Is Women-Only Tech Award - a sexist thing?

Penny Leach wrote recently a blog post about the awards given at Best of Swiss Web.

What annoyed her with this event was the special award given to women in technology (Women Wired in Web). The reaction this initiative produced was that most of the female participants felt bad and did not find it appropriate. Penny provoked a discussion on several lists and on her website (see here) in order to see what other women-in-computing think about the issue.

Before I summarize the discussion and the main conclusions, here are some facts that Penny points out about the event:

  1. There was sexism throughout all the event with pretty women giving the awards, and with colouring the Women Wired in Web award in purple, etc. While they were pretending with the women-only-award to be fighting gender inequality in the Computer Science field.
  2. The result from the initiative actually put women down, pointing at them and saying they are different, instead of just making place for women into a male world.
  3. The female jury got to get up on stage during the presentation of their award, which didn't happen for
    any other jury of any other category.

So, I thought the discussion on this was important, since the issue is very ambiguous: yes, it is a great initiative to give place for women in a male-dominated field. But is it actually the good way of doing things? And if it is not done in the proper way, isn't it producing the opposite feelings, and actually contributing to the problem, and not to the solution? I guess, this is what happened with the Best of Swiss Web.

What are the pros of a women-only space in a CS conference, project or any other type of activity?

  • It is actually a raising problem that women are absent from software development industry. This problems add two new problems: 1) women are not well represented in the decision-making about software production, and 2) the software produced does not answer women'e needs.
  • For make a change, there need to be active measures, and not silence on the issue. Some groups who recognise the problem, try to work in order to solve it. Companies offer special conditions for women to join teams; others provide scholarships and prioritise women's ideas. The main reason is that if there are 2 women initiated projects out of 100, even if they are great, it might be difficult to make them visible in the pile. So, what is done is to assign quota.
  • I tried to define the above as "positive discrimination", but Penny came out with a better idea: affirmative action (Def: A policy or a program that seeks to redress past discrimination through active measures to ensure equal opportunity, as in education and employment.).

BUT....

  • The problem I see with this event is that it was promoting a stereotypic underestimation for women in general (with the pretty women giving awards, etc.), while they wanted to show off that they care about "bridging the gap" by organising this women-only award event. In this, they actually mocked the female participants. Therefore, even if they had good intentions, they did more harm than fixed anything.
  • Since the question is so delicate, every wrong move contributes to the problem, rather than to the solution. In a polarised male field, to give a tribune to women, creates a lot of food for contempt and hate. The badly presented activity of positive discrimination can easily turn into humiliation. And if you women felt like this at the ceremony, this has obviously not been the best way to do.
  • Sarah Currier talks about tokenism on Penny's blog: "The trouble is of course, when any movement reaches the point where tokenistic attempts to solve the problem are made like the one you describe, it becomes difficult to know exactly what to bitch about and how."
  • Nicolas Connault says (in the same post): "In my experience, whenever a minority group feels they are being discriminated against, they tend to adopt the victim frame of mind, and interpret people's actions through that frame of mind. It usually makes things worse because, if you play a victim role, you usually stay a victim, even when the initial annoyances have gone".

To summarise the good ideas and suggestions that came out of this really constructive and rich discussion, I would support Penny who thinks the event was organised with good intentions (although road to hell is covered with good intentions!!!), and that it would be probably important to contact the organisers and to let them know how women participants felt. To point them out some of the problems, and to make propositions on how to do next time. In a good tone, and with humour, of course. As someone said: it comes down to treating other people with respect.

In my opinion, it has been indeed good intentions. But maybe they need some help by gender aware people who could propose better ways for involving and encouraging women to the technology field. The efforts are in place, now we need to work on the quality of the contents.