Archives for posts with tag: culture

For the past sixteen months, the Wikimedia Foundation has been having uncomfortable conversations about how we handle controversial imagery in our projects — including, a few weeks ago, the staging of a referendum on an image hiding feature requested by our Board. The purpose of this post is not to talk specifically about the referendum results or the image hiding feature: for that, I’ll be talking in more official venues. The purpose of this post is to step back and assess where we’re at, and to call for a change in tone and emphasis in our discussions.

Please note also that due to the nature of the topic, you may find yourself offended by this post, and/or the materials linked from it.

In March 2010, editors on the German Wikipedia ran a poll asking their colleagues whether they would support a rule restricting the types of material that could appear on the German home page. Thirteen voted in favour of restrictions, and 233 voted against. A few weeks later, the German Wikipedia featured the article about the vulva on its home page, which included a close-up photograph of an open vagina. Twenty-three minutes after the article went up, a reader in Berlin wrote “you can’t be serious?!,” and called for the image to be taken down. This initiated an on-wiki discussion that eventually reached 73,000 words – the length of a shortish novel. It included a straw poll in which 29 people voted to remove the image and 30 voted to keep it. The image was kept, and the article remained on the front page for its full 24 hours.

A few months later, in June, the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees began to discuss how the Wikimedia community was handling controversial imagery. Why? Because some people seemed to be using Commons to stockpile commercial porn; because the German community had put a close-up photo of a vagina on its homepage; and because upskirt photos and controversial editorial cartoons seemed to be being categorized in ways that seemed designed to be provocative, and the people who complained about them were being shot down.

The Wikimedia Foundation was concerned that a kind of market failure might be happening — that the Wikimedia community, which is generally so successful at achieving good decision quality through a consensus process, was for some reason failing to handle the issue of controversial material well. It set out to explore what was going on, and whether we needed to handle controversial imagery differently.

That triggered community members’ fears of censorship and editorial interference. And so we find ourselves today, sixteen months later, locked in angry debate. At a meeting in Nuremberg a few weeks ago, German Wikipedian User:Carbidfischer furiously denounced our Board Chair Ting Chen. The other day –as far as I know for the first time ever– somebody called someone else an asshole on one of our mailing lists. User:Niabot created this parody image. It’s unpleasant and unconstructive, and if you’re familiar with transactional analysis, or with the work done by the Arbinger Institute, you’ll recognize the bad patterns here.

The purpose of this post is to figure out why we aren’t handling this problem well, and how we can get back on track.

So: backing up.

Is there a problem with how the Wikimedia projects handle potentially-objectionable material? I say yes. The problems that led the Board to want to address this issue still exist: they have not been solved.

So what’s the solution? I have read pages upon pages of community discussion about the issue, and I sympathize and agree with much of what’s been said. Wikipedia is not, and should never be, censored. It should not be editorially interfered with.

But refusing censorship doesn’t mean we have no standards. Editors make editorial judgments every day, when we assess notability of topics, reliability of sources, and so forth. The German Wikipedia particularly is known to have extremely rigorous standards.

So why do we refrain from the expression of editorial judgment on this one issue?

I think there are two major reasons.

First, we have a fairly narrow range of views represented in our discussions.

We know that our core community represents just a sliver of society: mainly well-educated young men in wealthy countries, clustered in Europe and North America. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, when we skew liberal/libertarian/permissive, especially on issues related to sexuality and religion. Our demographic and attitudinal narrowness is a shame because at the heart of the projects is the belief that many eyes make all bugs shallow and yet, we’re not practicing what we preach. Instead, we’ve become an echo chamber: we hear only voices like our own, expressing points of view we already agree with. People who believe other things fall silent or abandon the conversation or are reduced to impotent rage. Or, and even likelier, they never made it to the table in the first place.

Second, we are confusing editorial judgment with censorship.

Censorship is imposed from outside. Editorial judgment is something we do every day in the projects. Applying editorial judgment to potentially-objectionable material is something that honourable journalists and educators do every day: it is not the same as censorship, nor does it constitute self-censorship.

In newsrooms, editors don’t vote on whether they personally are offended by material they know their readers will find objectionable, and they don’t make decisions based on whether the angry letters outnumber the supportive ones. They exercise empathy, and at their best they are taking a kind of ‘balance of harm’ approach — aiming to maximize benefit and minimize cost. The job is to provide useful information to as many people as possible, and they know that if people flee in disgust, they won’t benefit from anything the newsroom is offering. That doesn’t mean newsrooms publish only material that’s comfortable for their readers: it means they aim to exercise good judgment, and discomfit readers only when –on balance– discomfort is warranted.

How does that apply to us? It’s true that when people go to the article about the penis, they probably expect to see an image of a penis, just like they do when they look it up in a reference book in their public library. It’s also true that they probably wouldn’t benefit much from a gallery of cellphone camera shots of penises, and that’s why we don’t have those galleries on our articles. In lots of areas, we are currently doing a good job.

But not always.

When an editor asks if the image cleavage_(breasts).jpg really belongs in the article about clothing necklines, she shouldn’t get shouted down about prudishness: we should try to find better images that don’t overly sexualize a non-sexual topic. When an editor writes “you can’t be serious?!” after vagina,anus,perineum_(detail).jpg is posted on the front page, the response shouldn’t be WP:NOTCENSORED: we should have a discussion about who visits the homepage, and we should try to understand, and be sensitive to, their expectations and circumstances and needs. When we get thousands of angry e-mails about our decision to republish the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, we should acknowledge the offence the cartoons cause, and explain why, on balance, we think they warrant publication anyway. None of that is censorship. It’s just good judgment. It demonstrates transparency, a willingness to be accountable, and a desire to help and serve our readers — and it would earn us trust.

I believe that in our discussions to date, we’ve gotten ourselves derailed by the censorship issue. I know that some people believe that the Wikimedia Foundation is intending to coercively intervene into the projects, in effect overruling the judgment of the editorial community. I don’t see it that way, I regret that others do, and I dislike the ‘authoritarian parent / rebellious adolescent’ dynamic we seem to be having trouble resisting.

Wikipedia is not censored. It should never be censored. That doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to be thoughtful and responsible.

So: what needs to happen?

We need to have a discussion about how to responsibly handle objectionable imagery. That discussion doesn’t need to happen with the Wikimedia Foundation (or at least, not solely with the Wikimedia Foundation). The projects should be talking internally about how to avoid unnecessarily surprising and offending readers, without compromising any of our core values.

Those community members who are acting like provocateurs and agitators need to stop. Demonizing and stereotyping people we disagree with pushes everyone into extremist positions and makes a good outcome much less likely. We need to look for common ground and talk calmly and thoughtfully with each other, staying rooted in our shared purpose. Some editors have been doing that throughout our discussions: I am seriously grateful to those people, and I wish others would follow their example.

