Thursday, May 07, 2009

Attracting Women to Rails

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 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.


Skye @ Planet Jinxatron said...

"...making a subset of your audience uncomfortable is a problem."

Yes, exactly! I hate the tone some commenters are striking where anyone offended, annoyed, or otherwise bothered by those images has to PROVE why the images are a problem. Isn't it enough that large numbers of people were so distracted by the images that the conversation ended up being about the images instead of the actual content of the presentation?

Ms.PhD said...

awesome post. I heard about this hoopla from a friend and was very amused to see it highlighted here.

Kind of like the Larry Summers debacle, apparently it did one good thing, which was to spark a lot of productive discussion at this meeting and at RailsConf (e.g. supportive men educating clueless men).

In fact, the ensuing discussion made me feel a lot better about the (vast majority) guys in this community. As a group, they seem remarkably enlightened.

If someone did this in my field, I would be curious to know if there would be the same kind of reaction. There is a lot of tacit sexism and I don't know if something controversial like this wouldn't be more likely to trigger it to become more blatant rather than help it go away?

feministchemists said...

Great article! You are so prolific, I wish I could be more like you with my blog.

I did post a recent letter I wrote to the editor of Science, critiquing a sexist research article they published. My letter did not make the cut, so I have published it on my blog. It is a counter-argument to the "variance on math tests" crap that everyone uses (like Larry Summers) to prove that men are better at math and science than women. Check it out:

Peggy K said...

Skye: in some of the discussions of the issue some people have argued that any publicity is good publicity, and it doesn't matter if they have forgotten the content of the presentation. I'm not sure it really works like that in a small community though.

Ms.PhD: I wonder what the discussion would have been like if the images had been of women in bikinis. A series of gratuitous bikini shots certainly could send the same kind of "boyz club only" message, but I suspect there would have been fewer people outraged without the added offensiveness of porn.

feministchemists: thanks for the link!

Sarah Mei said...

Very nice overview. I wanted to post a followup.

In the panel at RailsConf, I talked about doing some free workshops for women who wanted to learn Ruby and Rails. We had the first one a few weeks ago, and the second is coming up at the end of July.

The effort is already drawing some new women to my local (San Francisco) Ruby meetups. I've had interest from Rubyists in other cities who'd like to do similar workshops. Perhaps thanks to all the publicity around pr0ngate, I haven't had trouble finding workshop sponsors, either.

Peggy K said...

Thanks for the update!