A Tipping Point for Women in Tech? Here’s hoping.

Once upon a time there was a fellow who had a presentation to give at a tech conference. He planned to talk about code and databases. He thought it would be a good idea to make his presentation interesting, since his topics were a bit of a yawn. He decided it would grab attention and be funny if he interspersed images of women in pornographic poses among his slides of code and bullet points.

It did grab attention. But it wasn’t funny.

That fellow was Matt Aimonetti. The tech conference was the Golden Gate Ruby Conference. The presentation opens with this image.

opening screen of the Matt Aimonetti presentation

Here’s the full presentation: CouchDB: Perform like a pr0n star. I suggest you look through the slides and form an opinion of your own before reading on. It is enlightening to read the comments following the presentation, too.

There weren’t many women in the audience, but there were women in the audience. This was a national conference, not a gathering of teenager boys in a smelly upstairs bedroom. The women in the audience found the slides objectionable. Quite a few of the men in the audience did, too.

The first comments about the presentation, naturally, appeared on Twitter. Use the hashtag #gogaruco if you’d like to read through them all. Notable among those tweets was this one by dhh:

tweet by dhh

Who is dhh? The creator of Ruby on Rails!

dhh Twitter profile

Yes, the creator of Ruby on Rails thought it was funny. He wasn’t the only male who defended the presentation as edgy and funny and appropriate.

Rails activist Mike Gunderloy didn’t agree. In fact, in A Painful Decision, he said,

There has been some discussion in recent days in the Rails community about appropriate conference presentations, whether women feel welcome in the Rails community, and related issues. I don’t intend to review the entire mess here – you can find it if you want it. For what it’s worth, I think the original presentation was an inappropriate and regrettable mistake. However, far more disturbing to me are the reactions to the discussion on the part of some of the Rails community.
. . .
But unfortunately for me, in parallel to the public discussion there have been private ones. I can’t reveal details without breaking confidences, but suffice it to say that a significant number of Rails core contributors – with leadership (if that’s the right word) from DHH – apparently feel that being unwelcoming and “edgy” is not just acceptable, but laudable. The difference between their opinions and mine is so severe that I cannot in good conscience remain a public spokesman for Rails.

So, effective immediately, I’m resigning my position with the Rails Activists.

Aimee, a Rails programmer herself, writes at A little place of calm. Here’s part of her reaction in Distressing times for the Rails community.

Unexpected pornography at a professional conference surprises me, shocks me a little. I wonder whether Matt Aimonetti, at any point during the preparation of that presentation, thought “This is likely to offend some people”, and if so, whether Matt decided not to care.

The refusal of some Rails representatives to even acknowledge that there is a problem angers me.

Aimee’s comments seem relevant to an article by Raina Kelley in Newsweek called Generation Me.

Perhaps, one day, we will say that the recession saved us from a parenting ethos that churns out ego-addled spoiled brats. And though it is too soon to tell if our economic free fall will cure America of its sense of economic privilege, it has made it much harder to get the money together to give our kids six-figure sweet-16 parties and plastic surgery for graduation presents, all in the name of “self esteem.” And that’s a good thing, because as Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell point out in their excellent book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” released last week, we’ve built up the confidence of our kids, but in that process, we’ve created a generation of hot-house flowers puffed with a disproportionate sense of self-worth (the definition of narcissism) and without the resiliency skills they need when Mommy and Daddy can’t fix something.

I extrapolate from this discussion of a narcissism disorder among a percentage of generation me to mean that perhaps a certain breed of geek thinks that his opinions are universal and no one could possibly be offended by what he finds funny. The Rails community needs a dose of reality to wake them from their narcissistic adolesecent male world view.

Matt Amionetti did respond to the uproar he wrought, on his blog The Merblist in On Engerdering Strong Reactions.

To start with, I would like to make it clear to everyone that I do sincerely care about the larger gender issues that my presentation touched off. I have also replied and otherwise corresponded with everyone who has contacted me about my presentation, just as I have tried to reply to all of the blog posts that have been brought to my attention. At this point, however, it is clear that this issue has grown too large to be resolved through one-on-one contact, hence this public statement.

He says that the conference organizers warned conference goers that materials in his presentation might be offensive to some, so anyone who came did so after being warned and knew what they were getting into. He plans to attend a panel about Women in Rails at an O’Reilly Rails Conference on May 5. The speakers at this panel discussion are all women: Desi McAdam (Hashrocket Inc and DevChix Inc), Sarah Mei (LookSmart), Lori Olson (Dragon Sharp Consulting). (That would be an interesting place to lurk.)

Liz Keogh read Matt’s justification for his presentation and wrote a brilliant analysis of how the brain associates information. Her article is I am not a Pr0n Star: avoiding unavoidable associations. I hope you read all of it. Here are some highlights.