“Wikipedia is not censored” is true. And, we need to stop using it as a conversation killer. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

We need to set aside anxieties about who’s in charge, and quit fighting with each other. We need to be aware of who’s not at the table. We need to bring in new voices and new perspectives that are currently lacking, and really listen to them. Those community members who’ve been afraid to talk need to speak up, and those who’ve been driven away need to come back.

The purpose of this post is to call for that responsible engagement.

Like I said at the top of this post, my purpose in writing this is not to talk about the referendum results or the image hiding feature: for that, I’ll be talking in more official venues.

The New York Times piece on Wikipedia’s gender gap has given rise to dozens of great online conversations about why so few women edit Wikipedia. I’ve been reading ALL of it, because I believe we need to understand the origins of our gender gap before we can solve it. And the people talking –on science sites and in online communities and on historian’s blogs— are exactly the ones we should be listening to, because they’re all basically one degree of separation from us already, just by virtue of caring enough to talk about the problem.

So below is a bunch of comments, culled from discussions on many different sites — people talking about experiences on Wikipedia that make them not want to edit. Please note I’ve only included quotes from women, and I’ve aimed to limit the selections to first-person stories more than general speculation and theorizing.

1) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because the editing interface isn’t sufficiently user-friendly.

“Wikis are not very friendly – that’s for sure! I guess I also in the rare 15% because I have not only edited but created Wikipedia pages in the past! Like you, I wish the interface was nicer but I think the whole wiki-point is “stripped down” or perhaps it’s just “for geeks only”.” [1]

2) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they are too busy.

“Want to know why I’m not editing Wikipedia? I’m busy doing science.” [2]

It’s true that study after study after study has found that around the world, women have less free time than men.

But it’s worth also noting though, that a 1992 survey investigating why women didn’t participate much in an academic discussion list found that women were in fact LESS likely to describe themselves as “too busy” to contribute, than men.

“Both men and women,” study author Susan Herring wrote, “said their main reason for not participating was because they were intimidated by the tone of the discussions, though women gave this reason more often than men did. Women were also more negative about the tone of the list. Whereas men tended to say that they found the “slings and arrows” that list members posted “entertaining” (as long as they weren’t directed at them), women reported that the antagonistic exchanges made them want to unsubscribe from the list. One women said it made her want to drop out of the field altogether.” [3]

3) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they aren’t sufficiently self-confident, and editing Wikipedia requires a lot of self-confidence.

“I think my experience may explain some of it – I’ve never edited anything because I’ve never felt I had the necessary expertise in a subject. It was always “oh, I’m sure there’s someone who knows a lot more than me! Besides, who am I to go change what the person before me has written?” Which, now that I think about it, is a very socialised-female kind of behaviour. Boys don’t tend to be encouraged to doubt themselves and defer to others nearly as much.” [4]

“I thought I’d do something about [the gender gap], by updating a wikipedia page on an institution I’ve attended (one of the few things I have felt knowledgeable enough about to contribute to in the past). Sure enough, since I last looked (over a year ago) someone has updated the page to say that women are required to wear skirts and dresses. It’s not true, (although it may be wishful thinking on the part of some old-fashioned administrators). Still . . . I hesitated to correct it . . . because . . . because it’s already on the page . . . because I might be wrong . . . because someone more knowledgeable or influential might have written that . . .” [5]

Not everyone feels self-doubting, though: “It’s not that it intimidates me. It’s more than, well, if I spend three hours carefully composing a concise article on something, complete with blasted citations and attention to formatting consistency, the chances of it being poof!gone the next day are still high, and on top of all my work I don’t get anything back apart from the ineffable sensation of contributing to humanity’s knowledge base. I want friends who will excitedly inform me how pleased they were by my penultimate paragraph, dammit. I want a way to team up with someone who knows the markup and can help iron out problems before stuff gets published. I want a social backbone to keep me contributing and caring, one that doesn’t depend on the frequency of my contributions. Contests for “best article about birds in November”. Basically, give me a LJ-flavored wikipedia editors fan community.” [6]

4) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they are conflict-averse and don’t like Wikipedia’s sometimes-fighty culture.

There is lots of evidence to suggest this is true.

“My research into the gender dynamics of online discussion forums found that men tend to be more adversarial, and to tolerate contentious debate, more than women,” said Susan Herring to a reporter from Discovery News. “Women, in contrast, tend to be more polite and supportive, as well as less assertive … and (they) tend to be turned off by contentiousness, and may avoid online environments that they perceive as contentious.” [7]

This assertion is supported by women themselves — both those who don’t edit Wikipedia, and those who do:

“[E]ven the idea of going on to Wikipedia and trying to edit stuff and getting into fights with dudes makes me too weary to even think about it. I spend enough of my life dealing with pompous men who didn’t get the memo that their penises don’t automatically make them smarter or more mature than any random woman.” [8]

“Wikipedia can be a fighty place, no doubt. To stick around there can require you to be willing to do the virtual equivalent of stomping on someone’s foot when they get in your face, which a lot of women, myself included, find difficult.” [9]

From a commenter on Feministing: “I agree that Wikipedia can seem hostile and cliquish. Quite simply, I am sensitive and the internet is not generally kind to sensitive people. I am not thick-skinned enough for Wikipedia.” [10]

“From the inside,” writes Justine Cassell, professor and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, “Wikipedia may feel like a fight to get one’s voice heard. One gets a sense of this insider view from looking at the “talk page” of many articles, which rather than seeming like collaborations around the construction of knowledge, are full of descriptions of “edit-warring” — where successive editors try to cancel each others’ contributions out — and bitter, contentious arguments about the accuracy of conflicting points of view. Flickr users don’t remove each others’ photos. Youtube videos inspire passionate debate, but one’s contributions are not erased. Despite Wikipedia’s stated principle of the need to maintain a neutral point of view, the reality is that it is not enough to “know something” about friendship bracelets or “Sex and the City.” To have one’s words listened to on Wikipedia, often one must have to debate, defend, and insist that one’s point of view is the only valid one.” [11]

“I think [the gender gap] has to do with many Wikipedia editors being bullies. Women tend to take their marbles and go home instead of putting a lot of effort into something where they get slapped around. I work on biographies of obscure women writers, rather under the radar stuff… contribute to more prominent articles makes one paranoid, anyone can come along and undo your work and leave nasty messages and you get very little oversight.” [12]

“I used to contribute to Wikipedia, but finally quit because I grew tired of the “king of the mountain” attitude they have. You work your tail off on an entry for several YEARS only to have some pimply faced college kid knock it off by putting all manner of crazy stuff on there such as need for “reliable” sources when if they’d taken a moment to actually look at the reference they’d see they were perfectly reliable! I’m done with Wikipedia. It’s not only sexist but agist as well.” [13]

5) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because the information they bring to Wikipedia is too likely to be reverted or deleted.

