On Sexism/Racism/Any-other-ism and the PHP Community
I love the PHP community. We have a very diverse group of people in our community. Men, women, straight, gay, white, black, yellow, red, vegetarians, vegans, democrats, republicans, labour, tory, zend framework users, symfony users, people who hate frameworks, people who would prefer to write most of their code in C and compile it to a PHP extension. And all these people come together at conferences to eat, drink, listen, learn, make jokes and talk business.
The PHP community also has very little problems with sexism, racism or other isms, especially compared to other developer communities. We've had a few controversies, but (in my humble opinion) they were of little importance, or at least the "issues" they were about were relatively small. To my knowledge, we've had little to no (sexual) harrassment issues, racism or similar problems at PHP conferences and usergroups. I think as a community, this is something to be proud of. We welcome people of any gender, sexual preference, religion or lifestyle without judging them and without excluding them. Well, nearly.
The PHPUK13 controversy
Last night, Twitter exploded because of a t-shirt the Web&PHP magazine was handing out at the PHPUK conference. The t-shirt had the text "Enhance your php-ness" on it, a smart and (in my opinion) innocent play of words on "penis" of course. This caused quite some controversy, as some people decided this was sexist. Now, obviously, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and I strongly feel the PHP community should respond to true sexism, but if an innocent joke like this is reason to raise hell on the publisher that gave away these shirts, I personally feel we're overreacting, and I wonder if this does not hurt the community more than it helps it.
Now, the above statement may need some explanation. I think controversies as this one hurts the community in that it makes people afraid to express their feelings, to make jokes, to offer their opinion. Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, and obviously people who think the t-shirt is a mistake have the same freedom of expressing their opinion on the shirt, but the way in which it is done should also be considered. Last night on Twitter, I got the feeling a part of the PHP community was on witch hunt for a simple joke. People were bringing out their burning torches and stakes, and going after Web&PHP in a way I would expect if they had brought in exotic dancers to the conference social, or had told people that the tech-world is only for men. They did no such thing. They made an innocent joke.
People think differently. That's the world, and that's a good thing. I love Cal Evans, he is a dear friend to me, but on a political level, we are probably on opposite sides. In the usergroup I'm involved in, I work closely together on the sponsoring with someone from the complete opposite side of the Dutch political spectrum. Obviously, I work with the lot of you, most of whom eat meat, something I've not done for over 15 years now. Many of you are very different from each other, but we have something in common, and that's the love for PHP. It is OK to disagree with other people, but treat them with respect. And that, obviously, goes both ways. So when I see Cal Evans respond to Web&PHP with a tweet that says:
I don't feel this is a very respectful reply. On the other hand, Web&PHP responds to that tweet with just same level of respect by telling Cal to "get a grip":
@CalEvans get a grip it's a play on words. If this is all you have to worry about..it's not offensive to women or men, what is your problem?
My main point here is: Think! It is OK to disagree, that's what freedom of speech is all about. But the way you bring across the message makes a huge difference. I love how Amy Stephen picked up on the same controversy, by having a serious and polite discussion on Twitter, and by contacting Web&PHP in a very nice way:
@webandphp Would you kindly contact me? I want to talk about the penis phrase. I promise to be polite.
See? A polite response, asking Web&PHP to contact her (taking the discussion out of the public and thereby lessening the public controversy) to offer her view on things. An honestly great response to something she feels could've been handled differently.
Let's agree to disagree
Discussion and debate is good. It allows us to understand eachothers viewpoints and perhaps handle things differently in the future. This is an important part of our freedom of speech. Let's, however, not respond to situations where you disagree by taking up the stakes and torches immediately, banishing someone with a different opinion just because they expressed it in their way. Because if your goal is to make a certain group of people feel welcome in the community, you shouldn't do that by expelling another group of people. Take the approach Amy Stephen took, and e-mail someone who offends you to tell them how you take offense in their expression, suggesting other ways to say the same thing without offending you. And then accept it if their way of expressing things is different from yours.