The human brain consists of a bunch of neurons, between which connections and pathways are built. Those pathways form associations. There are associations of which we’re conscious, associations of which we’re not conscious, and a blurred space in between.
. . .
Human beings learn associations by – amongst other things – proximity; either in time, or in place. That is; they will build associations more easily if two or more things are experienced close together.

If you’ve watched Matt’s slideshow, and you find yourself using CouchDB on a project in the future, will you be thinking of his slideshow? It was very memorable. I think I will find it hard in the future to disassociate that slideshow from the featured product. That’s a conscious association I’ve built. I’m aware of it.

There’s a subconscious association going on in that show, too; another proximity which is harder to spot. We’ve just experienced words of technology – key phrases like scalability, REST, public interfaces – with images of women whom we’re told are available for visual sexual gratification. There are a few men in some of the images; they appear to me to be in positions of power and influence. The images of women, on the other hand, tend to be submissive. So we’re learning, subconsciously, that women associated with technology are also associated with sexual gratification and submissiveness. (The only strong women in the slideshow are associated with conflict, which we try to avoid.)
. . .
If you were sitting in Matt’s presentation, or have experienced similar presentations or associations in the past:

  • you might consciously choose to wear a topless women on your t-shirt, because your brain subconsciously confirms that it’s acceptable.
  • You might expect women to be more submissive; to accept delegated tasks more easily, or question process less, or accept lower pay.
  • You might find it uncomfortable to have a female manager or team lead.
  • You might cause the women around you start dressing in less feminine ways, to distance themselves from any association.
  • You might erroneously think you have a chance of scoring with your female colleague (notwithstanding cases of genuine mutual attraction).
  • You might not expect the woman on your team to be able to teach you anything new.

And, if you’re Matt, or one of the many commenters whose opinions I’ve read, you might not completely understand the backlash.

Two bloggers have published compilations of some of the comments and tweets on the slide presentation. Burningbird published her collection in Open Arms. Hackety gathered even more comments in A Selection of Thoughts from Actual Women. These are helpful compilations of comments.

One of the many women who commented was Sarah at the evolving ultrasaurus. She was one of the women who were actually at the conference. She posted gender and sex at gogaruco.

What most pisses me off is that I had to write this blog post, instead of one about Ruby & CouchDB, which is a far more interesting topic.

It isn’t just the Rails community. A friend of mine recently got what she thought was friendly mentoring from a famous-name male in the tech world. She was dismayed when she discovered that he expected sex in return for the career advancement help. When she refused, he started naming names of women in tech who supposedly did offer up the requested sexual favors. He regards the women in tech as his for the plucking and thinks he is perfectly justified in behaving that way. (This is a married man, by the way.) My friend will write about this herself once she cools down a bit, but it does bring up the question of whether it’s more than just the objectification of women but outright exploitation that keeps women away from conferences.

Years of discussion about the minuscule showing of women at tech conferences, the dearth of women in computer sciences, and the lack of sensitivity toward women and minorities by conference organizers has not come close to galvanizing opinion like this one act of monumental unenlightment at a Rails conference. I hope both women and men will continue to make their voices heard on this issue until finally, FINALLY, the men in tech start to hear what the women in tech are saying.

I hope women are saying something like this: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

Cross posted at BlogHer.

5 thoughts on “A Tipping Point for Women in Tech? Here’s hoping.”

  1. Good work! The only thing I differ with–strongly–is that underlying the narcissism you so rightly describe is what is colloquially known as Geek Syndrome, whether it be Asperger’s or some variant of High Functioning Austism. These are minds that simply do not think beyond themselves, by nature. Educate, educate, educate!

    Zos last blog post.. The Trauma Room

    1. I know Asbergers creates social difficulties for many people, geeks included, but do you know that it is a factor in this particular situation and group?

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  3. It sounds like the technology world hasn’t changed all that much since 1978. I was responsible for the welfare and maintenance of the Dental Claims system at a Blue Cross. I recall walking over to another group (all male) who was responsible for maintaining the associated membership database to let them know about an upgrade I planned to do that weekend.

    In the middle of my explanation, the senior analyst interrupted me and in front of 4 other males, proceeded to tell me how much he wanted to cup my breasts in his hands.

    It just went along with all the solicitations by married men.

    I am so not surprised by the ho-hum reaction of many of those males. Sexism has a long tradition in IT.

    I’d be willing to bet that Matt Aimonetti and his 37signals buddy don’t work for females. They might find their idea of what’s acceptable curbed somewhat by reality.

    I think it’s time for them to suffer some consequences.

  4. The problem was the brashness involved after some audience members were offended. A simple apology – void of self-saving excuses – would have solved a lot (or at least made some women more prone to forgive and forget). Unfortunately we live in a society that throws sex in front of us to catch our VERY unevenly divided attention. When more women show up in these arenas, I think things like this will become less likely. Let’s go gals!

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