From a commenter on Pandagon: “When I read about the shortage of women writing for Wikipedia, I immediately thought of this article and the ensuing discussion and the extent to which I do not have the time or emotional energy to fight this fight, over and over.” [14]

Another commenter on the same forum: “Even if I don’t explicitly identify as female in my Wikipedia handle (and I don’t), I still find myself facing attitudes of sexism and gender discrimination, attempts at silencing, “tone” arguments, and an enforced, hegemonic viewpoint that attempts to erase my gender when editing.” [15]

Barbara Fister writes in Inside Higher Ed magazine: “Since the New York Times covered the issue, I’ve heard more stories than I can count of women who gave up contributing because their material was edited out, almost always because it was deemed insufficiently significant. It’s hard to imagine a more insulting rejection, considering the massive amounts of detail provided on gaming, television shows, and arcane bits of military history.” [16]

From a commenter on Feministing: “There was a discussion about [women contributing to Wikipedia] on a violence against women prevention list-serve I am on. The issue was that the Wikipedia entries on the Violence Against Women Movement and Act were very misleading, incorrect in some cases, and slightly sarcastic and minimizing to the work of women rights advocates. Every time an advocate would try to make corrections and update the entries, it would be removed and edited back to it’s original misleading version. I think many advocates felt like it was pointless to try and change it-or didn’t have the same kind of time and energy around it that these majority male editors have to maintain sexist and incorrect posts.” [17]

From a Wikipedia editor at Metafilter: “I can add all kinds of things to male YA authors’ pages with minimal cites and no one says a word. Whereas, every time I try to add a female YA author, or contribute to their pages, I invariably end up with some obnoxious gatekeeper complaining that my cites from Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal aren’t NEARLY enough, and besides, this author isn’t SIGNIFICANT enough to have an entry, who cares if she published three books? They’re not NOTEWORTHY. Meanwhile, 1-Book Nobody Dude’s Wikipedia page is 14 printable pages long.” [18]

6) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because they find its overall atmosphere misogynist.

“One hostile-to-women thing about Wikipedia I have noticed is that if a movie has a rape scene in it, the wiki article will often say it was a sex scene. When people try to change it, editors change it back and note that unlike “sex”, the word “rape” is not neutral, so it should be left out according to NPOV. Example (this one actually ended up changing “sex” to “make love”, which, oh wow.), example. There are probably more but it’s pretty depressing to seek them out. (It’s not true in cases where the movie is explicitly about rape, like the rape revenge genre that’s got its own page, but please don’t tell me that should assuage my concerns.) There are a few other things I’ve found frustrating about Wikipedia, but discovering that feature was really jarring and made me feel unwelcome there.” [19]

A Wikipedia editor commenting at the blog Shiny Ideas: “Any woman identified as a woman who edits Wikipedia and dares to stumble into some territory some male or group of males has staked out will quickly find that the double standard lives and they will be criticized and their words twisted, even when men who say the same things are ignored or cut some slack. If they dare to persist in holding their ground or acting as equals in the conversation the criticism may escalate to insults and off and on wiki harassment. If a woman complains about a man’s incivility in its various complaint forums, her complaints are not as likely to be taken as seriously as when men complain about other men or about the occasional woman who rocks their world with incivility equal to their own.” [20]

7) Some women find Wikipedia culture to be sexual in ways they find off-putting.

From a comment on the Atlantic Monthly site from a female Wikipedia administrator: “Thankfully, I have never been harassed (much) based on my gender. But, for example, an editor with whom I frequently collaborate used to maintain a gallery of hot chicks in bikinis as a subpage of his userpage. It was ultimately deleted after a deletion discussion, but he was totally oblivious to the fact that things like that create an environment where women do not feel welcome.” [21]

“For what it’s worth, I am offended by the existence of pornography, for a variety of reasons none of which involve my being squeamish about sex,” said a female Wikipedian on the Gender Gap mailing list. “I am not offended by including pornographic images on articles about those types of images. Indeed, I expect Wikipedia to have images illustrating articles whenever possible; I don’t see why we should make an exception for articles about sexuality.” [22]

Another female editor: “In my personal experience, when I have come across material I found offensive I was discouraged from editing in the immediate area (or even commenting) and leaving my name in any way associated with the material. I personally would never generalize this discouragement to other areas of the wiki however. It hasn’t always been explicit material that I have found unpalatable. But I have always felt that there is level of material (of many varieties) on the wikis that I cannot not strongly object to as counter-mission that I wish to campaign for it’s deletion, but that I object to enough on a personal level that I will not do anything to help curate it. Certainly my participation in certain topical areas is discouraged by this. But I don’t know that this fact should be seen as problematic. Isn’t necessary that there be some pieces of material on the Wikimedia projects for every single individual to find objectionable and offensive?” [23]

And another: “I do not find sexually explicit images offensive. There is nothing inherently unencyclopedic about an explicit image, and often they do a better job than a line drawing might (see Coital Alignment Technique, for example. If that line drawing actually gives you an idea of what’s going on, you have better x-ray vision than me. A photo would work far better).” [24]

8) Some women whose primary language has grammatical gender find being addressed by Wikipedia as male off-putting.

From a female Portuguese Wikipedian: “I have no problem with the male “Usuário” (in portuguese). And sincerely, I don’t think the fact of see a male word will push me out Wikippedia. We are quite used to use a male word in portuguese when we don’t know the gender of someone, but yes, would be nice to see a “Usuária” in my page :D” [25]

And from a female German Wikipedian: “I’m one of those women Wikimedia would like to encourage (I’m interested, but I haven’t edited much more than a few typing errors anonymously). I don’t think male words will push people out of Wikipedia – that is, they won’t push out the women that are already in. But I do think that female words could encourage some of the women who are still hesitating and unsure. It says: “Yes, we’re talking to you!” I don’t feel unwanted if someone doesn’t use the female words. But I don’t feel wanted either. I someone does use female words, it feels like it’s more directed to me.” [26]

9) Some women don’t edit Wikipedia because social relationships and a welcoming tone are important to them, and Wikipedia offers fewer opportunities for that than other sites.

