So Now What?

Thank you everyone who stopped by to read my post yesterday. I think most people got the point that I wasn’t talking about just one presentation—but the cultural pattern it (and how people respond to it) reveals.

Sexism is endemic in the tech industry. This can mean that people who aren’t trying to act in a sexist way sometimes do, because they aren’t stepping so far outside the cultural norm that they realize how their comments or actions will seem. I’ve seen a pattern in past controversies where the offending person is called out, people argue back and forth over whether the behavior is inappropriate, the person apologizes, and that’s the end of the story. Maybe people drag it back out later to say, “yes, remember that thing that happened?” but I don’t see that as change. I see it as acceptance.

Commenters on the previous post rightly pointed out that these problems exist elsewhere, in other technologies. This is absolutely true, but I don’t work with Django, I work with Ruby and Rails. For better or worse, this is my community. And wouldn’t it be awesome if we could be a model for the rest of our industry? That doesn’t happen by accident, it’s something we can work toward.

For the general “why aren’t there more women in tech?” and “how do I encourage more women in tech?” questions, Google is your friend. This is not a wild, unexplored area of inquiry. There’s actually a lot of research on the subject, and if you’re interested enough to leave comments on my blog, you should be interested enough to do a little reading. For bonus points (one commenter said, “WTF is a “gendered identity”?”), you can read up on gender. Also, Yay Genderform, because it’s amazing and geeky.

So what can the Ruby community do to address these issues?

I want us to do a better job of reaching out to the rank and file female Ruby programmers, who do this for a living but don’t present at conferences or write well-linked blog posts. There are more of us out there than you think, and we need to get over “rare unicorn” mentality that makes it impossible to have a normal conversation. If you don’t know any women working with Ruby, this is a great time to start. We’re on Twitter, we have blogs. Don’t assume that because you’re not working with or friends with one of us, we don’t exist.

I want us to call bullshit on the ego-laden drama that often passes for tech discussion. Don’t link. Don’t comment. This isn’t helping anyone write better code, it’s a distraction.

I want conference organizers to make an effort to recruit women to speak. Some of the regional conferences do, but there’s so much room for improvement, especially at national-level events. Reach out to groups like DevChix and ask, “Does anyone want to be on a panel about git vs. svn?” or “What are you working with that we’re not addressing in these talks?”. Check out the listings on GeekSpeakr. Women are often shyer to put themselves out there and claim expertise, and may need more mentoring to know how to get involved. Recruiting for diversity of all sorts is smart; we want to bring in up-and-coming topics and ensure that we don’t see the same faces doing the same talks every single time.

Don’t assume that more women would participate if only we wanted to. That idea is deeply flawed and assumes a level playing field, which we don’t have (see above re: sexism, endemic).

I want project leaders to mentor women toward becoming contributors. Open source projects always need more people (I know, I run one). Is there a friendly way to find out how to contribute a patch or documentation? Are you looking for women who use your code in their work? Provide entry points to go from user to co-creator.

I want us to have fun. I started in the Portland Ruby Brigade around the same time Topher Cyll was collecting ideas for his Practical Ruby Projects book, and I was completely drawn in by the fun, interesting, experimental nature of what people were doing. As I got braver about asking questions and getting to know the other people in the group, I realized, “I can do this too.” There are some great things happening in Ruby, both technologically and culturally. Let’s work on making that accessible to everyone.

26 responses to “So Now What?

  1. “Sexism is endemic in the tech industry”

    Please provide evidence of this. I’ve never seen any consistent data that confirms this.

    “why aren’t there more women in tech?”

    Blatant lie. This may be something that is true in the US(citation to statistics please) but I’ve never heard about it and there are plenty of women were I work.

    Shesh women are just humans like men, stop making a wild feminist movement agenda out of everything. It’s so old and even women don’t like it.

  2. Mr Troll,

    You are making assertions without backing them up either. So, you are being a hypocrite.

