Devops needs feminism

I just returned to Minneapolis from Velocity NY bursting with ideas as always. The program was saturated with fantastic speakers, like my new ops crush Ilya Grigorik of Google. And my favorite part, as always, was the hallway track. I met dozens of brilliant, inspiring engineers. Allspaw, Souders, and Nash really know how to throw a conference.

One exhilarating thing about Velocity is the focus on culture as a driving force for business. Everybody’s in introspection mode, ready to break down their organizational culture and work new ideas into it. It reminds me of artificial competence in genetic engineering. It’s a joy to experience.

But despite all this wonderful cultural introspection, y’know what word you don’t hear? Y’know what drags up awkward silences and sometimes downright reactionary vitriol?

Feminism.

As long as we’re putting our tech culture under the microscope, why don’t we swap in a feminist lens? If you question any random geek at Velocity about gender, you can bet they’ll say “Women are just as good as men at ops,” or “I work with a female engineer, and she’s really smart!” But as soon as you say “feminism,” the barriers go up. It’s like packet loss: the crowd only hears part of what you’re saying, and they assume that there’s nothing else to hear.

We need to build feminism into our organizations, and Velocity would be a great venue for that. I’m just one engineer, and I’m not by any means a feminism expert, but I do think I can shed some light on the most common wrongnesses uttered by engineers when feminism is placed on the table.

Feminism != “Girls are better than boys”

Mention feminism to a random engineer, and you’re likely to hear some variation on:

I’m against all bias! We don’t need feminism, we just need to treat each other equally.

Feminism is often portrayed as the belief that women are superior, or that men should be punished for the inequality they’ve created. Feminism is often portrayed as man-hating.

Feminism is not that. Everyone defines it differently, but I like the definition at the Geek Feminism Wiki:

Feminism is a movement which seeks respect and equality for women both under law and culturally.

Equality. Everyone who’s not an asshole wants it, but we don’t have it yet. That’s why we need a framework in which to analyze our shortcomings, conscious and unconscious. Feminism can be that framework.

Imagine hearing an engineer say this:

Our product should perform optimally! We don’t need metrics, we just need to build a system that performs well.

Would this not be face-palmingly absurd? Of course it would. Metrics let you define your goals, demonstrate the value of your goals, and check how well you’re doing. Metrics show you where you’re losing milliseconds. Metrics are the compass and map with which you navigate the dungeon of performance.

Feminism is to equality as metrics are to performance. Without a framework for self-examination, all the best intentions in the world won’t get you any closer to an equality culture.

Wanting equality isn’t enough

When feminism comes up, you might hear yourself say something like this:

I already treat female engineers equally. Good engineers are good engineers, no matter their gender.

Hey great! The intention to treat others equally is a necessary condition for a culture of equality. But it’s not a sufficient condition.

This is akin to saying:

I’m really into performance, so our site is as fast as it can be.

You might be a performance juggernaut, but you’re just one engineer. You’re responsible for one cross-section of the product. First of all, one person doesn’t constitute a self-improving or even a self-sustaining performance culture. And even more crucially, there are performance mistakes you don’t even know you’re making!

Promoting equality in your organization requires a cultural shift, just like promoting performance. Cultural shifts happen through discourse and introspection and goal-setting — not wishing. That’s why we need to look to feminism.

If you start actively working to attack inequality in your organization, I guarantee you’ll realize you were already a feminist.

Feminism doesn’t require you to be ashamed of yourself

When your heart’s in the right place and you’re constantly examining your own actions and your organization’s, you start to notice bias and prejudice in more and more places. Most disturbingly, you notice it in yourself.

Biases are baked right into ourselves and our culture. They’re so deeply ingrained that we often don’t see or hear them anymore. Think anti-patterns and the broken windows theory. When we do notice our biases, it’s horrifying. We feel ashamed and we want to sweep them under the rug.

Seth Walker of Etsy gave an excellent talk at Velocity NY entitled A Public Commitment to Performance.” It’s about how, rather than keeping their performance shortcomings private until everything’s fixed, Etsy makes public blog posts detailing their current performance challenges and recent performance improvements. This way, everyone at the company knows that there will be public eyes on any performance enhancement they make. It promotes a culture of excitement about improvements, rather than one of shame about failures.

