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Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

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Web Stuff Blog Archive

Where are all the women? (Revisited)

Jason Kottke has kicked the ant hill over again. After reading criticism over the gender imbalance in the list of speakers at two recent conferences, he did some research on the numbers for other recent and upcoming conferences. The numbers vary drastically, as do the events, but still, none achieve parity. (Though one, BlogHer, makes it all the way to 100% female presenters.)

Yes, I find this upsetting and frustrating. But I know that the organizers of the conferences I attend are making efforts to achieve a greater balance and I appreciate that. Would I stay away from a conference or event that wasn’t trying to achieve gender balance? No way! In the spirit of Bryn Mawr, I would go and be my brilliant female self and intimidate the men. And if I found the conference to be valuable and enjoyable, I’d try to engage the organizers in a conversation about including more women, and I’d haul along more people (both women and men) to try to change the culture, bit by bit.

That’s about all I was going to say on this matter… until some other comments on the topic came up. Interestingly, out of the blogs I follow, only one woman has commented on the topic so far. Meanwhile, two men whose blogs I follow have also commented, and it is to their posts that I feel the need to reply.

First, to Eric Meyer. He’s made himself loud and clear that, in planning a conference, diversity isn’t important, but things like marketability are. My question to him is: How does one become marketable if one isn’t given an opportunity to participate in the first place? I know that we all like to think that this blogosphere thing is an equalizer and puts men and women on a level playing field, but let’s be honest: it doesn’t. It may give everyone a voice, but not everyone is listening. Not everyone is in the “inner circle”, and it seems like the only way in is to do something groundbreaking. Unfortunately this leaves out all of the folks working very hard, day in and day out, who still have valuable experience and knowledge to contribute.

This somewhat brings me to his concern of “brand appropriateness”. I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I’m betting it has something to do with getting people who work for “big name” companies and organizations. AOL, the company that both Eric and I used to work for, is a pretty big brand. Yet the standards-compliant redesign of AOL.COM in 2004, which was built by two women (Annette Graber and me), and the mega-huge standards-compliant redesign in 2005, which enabled the opening-up of nearly all AOL content to the Web, the front-end for which was architected, managed, and about nearly 100% built by two women (Kate Chipman and me), went largely unnoticed. Why, because it was AOL? Or because the only people who were talking about it were the women involved in it? I know the answer isn’t a simple one, but the issue of gender when it comes to recognizing technical achievement is one I could analyze for a long time….

But to get back to Eric’s post, my final comment to him is this: You’re a recognized leader in a field that’s out to create change on a massive scale. Knowing what it takes to create such change, I can’t believe that you would say that it’s not important to have diversity in a group of speakers at an event which promotes and provides training around the change you want to realize! Diversity on stage is the key to including and engaging the broadest possible audience. Yes, women may attend AEA, but how many more attend when you have women presenting? How many more would attend if the number of female speakers increased? How much change would that then create in the industry?

And sure, if you want to be crass about it, how much more money would that make you?

So, enough with Eric. I’m disappointed that he’s pandering to an audience instead of enlightening them, but I’m not brandishing a pitchfork. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I’m glad he’s made his known. Though, to be equally honest, it will affect decisions I make about attending AEA in the future.

Now, onto Tantek’s question to those who are waiting for invites to speak somewhere: “Why are you being so passive?”

Passive, me? In the past year, I’ve submitted proposals to all of the conferences I’ve planned to attend and I’ve contacted individuals who are planning various events that don’t seek proposals to express my interested in participating. But that’s about all I have time to do. After all of that proposal-writing and networking (and don’t forget the day job and volunteering in between!), if you’re not accepted or invited then it’s not because you didn’t try.

Tantek also asked why we accept having this conversation of diversity with specific criteria, like gender. I’d say the simple answer there is that you need some context in which to start the conversation. But I agree with your sentiment, that there has to be more to the discussion. I know that gender mix alone does not diversity make — and keep in mind, I attended Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college with an excellent track record in socio-economic diversity and a good-and-continually-improving one in racial diversity, where there’s even a club for “lesbian left-handed eskimo midget albinos”! (Just kidding, that was a Dead Milkmen joke. But at Bryn Mawr, it could happen.)

To wrap up this post (my longest ever), let me say that along the path to achieving equality and diversity, I think some segregation is good. Let those who don’t want to include women do their own thing. The women have started to organize and are kicking off their own initiatives, like BlogHer and Women2.0. If you don’t know the names of many prominent women now, I’m very sure that, as time progresses, you will…

Cute as a <button>

Cute as a Button

My Valentine’s day gift to you… a geeky tee that you can buy for yourself or your sweetheart!

Ah, the button element. Overlooked by some, but loved by those that know it and use it. With the power of button, you can make style great-looking form buttons in any browser. I was introducing someone to its awesomeness yesterday, when the idea for this tee came to me.

Get one now!

My Accessibility Story

Over at Accessify, Ian’s asked folks to tell the story of how they got into accessibility. Like Ian, I get asked this one a lot, so here’s my story.

