“If he had left it at a few introductory jokes, I would be writing a very different post. Instead the porn references continued with images of scantily-clad women gratuitously splashed across technical diagrams and intro slides. As he got into code snippets, he inserted interstitial images every few slides. The first time it happened, he mentioned that he wanted to keep everyone’s attention. It had the reverse effect. This technique was distracting and disrespectful to an audience who, frankly, is turned on by code. This crowd had just watch hour upon hour of code slide shows and live irb sessions, often on the edge of their seats as they absorbed the latest whiz-bang plugin or coding technique from one of the masters.”
You can go to the post and read the comments. In fact, go read it and come back to this. The reaction (from women and men both) is mixed, and heated. No big shock, right? If I knew the presenter, I’d want to tell him, “Seriously? Didn’t you see this one coming?”. Because here’s what I see:
I’ve been a member of the Ruby community for three years, and for the first year of that, I didn’t know any women working with Ruby. This has changed, especially thanks to DevChix, but it’s still pretty normal for me to be the only woman in the room at Pdx.rb meetings. Women are a tiny minority in the Ruby world, and we know it. Even before someone says, “hey, it’s cool to see women working with Ruby”. (These sorts of comments are often heard as “holy cow, there’s a chick in this room.” It’s not an issue of intent. It’s that we already felt like we have a blinking arrow over our heads.)
And since we’re a minority, and we often encounter awkward responses to that, we feel marginalized. We also tend to feel marginalized when we encounter sexualized images when we’re in a room full of men we don’t know very well. Even women who like porn can feel that way. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether we like sexual content, it’s whether we’re okay with seeing it in a professional context. Some women may be fine with this (especially if they know the presenter), some may find it tacky and awkward, and some may have the immediate urge to flee the room and be anywhere else right now.
I struggle constantly, as a member of this female minority in Ruby and technology in general, to negotiate a representation of my sexuality that gives me a comfortable working space, but without feeling like I’ve compromised some part of my identity. I’m not female by default (because of my physical body); I have a gendered identity. I have a sexual identity too, parts of which used to be more public before I started working in the technology world. I know I’m not the only one who is frustrated trying to deal with this.
“Being professional” for women often involves making sure we dress to an appropriate level of modesty (the men I know worry more about hygiene and not being too casual or formal). Similar standards apply to content and communications. NSFW is the shorthand for “sexual content found here” for a reason. We can argue about what the appropriate level of sexuality in professional contexts should be, but for many people this is already set, either by their employer, their colleagues, or their own comfort level.
Here’s another problem in this tangle: Ruby (and Rails in particular) loves the rock star image. You see it in job posts, how people talk about their work, and the way Rubyists rant on their blogs. It’s macho, it can be offputting to both genders, and it makes it easy in this kind of situation to say, “what’s your problem? I’m just busy being awesome”. It’s also a significant barrier to adoption for people who aren’t already a part of this culture, and don’t find it appealing. There’s a great comment on that blog post:
“I understand that the ruby community prides itself on its un- or anti-professionalism. But some professional norms exist for very good reasons: because they make it easier for people of different backgrounds and life experiences to come together and work productively and respectfully.”
I care about all of this because I love Ruby. I love the work I do, and I think I’m good at it. I want everyone to be able to experience the joy of working with Ruby, including other women. Like I said above, I have a gendered identity, it’s important to me, and I don’t want to have to “act like a guy” in order to be here. I am very frustrated that the Ruby and Rails leadership is male-dominated and does not seem to view the lack of female participation as a significant threat to the health of the technology (as well as the community). Over the last three years, I’ve carved out a pretty good space for myself. I’m even working on a conference about open source world domination. But world domination requires an inclusive culture, and I think the discussion about this GoGaRuCo presentation demonstrates how far Ruby has to go still.
I’m not mentioning anyone’s name here because I think the presenter, the GoGaRuCo organizers, and everyone involved is trying their best. I’m writing this because we have a serious cultural problem (which is a microcosm of some bigger cultural problems, outside Ruby) and so far we have failed to address how we can work toward keeping Ruby fun, without excluding who want to work with the technology but find these aspects of the culture unwelcoming. Let’s start talking about how we can make this better.