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Affirmative Wager

There’s a very risky — but important — conversation that takes place in our community from time to time. It’s about gender and sexism. To be honest, I’m scared to write about this for fear that something I say might be twisted into a derogatory opinion that is not representative of the way I actually think and feel.

I put this on Twitter, a while back:

That said, I do have something to say, and I haven’t heard anyone else make this point, so I suppose I should step up and say it.

When Chris and I select potential writers for Web Advent, we make a conscious decision to approach women who we think would do a good job. I also admit to doing this in the past when my role was to select conference speakers.

To be clear, I’m not a fan of affirmative action — far from it. Sure, I’m a caucasian male, and I’m not so naïve as to think that there’s not a certain amount of unrequested privilege that comes with being born into this body, but I also strongly believe in the benefits of meritocracy — especially in online communities. (Note from future Sean: I'm less and less convinced about the meritocracy…)

Naïvety aside, I’ve worked to get where I am today, and I will keep working to advance further. When the opportunity presented itself (due to previous hard work), I moved to Montreal with barely two weeks’ salary in the bank, and decided to work at advancing to the top tier in our field. When I first met Kevin Yank, and saw what he’d accomplished with his first book, I was motivated to get involved in the more-public side of our community: writing, getting involved with PHP documentation, and speaking at conferences. I grew up in a relatively small city, in a timezone that most of you probably don’t even know exists (one hour ahead of America/New_York), where there was little opportunity to survive, let alone advance. I’m even horribly under-educated.

I mention these things not to glorify my own accomplishments, but to illustrate my strong belief that people should be recognized for their contributions and their abilities, not for their race, gender, financial background, or most other reasons.

So, I think that people should earn their place, and yet I make a determined effort to seek out female contributors. Sounds like a paradox. I’m not much of a fan of those.

I have a theory about this. I hope I’m right, but I’m open to the idea that I might not be. My theory goes like this:

The women who have advanced in our community, and have overcome the hardships that are inherent to being in such a minority, almost certainly function at a higher level than the average community member.

That is to say that — in my experience, and anecdotally — most of the women who survive in our community are exceptional members of our community. They are very good at what they do, and they are (likely uncoincidentally) some of my favourite people.

This theory tidily resolves the aforementioned paradox in my logic, and — to me at least — is evidence for why we ought to make an affirmative wager (hat tip to Pascal) in giving women a fair chance (in an often-unfair environment) when making event/opportunity selections, and why more women should be encouraged to participate in the present and future development of how the community operates.

…at least until the gender imbalance is a thing of the past.