From a commenter at Metafilter: “Although I mostly avoid editing wikipedia because of the rampant jerkwad factor, and partially because I can’t be bothered to learn the markup to my meticulous satisfaction, a large part of my reason for not contributing my highly esoteric knowledge is that I’m busy contributing elsewhere. Fandom stuff keeps me really busy – we have our own ways of archiving and record keeping and spreading knowledge, and it’s all very skewed towards female. The few times I’ve touched wikipedia, I’ve been struck by how isolating it can feel. It’s a very fend for yourself kind of place for me. Anywhere else online, my first impulse is to put out feelers. I make friends, ask for links to FAQs and guides, and inevitably someone takes me under their wing and shows me the ropes of whatever niche culture I’m obsessed with that month. It’s very collaborative, and prioritizes friendships and enjoyment of pre-existing work over results. Wikipedia isn’t like that, as far as I’ve experienced. There’s no reciprocal culture; to just plunge oneself into the thick of things and start adding information can be highly intimidating, and there’s no structure set up to find like-minded people to assist one’s first attempts. Instead I just find lots and lots of links to lots of information-dense pages.” [27]

Edited on Sunday at noon to add: This post is being talked about on Twitter, which is prompting me to add a little more caveating here. First, I want to be clear that some women obviously do in fact edit Wikipedia: 13% of Wikipedia editors are female. I probably should’ve done a better job calling out that this post is quoting mostly women who’ve tried editing and have stopped, who never tried because of various barriers/impediments, and those who edit despite barriers/impediments. I’m grateful to the women who edit Wikipedia today, whatever their motivations or feelings about Wikipedia may be, and the last thing I want to do is make them feel ignored or invisible or like they don’t matter. Second, a couple of people on Twitter are commenting that a lot of the reasons cited here by women also apply to men. That’s absolutely true. I think Wikipedia needs to become more welcoming and accessible to everyone, and I think the quotations from women here point us towards problems that are experienced by lots of people.

[1] Source: A comment left on Mo’s Blog, “Hey gals, let’s all go edit Wikipedia!
[2] Source: Comment from Katherine on the Discover magazine story “On Friendship Bracelets and Ninja Turtles: Wikipedia’s Gender Gap
[3] Source: Susan C. Herring, New York Times, A Difference of Communication Styles
[4] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Quick Hit: Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Are Women
[5] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Why Are Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Women
[6] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[7] Source: Cristen Conger, Discovery News, Is There a Gender Gap Online
[8] Source: From a discussion at Pandagon titled Chronicling the Abuses
[9] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[10] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Quick Hit: Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Are Women
[11] Source: Justine Cassell, New York Times, Editing Wars Behind the Scenes
[12] Source: A commenter named Joyce at the NPR blog, commenting on the Eyder Peralta post Facing Serious Gender Gap, Wikipedia Vows To Add More Women Contributors
[13] Source: A commenter named Sabrina at the NPR blog, commenting on the Eyder Peralta post Facing Serious Gender Gap, Wikipedia Vows To Add More Women Contributors
[14] Source: From a discussion at Pandagon titled Chronicling the Abuses
[15] Source: From a discussion at Pandagon titled Chronicling the Abuses
[16] Source: Barbara Fister, Inside Higher Ed, Women and Wikipedia
[17] Source: Commenter, Feministing, Quick Hit: Only 13% of Wikipedia Contributors Are Women
[18] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[19] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?
[20] Source: from a discussion at Shiny Ideas blog, Women and Wikipedia
[21] Source: Comment from a female Wikipedia administrator, The Atlantic Monthly, What Makes Wikipedia Special? Ctd.
[22] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 14, 2011
[23] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 14, 2011
[24] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 16, 2011
[25] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 5, 2011
[26] Source: From a poster at the Wikimedia Foundation’s gender gap mailing list, February 5, 2011
[27] Source: From a discussion at Metafilter titled Wikipedia, Snips & Snails, Sugar & Spice?

I’ve spent most of my career in public broadcasting, which is a very female-friendly environment. So the lack of women in Wikimedia / free culture / free software / Silicon Valley and the STEM world, has been a real culture shock for me. For anyone who doesn’t already know this: only 13% of Wikimedia project editors are female; less than 2% of free software contributors are female, and women are losing ground, not gaining it, in Silicon Valley tech companies.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why our space is so gender-imbalanced, and how we can make it better.

Mostly I’ve kept my thoughts to myself thus far, because gender is an emotional topic for lots of people, and I’m not all that interested in arguing about it. But I’ll probably post here occasionally about gender issues. The purpose of this post is to talk about one fantastic book on women in computing, and what we might learn from it.

When I started reading and thinking about women in technology, I kept coming across references to Unlocking the Clubhouse, by academics Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. Here’s how it’s described by the American Library Association.

Margolis and Fisher document the astonishing gender gap in the field of computing by answering the question of why female interest in technology begins to wane in middle school and all but dies in high school. The authors argue that male dominance in information technology can be traced directly back to cultural, social, and educational patterns established in early childhood. Women, therefore, are vastly underrepresented in one of the most economically significant professions of the twenty-first century. After countless hours of classroom observation and interviews with hundreds of computer science students and teachers, the authors offer an array of formal educational reforms and informal practical solutions designed to rekindle and to nurture female interest in computer design and technology.”

Unlocking the Clubhouse is canonical, maybe because it’s unusually solutions-focused. It studies Carnegie-Mellon, which over a five-year period managed to achieve a 35% increase in female admissions to its computer science school (double the rate of increase for comparable research universities), and brought down the rate of female attrition from double that of men, to nearly the same. If you’re interested in gender in computer science, I highly recommend it. (If you’re on the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation, it’s in our library.)

Below, I’ve extracted bits that I think are particularly helpful for us. Try reading it as though “computer science” meant “Wikimedia,” and “teachers” meant “experienced editors.” I wrote the bolded text; the remainder is direct quotes from the book. Emphasis in the original.

  1. Deliberately focus efforts on recruiting women. Don’t assume that general outreach efforts will motivate women. Encourage women to recruit other women. Boys have staked their claim at the computer very early both at home and in schools. Girls who are interested but intimidated, or girls who don’t know what computer science is but could be very interested, need an extra word of encouragement from teachers, parents, or counselors. Rule number one, then, is that teachers have to deliberately focus efforts on recruiting girls. If teachers issue a generic recruitment call, boys turn out. Girls must know the teacher is talking to them. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of encouragement to fire a girl’s interest. … Some of the best recruiters of girls are other girls. … two mottoes emerged: “Recruit friendship circles” and “Recruit a posse.”
  2. Stage and support women-only activities. These events attract girls who would normally stay away from the classes where they fear being left in the dust or shouted down by more experienced or just plain louder boys. They provide learning environments where girls take risks, take leadership, ask questions, stop worrying about what they do not know, and build confidence.”
  3. Don’t get dissuaded by opposition. When teachers begin to make a special effort to recruit girls, they often encounter some opposition. Other teachers, boys, and sometimes girls may object that special efforts to recruit girls are not fair. … This is an important teaching opportunity: an opportunity to explain how boys have already been recruited into computer science. Public image, media and marketing of computers have been specifically focused on boys. The gender stereotypes associated with computing tend to pull boys in and push girls away. To balance the influences, a concerted campaign to recruit girls is necessary.“
  4. Work to create and protect a female-friendly environment. Computer science classrooms often have the feel of a boy’s locker room. The humor and banter usually reflect the male demographics. Donovan Williams of Madison, Wisconsin, told us of a computer programming contest, organized by a recent high school graduate, that included problems titled “Don’t Forget the Beer” and “Checkin’ Out the Babes.” He wrote to the contest organizer, explaining how the contest call assumed a male audience and could alienate female students. … Much prior research shows that female students in technical disciplines, perhaps because of their “outsider-ness,” are especially vulnerable to poor teaching, inhospitable teaching environments, and unhelpful faculty. Even a small proportion of such occurrences against an otherwise welcoming and supportive background can have severe negative effects.”
  5. Emphasize social impact. Women students’ descriptions of why they are majoring in computer science are a “counter-narrative” to the stereotype of computer scientists who are narrowly focused on their machines and are hacking for hacking’s sake. Instead, these women tell us about their multiple interests and their desire to link computer science to social concerns and caring for people. These women may or may not qualify as ‘people people’ on a psychological inventory exam to the same degree as those involved in nursing, social work, or child care, but they need their computing to be useful for society. … A metaanalysis of research on gender and science by Marcia Linn and Janet Hyde concluded that a major sex difference in interests in math and science is its perceived usefulness. … University of Michigan researcher Jacquelynne Eccles reports that the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions, a longitudinal study of approximately 1,000 adolescents from southern Michigan, found that “women select the occupation that best fits their hierarchy of occupationally-relevant values,” and that helping others and doing something worthwhile for society is high in that hierarchy.”