    I would like to point out that providing statistics, such as the fact that “Only about 2% of the thousands of developers working on open-source software projects are women” ( http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=103777 ), is actually irrelevant to this discussion, because people like you will immediately follow up with the following reasoning:

    “Maybe women aren’t interested in tech.” or “Maybe women aren’t good at tech.” or if those are rebutted, “maybe women need to try harder to participate in tech.”

    So, i call bullshit. You don’t want statistics. You want to claim that this isn’t a problem.

    Prove your counter-claim.

  3. The last thing I’m interested in is an argument about whether sexism in the tech industry really exists, or whether my suggestions above constitute reverse sexism. You can have that discussion elsewhere.

    Tell me what you’re doing to help.

  4. I’ve enjoyed working with Audrey for years on a variety of open source community efforts, including the Portland Ruby Brigade, Calagator and Open Source Bridge.

    When posts like this go live, I’m always amazed by the many sincere and helpful comments, but also disappointed by the ones that show me how far we still have to go.

    As a person that’s felt like a minority in a foreign culture for much of my life, here are some of my thoughts on what has seemed help improve the balance of communities:

    * Praise good behavior. E.g., Thank you, Audrey, for the insightful posts and discussion on this difficult matter, your suggestions for addressing it, and for acting as a role model for women in technology through your efforts on many open source and community projects. And thank you, various posters for providing words of advice, comfort and insight. And thank you, Matt Aimonetti, for commenting and sharing your side of this.

    * Criticize bad behavior, preferably constructively. E.g., The presentation, as it’s been described, sounds like it made people uncomfortable and didn’t help us as a community. There’s a fine line between a racy joke and something that hurts people, let’s be more aware of this line and learn to interact in a better way. As for the people that wrote the posts that Audrey deleted , you should be ashamed. While I appreciate open and honest discussion, you crossed the line with personal insults and trolling, which aren’t welcomed. Being a jerk is no way to get through life. Please make a change, you’ll have more fun and people will like you more.

    * Be proactive. E.g., if you think there will be an imbalance in the group of speakers at your conference, try to actively seek out and contact those that you want to be a part of it. If you’re concerned that there may be inappropriate material in presentations, ask speakers to submit their slides in advance for review.

    * React to situations. E.g., if you see something wrong, ESPECIALLY when it’s in person, don’t wait for an authority to take the first step. Be bold and call out the problem person or seek out someone that can. Once you take this first step, you’ll break the barrier and others will find it easier to support you. You’ll often find that the person causing the problem didn’t mean to and is grateful for any advice you provide.

    * Personal assistance. E.g., as you come across people asking for help or needing assistance, do what you can to offer it to them or get them in touch with others that can. This can be as simple as answering a question, to spending time mentoring someone. While it’s easy to think of a community as a faceless crowd, community ultimately boils down to individual interactions between individuals. One bad experience between two people can be traumatizing and reflect badly on a group, and similarly, one good experience can open a new world up to an individual.

    * Encourage a culture of contribution. E.g., whether you’re a leader or participant, encourage others around you through your words and actions. Show them that their needs and thoughts are welcomed, appreciated, and acted on. Demonstrate how to incite action and take ownership. Over time, these efforts can transform a static and silent audience, to a group of active participants that spontaneously contribute content into the structure you’ve provided, to a group of confident and empowered individuals that want to mold the community and create new ones.

    * Lead without being a dictator. E.g., if you’re a leader (or seen as such by others), then you must accept that we are social animals with deeply-wired concepts of authority. Being a leader isn’t about ordering people to do things exactly as you demand, it’s about helping bring out the best ideas and actions from the individuals that make up your group. Introduce new members to the group dynamic and remind regulars that you want them to speak up, make suggestions, and be active participants so we can all benefit. For me, the best projects and meetings are ones where the team self-organizes so well that I don’t feel like I’m in charge. However, there are exceptional situations where you must step in and act to preserve the group and the well-being of its members.