How would you feel if we have dinner together, and the minute you order a steak, I start attacking you for eating meat? You may think it seems odd, but it is exactly the same situation as yesterday. You choose to eat meat, I choose not to. That shouldn't make me hate you for eating meat. You just have a different lifestyle than I do, and as long as you don't force me to eat meat, I won't tell you that you shouldn't. Well, sometimes I do, but I that in a joking way. I'm never serious. I don't want other people to adapt to my lifestyle just because I tell them to. So let's agree to disagree, and enjoy dinner together. In this same way, let's agree to disagree on whether the phrase "Enhance your PHP-ness" is funny or not. If you don't think it's funny, don't wear the shirt. If you think it is, wear the shirt. It's that simple.
Having said all that, I think the timing of this Twitter-riot is odd. Last year at ZendCon, Anna (the same Anna that was now at the Web&PHP booth at PHPUK) and other Web&PHP crew had a booth, and they were handing out this shirt:
I have not seen a single comment back then on Twitter about this shirt, I don't understand where the controversy is coming from now. Let's all just get along, OK?
small update: based on the comments I got on twitter and here, I feel the need to clarify one thing: as much as I don't mind the joke, I understand other people do. This blogpost is not defending either the joke or the initial response by Web&PHP. The way I worded things seem to have caused some confusion. My main point in this blogpost was the way things are handled and the way we communicate with eachother, as well as the fact that mutual understanding comes a long way to opening up the debate and hopefully solving the related (and in my opinion much bigger) issues at hand. I hope this clarifies some stuff).
February 23, 2013 - tags: php, community, sexism
: I think most of the reason this caused such a big deal was current events. There's been so much focus lately on females in technology roles and how they're treated/represented at conferences and events, that this touched the same nerve. I imagine it wasn't just the phrase that was the problem - it was also the photo of the two women and how it came across. A agree, the phrase, taken at face value is not terrible but couple it with the context and it takes on a different, a bit more lewd context.
This kind of representation of women (as a sort of "booth babes") is even to the point of being banned in conferences in other communities. Everyone knows that "sex sells" and appealing to socially awkward developers is no different. Couple a vague sexual reference with how it was presented and you have the same problem all over again. Loosely quoted from an article I read last week:
"You have to wonder about companies that use 'booth babes' to market their product. Is it so bad that they have to use sex to get people interested?"
I'm not saying Web & PHP is bad...I have a great amount of respect for what they're doing over there and sincerely hope they keep going, but I think they inadvertently feel into the easy trap that, yes, has worked for many others in the past, but imho should not continue.
: I personally do not need jokes about sex at a conference. More over I am not sure that we as a PHP community are far along enough (given our ratios) that we can afford to misstep on this topic. So I think its just a bad choice taking the risk of offending people on this topic. Now I also do not think that this is so horrific that I will now boycott web&php, let alone S&S. but i think its a bad choice. I should note that I find the joke distasteful at a conference to both women and men.
Florin: To be honest something is wrong with all the people who've seen that phrase associated with penis.
My mind is very dirty when it comes things like this but until I've read this line: "The t-shirt had the text "Enhance your php-ness" on it, a smart and (in my opinion) innocent play of words on "penis" of course." I would have never realized that connection. It's sad to see how much free time some people have in order to make these kind of associations.
I think that since every time a thing like this appears it's actually amplified by the fact that everyone is obsessed with this subject instead of focusing what really matters: making a better world for everyone!
PHPseudonym: I agree that this T-Shirt is certainly nothing to freak out in terms of Sexism. In fact, I didnt even notice the pun on "penis" until someone pointed it out. I think the industry is currently a bit oversensitive, especially in the US, when it comes to these things (mainly due to the blog posts of Sarah Parmenter et al). I absolutely agree people should not have to weigh all their words because they might eventually offend someone. Some people are just too touchy.
