A recurring theme on computer science blogs is what might be done to encourage more women to enter (or remain in) the field, and to promote more diversity in general. For example, a recent post at On being a scientist and a woman talks about why women leave the academic career path (this is for science generally, but I’m sure it applies equally well to comp sci). As difficult as the academic world may be, however, it appears that things can be much worse for women working on the ‘nuts and bolts’ side of the aisle. Blogger and author Kathy Sierra writes about how email and blog sexual harassment and death threats have caused her to cancel a public appearance and step back from blogging. (Warning, that linked post contains material that is not appropriate for kids.) There are by now hundreds of posts by others providing commentary on this; some background information on the people involved is given by Doc Searls.
One weird thing about the whole situation is that the harassment grew out of a couple of websites set up by peers of Kathy Sierra, specifically for the purpose of being critical of, and generally nasty about, other technology authors. (The actual death threats appear to be from an interloper who hacked the identity of one of the participants.) Death threats and misogyny aside, why does the internet seem to spawn such general nastiness? Okay, that’s a naive question. More to the point, does the anything-goes atmosphere encourage misogyny and racism and other bad stuff, or is that something totally apart from general snarkiness found on the internet? For example, on a site like ScienceBlogs, more than a bit of gratuitous obscenity and sarcasm can be found mixed in with the science and analysis, but it is a very progressive site where any hint of sexism or racism is liable to get smacked down hard.
Still, sexism does seem to be a particular problem within the tech community. Robert Scoble writes in response to Kathy Sierra’s problems,
It’s this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop. I really don’t care if you attack me. I take those attacks in stride. But, whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn’t happen if the interviewee were a man.
It makes me realize just how ascerbic this industry and culture are toward women. This just makes me ill.
Well, the response on the blogosphere to Kathy Sierra’s post has been, as you might imagine, enormous. I get the impression that Sierra would, with the benefit of hindsight, have responded to the threats a bit differently. However, some good might come out of all the brouhaha. Publisher Tim O’Reilly is calling for a blogger code of conduct that would help maintain a certain level of civility in web discussions. I think that could be a tough sell, but just raising people’s consciousness about the problem may help.
It looks like Kathy Sierra and one of the other involved bloggers, Chris Locke, will be on CNN Monday morning. Should be
an interesting segment a couple of minutes of soundbites with little content.