Web Developers Listserv + Sexism

I’ve been subscribed to the University Web Developers (UwebD) listserv for quite a while. It’s an interesting mix of design/code tips, recent data, job postings, etc. I wanted to post a brief exchange that occurred a little while ago on the list.

Chris posted this:

Hey guys,

We’re looking for a motivated web developer who loves what he does. ‘We’ being the guys at Arc90, based in NYC…

Missy responded:

I take it female web developers need not apply? Thanks for the heads up. Most of the time we don’t even know we’re not being considered due to our gender.

Ross chimed in:

From Google of “define:guy”, we find the very first definition from Princeton’s wordnet is ‘an informal term for a youth or man’. Maybe you take offense to being addressed as a “youth”?

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy, we have the very first disambiguation including both the following: ‘Informal term or address, often for a man or boy’

Last time I checked, often does not mean always.
‘the plural form “guys” is often used without regard to gender’

If you seek out and expect prejudice, repression, and lack of fairness, you will almost always find it. Jean-Luc Picard says it best in The Drumhead noting that “the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think”.

Is it possible to interpret Chris’s words as being male-centric and anti-female? Yes…but do you really believe that Chris is anti-female and would want to discourage women from applying? If not, then why does it bother you that his words can potentially be interpreted that way (especially considering it’s almost universally accepted that “guys” is gender neutral as evidenced by the definitions above)?

Those that criticize and over-analyze every word and every expression will always expose a prejudice. Pointing it out and finding it at any cost will always ensure its existence. They will be the ones that forge Harrison Bergeron’s chains.

Kevin decided that the topic was “silly.”:

I think the issue here wasn’t the word “guy”, it was that they were looking for a person that likes what “he” does.

Given that the English Language has no gender-neutral pronoun, I suppose the only way around this was to use things like “likes what (s)he does” or “likes what he/she does or “a person that enjoys work” or something.

Having said that, I agree that this is a silly discussion for the web-designers mailing list and is way off topic. The mistake was made, it was pointed out, the apology was offered. I suggest we all drop it now.

I receive UwebD posts in digest form, skim the post headlines, and then usually archive the message. I actually did not see the original email from Chris, nor did I see the message from Missy. Since I am not looking for a job I did not read the first digest collection that contained those messages. The email that peeked my curiosity was the one that contained Ross’ and Chris’ messages. (I think there was something else in the thread that I wanted to read and I ended up seeing the entire thread from Chris, Missy, Ross and Kevin.)

I sent in this response to UwebD:

I think the word “guy” is definitely gender-based. To have a couple guys say that it is not and that the topic is silly speaks volumes about the sexism in the web industry.

Why has “guys” been labeled as non-gender specific, and okay to use for all people, while “gals” has never been given the same

Kudos to Missy for pointing out a legitimate concern that should be talked about on a web developers list because our identity’s
are present as we weave the web.

After my email was sent to the listserv, Ross decided to email me:

Why don’t you be an even bigger push over? I think she would find it insulting no matter how it was put…even if you put totally generic phrases like “people” and “all persons” everywhere. Someone that wants to make a big deal out of something always will… People like you that condone or even applaud their action only make the whole situation more ridiculous.

I replied to Ross with:

I fail to see how I am being a push over. A sexist moment occurred on the listserv and now a bunch of the guys want to push it under the table. I’d say that more men should have been in support of Missy instead of accusing her of being silly and ridiculous.

It actually takes more courage and vision to stand against the all guys club.

Ross then sent me another email:

The only reason you see it as a “sexist moment” is because a woman pointed out. I’m willing to bet if nobody had ever said anything, you wouldn’t be scurrying all over the place in support of a sexism-free listserv. Now, I’m not saying that just because a prejudice isn’t noticed doesn’t mean it isn’t there…but this REALLY WASN’T a “sexist moment”. It is a part of the rules of the English language to use the masculine pronouns when gender is unclear or unspecified. It has become so commonly accepted to use a term like “guys” that it is defined as such all over the web.

I’m not saying that email in question was well-worded…I most certainly would not have worded it that way especially for public consumption. (I personally always start emails to more than one person with “All,” as the greeting regardless of audience.) But I would still argue that it was not some heinous attack on females. It was most certainly not a “sexist moment”. Maybe I am over-interpreting her response, but I have seen far too many people that always see prejudice in everything because that is what they expect and what they look for. That attitude is just as bad if not worse than the prejudice itself.

One more email from me:

I get emails from UWeb in digest form. I usually scan the subject lines and then either read the ones that I am interested in or archive the message. I actually missed the initial job announcement because I am not in need of work right now and did not see what was going on until I saw some of the messages from you and the guy who called the topic “silly.”

Also, if I had read the original announcement, I would have said something about it being sexist. I think that the “rules” of English
are meant to be fluid and not set in some sort of patriarchal stone that makes you happy and denigrates women.

“Seeing prejudice” is often hardest for those who are in dominant groups. As a white man, it took a long time for me to become
self-aware that prejudice in the form of code language was all around me.

I truly wish that other men on the listserv had stood in solidarity with Missy because it shows a lot about the makeup of the men on the list. Calling a topic silly or ridiculous is just another way that those in dominant groups, in this case men, silence voices from people from underrepresented groups.

Ross emailed me one last time and I decided to blog about what happened instead of “debating” with him:

I have two questions…

1) Do you think it really is possible to write/speak in such a way that absolutely no one is offended (and still deliver real information or a real substance with real detail)?

2) Do you think that the original poster’s in absolutely any way intended to degrade or denigrate women in any fashion? If not, does it really matter? How can (or should we) separate information from its possible interpretations?

I guess I just don’t see how anything can be totally safe when anyone and everyone is allowed to take offense to absolutely anything.

Also, I have enjoyed our debate on this topic. The company I currently work for has a great culture based around mental flexibility and vigorous debate. It is rare to find that in the real world. It can be entertaining and educational to debate these topics, especially considering that I don’t entirely agree with my own position.

In answer to question #1: Yes, I feel that it is very possible to write/speak in a way that is not offensive. Real information can be delivered with real substance in real detail without maiming someones dignity.

#2: I don’t feel that Chris intended to maim anyone’s dignity. Yes, it does matter. If you maim someone sans intent, they are still maimed. I think we need to check our own bias, privilege and awareness so that we are knowledgeable about the language that we use.

I wish I could get a guy like Ross to understand that this is not a “debate.” I hope this exchange was at least a little bit educational for him. I don’t feel that combating sexism is entertaining…

What do you think?