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.