    * Bring balance. E.g., tune situations to resolve things that aren’t entirely broken, but also not quite right. Many people mean well, but have drastically differing styles of interaction. Some interrupt others without concern to interject their thoughts, while others find this deeply offensive and feel left out. As a trusted participant or leader, help rebalance the situation. For example, diplomatically stop a person that rambled too far off-topic (e.g., “Frank, your knowledge of bodybuilding is amazing. Let’s have those interested discuss this topic further at the bar afterwards, but for now, let’s bring the discussion back to Ruby. Janet, you mentioned doing something cool with RSpec yesterday, can you tell us more?”). This may also mean recognizing people that feel sidelined, frustrated or unsure of how to jump into a fast-moving conversation (e.g., “Brad, we haven’t had a chance to hear from you and I’m sure you have some insights on this topic. Would you like to share them with us?”).

    How about you? Can you share your ideas? Thanks in advance!

  5. If I didn’t want proof I wouldn’t ask for it.

    I won’t be making any claims on what the cause is for the supposed lack of women. I’d like to see some proof of that too in fact. If I have to guess there is a lot of women like men that just don’t disclose their gender, perhaps distorting the numbers you provide.(for the OSS case)

    And my final assertion was that women are humans like men, and although I don’t have scientific proof at hand, I’m going to give them the benefit of your doubt and still assert that they are humans.

    This whole debate is littered with gender propaganda. It’s just boring by now.

  6. No, you don’t get to claim the null hypothesis.

    The status quo is not the baseline. Given the notion that men and women are (more or less) equal, you would expect them to be represented in a field like open source software (more or less) equally. Taking for granted that tech is an intellectual endeavor, and that we do not believe that women are inherently inferior to men intellectually.

    Even if there is *some* disparity between women and men it does not explain the >5% participation of women in OSS.

    Null hypothesis: why isn’t there a 50/50 gender split in technology?

  7. More to the point Mr. Troll, response bias alone can’t explain a rate of participation at that level (we should look at the original study to look for potential failures there). Also, if you looked at the link, you’ll note that the study shows that corporate tech has ~25% female representation. But even on that basis, why is there such a large discrepancy between the corp world and oss?

  8. You don’t get to dictate what I may claim. Sorry.

    I don’t even consider gender as a determining factor in this. I consider everyone human by default, gender is a really insignificant attribute. Given enough time this current “skewedness”(if it exists) will even out

    There really is no practical difference between the genders when it comes to intellectual endeavors as you say. I expect that what we have is a random fluctuation combined with the fact that the idea of gender tied professions have only recently been dissolved.

    What we need is less focus on gender and feminism. That is true equality.

  9. That also answers what I am contributing with

    I don’t drag gender into this business; It doesn’t belong here.

    You can can all applause me now or you may carry on with whatever you were doing. I am now going to go eat a banana to salute myself.

  10. Audrey asks:

    “So what can the Ruby community do to address these issues?”

    It’s a great question, for those who agree that there are issues. And from the comments on yesterday’s post, it seems that many do agree on that. I’d be very interested to read more people’s thoughts on Audrey’s question.

    And yet, TROLL is managing to hijack the comments into a discussion of whether there *is* an issue. Interesting how that happens, isn’t it? No, come to think of it, it isn’t.

    This is not a funding proposal; we don’t need to gather proof of a problem in order to start work on it. If you agree there’s a problem, please feel free to participate in discussing ways to improve the situation.

    If you disagree that there’s a problem, well, I’m not sure why you care enough to try to derail this discussion.

    The trolls will always be with us. Don’t feed them.

    Getting back to Audrey’s topic, I’m not actually in the Ruby community, although I am a developer. I’m not sure I can add much to what’s already said, but I will suggest one thing:

    If you know people who work with Ruby and aren’t participating in whatever local Ruby community you have, ask them why and/or invite them. You might learn of something you can change to become more inclusive. Or, you might find that they just weren’t aware of an opportunity.

