Addressing gender balance in online communities

Emma Irwin is an “Open Project & Communities Specialist” at Mozilla and wrote a series of articles about their findings after researching their Diversity & Inclusion efforts. They’re worth a read.

Part 1:

Part 2, Part 3, & Part 4

Some conclusions from the series:

Despite positive sentiment, and optimism we heard a great deal of frustration (and some delivered tears) when people were asked to discuss elements of participatory design that made contributing feel valuable to them. Opportunity, recognition and resources were perceived to be largely dependent on staff and core contributors. Additionally, recognition itself varies wildly across the project to the omission or inflation of achievement and impact on the project. We heard that those best at being seen, are also the loudest and most consistent at seeking recognition — further proof that meritocracy doesn’t exist.

Emerging from this research was a sense that standards for recognition across the project would be incredibly valuable in combating variability, creating visions for success and surfacing the achievements. Minimally standards help people understand where they are going, and the potential of their success; most optimistically standards make contributing a portal for learning and achievement to rival formal education and mentorship programs. Success of diverse groups is almost certainly dependent on getting recognition right.


While I agree those guidelines are useful, they are incomplete. The don’t take into account the different starting points of participants in the discussion.

The point about gender imbalance is that historically, and currently, women and other non-dominant groups have been marginalised (intentionally and un-intentionally) in certain communities. If we assume that all participants in the discussion are equal rational actors, only differentiated by their individual foibles, I think we miss something significant about communities.

I think it’s tempting to imagine that online spaces are neutral and objective in a way the offline world isn’t. We all have the same ‘access’ after all. But they’re still made up of people, and people are affected by culture, groupings and norms just as much online as off.

This doesn’t mean that we need to overwhelmingly focus on non-dominant groups and start posting ‘trigger warnings’ everywhere or something.

Rather, I would add a 6th item to that list:

  1. Be aware that your community/group/team is affected by social norms. Some new members may find those norms a barrier to fully engaging, even though they have valuable contributions to make. Make an extra effort to make them feel included.

There are plenty of very dominant women on my forum!

It’s a bit dangerous to prescribe traits to genders IMO.


I mean it in terms of social power, not in terms of personality. Historically and currently (in various respects), women are a non-dominant social group in the vast majority of societies, i.e. most societies are patriarchal.


I think that the concept of “real names” is problematic, in that this says that the name given to one by others (such as parents or the state) is somehow more real than when one names oneself. Especially when the context is people with marginal identities, and we are essentially saying that your identity is ascribed to you by others.

And when this concerns gender, it buys into the stereotypes of gendered expectations of names. Those expectations are often culturally-specific. There are trans* people who have difficulty with legal recognition. And what exactly are the queer, non-binary, and intersex names?

I can understand wanting to establish some reputational metric, but I think that using a name is not useful for this.


I think that the best way to go about it is to simply not jump to conclusions about people. If you don’t know what they look like, sound like, their ethnicity, their gender - then leave these concepts about them “blank”. My take is not be blind to these things, but rather let people define themselves. People try to guess these things because they are socialized to assume they are relevant, but do you have any trouble not guessing what somebody’s blood type is? Probably not. That is the kind of discipline I aim for.

A related problem which I haven’t seen mentioned here is the problem of users ascribing race, gender, and other identities onto other users in the context of (usually political or social) discussions. I have been on fora where people advocate for marginal people, and seem to relish “exposing” others in some troubling ways. For example “You post like a Hispanic!” would probably get somebody suspended or banned for bigotry. But regulars would routinely dogpile critics by insisting that their views betray them as “white cis males” and they receive no sanctions because of the societal power imbalance between the groups. Still, it functions like tone policing and another troubling ascribing of identity - especially when you are indeed a marginal person with dissenting views. I treat this as another instance of reasons to avoid guessing about people’s identities.

As for a user-disclosed gender feature, I recommend an actual string field instead of checking a box. Most online services I have seen offer only M and F, a few offer M, F, and “other”, or “rather not say”. Better to let people define it openly themselves.


I agree this is the only way to go.
Additionally a second string field for the users preferred pronouns might be a good idea.