T-Shirts Revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote about not taking free t-shirts from vendors at DrupalCon (or other tech conferences). Well DrupalCon North America 2017 has come and gone so I thought I’d report back on this year’s t-shirts.

My free shirts from DrupalCon 2017

I ended up with seven new free shirts all from places that also offered them in women’s sizes. In addition to the official conference t-shirt I picked up shirts from Lingotek, Linode, Pantheon, Optasy, Chef.io, and Kanopi Studios. There were a couple companies that appeared to be giving out shirts I didn’t talk to so there may be a couple worthy of complementing that I missed.  The big prize for the year goes to Linode whose job ad was a postcard in the shape of a (men’s) t-shirt and read:

Want a career in the cloud hosting industry? We’ve got a shirt in YOUR size.

Pantheon, as usual, had the most popular t-shirts with their custom printing shirts in a wide variety of sizes. That continues to be an amazing way to get people to watch their demo and collect contact information (although to be fair the demo itself is pretty amazing).

There were also a few companies that tried to convince me that bringing “unisex” shirts was the same as if they had brought women’s sizes.

Unisex shirts are, of course, just men’s shirts with a different label. And there are, of course, women who prefer the fit of that cut to shirts sold as women’s. But suggesting they work for everyone is just finding a new language for cheeping out. Arguably its worse than just forgetting that people come in different shapes since it shows someone thought about women looking for shirts but couldn’t be bothered to realize that most people want clothes that take into account their body shape. Ever met a guy who says he’s prefers how a woman’s cut shirt fits his body?

At least I didn’t hear anyone recommending using them as pajamas.

Why I won’t wear your free t-shirt

With DrupalCon coming up I figured I want to talk about a question I will be asking vendors giving out t-shirts: do you have women’s shirts? I’ll than request a men’s large (since it’s the size that actually fits my body). Given the reminder this week about the problems in the Drupal community around misogynism – a series of events I’m not yet ready to comment on myself – this seems appropriate topic if not the most timely.

Close your eyes and picture a Drupal developer (go ahead I’ll wait). I can’t say who you saw, but too many sales managers for technology companies just pictured a man or group of men. They want those developers to think nicely of their company and to wear shirts with their logos. They will buy, and in a few weeks give away, t-shirts for the developers they just pictured. They will forget that our community is strong because we’re diverse, and gender is a critically important form of diversity for us.

Thinking about this through t-shirts isn’t a new or original idea. The first time I ran into a form of this discussion was this 2006 blog post from Kathy Sierra (which I probably read in 2007, so I’ve been thinking about this for 10 years). I was a big fan of her work at the time (and was until she was driven from tech circles shortly after), and the support she got from women on the topic was almost as influential on me as the attacks she received from men for daring to talk about her own body. And it’s not just tech: if you listened to the entire Planet Money t-shirt saga you hear the NPR staff complain about the same problem.

For me usually the conversation starts something like:

“Do you have t-shirts for women?”

“Yes, do you want one for your wife or girlfriend?”

“No, I’ll take a men’s large.”

[confused stare from salesperson followed by them giving me a t-shirt.]

Like many tech conferences, there are usually lots of chances to get free t-shirts. Usually from vendors giving them away free. For anyone who hasn’t thought about it, that t-shirt is meant to make you and I into walking billboards. It puts their brand in the minds of people in your office, neighborhood, and anyplace else you go. And it works. After I got home from New Orleans last year I wore shirts from several different hosting companies everyday for a week, and since we were talking about new hosting relationships at the time, I got questions about the company on my shirt each day – we do business with two of those companies now. So giving me a free t-shirt is a request for me to advertise on their behalf which could easily pay for itself.

A few years ago I was at DrupalCon with a female colleague who was attending for the first time. The all male dev team members had attended several times before that and she had always liked the interesting variety of t-shirts they came home with, and so was looking forward to finally getting something for herself. Only she didn’t.

Very few vendors had women’s shirts at all and none in her size. Even worse, DrupalCon itself didn’t have a t-shirt for her because the men who had checked in before she arrived had thought their female partners would like the design and had taken all the woman’s shirts.

I should have known this was a risk for her since it’s not like the topic was new, but I didn’t and felt while I felt bad about that doesn’t undo the insult.

Instead of making sure she got to fully participate in our ritual, we allowed her to be left out. Several years had passed since the Kathy Sierra triggered discussion and I wrongly assumed we’d made progress as a community. Oops.