When you notice biases in your organization — and moreover when others notice them — don’t hide them. Talk about them, analyze them, and figure out how to fix them. That’s the productive thing to do with software bugs and performance bottlenecks, so why not inequality?

Where to go from here

I’m kind of a feminism noob, but that won’t stop me from exploring it and talking about it. It shouldn’t stop you either. Geek Feminism is a good jumping-off point if you want to learn about feminism, and they also have a blog. @OnlyGirlInTech is a good Twitter account. I know there’s other stuff out there, so if you’ve got something relevant,  jam it in the comment section!

EDIT on 2013-10-21: Here are some links provided in the comments by Alexis Finch (thanks, Alexis Finch!)

Ada Initiative – focused on OpenSource, working to create allies as well as support women directly
http://adainitiative.org/what-we-do/workshops-and-training/

Girls Who Code – working with high school girls to teach them the skills and provide inspiration to join the tech fields
http://www.girlswhocode.com/

LadyBits – adding women’s voices to the media, covering tech and science [w/ a few men writing as well]
https://medium.com/ladybits-on-medium

Reductress – satire addressing the absurdity of women’s portrayal in the media [The Onion, feminized]
http://www.reductress.com/top-five-lip-glosses-paid-tell/

WomenWhoCode & LadiesWhoCode & PyLadies – if you want to find an expert engineer who happens to also be of the female persuasion [to speak at a conference, or to join your team] these are places to find seasoned tech folks, as well as for those new to tech to get started learning, with chapters worldwide.
http://www.meetup.com/Women-Who-Code-SF/ & https://twitter.com/WomenWhoCode
http://www.ladieswhocode.com/ & https://twitter.com/ladieswhocode
http://www.pyladies.com/ https://twitter.com/pyladies

14 comments
  1. Emily said:

    I just wanted to say, I thought this article was excellent and really captured some of my frustrations with people’s responses. It was on HN frontpage for a very brief moment, but it’s either been deleted or buried since… not being able to read those comments is probably better for my day anyways :)

    • Oh, it got to the frontpage? Nice! Yeah I’m not clicking that comments link. I’m afraid for my sanity.

      • Johnny said:

        Judging by the name of the submitter on HN, you are the one who submitted this article. But at the same time, you don’t want to actually interact with whatever responses you get on HN. So you have no respect for the HN community, but you still want to submit to it in order to get more views. Am I reading this correctly?

  2. Another awesome post Dan!

    Great timing too. Last weekend I was at the Wicked Good Ruby Conference – http://Wickedgoodruby.com and I was struck by how many women I saw and met in the audience and in the ‘hallway track’.

    While there have always been a stalwart few ladies willing to slug it out in a hostile environment, I think what I saw is due almost entirely to the fact that the Ruby community has made a huge concerted effort over the last couple of years to be more friendly to, and beyond that, welcoming to women.

    We still have a long way to go but it’s incredibly heartening to see the first signs of real success. Awesome organizations like RailsBridge, Rails Girls, and others (the list goes on!) are actually making a difference.

    Also apropos I saw this go by my feed this morning:

    http://ruby-white-ribbon.org/

    The DevOps crowd should take lessons :)

  3. The problem with ANY viewpoint and ANY response, there is one single truth that nobody can deny. The word feminism is not born of equality, nor is it about equality inherently. The word itself is based from discrimination, so any argument based in support of this term, has already oppressed every other group of people that do not fall within the category of the identifier, females! (fem-inism) The group, the people, the reason, may have existed and was necessary years ago, but it is no longer. People are aware of the situation and are doing what they can through other programs. Feminism is the same as the NAACP, an organization that only looks after one group while ignoring everyone else. Since this is HN, everyone knows you cannot talk of equality when you only pay attention to, and add resources to, 1 of 2 groups. If people are truly concerned with helping people, they will identify themselves as humanitarians. Feminists are now saying, “it’s about equality for all” which is a complete sham.

    • For what it’s worth, I agree, in a sense, that this term could easily distract from the eminently worthy goal of actual equality in the DevOps field.

      For instance, I had always seen myself as being pro feminist, but a few years back I joined a fraternity, and some of the more hard core extreme feminists were all up in arms because, it being a fraternity, it inherently discriminates. After further discussion with them it became clear that *their* goal is to have an entirely gender blind society. No women’s only gyms, health clubs or spas, no men’s groups at all. That is not a society I would personally want to live in.

