Unintentional destruction

At WordCamp Europe, Matt Mullenweg got a question about the role of women in the WordPress community. Before he could answer, somebody shouted from the audience: “We love women!” I was gratified when Matt said “come onnnnn”, but disappointed that it was lost in the sea of applause for the preceding exclamation.

The comment from the peanut gallery was later addressed in Matt’s response: that we should think about the effects our words and actions may have on the comfort and security somebody may have with a community. This isn’t the first time in history that comment has been made – if anything, it’s one of the most-used responses when a male-dominated field has its maleness pointed out. There is very little chance that the commenter had any intention of being destructive – he probably thought it was hilarious (and I’m sure lots of people also thought it was) and accurate. In this instance, we also have the added layer of cultural and language differences among the audience.

Without realizing it, this guy did two things with those three words: made anybody whose sexual preference isn’t women feel excluded from “we”, and reminded women that their presence isn’t desired because of skill and merit, but to be potential mates for others. That doesn’t mean all people in those categories felt that way, but that is still the message it sends.

This is really unfortunate, and again, likely unintentional. When it’s unintentional, it can be hard to address. Accusations of being sensitive fly around (if being sensitive means understanding how actions actually have consequences, then you know what, hell yeah I am), and defensive reactions remind others that it isn’t their feelings that matter, only the intentions of the originator, leading to further hurt and less listening.

It’s so predictable, I can even hear it now: “Stop making that guy a villain! There is such a thing as platonic love!” But just as this person didn’t intend to harm, humans are typically unintentional with their feelings. I can try to logic things away all day: I’m established in the community, I’m a very confident person, I know lots of men who have my back, I’m not a single lady (as if that really matters – that’s how engrained the importance of being a mate is), I too love having more women around. But the logic doesn’t prevent me from suddenly feeling uncomfortable and not respected. I didn’t intend those feelings any more than that guy intended me to have them.

Let’s be better. As an open source community, I do believe that the WordPress one is generally friendlier, more welcoming, and more diverse than many others. But we can’t rest on that – we need to keep being the best people we can be, and that includes taking a moment to think about the effects your words and actions might have on the people who are exposed to them.

2 responses to “Unintentional destruction”

  1. Annette Voelckner (@onthisearth) Avatar

    Dear Helen,

    A thousand thanks for your truthful words. I fully agree with and ask myself in situations like this specific one in Sofia: Why? Why is it so complicated to be an open and pure heart, with sincere intention, honest livelihood, firmness – and tons of humour? Perfect thought of @markjaquith to shout out “We respect women!” as an answer instead of the chosen statement. One can imagine the sea of applause for that. Awesome!

    Today I resigned from being a Co-Organizer of WordCamp Cologne 2015. It is in an early planning state (looking for the venue) and more than a dozen people raised their hands for the Orga-Team. So it’s neither too late nor I won’t be missed. One of my several reasons is the lack of respect concerning women in tech of a team member, for whom http://wpwomende.org/english, which I co-founded after WordCamp Hamburg this summer, is a red rag. To be clear: There are – of course – other people in the group, very friendly and welcoming. One can say: Take a deep breath and get to it! I did that during the last weeks and decided to make up my mind until the WordCamp Europe is over. In Sofia I took the chance to speak with a whole bunch of people about team culture, diversity, supportive people, quality and efficiency of discussions, et cetera on the one hand. On the other hand I listened very carefully to the speakers. There was that take away #3 from @jennybeaumont “Sometimes you have to walk away. And that’s ok.” which summarizes my final thoughts perfectly. I don’t want to spend so much time being a red rag to somebody and debating on principles.

    The step back hurts somehow. At WordCamp Hamburg in June I would have loved to shout out our application for the next WordCamp in Germany during the closing remarks, because it was so great to already know where to meet again after the WP Camp in Berlin 2013. The team from Hamburg raised their hands right there on stage in Berlin (thanks again so much – you rock!). I was ready to do so, because I thought about who would be the one to take over the baten in advance, but completely understood that other members of our group needed to sleep on it.

    In Sofia I realized once again that there are so many ways to contribute and to be part of the community that I can “easily” let go my part in the team here in Cologne. Here we go – our next @WPWomende Skype Meeting is tomorrow morning. High five!

    My respect and gratitude towards all the men and women I had these constructive dicussions and best fun with in Sofia. It were very special days for me.

    For those who misheard the shout out and Matts answer on site and for those who couldn’t attend the Q&A at all: I am sure that there will be a video on WordPress.tv (big thank for all the volunteers!). Meanwhile you will find an audio file, if you like to listen right now: https://soundcloud.com/onthisearth/matt-mullenweg-women-in-tech. By the way here is another fundamental take away – this one ist from @ypetrova who had a fantastic talk about happiness and depression: “Learn to listen”.

    All the best,
    Annette (@onthisearth)

  2. Torsten Avatar

    Hi Annette! We spoke at WordCamp Europe about that topic, too. It is very sad to hear, that you quit organizing WordCamp Cologne. But you are absolutely right: There are many ways to contribute to WordPress and meet the community!

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