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IETF's older white men urged to tone it down

New RFC titled 'An IETF with Much Diversity and Professional Conduct' seeks to ensure respectful debate

The IETF's meritocracy is the envy of the world of tech, but the venerable outfit has its share of shouting matches.

That's led Narelle Clark and David Crocker to add to the anti-abuse debate with an informational RFC, RFC 7704, “An IETF with Much Diversity and Professional Conduct”.

The two are respected voices in the Internet community: Crocker has served several terms as an IETF Trustee, while Clark, deputy CEO of the Australian Communications Consumers Action Network, is a former president of ISOC-AU, and currently serves on ISOC's board of trustees.

In RFC 7704, Clark and Crocker argue that the IETF's history and the heavy representation of “well-funded, American, white male technicians” (particularly in its earliest incarnations) has imparted a “distinctive group dynamic” that continues to this day, and that “aggressive and even hostile discussion behaviour is quite common”.

The Register spoke to Clark to understand the background of the RFC.

Old-timers will recall and celebrate the contributions women made to the early Internet – consider names like Radia Perlman, for example, who remains a significant technical author to this day.

However, the IETF reflects a change in the wider IT sector since the 1980s, Clark said: the proportion of women in working groups is not rising and the resulting culture becomes less welcoming to women contemplating participation.

Hence the RFC: after much discussion within the IETF in recent years, it's an attempt to set down the principles of more civilised (and therefore hopefully more inclusive, not only to women) debating behaviours.

“There has been, over the last few years, a rising awareness of certain, shall we say, unsatisfactory behavioural approaches to change”, Clark told Vulture South.

“It's just not necessary: you don't need to be a bully to get your way.”

“I'm always suspicious of people that have bullying as a technique in their arsenal. It suggests you don't have the skills to do what we're here to do”.

The idea that the IETF needs to be more welcoming to women was also tested in an experiment cited in the RFC. As Clark explained: “A number of women got sick of being passed over in positions of leadership in the IETF. Being scientists and engineers, they thought 'let's do an experiment'.”

The experiment was simple enough: they put forward women for a large number of IETF management positions through the “NomCom” (nominating committee) process.

None of the women made it through the process even though, Clark said, “some were absolutely outstanding”.

“It's become clear that there are systemic issues”, she told Vulture South.

So why raise the issue in the form of an RFC? That's simple, but could easily be misunderstood from the outside: the RFC is where the IETF documents everything.

“That's just how the IETF works. If you have a problem, you document it, characterise it, collect the information. There's RFCs about making RFCs – the administrative and sociological functions are there as well as the technology”, she explained.

Crocker's involvement in the RFC was important, she said, since he's author of many, and this is the first to carry Clark's name.

“He also wants things to change – to get back to being a contest of ideas, rather than personalities forcing things through that are less than the best.”

Another thing Clark would like to see is better support from vendors for women in standards-making.

“The feeder process is broken. Women are not getting supported, and not getting the funding to spend time on IETF work.

“They're missing out: men, in the most part, can get to the front of that queue, and devote themselves to the technology and the standards.”

There is, Vulture South would note, a vicious circle here: a falling proportion of women in the organisation, over time, making it less attractive for women to participate.

That, in turn, makes it less likely that women will ask employers to support IETF participation, and less likely that employers will give that support.

The document is, however, about far more than gender diversity, Clark said. She and Crocker want it to serve as “a signal to all people that don't feel supported and accepted, that they are, and that they can be.” ®

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