However, as a professional, I think the T-Shirt is indeed inappropriate. It does offend me as a practitioner of PHP. I want to be recognized for my expertise and not for my PHPness.
As a joke at a conference social, it's all fine. But not as official
swag. This is really something I'd expect to end up on failblog because whoever thought it up didn't pay enough attention to the potential double meaning (kinda like the infamous penisland.com or expertsexchange.com). The fact that this was on purpose makes it only worse.
: Chris: those ladies in the picture are not booth babes, or at least one of them isn't, she's Anna, who is involved in web&php.
: @skoop It was more of how they were presenting themselves than who they are, that's all that was intended by that.
Manav: Great post, I totally agree with you, and so with the Chris, below in comments. He is right, it wasn't just the phrase, but the way it got presented. Maybe it was innocent, but not unintentional IMO. Either ways, bad marketing strategy.
One minor typo: "It is OK to agree with other people, but treat them with respect." I guess you meant, "disagree"?
: I will say straight off that I don't think the slogan is "sexist" but I do think that it is essentially cheap, lazy marketing.
The response from Web&PHP that if the t-shirt offended one commenter that they should not read the mag is what I took exception to, it makes no sense that someone should not read a technical publication because they don't like sexual innuendo, there is no connection between PHP and penis.
I would have also liked to have seen some good feedback from the company rather than essentially saying "we're women so it can't be sexist"
I opened the magazine yesterday and was highly impressed with the content, with their customer relations? Not so much.
: chris: so now we're at the point that we tell people what they should wear only so that some people might not be offended? I honestly think that is much worse. If they were "mere boothbabes" (no disrespect), I might've agreed with you, but we're talking about the people who thought of the joke, wearing their own joke on a shirt.
Manav: thanks, typo fixed
Marjolein: As a woman I'd like to think it's my choice to wear what I want to wear and how I'd like to present myself to the outside world. I'd have no problem wearing a shirt like that, and I can't see how a pic of 2 women wearing that shirt could be wrong or offensive.
People seeing girls in a PHP shirt and assuming they are booth babes, that's sexism..
: @skoop not telling them what to wear, just wanting them to understand the effect it could have (and has) on certain folks. It's pretty clear that there's people that both saw it as harmless and those that saw it as negative. I wonder if, since the negative side seems more vocal, it's done any damage to the brand. That's what having promotional materials is all about, after all - the representation of the brand and trying to interest people.
Though, like they say, even bad publicity is publicity right?
: Hi Skoop,
i'm curious about how do you know about the part "innocent play of words on penis"? I mean how can you assume it's an innocent play?
In the marketing world, nothing is said or portrayed without any intent (innocent) behind. Marketing always uses gimmicks, and at the most intelligent level it conveys that in such a way that it will seem a very gentle/innocent way.
Been following the discussion around and I'm on same angle as Chris Cornutt on the following points/thoughts:
1- "You have to wonder about companies that use 'booth babes' to market their product. Is it so bad that they have to use sex to get people interested?"
2- "It was more of how they were presenting themselves"
3- "Though, like they say, even bad publicity is publicity right?"
: Your text captcha just ate my previous reply. This is a bad captcha. Please replace it with one that doesn't lose my reply if it decides my answer was wrong.
: Khayrattee: sure, there's always a thought behind it but I seriously doubt this was meant to cause controversy. If they meant it that way then yes, it is really really bad. I sincerely doubt it though.
As for the booth babes: as I mentioned before, the girls in the picture are not booth babes, they are the people running the magazine. If they would've been booth babes, it would've been bad.
SM: I think that throwing around big words like sexism at any provocation does nothing but devalue and trivialize real problems that exist out there. That said, I did not notice this shirt before, until Cal blogged about it, and when I saw it it made me cringe. There might have been a period in my life when I would find this hilarious, but that was more than 20 years ago. Now, I enjoy a good joke, and that includes humour that involves sexuality, no problem with that. But it has to be done much better - or not done at all, and more risky theme you touch, better you have to be to pull it off, especially if you try to do it on a tech conference setting, not an open mic night in a local stand up club. Just a lame pun on the word "penis" makes me embarrassed for the creators of it, because they thought it's clever, and a bit for myself, because they imply this kind of joke of very low quality would appeal to me. Beavis & Butthead might be funny to watch, but I don't want to be marketed to as if I *am* one of these characters.
