–especially the highly competent but shy ones–many will not step up. We can’t just assume we have made it and that everything will take care of itself now. I pushed a couple of the women in my group to speak because I knew they were doing good stuff and I didn’t want to present every program. They were nervous about speaking in public, but they did fine. Not necessarily brilliantly, but no worse than the men who had no experience.

    So less hostility is good, but we do need to be proactive.

  8. This is really interesting. I’ve been designing for 8 years, and using WordPress to build my clients’ sites off-and-on for about 4 years now and it might sound crazy, but I honestly never thought of how many women have been (and become) a part of the WP community. You’re absolutely right though, it’s awesome! I think my attitude has always been something like, “men just dominate the tech world… so what… Yeah, I stick out as a girl… oh well… maybe I’ll get a job BECAUSE I’m a girl… great…” And I have to say, that mindset has worked out well for me. Embracing it, has worked well for me. I think there will always be men and audiences in general like those Sarah Parmenter dealt with, in ANY industry. It’s stupid and unfortunate but true. People are naive and treat others poorly for no reason. But cheers to Sarah P., to you for writing something like this, and to others in the WP community especially for put yourselves out there and making a positive impact. I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for writing it.

  9. I’m so glad to read this, it has been my experience in the Australian WordPress community and I’ve wondered whether my overwhelmingly positive experience is a WP thing or an Australian thing, I like to think it’s both. I’m really happy to find other people have similar experiences.

  10. I am happy that so many of you seem to have had good experiences, but that has not been mine with another WordCamp. I tried reaching out to WordCamp Central, but no one got back in touch with me, which leads me to believe there is no one tending to inclusivity at the organizational level.

    Drupal has a much more solid base for being inclusive. In particular they have Angie Byron (webchick), who is very outspoken about these issues.

    Perhaps, though, there is such a woman who is a respected WordPress leader? If you are aware of such a person, I’d be most grateful if you could point me to her. Thanks.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you had a bad experience, and even sorrier to hear that it was never addressed. If you haven’t reached out to the individual WordCamp’s leaders, I’d send something their way. On an organizational scale, I think Andrea Middleton (@andmiddleton on twitter) is the person to try to reach. I can’t seem to find an email address for her. Jen Mylo (@jenmylo) is kind of the voice of diversity and inclusivity, so if you can’t get in contact with Andrea it might be worth trying to get in touch with her: http://jenmylo.com/contact-me/

      Good luck! I hope your experience gets addressed and that something like it never happens again.

  11. WordPress is by far the most woman friendly tech community I have been a part of. I always feel included at WordCamps and meetups, and feel that I am respected as a developer. I think it is important to actively pursue women speakers, organizers, etc. The visibility of women in the community is important in order to attract other women, and especially to provide role models for the young girls who will be part of the future of WordPress. Also a good way to end the stereotypes once and for all. I think this applies to other under-represented groups as well.

    I am a tech conference junkie and no stranger to being the only woman, or one of a very few, at a tech event. At many events, I feel welcome and included, but at others people have made assumptions based solely on the fact that I am a woman, such as that I am a beginner, a designer, a marketer, etc. At events geared towards developers, those assumptions lead to not being treated as an equal, which can lead to a less enjoyable experience of the event as a whole.

    Thanks to all those who work toward making the WordPress community inclusive. It makes a difference.


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