Back in the summer of 1995, I was working as a student technician for Bryn Mawr’s Computing Services department. One day my supervisor told me I needed to install some special software on the library computers. I took the disks, went to the library, and started installing.

What I was installing, it turns out, was MAGic — screen magnification software. The software was requested by a low-vision member of the college community. She needed the software in order to be able to read our online card catalog — the Web, at the time, was still barely a factor for most of the folks that I interacted with. (That same summer I started teaching an “Intro to the Internet” course to adults and the focus was still on e-mail, except for a brief demo of Lycos and/or Magellan.)

Once the install was complete, I tried the software for myself. I was horrified; I wondered how anyone could adjust to using such a clunky application. As interfaces were enlarged, small flaws in certain apps stood out and attracted my attention. Words flew off screen, and I had to scroll horizontally in order to finish reading a line of text. As both a tech support person (I wondered if I had even installed the software correctly, for a while) and as a computer science student (I hadn’t taken any HCI courses, but clearly I was thinking about related issues) I was concerned on behalf of and for the user.

But I was also intrigued. I got one of the women that used the software to demonstrate it for me. We talked about other assistive technologies that were out there, and I tried to learn as much about them as I could. I installed JAWS for DOS at some point, to find out what screen readers were all about. I researched alternate input devices, and for a time used a Twiddler (chord-keyboard).

During this time I was also developing some rather amateurish Web sites, but I didn’t put much thought into making them accessible. Of course, at the time, the sites were just images and text, so there wasn’t much to think about! As sites got more and more complex, however, I learned about Web accessibility via that same community of users, which continued to call for tech support any time MAGic or JAWS failed to give them access to the content they desired.

In 1999, after I had joined AOL and learned they were being sued by the NFB, I had to chuckle to myself. When interviewing with them, I submitted a technical skills sheet in addition to my resume, on which I listed “Henter-Joyce assistive software” as something I was familiar with. I was clearly over-optimistic in thinking that AOL would already know of these products, since only one person asked me about that particular bullet point. Not only did I have to explain what the products did and who would make use of them, but I also had to explain why it was important for all people to be able to use computers and access the Internet. *forehead smack*

So, this story ends the same way many of my stories end… by crediting and thanking Bryn Mawr for the best education, opportunities, and community a school could offer to a student. When I say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for Bryn Mawr, I really, truly mean it.

The Big Announcement

Some of you suspected something was afoot when I added the disclaimer to the footer of my site; even more of you caught on when I added another location to the list of places I call home. Finally, here’s the big announcement!

Since November 6th I’ve been an employee of PayPal (an eBay company). I’m managing the Web Development Platform team — our mission is to create, document, evangelize, and assist in the implementation of standards that improve the user experience! (We also so some other very important stuff, but that all applies internally and ultimately still contributes to the larger mission.)

This job may sound familiar to some of you, because this role is very similar to the one I played on the Product Integrity team at AOL. Of course, one big difference is that I now have the benefit of experience, which should make things go a little smoother. Still, a new company will present new challenges, which is partly why I’m there. The other part is that I’m excited about what’s going on at PayPal. And that’s what matters!

Is IE6 the new NN4?

There’s a interesting and fun post and comment thread about IE7 adoption over at WaSP, and it has me wondering… will IE6 linger like Netscape Navigator 4.x did?

Surely, no browser could take as long as NN4 to be purged from the systems of its dedicated users. Many WinXP SP2 users will be presented head-on with the option to upgrade via Windows Update very soon — and my guess is that most people will accept the upgrade, simply because they don’t know or care enough to learn about what they’re getting. I can already see members of my family just clicking “Yes” or “Accept” on whatever dialog box is displayed… they won’t even bother to call and ask me what they should do.

But if companies and ISPs are really suggesting to employees, clients, and users that they not upgrade to IE7, as one commenter suggests, will people listen? If companies and ISPs are making this recommendation, do they have any reason better than “we didn’t test our site in any of the IE7 release candidates and either we’re too stubborn to accommodate Microsoft or our developers don’t know how to fix the display problems in IE7″?

I only slightly jest in suggesting such an excuse — I’m sure there’s some company out there for which that is their reason. But how ridiculous! Ignorance on your part will only serve to frustrate and alienate users, not Microsoft. Not to mention how bad you, Company X, look for making such a statement.

No, I don’t really think IE6 will hang around as long as NN4. After the Windows Update, and then after the holidays, when many folks get new computers, we’ll see a big drop in its percentage. After that it will slowly decline, until Vista comes out. And by that point its share will probably be less than 20%, I would guess. I could be totally off — I haven’t worked tech support in a long time, but my gut has been right before, and this is what my gut tells me. Regardless, I don’t see IE6 CSS hacks going away, just as IE5 hacks haven’t totally disappeared. CSS is the new proprietary DOM, in that sense… and for a while longer we’ll have to keep forking code to handle specific browsers. IE7 doesn’t solve that problem…