As part of trying to apologize to my friend for my own cluelessness, and in part to try to do something to make our community better, I took up asking vendors with t-shirts if they have women’s sizes. Not because I want one for someone else in particular but because I want other people in general to have the same chances I have. And I am not willing to advertise for companies if they are making our community worse. Anything we do that makes women feel less welcome makes our community worse.

Over time I’ve had interesting conversations with people who have said both yes and no.

The people who say yes are sometimes interesting. Usually they are just confused because they never thought the issue through. Sometimes they cite Kathy Sierra, sometimes they cite a similar experience to my own. Usually we’ll exchange thank you’s and I’ll move on.

If they say no, the conversation goes a bit differently. I am always nice, but I don’t let them off the hook. I’ll ask “why not”.  With one exception the answers are unfulfilling.

The most common answer is “I don’t know.” While the salesperson is sure sure no offense was meant (as if they would tell me if one was), I generally offer to wait while they call their boss to figure out why they don’t want women to advertise for them (no one has taken me up on it yet).

The next most popular answer (usually offered right after saying “I don’t know” didn’t get me to go away)  “It’s too expensive to add those sizes.” Typically this is from a person who gives out hundreds or thousands of t-shirts a year. This just isn’t true at that scale. Most vendors are still going to order enough shirts to get over the same price breaks they would have with their current order, and every t-shirt they give a woman is one they didn’t give a man. The only way for this to really be true is if they end up giving away more total shirts because more people want them, which is the whole point of the exercise. The time a RackSpace employee gave me this answer I just stared at the woman, in a woman’s cut RackSpace t-shirt, and said “Really”?  The next year RackSpace had women’s t-shirts (this probably had nothing to do with me, but it’s nice to think it might have).

I’ll also sometimes get “We didn’t have room to pack them.” I usually get this answer from smaller vendors who may not have as many to give out as a company like RackSpace or Pantheon, and are therefore concerned about bringing shirts that won’t find a person to take them. But I’ve gotten it from big companies too who will admit shipping five or six boxes of shirts. Either way, sorry, but no, avoid insulting potential customers by splitting your packing space.

The final answer I hear is “Women don’t want them.” This is the go to excuse from men who don’t want to think about why women don’t participate in anything related to technology. I even got that response from a man planning a Drupal Camp when I pointed out that none of the women on the planning committee had shown any interest in having shirts at all – his daughter being one of them. When I commented that maybe they didn’t like not having shirts that don’t fit a wave of nodding followed: we had women’s shirts made.

If you are attending DrupalCon, or any other large event for that matter, please ask everyone giving out t-shirts about women’s sizes. If they say yes, take whatever you want, but if they say no I encourage you to think hard about if you want to advertise for them. And draw them into a discussion on the topic.

If you are bringing t-shirts to DrupalCon, or any other large event I attend, please bring t-shirts for as many different types and sizes of attendees as you can fit. The right ratio is a hard problem to solve, and I know you have limited space. Ask the conference for an estimate of attendee demographics and make your best guess. If you guess wrong that’s okay, apologize and try to do better next time.

Do I think refusing to take free t-shirts from tech companies will suddenly solve all our the gender issues? Of course not. But it does force people into conversations they aren’t used to having, and it makes at least some stop and think about ways we create unfriendly atmospheres for women in technology.

Bad data systems do not justify sexist your behavior

This week we get a letter from Atlantic Broadband, our ISP, addressed to “Aaron & Eliza Crosman Geor”. My wife has never gone by Eliza and her last name is not “Geor”.

Atlantic Broadband to: Aaron & Eliza Crosman GeorIt’s been this way since we signed up with them, when we ask them to fix it they acknowledge that they cannot because their database cannot correctly handle couples with different last names who both want to appear on the account. Apparently it is the position of Atlantic Broadband that in 2016 it is reasonable to tell a woman she cannot be addressed by her legal name because it would be expensive for them to fix their database, and therefore she must be misaddressed or left out entirely.

I consider this unacceptable from old companies, but Atlantic BB was founded in 2004 – there are probably articles about not making assumptions about people’s names that are older than their company.

Folks, it is 2016, when companies insult people and then blame their databases it is because they do not consider all their customers worthy of equal respect.

