Equality in standards development – we have a way to go

Twitter is a terrible medium for discussion. It is particularly bad for discussing a complex area where people will find a lot of agreement and a small difference of opinion. Yesterday, I was on the wrong side of a Twitter argument with a group of people with whom I suspect I would find 99% agreement, but the 1% left me looking, to my shame, like an arrogant sexist pig. Hence this blog post.

The trigger was an article called Open data standards design behind closed doors? By Ana Brandusescu, Michael Canares and Silvana Fumega, whose organisation, ILDA, was the publisher. The article was a distillation of a workshop that had discussed the development of data standards. How the development of such standards is more political than is often recognised by the participants and how the process is dominated by — if I may be allowed a little paraphrasing to emphasise the point — over-weight, balding, over-privileged, over-confident, English native speaking loud mouth males.

People like me in other words.

The underlying charge is true. I am exactly the kind of person that gets to write international data standards. I’ve been doing it, one way or another, for 20 years.

It is also undeniably true that the global south is under-represented in standards development — Latin America was the focus of the original article. But it's not just the global south: Korea, Japan, China and others are also under-represented.

I am most familiar with two standards development organisations (SDOs): W3C and GS1 (former and current employer respectively). I can attest that at these organisations at least, the problem is recognised and substantial effort has and is being made to correct the problem. Earlier this year, GS1’s biggest annual event included a session on tackling this topic that was the live version of training we had all had, delivered by an external expert brought in for the purpose. Based on Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map it was by far the most interesting session of the event and very well-attended. Similar conversations happen at W3C all the time. One output of that is the recently updated Positive Work Environment at W3C: Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct document.

My reaction to the Open data standards design behind closed doors? was therefore, firstly, a broad agreement. Where I took issue was, in particular, this line:

A woman might be able to become a gender expert in an organization because she is a woman. She will not, however, be given the same opportunity to advance in a technical role such as standards. That requires domain expertise, which is argued to be different.

I have done, and continue to do, all I can to make that statement untrue. I’m perhaps over-proud of the fact that during my time at W3C the working groups for which I was responsible had 16 chairs, 8 of whom were women. After a session at a workshop I organised in 2016, I was delighted when someone pointed out to me that there was an all-female panel but the topic was not women in tech. I hadn’t even noticed.

Other quotes from the article:

… we have seen that standard-setting is a political exercise, where each participant does not only carry a set of biases, but also interests, often times conditioned by the organizations that they represent.

True. I am guilty of representing the interests of the organisation that pays my salary. So is every member of every standards working group. Go GS1.

When we look at diversity and representation in numbers, things appear to look inclusive at conferences, workshops, and events.

True. Diversity of attendance is not the same as diversity of heard voices in the working group. Something I’ve struggled with for years is the cultural barrier that means that east Asian attendees simply do not speak up in meetings, even when I am talking complete nonsense and they know it. This was brought into sharp focus during that Culture Map training we did earlier this year at GS1 where we were told about a Japanese person who said “I would never ask my boss a question unless I knew he knew the answer.” That is, they wouldn’t want to put their boss in a position where they might lose face by not knowing something. That’s the sort of culture that makes participation in open discussion where disagreement is expected extremely difficult.

But, in many cases, designing open data standards happens behind closed doors.

Sadly this is true for a lot of SDOs. It is categorically not true at W3C and less true than it appears at GS1 (we’re working on it).

… we need to resist sexism, racism, and colonialism in its many forms. Women should not be the only ones to talk about gender. People of colour should not be the only ones to talk about race. People from the global South should not be confined to a global South perspective. When designing open data standards, we need all voices possible at the table to provide their expertise – technical and beyond – to be heard and listened to.

I agree wholeheartedly.

This is some of the background to my tweets yesterday. My big mistake, for which I was rightly called out by Mor Rubinstein, was to say that because of all this, women are not unheard at GS1 and W3C. As evidence, I tagged several eminent ‘women of W3C’ who in turn tagged more. Some agreed. One in particular did not and made it clear that the idea that there was no sexism at W3C was a complete joke in her lived experience.

I can respond to the ILDA article castigating SDOs for lack of involvement by the global south, especially Latin America, by pointing to the W3C Data on the Web Best Practices, written by three Brazillians, two female, one male, within a working group chaired by three women and one man (one of whom remains the best WG chair I have ever worked with), all working in public for anyone to see. But when someone of the standing of Jen Simmons writes as she did, I would indeed be an arrogant sexist pig if I didn’t admit how wrong I am.

Lesson: equality of voices in standards setting is hard. The processes by which standards are developed were designed by people like me for people like me and the inclusion of others, while a stated and sincere goal, falls short. I and my colleagues have work to do here.