Further reading: Vel Henson’s classic essay HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees met in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and had a long and serious discussion about controversial content in the Wikimedia projects. (Why? Because we’re the only major site that doesn’t treat controversial material –e.g., sexually-explicit imagery, violent imagery, culturally offensive imagery– differently from everything else. The Board wanted –in effect– to probe into whether that was helping or hurting our effectiveness at fulfilling our mission.)

Out of that agenda item, we found ourselves talking about what it looks like when change is handled well at Wikimedia, what good leadership looks like in our context, and what patterns we can see in work that’s been done to date.

I found that fascinating, so I’ve done some further thinking since the meeting. The purpose of this post is to document some good patterns of leadership and change-making that I’ve observed at Wikimedia.

Couple of quick caveats: For this post, I’ve picked three little case studies of successful change at Wikimedia. I’m defining successful change here as ‘change that stuck’ – not as ‘change that led to a desirable outcome.’ (I think all these three outcomes were good, but that’s moot for the purposes of this. What I’m aiming to do here is extract patterns of effective process.) Please note also that I picked these examples quickly without a criteria set – my goal was just to pick a few examples I’m familiar with, and could therefore easily analyze. It’s the patterns that matter, not so much the examples.

That said: here are three case studies of successful change at Wikimedia.

  • The Board’s statement on biographies of living people. Policies regarding biographies had been a topic of concern among experienced Wikipedians for years, mainly because there is real potential for people to be damaged when the Wikipedia article about them is biased, vandalized or inaccurate, and because our experience shows us that articles about non-famous people are particularly vulnerable to skew or error, because they aren’t read and edited by enough people. And, that potential for damage –particularly to the non-famous– grows along with Wikipedia’s popularity. In April 2009, the Board of Trustees held a discussion about BLPs, and then issued a statement which essentially reflected best practices that had been developed by the Wikipedia community, and recommended their consistent adoption.  The Board statement was taken seriously: it’s been translated into 18 languages, discussed internally throughout the editing community, and has been cited and used as policies and practices evolve.

  • The strategy project of 2009-10. Almost 10 years after Wikipedia was founded, the Board and I felt like it was time to stop down and assess: what are we doing well, and where do we want to focus our efforts going forward. So in spring 2009, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees asked me to launch a collaborative, transparent, participatory strategy development project, designed to create a five-year plan for the Wikimedia movement. Over the next year, more than 1,000 people participated in the project, in more than 50 languages. The resultant plan is housed on the strategy wiki here, and a summary version will be published this winter. You can never really tell the quality of strategy until it’s implemented (and sometimes not even then), but the project itself has accomplished what it set out to do.

  • The license migration of May 2009. When I joined Wikimedia this process was already underway, so I only observed first-hand the last half of it. But it was lovely to watch. Essentially: some very smart and experienced people in leadership positions at Wikimedia decided it made sense to switch from the GFDL to CC-BY-SA. But, they didn’t themselves have the moral or legal right to make the switch – it needed to be made by the writers of the Wikimedia projects, who had originally released their work under the GFDL. So, the people who wanted the switch launched a long campaign to 1) negotiate a license migration process that Richard Stallman (creator of the GFDL and a hero of the free software movement) would be able to support, and 2) explain to the Wikimedia community why they thought the license migration made sense. Then, the Wikimedia board endorsed the migration, and held a referendum. It passed with very little opposition, and the switch was made.

Here are nine patterns I think we can extract from those examples:

  1. The person/people leading the change didn’t wait for it to happen naturally – they stepped up and took responsibility for making it happen. The strategy project grew out of a conversation between then-board Chair Michael Snow and me, because we felt that Wikimedia needed a coherent plan. The BLP statement was started by me and the Board, because we were worried that as Wikipedia grew more popular, consistent policy in this area was essential. The license migration was started by Jimmy Wales, Erik Moeller and others because they wanted it to be much easier for people to reuse Wikimedia content. In all these instances, someone identified a change they thought should be made, and designed and executed a process aimed at creating that change.
  2. A single person didn’t make the change themselves. A group of people worked together to make it happen. More than a thousand people worked on the strategy project. Probably hundreds have contributed (over several years) to tightening up BLP policies and practices. I’m guessing dozens of people contributed to the license migration. The lesson here is that in our context, lasting change can’t be produced by a single person.
  3. Early in the process, somebody put serious energy towards achieving a global/meta understanding of the issue, from many different perspectives. It might be worth pointing out that this is not something we normally do: in order to do amazing work, Random Editor X doesn’t have any need to understand the global whole; he or she can work quietly, excellently, pretty much alone. But in order to make change that involves multiple constituencies, the person doing it needs to understand the perspectives of everyone implicated by that change.
  4. The process was carefully designed to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. The license migration was an exemplar here: The people designing the process quite rightly understood that there was no point in asking editors’ opinions about something many of them probably didn’t understand. On the other hand, the change couldn’t be made without the approval of editors. So, an education campaign was designed that gave editors access to information about the proposed migration from multiple sources and perspectives, prior to the vote.
  5. A person or a group of people dedicated lots of hours towards figuring out what should happen, and making it happen. In each case here, lots of people did lots of real work: researching, synthesizing, analyzing, facilitating, imagining, anticipating, planning, communicating.
  6. The work was done mostly in public and was made as visible as possible, in an attempt to bolster trust and understanding among non-participants. This is fundamental. We knew for example that the strategy project couldn’t succeed if it happened behind closed doors. Again and again throughout the process, Eugene Eric Kim resisted people’s attempts to move the work to private spaces, because he knew it was critical for acceptance that the work be observable.
  7. Some discussion happened in private, inside a small group of people who trust each other and can work easily together. That’s uncomfortable to say, because transparency and openness are core values for us and anything that contradicts them feels wrong. But it’s true: people need safe spaces to kick around notions and test their own assumptions. I know for example that at the beginning of the Board’s BLP conversations, I had all kinds of ideas about ‘the problem of BLPs’ that turned out to be flat-out wrong. I needed to feel free to air my bad ideas, and get them poked at and refuted by people I could trust, before I could start to make any progress thinking about the issue. Similarly, the Board exchanged more than 300 e-mails about controversial content inside its private mailing list, before it felt comfortable enough to frame the issue up in a resolution that would be published. That private kicking around needs to happen so that people can test and accelerate and evolve their own thinking.
  8. People put their own credibility on the line, endorsing the change and trying to persuade others to believe in it. In a decentralized movement, there’s a strong gravitational pull towards the status quo, and whenever anyone tries to make change, they’re in effect saying to hundreds or thousands of people “Hey! Look over here! Something needs to happen, and I know what it is.” That’s a risky thing to do, because they might be perceived in a bunch of negative ways – as naiive or overreacting, as wrong or stupid or presumptuous, or even as insincere – pretending to want to help, but really motivated by inappropriate personal self-interest. Putting yourself on the line for something you believe in, in the face of suspicion or apathy, is brave. And it’s critical.
  9. Most people involved –either as participants or observers– wanted more than anything else to advance the Wikimedia mission, and they trusted that the others involved wanted the same thing. This is critical too. I have sometimes despaired at the strength of our default to the status quo: it is very, very hard to get things done in our context. But I am always reassured by the intelligence of Wikimedia community members, and by their dedication to our shared mission. I believe that if everyone’s aligned in wanting to achieve the mission, that’s our essential foundation for making good decisions.