Tom: I have to say that I took the tshirt's copy at face-value and didn't notice the pun until I saw the twitter-storm. OK, so they're making a little joke about their own marketing and common spam email? Is that it? Not something I'd wear, for sure. I just wanted to throw my two cents in because I think nobody on either side comes out well in this particular case.
Making a penis joke clearly isn't sexist in itself. It's the secondary effects that could be considered sexist. Reinforcing the idea that the community might be all males? I get that.
Clearly from all the comments from both men and women this isn't a black and white issue. There are coherent arguments both for an against. Least of all that the joke was invented and propogated by women. So why are people treating it as a black and white issue? (has the PHP community had similar problems in the past that I'm not aware of?) An issue that has as many facets as this should be discussed in a more reasoned way. Not with outraged blog posts throwing accusations at community members of being 'booth babes' (certainly not something I'd lightly accuse a woman I didn't know of being because of it's derogatory connotations)
Not including female speakers is a black&white issue that deserves outrage, this situation is not so binary.
The knee-jerk reactions I've seen just remind me of the vernacular of the right wing press such as the daily mail. and no-one wants *that* in their community.
What I do find disgusting is the chilling effect for a couple of active community members who create a useful resource who find themselves the subject of a witch-hunt and accused by white males of betraying both their own sex and their community. Let's me more considered and intelligent about the issue, people. Let's not replace sexism an inequality with something equally unsavoury.
: Until everyone is equal you cannot have equality. People have different life experiences so people have different points of view over things.
I would not even consider arguing with a person of colour about something they may have an issue with. I have never been a person of colour. I don't have the life experiences to comment. It doesn't matter if my partner doesn't find it objectionable, my aunt doesn't find it objectionable, my cat doesn't find it objectionable, if that POC finds it objectionable there's an issue. If I am the transgressor then the best thing I can do is to just apologise, fix the problem, and try to ensure it never happens again.
Its the same with misogyny. Women have different life experiences to me. A look at the #EverydaySexism hash-tag on twitter will show just how much shit some have to put up with. So if a female finds something sexist then it is sexist even if you don't. Until everyone is genuinely treated equal the minority has to be considered always right. And if you strongly believe they are wrong keep it to yourself. The one thing you can't do is tell them they're wrong.
I agree there should be politeness when ever dealing with a problem. Its far nicer if everyone just gets along and issues are fixed quietly and without fuss. But again what may be a single issue to you may be one of many issues someone has had that day. It could be the straw that broke the camel's back. That final incident that makes them angry. It might be that in a place they considered a safe space they didn't expect something so are disappointed and upset. Live with some impoliteness and let it pass.
Steve: Before you claimed not to defend the shirt you did defend it. In defense of it you called it an "innocent pun." On top of that, you basically told people who had an issue with it to sit down and stfu for the sake of the community while at the same time making a case for freedom of speech.
If the goal is to have an inclusive community not everyone get to say anything they want because of a misapplication of the notion of "freedom of speech," a concept meant to apply to governments controlling dissent not individuals among themselves. You must also get past the notion of all speech being equal. That is just plain absurd if you spend a couple seconds to think about it.
To those who do not find it offensive and who have young daughters, would you let them wear this shirt ?
: Thanks for sharing the informative and interesting news.
: Thanks for sharing this informative and worldwide information.
: Just stumbled across your blog and was instantly amazed with all the useful information that is on it. Great post, just what i was looking for and i am looking forward to reading your other posts soon!
web designing company in jaipur
: Interesting topic for a blog. I have been searching the Internet for fun and came upon your website. Fabulous post. hypertext preprocessor