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Binary Curious?

by gnarf on October 22nd, 2012

Over the last few months, I have seen a lot of discussion surrounding gender equality within the tech community.  Many people have approached the gender gap and seen only across it, as if there were only male and female sides to the divide.  In reality, gender is not binary, and I feel that an entire group of people neither male nor female is being ignored.

Masculinity and femininity are each a spectrum. A person may be born physically male or female, but our minds are far more complex. It’s easiest to recognize the extremes using stereotypes: the macho man, the flamboyant guy, the girly girl, and the butch woman. Most people do not fit into a stereotype — instead, they exist in the grey areas between these extremes. It is difficult to know where a person falls on that spectrum unless they tell you.

I have never felt comfortable belonging to either gender. Even in the first grade, I didn’t feel like one of “the boys.” I was different and didn’t belong to their group, but I quickly learned the art of pretending I fit into the “male” role.  Physically, I am male — and I have no desire to change this — but I don’t believe “male” describes my gender.

As I age, I feel less inclined to maintain the facade I adopted as a young “boy.”  I don’t feel like I would fit in as one of the “girls” either, but I still explore ways to express my femininity and feel comfortable with my own gender, whatever it might be called. Growing out my hair in high school was one of my first displays of femininity. I recently started wearing feminine clothing around friends, in my home, and occasionally while out in public.  It helps me express a part of myself that hides behind the facade.

I am not alone. You might be surprised how many of “the guys” or “the girls” in our community are actually the opposite, neither, or both.  When “coming out” to small groups of friends, I am still surprised by how many say “me too.”  It is easy to incorrectly assume that they are “male” or “female”.  We think “guy/girl” naturally, and this is an especially difficult topic for most people to broach.  While there is nothing wrong with guessing “male” or “female” after your initial observation, the important part is to accept that person when you find out that your initial guess was wrong.

Discrimination Exists

I recently visited a female friend of mine who is a solid PHP developer.  She told me stories about her experience with an all male team she works with.  The men on the team repeatedly ignored her ideas in meetings, yet when they came to her for help, they took credit for her work.  I told her she needed to leave her job immediately and find a company that wasn’t filled with assholes.  Perhaps they weren’t motivated by a burning hatred of women, but it is clear she was being treated like a second-class member of her team.

While I am comfortable with my gender, I am also cautious.  “Other” gendered people are below both men and women in our society’s ‘privileged’ scale.  Many subtle comments my friends in our community have made have offended or scared me.  One member of our community labeled me “gross” after seeing pictures of me in a dress.  I have been physically threatened while out in public.  I am afraid to put these words onto my blog because they might sour someone’s opinion of me or my work.

Fighting Discrimination

A woman in our field recently interrupted a story I was telling because I used the word “guys” to describe a group of us.  She felt the need to interject with “or girls.”  It made me think “Girl, trust me, I’m not one of the guys either,” but I wasn’t comfortable discussing my gender at the time.  My word choice deserved correction; even I have trouble using gender neutral words to describe people.  If you feel the need to correct these poor word choices, please correct to “developers” or even “people.”  Otherwise, you risk making someone feel even more self-conscious about their gender, and at the very least, you continue to reinforce the notion that this is all about “guys” or “girls.”

Another reaction is to organize “all-girl” events and programs.  I love the fact that these exist.  They give women a place to go to where they can share their experiences with other women.  If these events have made even one woman more interested or comfortable being in our community, they have succeeded.

Unfortunately, whenever I read about an “all-girl” event, I feel doubly excluded.  I obviously am not a “girl”, and I am not a “guy” either.  Ladies, I wish I could express my feminine aspects and join you, but I worry that I would offend the spirit of the gathering or make you uncomfortable, or at the most cynical extreme, be seen as mocking both females and cross dressers.

The obvious corollary is to organise similar events for GLBTQ programmers, which sounds like an awesome idea.   But can we really afford to divide the community, hacking only among people who are similar to ourselves? Ultimately, if we can’t make everyone feel comfortable in the developer community at large, we risk segregating the profession.

Those of us who don’t fit nicely into the gender binary are constantly faced with choices.  Which bathroom do we use?  Which gender do we pick from the drop down on our profile?  Sara Dopp wrote an open letter to the community 4 years ago about this exact topic.  Even when filling out a profile today, I have to make a choice every time I encounter the “gender” field, Male or Female, at least until Google+ offered me “Other.”  I wanted to give Google a giant hug.  “Other” might be a terrible word to describe my gender, but at least I’m not forced to choose between male and female.  If you are designing any form that requests the user supply a gender on it, please make it a free-form text field, or take a minute and decide if you even need that bit of information for anything.

I’ve heard arguments claim we should do something to “equalize” the genders in our community.  They also seem to ignore that gender is not a binary.  This is not something we can resolve with an equality operator.  I propose that we stop concerning ourselves with balancing the number of “men” and “women” in the community and instead concentrate on making everyone feel welcome, regardless of gender.  It shouldn’t matter to any of us if we have the right number of guys, girls, trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, or any other word you’d like to use to describe your own gender.  We are all developers.

Perhaps this quote from my friend can explain it even better:

 “Gender equality is a logical fallacy, because gender doesn’t actually exist. The concept of gender is like √-1 in that we use it — so, it exists, but it’s not real. It is imaginary. It only exists in our heads, and we have to express that shit with symbols.”

— Miss Andrist,
Lover of Men

I wish there was a more even representation of all genders in our community, but I think looking beyond gender is a must to help obtain this goal.  Can you look at a group of developers and not see their gender?  If you find yourself counting the number of males and females at a gathering, stop.  Take a step back.  Your count is wrong — those numbers are all imaginary.

If anything you’ve just read resonates with you, I would suggest reading Jon maddog Hall’s excellent blog post for another point of view that explains how the issue affects sexuality and race as well.  I would also like to thank him for writing that blog, without having read it, I doubt I’d have the courage to post this one.  While thanking people, I must also thank the jQuery community members who have been very accepting of me for being myself, and not “one of the guys.”

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