    And don’t invite them because they are women. Invite them because of their interest in Ruby, because you think their work on some specific project would be of interest to your user group, or because you think their participation could benefit your group. Something like that. If they liked being the token woman in a group, they’d probably already be there.

  11. [Deleted trollish comments]

    [This is my blog, and I don’t find the baiting & arguing entertaining or helpful. Further off-topic comments will be deleted. –Audrey]

  12. How do we fix the problem?

    Education. We make an effort to help others learn Ruby, whether they’re male or female. We encourage this learning however we can, including through the improvement of the learning environment. When we see sexist frat-boy behaviour, we educate the frat-boys as to why that behaviour isn’t appropriate. And if they’re not willing to behave in an appropriate manner, we “fire” them from the community.

    Yes, fire them. This is one of the hardest things to do, especially for a tolerant community—and it has to be handled with caution so that you don’t turn that power into something that can be abused. Four years ago or so, the Ruby community was turned upside down through the intervention of a (now well-known) troll calling himself “Ilias Lazaridis.” I was one of the ones who argued that we should try to educate him instead of trying to “fire” him—and I believe now that I was wrong. Well, firing isn’t the right word, since we’re talking about an open community and not a job. In an open community, this may be done through “shunning.” Shunning isn’t just ignoring the person; it’s actively putting a wall around them. You don’t respond to them, but you intervene in what they’ve said to others so that they don’t get free run of your community. It’s necessary to actively ignore someone, not passively ignore them. It’s harder than it sounds.

    Without trying to take this analogy too far, this is similar to what has to be done to ensure women’s rights in Afghanistan: the men who abridge women’s rights must be educated that they should not and why they should not; the men who refuse to be educated may have to be dealt with significantly more harshly.

    I’m deeply disappointed that a branch of the Ruby community is the source of this particular instance of the ongoing “why women are so rare in OSS” saga, but education is the only thing that can fix this. For those you can’t fix, there’s shunning. For the sake of whatever community you want to participate in, there are times when tolerance is more dangerous to the community than intolerance. When people (and not just women!) are being driven away by loutish frat-boy behaviour, it’s time to be intolerant toward that behaviour.

  13. Erik Hollensbe

    Since I have a dissenting opinion, I want to clearly state that I have just encountered this article. I read the post on the pdx.rb list.

    What frustrates me about this post is not an acknowledgment of it being a problem — I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest it’s not — what bothers me is that it is, like the very thing it’s trying to eradicate, so blatantly blanketing and ultimately unappreciative of the efforts some of us make every day to accomodate female programmers.

    And it angers me to no end. I could make a lot of stereotypical comments about the female gender here, but that would only stoop to the level of calling all men “macho”.

    Perhaps, in your next article, you can focus less on how we can placate the fairer sex, and focus more on providing solutions on how we can work together where each member of society — female or male — can be equally represented as people, not as genders.

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  15. @erik: You shouldn’t be trying to accommodate female programmers. If you’re doing that, you’re doing the wrong thing. You should be working toward a more pleasant working environment or community. That alone will attract more women into the community.

    I suspect that Audrey doesn’t want to be placated: she wants to be respected, and she doesn’t want to have to act like a man to get that respect.

    @troll: Your perception on why women would be “driven away by sexism” is warped. Often, the reaction is not “OMG get me out of here” but a subtle “you know, I don’t really need this crap in my life” — and at that point, they move on to something that’s more personally rewarding. Women aren’t the only people who do this, but they do it far more often than men do. Of course, the problem isn’t just sexism—and that’s what you, Erik, and a whole bunch of other folks aren’t understanding.

    The way that I’ve read it, Audrey doesn’t want protection because of her gender or gender identity. She just simply doesn’t want to have to act like a man would in order to participate. This means that the rough-and-tumble nature of online discourse is something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. For whatever reason, many of the women (and some of the men) who would otherwise be attracted to OSS often find this off-putting and move on to different things.

    None of this suggests that women are more fragile, contrary to your assumption. It just indicates different priorities and the relative maturity differences of men and women of the same physical age. Most men in their twenties and early thirties don’t get it. I’m in my late thirties and I still don’t always get it.