      While I feel very strongly that there is NO place for discrimination in a professional context like this, I would prefer to live in a world where we can recognize and celebrate our differences yet be mindful of contexts where they should have no bearing.

      • Bob M said:

        Hey Chris!

        > No women’s only gyms, health clubs or spas, no men’s groups at all. That is not a society I would personally want to live in.

        Why? I mean could I not enjoy the company of a female Chris the same as I would a the male Chris at the gym? Not really sure why drawing the line at gender is meaningful.

        I could be all wrong but I feel like most of the stereotypical gender differences are just reflections of a traditionally sexist society which needs to be reduced to rubble rather than accepted.

      • [This reply is to Bob M. His comment doesn't have a Reply button for some reason.]
        I actually don’t think you’re all wrong, but I also don’t think you’re all right either :)

        Through the years, I’ve spoken to quite a number of women who only work out because they CAN go to women’s only gyms. For example places like Curves are geared towards women who otherwise would feel totally cowed by the prospect of going to a co-ed gym and (their words) have men leering at them and (again their words) judging their fat (Because SO MANY women think they are fat, even if they’re in great shape. It’s a societally induced neurosis, and it’s really sad IMO).

        Would you rob them of that comfort? Do we really need to reduce EVERYTHING to rubble in order to enact positive change? I don’t think so.

    • The argument based on etymology is a shallow one. One could say “If you’re pro-science, what’s not to like about scientology?” but we all know that what really matters is the ideas behind the word. “A rose by any other name,” etc.

      You say “People are aware of the situation and are doing what they can through other programs.” I’m not sure what types of programs you’re referring to in particular, but I agree: there are many ways to fight inequality. In general I find that feminists get along quite well with other equality-minded groups. If there’s evidence that the majority — or even a big percentage — of self-identified feminists think women should be placed _above_ other groups, I’d like to see it.

      You also say “If people are truly concerned with helping people, they will identify themselves as humanitarians.” Again, spot on. Feminists are not just one thing. If you ask a random feminist whether he or she is a humanitarian too, I bet you’ll get a yes. Humanitarianism is (source: Wikipedia):

      An ethic of kindness, benevolence, and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings

      Kinda hard to disagree with, right? But also pretty vague, and it’s a concept that can be applied even without regard for equality in particular (“White Man’s Burden”?)

      For me, feminism is one of many special cases of humanitarianism. The cultural factors that disadvantage women are related to, but different from, the cultural factors that disadvantage disabled people or black people or Native Americans or gay people or the mentally ill. These factors need to be identified and discussed before they can be eliminated. In a way, I see feminism as applied humanitarianism. It’s a contribution to humanitarianism, rather than a detraction from it.

  4. I had intended to mention in my talk that I thought our technique at Etsy of sharing our progress on performance publicly could probably be adapted for anyone trying to bring about cultural or organizational change. Very rad to see you saying it, and even better to see it applied to equality. Glad you liked the talk!

  5. Creating a relatable metaphor for feminism, especially from the devops [and male] perspective, is definitely the first step to getting people to actually think about it. You nailed it. If you’re wanting some more resources, here are a few:

    Ada Initiative – focused on OpenSource, working to create allies as well as support women directly

    http://adainitiative.org/what-we-do/workshops-and-training/

    Girls Who Code – working with high school girls to teach them the skills and provide inspiration to join the tech fields

    http://www.girlswhocode.com/

    LadyBits – adding women’s voices to the media, covering tech and science [w/ a few men writing as well]

    View collection at Medium.com

    Reductress – satire addressing the absurdity of women’s portrayal in the media [The Onion, feminized]

    http://www.reductress.com/top-five-lip-glosses-paid-tell/

    WomenWhoCode & LadiesWhoCode & PyLadies – if you want to find an expert engineer who happens to also be of the female persuasion [to speak at a conference, or to join your team] these are places to find seasoned tech folks, as well as for those new to tech to get started learning, with chapters worldwide.
    http://www.meetup.com/Women-Who-Code-SF/ & https://twitter.com/WomenWhoCode
    http://www.ladieswhocode.com/ & https://twitter.com/ladieswhocode
    http://www.pyladies.com/ & https://twitter.com/pyladies

    Thank you for stepping up to the plate. Feminism is not just for those who identify as women. It’s for everyone, and should not be seen as exclusionary. You did an excellent job of making that clear.

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