Like I said earlier — these are just examples I’ve seen or been involved in personally. I’d be very interested to hear other examples of successful change at Wikimedia, plus observations & thinking about patterns we can extract from them.

Below are some raw notes I took this weekend at the Quaker workshop I posted about yesterday. This is super-rough; if anything doesn’t make sense just say so in the comments, and I will try to reconstruct what it meant :-)

How meeting attendees are expected to behave:

  • The tone of the meeting is supposed to be unhurried, calm and thoughtful;
  • People are expected to come with an open mind;
  • People are expected to pay attention and listen carefully;
  • People are expected to try to avoid clever debate or heated argument: to try to speak with love rather than judgment;
  • Quakers wait to be called upon by the meeting clerk;
  • Expressing agreement with other people is fine. Quakers will nod and say “this Friend speaks my mind.”
  • People are expected to be open to learning and changing their minds;
  • They’re expected to be honest, and call out other people who are behaving badly;
  • Quakers used to vote but don’t any more: a decision isn’t taken until the weight of the meeting is behind it;
  • People are expected to be open to exploring disagreement. Avoiding conflict means avoiding the opportunity to learn;
  • People should speak appropriately – if they are talking too much, they should restrain themselves. They shouldn’t interrupt other people. Once they express a view, they should refrain from repeating themselves, or bringing up the issue again once the meeting has moved on;
  • If Quakers are feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they should say that in the meeting, in order to get the impediment –whatever it is– resolved;
  • In Quaker meetings, some work is done offline and presented to the meeting by committees. In the meeting, Quakers are expected to trust the diligence and the care of the committees, rather than aiming to second-guess or redo the committee’s work;
  • When people at meetings behave badly (compulsively wordsmithing other people’s work, compulsively standing in the way of consensus, and so forth), the others at the meeting help everyone by encouraging that person to let go;
  • Quakers are expected to not gossip about each other. Useful conversation is accurate and caring, promotes greater understanding, and does not break confidences. It has the result of increasing trust rather than diminishing it.
  • Quakers are expected to express appreciation to the presiding clerk for their work. They’re also expected to try to help the presiding clerk do better.

How meeting clerks [1] are expected to behave:

  • Clerks are responsible for establishing the appropriate tone for the meeting – setting the stage at the beginning, and controlling the tone throughout;
  • The clerk’s expected to know more about every topic than practically everyone else. Most of that is research and thinking and other prep that happens outside of the meeting;
  • The clerk’s expected to help the group trust the work of the committees. This may involved working with committee chairs offline prior to the meeting, to ensure the material’s in good shape and ready to present. The clerk is also expected to help the committees draft appropriate rough minutes in advance of the meeting, so the meeting has a starting point for its deliberations. The clerk should aim to establish a tone in which the committee’s work can be appropriately received;
  • Remind people how to behave in the meeting. Remind people of the higher purpose;
  • Pace the meeting – providing for silence where necessary;
  • Be conscious of their own effect on other attendees (e.g., hugging one person and not others can foster suspicion of cabals);
  • Park their own strong opinions;
  • Be humble and patient and loving, but not wimpy;
  • Park their own desire to be popular;
  • Have a sense of humour, and leaven the seriousness sometimes;
  • Surface and aim to resolve conflict, rather than letting it fester under the meeting’s surface;
  • Build bridges among different constituencies in the meeting;
  • Pay attention to the tone of the meeting, especially to people’s complaints or problems that are keeping them from letting the meeting move forward. A lot of this is emotional work – understanding when people are feeling unheard, and helping them fix that.
  • Right after the meeting, check in with the recording clerk to see if they accurately captured the sense of the meeting;
  • Right after the meeting, connect with any participants who found the meeting particularly difficult, to help them resolve whatever the conflict is;
  • Look around the group and see which other people may be able to lead [2], and encourage and help develop them.

[1] Quakers call the people who facilitate their meetings ‘clerks.’ The job of the clerk is to listen, understand and document meeting decisions. When clerks think they’re understanding the ‘sense of the meeting,’ they will draft a minute and read it back to the meeting for acceptance or refinement. At the Wikimedia Foundation, all our leadership roles contain elements of clerking.

[2] Quakers say “we don’t find Quaker leaders; we grow them.”

How recording clerks [3] are expected to behave:

  • Does not facilitate;
  • Listens really carefully during the meeting and creates the minutes that discern the truth of the meeting (“what does the meeting think”). The minutes are intended to capture all decisions, including who will do things, and by when;
  • The recording clerk will draft the minutes during the meeting itself. Often the meeting pauses to have a draft minute read back to the group – this will surface dissent and misunderstandings, and allow for them to be resolved and reflected in a revised minute;
  • Good minutes are thought to be brief but complete. They typically aim to show how a decision was arrived at, but try not to revive dissent. Points raised in discussion typically aren’t attributed to individuals, because ultimately consensus is achieved and disagreement resolved, so there’s no benefit to retaining a record of who said what. Good minutes aim to reflect the fact that everyone in the meeting is seeking unity;
  • Minutes need to include sufficient rationale so that people don’t need to have the discussion all over again;
  • Responsibility for the accuracy of the meeting resides with the clerk – both the recording clerk and the clerk signs the minutes
  • Minutes should be published as soon as possible after the meeting, so that people’s memories are fresh, and they are reminded of what they’ve committed to do.

