One of the discussion panels this week at RailsConf 2009 in Las Vegas was "Women in Rails". The discussion was lead by Desi McAdam of DevChix.com and Hashrocket, Sarah Mei of LookSmart,and Lori Olson of Dragon Sharp Consulting and focused on some very basic issues:
A general question like “How do we get more women into technology?” isn’t actually useful for our community. Discussion usually devolves into nature vs. nurture, then affirmative action, and it all goes south from there.
So in this session we get down to brass tacks: how specifically can we bring more female programmers into the Rails community? How can we get them to come to RailsConf? Why aren’t they here already?
There are also some community-contributed questions here.
(In case you aren't familiar with the term, Ruby on Rails is "an open source web application framework for the Ruby programming language.)
You can watch the video of the panel embedded below (or on YouTube)*.
While some of the discussion is focused specifically on the Ruby community, a lot of what they discuss is applicable to other computer-related fields. One of the topics they discuss is the need for women who are already in the field to make themselves visible. I find that to be particularly timely in light of an incident that happened at the Golden Gate Ruby Conference (GoGaRuCo) conference a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco.
One of the presenters at the conference decided that his talk needed some interesting illustrations - not a bad idea in general, but unfortunately he chose to use pornographic photos of women. You can see the slide set here (NSFW, but supposedly some of the images have been removed). Not surprisingly this was controversial, and a number of the attendees were either offended, annoyed or both. The presenter gave an "I'm sorry if you were offended" non-apology, and that, not surprisingly, sparked a huge discussion.
You can read a collection of responses by a number women in the community here and more discussion at Sarah Mei's blog, Liz Keogh's blog, and at MetaFilter (and probably lots of other places too). There's a lot of the usual I think Martin Fowler made a very good point:
The reaction of the rails leadership thus far is to deny the offense. I'll say now that I don't believe they are sexist. I believe that they didn't think the talk would give this much offense - and even that they don't think the talk should give offense.
At this point there's an important principle. I can't choose whether someone is offended by my actions. I can choose whether I care. The nub is that whatever the presenter may think, people were offended - both in the talk and those who saw the slides later. It doesn't matter whether or not you think the slides were pornographic. The question is does the presenter, and the wider community, care that women feel disturbed, uncomfortable, marginalized and a little scared.
And this, to me, is the point that often gets ignored when these controversies arise. So often the discussion it seems to get derailed into a debate on whether people "should" be offended by an incident (with the usual claims that anyone who isn't prudish should be just fine with images of sexy women or discussion of women's sexiness), rather than acknowledging that making a subset of your audience uncomfortable is a problem. What also gets lost is that images or comments don't necessarily have to be offensive in and of themselves to make some uncomfortable, particularly when they are used in a professional context. Just making the atmosphere feel like a straight boy's club is enough to make some women feel unwelcome.
And I think that has to be kept in mind in any discussion of attracting and retaining women in a male-dominated field. It's not enough to say you want women as colleagues - if women are given the implicit message that their colleagues consider them to have no purpose beyond being decorative sex objects, they will probably go elsewhere.
(the GoGaRuCo incident is via The F-Word)
* It's totally off topic, but I was surprised that the chairs the panelists were sitting in were too high for them to rest their feet on the floor. That must have been uncomfortable.
Tags: women in computer science