So let’s get a few basics out of the way:

  • Software reflects the biases of the people who write it and buy it.
  • If your database tells someone their name is invalid your database is not neutral. Just because you don’t get the push-back that Facebook sees when they mess this up does not mean what you’re doing is okay.
  • If your database assumes my household follows 1950s social norms, the company that uses it considers 1950s social norms acceptable in 2016 – and there are probably a few of those they don’t want to defend (I hope).
  • When an email, phone rep, or letter calls me by my wife’s last name or her by mine, in both cases they are assuming she has my last name not that I have hers. This is a sexist assumption that the company has chosen to allow.

Of course Atlantic isn’t the only company that does this: Verizon calls me Elizabeth in email a couple times a week because she must be primary on that account (one person must lead the family plan), and Nationwide Insurance had to hack their data fields for years so my wife could appear on our car insurance card (as required by law) every time we moved because their web interface no longer allowed the needed changes. The same bad design assumptions can be insulting for other reasons such as ethnic discrimination. My grandmother was mis-addressed by just about everyone until she died because in the 1960s the Social Security Administration could not handle having an ‘ in her name, and no one was willing to fix it in the 50 years that followed SSA’s uninvited edit to her (and many other people’s) name.

In all these cases representatives all say something to the effect of “our computers cannot handle it.” And that of course is simply not true. Your systems may not be setup to handle real people, but that’s because you don’t believe they should be.

Let’s check Atlantic Broadband’s beliefs about their customers based on how they address us (I’m sure there are some additional assumptions not reflected here but these are the ones they managed to encode in one line in this letter):

  • They assume they are addressing one primary account holder: I happen to know from my interactions with them that they list my first name as: “Aaron & Eliza”, and my last name as “Crosman Geor”. Plenty of households have more than one, or even two, adults who expect equal treatment in their home. Our bank and mortgage company know we are both responsible adults why is this so hard for an ISP (or insurance company, or cell provider, credit card, etc)?
  • They assume my first name isn’t very long: They allowed 13 characters, but 4 more is too many. I went to high school with a kid who broke their database by exceeding the 26 character limit it had (they didn’t ask the kid to change his name, the school database admin fixed the database), but Atlantic can barely handle half that.
  • They assume my last name isn’t very long: Only 12 characters were used and they stopped in a strange place. I know many people with last name longer than that: frequently people who have hyphenated last names blow past 12. Also the kid with a 26 character first name – his surname was longer.
  • They assume my middle name isn’t an important part of my name: If they had a middle name field, they could squeeze a few more letters in and make this read more sensibly.  But they only consider first and last names important. Plenty of people have three names – or more – they like to have included on letters.
  • They assume it is okay to mis-address me and my wife: The name listed is just plain wrong, but they believe it’s okay to keep using this greeting. They assume this even after they have been told it’s not, and even after we’ve reduced service with them (if another ISP provided service to my house I’d probably cut it entirely although mostly for other reasons). They believe misaddressed advertisements will convince me I need a landline or cable package again.

Now I’ll be fair for just a minute and note something they got right: they allow & and spaces in a name so Little Bobby Tables might be able to be a customer without causing a crisis (partially because his name is too long for them to fit a valid SQL command into the field).

Frequently you’ll hear customers blame themselves because their names are too long or they have done something outside the “norm”. Let’s be clear: this is the fault of the people who write and buy the software. Software development is entirely too dominated by men, as is the leadership of large companies. When a company lacks diversity in key roles you see that reflected in the systems built to support the work. Atlantic’s leadership’s priorities and views are reflected in how their customers are addressed because they did not demand the developers correct their sexist assumptions.

These problems are too common for us to be able to refuse to do business when it comes up. I will say that when we switched our insurance to State Farm they did not have any trouble understanding that we had different last names and their systems accommodated that by default.

If you do business with a company that makes these (or other similar mistakes) I think it’s totally reasonable to remind them every time you reasonable can that it’s offensive. Explain that they company is denying you, your loved ones, and/or your friends a major marker of their identity. Remind them they are not neutral.

If you write data systems for a living: check the assumptions you’re building into your code. Don’t blame the technology because you used the wrong character set or trimmed the field too short: disk is cheap, UTF-8 has been standard for 15+ years, and processors are fast. If the database or report layout doesn’t work because someone’s name is too long the flaw is not the name.

We all make mistakes and bad assumptions sometimes, but that does not make it okay to deny people basic respect. When we make a bad assumption, that’s a bug, and good developers are obligated to fix it. Good companies are obligated to prevent it from happening in the first place.