[3] Recording clerks are the people who actually capture the minutes of the meeting for the clerk. Once the minutes are captured, both the recording clerk and the clerk sign them. Essentially: the recording clerk keeps the records, which frees the clerk up to do active facilitation.

How committees are expected to behave:

  • The job of the committee is to actually do the work well, offline, out of the meeting. The meeting doesn’t have sufficient time to go through issues with an appropriate level of detail and rigour: that is what the committees are for;
  • Committees should bring to the meeting clear draft minutes (resolutions). Clerks should look at the minutes in advance and tweak them if he or she thinks it will help;
  • Committee membership should not be determined by who is free, or most interested – people should not ‘volunteer’ to be on committees. Instead, committee membership should be determined carefully, by weighing what skills and abilities are needed, and who has them;
  • Committee meetings should be open: unless confidentiality is required, anyone should be able to attend them;
  • Committee work has the incidental benefit of creating time and space for committee members to develop personal relationships with each other, that strengthen the entire community;
  • Committees are expected to do the hard work and resolve difficult issues. They are not expected to throw up their hands and bring back unresolved issues to the meeting;
  • The meeting is asked to trust the committee, and the clerk is asked to help the meeting trust the committee. The committee needs to live up to its part of that bargain, by meeting its deadlines and doing the work it’s committed that it will do.

Here are some examples of Quaker meeting minutes. I have no reason to think these minutes are particularly exemplary – they’re just examples I could find quickly, on the internet. Here are minutes from a 2005 Davis (California) meeting, minutes from a 2010 Eastbourne (UK) meeting, and minutes from a 2010 national UK meeting. (All PDF.)

I spent this past weekend with Wikimedia trustee Phoebe Ayers at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, attending a workshop called Business Among Friends: Clerking as a Spiritual Discipline.

Neither Phoebe nor I are Quakers, but we’re curious about them. I first read about the similarities between Quaker and Wikimedian decision-making practices in Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new analysis of the Wikipedia community Good Faith Collaboration – and since then, I’ve read a dozen or so Quaker books and pamphlets. I’ve been especially interested in the practice of “clerking.”

The job of the Quaker clerk is to facilitate Quaker meetings – to create the agenda, set the tone, traffic-cop the discussion, listen, help resolve conflict, and understand and document agreement. It’s a role that reminds me a lot of leadership (both formal & informal) at the Wikimedia Foundation, and so I’ve been curious to learn more about it. The purpose of this post is to share some impressions and identify a few Quaker practices that I think Wikimedia could usefully adopt.

Disclaimer! Experienced Quakers will probably find that my grasp of some practices is shaky, and I may have mischaracterized things. People who attended the workshop may remember things differently from me. And, I am going to use words like “consensus” in the non-Quaker sense, so that they’ll make sense for readers who aren’t familiar with Quakerism. My apologies for errors and misunderstandings.

Based on what I’d read, I expected the Quakers to be mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white, and really, really friendly. They were exactly that.

But I was surprised to discover also some unexpected commonalities with Wikimedians. Both speak in acronyms (WP:NPOV, meet M&O, FCL and FAP). Both are really proud of their work, and yet tend towards self-criticism rather than self-promotion. Both talk a lot, and are precise and articulate in the way they use language (the Quakers I met spoke in complex sentences, studded with caveats and parentheticals). Both resist speaking on behalf of their group. And both have a strong individualistic streak, and describe themselves as skeptical about leadership and authority.

(To that last point: On Saturday night, Quaker adults and teenagers played a game called Big Wind Blows, which is kind of like musical chairs. Everyone’s in a circle and the person in the centre, who doesn’t have a seat, calls out “Big wind blows for everybody who [has X characteristic].” Everybody without the characteristic stays in their chair; everybody with it runs around looking for a new seat. On Saturday night, the first person in the centre said something like “Big wind blows for everyone with brown hair.” Second was “everyone who’s wearing blue jeans.” Third was “everyone who’s gone to jail for a matter of conscience.” Four Quakers in the group had chosen jail rather than, say, serving in the military or paying taxes. And doing that was considered ‘normal’ enough to be fodder for a game.)

Tomorrow, once I’ve cleaned them up, I’ll post some detailed notes I took. For now though, I’ll elaborate on a few Quaker practices that I think we Wikimedians could learn from. Most of this will be applicable for face-to-face meetings (i.e., our board meetings, Wikimania, meet-ups), but there may be relevance here for on-wiki work too.

Everybody who’s part of the movement shares responsibility for helping it succeed. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch things fail.

The Quakers talk a lot about “clerking yourself,” which basically means taking personal responsibility for the group’s collective success. People are expected to behave in a disciplined fashion, including managing themselves emotionally. They’re expected to be open-minded, open to learning and changing their minds. They’re expected to pay attention and listen carefully to each other. They’re expected to avoid the temptation to get mad or show off, and to instead speak “with love rather than judgment.” They’re expected to restrain themselves from talking too much, from interrupting other people, and from repeating the same arguments again and again. Quakers are expected to be willing and able to calmly, thoughtfully, explore areas of disagreement. If they’re feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they’re expected to say that, so that other people can find ways to support them and ensure they’re heard. And if other people are behaving badly, everyone is expected to try to help them behave better.

All this, obviously, is aspirational. As someone at the workshop said, Quakers aren’t paragons, and they’re just as likely as anyone else to be childish and whiny and egotistical. But they’re expected to try really hard not to be.

Setting the right tone is critical for success.

All weekend, I was struck by the Quakers’ skill at establishing and maintaining a rich, healthy emotional tone.

The most obvious example of this is the Quakers’ use of silence. Quakers really value silence: it’s built into all of their religious meetings and their discussions, and during the weekend, we probably spent a combined total of two or three hours together in silence — sometimes for long stretches, and sometimes just for a few minutes. That does something really interesting: it makes everybody more judicious. You have time to reflect, to organize your thoughts, to calm down. You get to listen to other people, rather than using their speaking time to plan what you’ll say next. What you say is smarter and more thoughtful than it would’ve been otherwise.

That’s just one technique the Quakers use: there were lots of others. Elizabeth and Eric, who facilitated the workshop, modeled warmth and patience and respect. They thanked people, a lot. They acknowledged and welcomed the new people. They opened the meetings in a circle, with everyone holding hands.

It reminded me of something Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Network once told me – that he recommends non-profit boards kick off their meetings with a recitation of their mission statement. It’s the same kind of thing – rituals and practices designed to remind us that what we’re doing together is meaningful, so that we can approach it in a spirit of love and respect.

Sometimes you have to kick out difficult people. Maybe.