    [Thank you, “You should be working toward a more pleasant working environment or community” is exactly the point I’m trying to get across. –Audrey]

  16. TROLL:
    Please read The FLOSSPols report on what keeps women out of development roles in Free &Open Source Software development. Frankly, you ought to have seen it by now. It’s old.

    It was conducted because an earlier study found that only 2% of FOSS devs are female, compared with 28% in industry.

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  19. Hey Audrey, I just got finished reading both of the posts relating to this presentation, along with all the comments. I really like the tone of both pieces, I think you’re calmness makes the message(s) more effective. Congratulations on that, as I know how hard it can be to remain calm when dealing with bigotry. It is amazing how ridiculous white male defenses of white male privilege begin to look once you have begun to see that privilege for what it is. As a white male myself, I had to have it pointed out to me. Since I was seeking knowledge (attending an antiracist workshop) rather than being called out for being racist, I welcomed this new frame of understanding. It’s taken every year since then to get where I am now, and even today I still feel like I slip up sometimes. But that was one of the most important part of the antiracist seminar: Deconditioning yourself from a racist worldview is Hard. It is Painful. It is even Alienating, as you find yourself unable to enjoy the company of those who revel in their sexist and/or racist privilege. And it is Ongoing.

    My point? The reactions of the “there is Nothing Wrong Here” crowd really got my blood boiling today (which was the first day I’d read about Matt’s presentation). This post, oriented towards constructive responses for the community, is just what I needed to read in order to cool down. (This is quite a different t0ne than the comment I would have left on the previous post if the comments weren’t locked and I hadn’t read this one, for starters).

    My suggestion for conference organizers would be to include optional (and non-schedule-conflicting) antisexist and antiracist workshops. Like my first workshop experience, people may go just to validate that they are indeed not racist or sexist only to shockingly absorb the fact that that is total BS. The first step to recognizing that a problem exists is often to have someone fully articulate the problem and that it exists. The biggest problem I’m having with Matt’s presentation is not the pictures or even the context: its the hand-waving reactions by all these (exclusively white?) males. Hint: the first step to realizing your WMP is that you think it is up to you to decide what is sexist or racist? Second hint: it isn’t.

  20. Female Rubyist

    What’s really sad about this discussion is that it’s a replay of the 70’s when non-white non-males were starting to break into IT. The same arguments are being passed around now about how the members of the out-groups shouldn’t get any special encouragement since most of the in-group people are convinced that every tiny bit of their own success is due to objectively-measured competence and nothing else. It’s not true of everyone in the in-group but there’s usually a majority that is clueless about their own privileges.

    So here we go again.

    What can we do? For each community occasion — conference, OSS project, etc. — make a specific effort to bring in at least one or two people who are not young white males by asking as many of them as you can find in the community to participate or to make suggestions about the people/topics they want to see. Ask them personally, not in a general announcement. In the long run that will make a difference.

    Another thing that helps is for the community to realize that edgy and cutting edge are very very different from puerile and unprofessional.

    Illustrating a technical presentation with porn is very much in the puerile and unprofessional category. An example is Joel Spolsky’s speech at 2008 RailsConf: Including sexy photos of both Brad and Angelina did not make the inclusion of sexy photos in a conference presentation a good idea.

    I also would like to note that I did not attend GoGaRuCo because the ‘We are rock stars!’ attitude in their marketing put me off.

  21. I’m neither female nor a member of the Rails community but I do go to technical conferences and would like to applaud the stance against selling engineering with sex.

    I mentioned your previous post on my own blog, as I think its useful to be reminded that you can shape the community: http://paddy3118.blogspot.com/2009/04/fight-for-community-you-want.html

    – Paddy.

  22. @Female Rubyist : Yes, so very much yes.

    “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” true enough. But those who do know history can recognize the tactics of those who are trying to pull the same ol’ BS yet again.

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