The people attending the workshop were all experienced Quakers. And it was clear from the stories they told and the questions they asked, that Quaker meetings suffer from difficult people.

This reminded me of Wikimedia. Because it didn’t seem like difficult people were necessarily over-represented inside Quakerism. Rather, it seemed like a normal number of difficult people created stress and anxiety disproportionate to their actual numbers. Elizabeth says that many clerks have shared with her stories about a single problematic member in their meeting, who wants attention or influence and takes advantage of the consensus process to grandstand and delay or block action for months or even years. Quakers call these people ‘dissenting spirits’ or ‘chronic objectors,’ and characterize them as “needing to hold themselves out of alignment with the group.” Elizabeth describes them as people who, no matter how much trust is extended to them, are unable to develop trust in others. Their disruptive presence can drive away others, and sometimes even threaten the survival of the group.

Which sounded sadly familiar to me.

Here’s what I think happens. Where other groups might unhesitatingly excommunicate a person who repeatedly broke their rules, it seems to me that the Wikimedia projects and the Quakers both tend to agonize instead, presumably because both groups pride themselves on being highly inclusive and tolerant. (Remember I said the Quakers are strongly individualistic? I suspect that, like some Wikimedians, some Quakers have a history of getting kicked out of various groups, and so they have a lot of empathy for people having that kind of difficulty.)

But even the Quakers, it seems, have their limits. As Elizabeth wrote in her book on clerking, “A healthy meeting will provide spiritual nurture for the ‘difficult’ Friend, but will understand that protecting the safety of the meeting has priority. It will not confuse ‘being loving’ or ‘being Quakerly’ with tolerating the destructive behavior of an individual, but will understand that setting firm limits is loving.”

This was probably the most uncomfortable topic that got addressed during the workshop, and it was the only time I remember when Elizabeth and Eric seemed to disagree. It’s a tough topic, both for the Quakers and Wikimedians.

I want to thank Jacob Stone and Gretta Stone, directors of the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, as well as Elizabeth Boardman (Davis Meeting) and Eric Moon (Berkeley Meeting), facilitators of the workshop. Everybody at the workshop was enormously welcoming to Phoebe and me: we are really grateful. Seriously: it was lovely.

I’ll publish more notes –rougher, longer– probably tomorrow.

I read a book recently called Authentic Conversations, which is essentially an argument for honesty at work. That may not sound too radical, but it actually is. I’ve managed people for more than a decade, and the book made me think about how much conventional management theory and training is designed to replace authenticity with calculation, and how damaging that can be.

The book opens with a great story, in which the publisher of a struggling newspaper is doing a newsroom walkaround. [1]

It’s tough times for newspapers, so his staff ask him lots of anxious questions — is the company okay, what’s he doing about the advertising slump, has he figured out the pension issue. He talks confidently about how things are going to be okay. There’s a plan. The board is optimistic. And so forth. The authors (who were with the publisher that day, presumably starting a consulting engagement), say he clearly felt he was doing good work – creating an atmosphere of calm and confidence, so that his staff could focus on doing their jobs well.

And I have to say, I have definitely been there. I’ve never lied to anyone who works for me, but I worked for a long time in a troubled industry, and I certainly expressed optimism more strongly than I felt it, many many many times, and for the same reason the poor publisher was probably doing it.

The twist to the story is that back in the guy’s office, the consultants rip into him and tell him what he did was horrible. They persuade him to call a special meeting and tell his staff he’d been lying — that the company is indeed in trouble, and that neither he nor anyone can give them the reassurance they want. And that he’s not their father, and isn’t responsible for their security or for their happiness.

The story ends triumphantly, with applause all around.

I’d be surprised if things actually played out that way, because I don’t think that people necessarily value truth that much. But I do think that even when people don’t want the truth, or aren’t comforted by it, they deserve it.

The authors go on to decry that they call “speaking for effect.” Which again struck me as pretty radical. As a young manager, I was trained –over and over again, explicitly and by modelled behaviour– to carefully manage my words and tone in order to create the response I wanted.

  • A mentor of mine was well-known for using silence to increase his authority. In big meetings, he’d be perfectly watchful, and would say nothing.  Throughout the meeting, the other participants would get more and more nervous, wondering what he was thinking. They’d start second-guessing themselves and poking holes in their own arguments. Eventually they’d start actively soliciting his opinion, and by the time he finally spoke, whatever he said carried enormous weight. [2]
  • Two friends of mine, who were also friends of each other and who ran competitive TV shows inside our organization, used to stage yelling matches in front of their newsroooms in which they’d argue over whose show warranted more resources from the shared services pool (like, edit suite time or PR support). They did it so their teams would feel valued and defended, and afterwards they’d go out for beer.
  • I had a boss who was famous for his terrible temper. He’d shout, hang up on people, send all-caps e-mails, and storm around the office slamming doors and throwing things. But his capacity for anger –and his reputation for it– was mostly calculated — he’d slam down the phone and start laughing.
  • A colleague was proud of her ability to shame her staff into doing better work. Her magic words, she told me, were “I am disappointed in you.” I once watched her role-play a performance assessment, and I found her acting ability pretty remarkable. She’d sigh, put down her pencil, make prolonged eye contact, and say something like “Jim. You’re really letting down the team.”
  • And then there’s a very common use of speaking for effect: the deliberate expression of trivial agreement. This is particularly done, I think, in big, old companies where responsibility is diffused and group buy-in is critical. In those contexts, expressing trivial agreement (“sounds interesting!”, “good point!”, “great feedback!”) is the small coin of the realm. If you do it well, it costs you nothing, wins you allies, and puts money in the favour bank.

I’m not trying to argue that all these tactics are necessarily bad. It’s obviously true that managers need to be in control of their emotions, and need to be conscious of their effects on others. Undisciplined and reckless bosses can cause all kinds of problems.

But I think a little calculation goes a long way. And I also think there’s a cost, which sometimes goes unnoticed.  People who are very studied, whose words and responses are calculated for effect more so than being spontaneous and natural — they’re behaving inauthentically.  To a degree, they’re treating other people as means to an end rather than as human beings, and their behaviour also suggests that their minds are totally made up: they are not actually open to new information, they’ve figured out the correct end state, and the only work that needs to be done is persuading you to go there. Which means they run the risk that the people around them will learn over time to distrust them. It also means they miss the opportunity to engage authentically — to have real conversations, to stretch themselves, to learn.

[1] I don’t have the book with me, so I may have butchered specifics a little. But the gist of the story’s accurate.
[2] Warning to women who might consider trying this tactic: it doesn’t work for women. Truly. I liked a lot of things about that guy, and I tried modelling my own behaviour on his for a while, but it didn’t take long to realize that a silent woman is perceived totally differently from a silent man. Suffice to say that a silent woman is easily mistaken for a person without authority, regardless of how much she may actually have. Too bad :-(