Revenge of the Nerds: White Male Geeks Hack Sexism, RacismS

You know how when you're playing with a friend in the sandbox and they ask you to share your toys and you don't want to and so they're all, "Sharing is nice, be nice!" and you're all, "SCREW THAT I'M OUTTA THIS SHITBOX WHERE'S MY SNACK PACK I WANT MY MOMMY!" and you march off, snot-nosed and clutching your beloved possessions tightly to your chest? Oh yeah, and the next day, nobody wants to play with you and you're sad and you tell your parents that you hate your friends and they ruined all your fun?

Yeah, I remember being five years old, too. It was tough.

Well, some people never grow up. Case in point: the organizers of the Brit Ruby 2013 conference for Ruby programmers, who cancelled due to supposed lack of sponsorship and an even greater lack of imagination. The conference, scheduled for next March in Manchester, started to receive some Twitter buzz that its all-white, all-male speaker lineup was, well, extremely white and male.

It began:

Others chimed in, tweeting offers to help:

But instead of reaching out to the community, in what one commenter called "a case of rage quit", Brit Ruby organizer Sean Handley posted on github:

  • It was pointed out on Twitter that the lineup so far is white males.
  • This became frenzied and shared with allegations of racism/sexism.
  • This put the sponsors in an awkward position regarding commitment to the conference.
  • This meant the venue contract couldn't be signed because of a potential lack of financial security.
  • Since the team can't be personally liable for the costs, there was a hard decision to be made.
  • That decision was: cancel.

Yes, gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team's motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester. Turns out, a lot of the famous Rubyists are white guys and all of the ones who said they'd like to come were, indeed, white guys.

Note: Ruby was created in the 90s by Yukihiro "Matz" Matsumoto in Japan.

Making an issue out of that is, frankly, misguided. Adding a token minority speaker is offensive to that speaker, it says "You're here because you tick a box - not because you're skilled." It doesn't matter who speaks at a conference, as long as they're capable, interesting and relevant. That's what matters: content, not style.

It looks like we're got a full board in Rationalization Bingo! Let's see... the "all minorities are tokens" fallacy, the "it's either quality or diversity; you can't have both" fallacy, the "it's a bizarre coincidence that they're all white men" fallacy, and the "no way to solve this" fallacy. BINGO! (Later on, we get a free center square when one commenter mentions that he doesn't care if a speaker is a blue guy from Avatar, and that the only racism and sexism here "come from the stupids who see racism/sexism in everything." )

The organizers are taking their balls and going home, OK??

Sean Handley challenges conference detractors, "Investigate before you judge." But it appears he didn't investigate any of the proposals for creating diversity at Brit Ruby, nor does he seem to have even worked out that his Twitter critic, Josh Susser, is an experienced Ruby conference organizer.

In fact, that's the best part about this whole thing. The man who started the conversation, Josh Susser, is, well, a man. A white man who is thoughtful about his privilege and seems to actively be working to create a slightly-more-even playing field.

One of Sean's commenters — whom also, ahem, happens to also be one of his white male conference speakers, gives some context:

I'm Avdi, and I was an invited speaker to Brit Ruby.

That "white dude in San Francisco" organized the most inclusive and gender-diverse conference I have ever been privileged to attend (GoGaRuCo 2012) . And he did it without compromising the quality of the talks one bit - in fact, the talk selection process was completely blind. He and his co-organizers did it by, among other things, making a point of reaching out to RailsBridge, DevChix etc. when publicizing the CFP. The result was a two-day slate of speakers, 25% of them women, that frankly blew me away with its consistent quality, as well as with the fresh perspectives it brought.

To everyone complaining about the audacity of someone taking a moment to point out a monoculture on Twitter... Josh Susser has put his money where his mouth is. Have you?

Word. Until there's more representation of successful programmers who aren't white and male, there's gonna have to be more outreach, more effort, more leg work. It's imperative to get more women and people of color in the spotlight because that inclusion will breed accessibility. And that's a really good thing for everyone, especially the advancement of creative, exciting technology.

And Advi's not the only commenter who takes issue with Sean's post. The organizers were called out for what they were — a bunch of butthurt crybabies — by almost half of the commenters, many of whom identify as male. Shout out: the boys got our backs!

Are there still plenty of programmers out there who think that white men are the only people who can code? Yes, there are. Just like there are plenty of people out there who think that a black man shouldn't be president. But things are changing, and it's exciting that there are so many vocal feminist men who are eloquent, polite, community-minded — and quite a few of them are providing ideas for solutions.

Some choice excerpts (from a Venn diagram demographic of different ethnicities and genders) here:

knowtheory: @seanhandley There is a serious problem in the way that people are going about defending Brit Ruby. The tacit claim that you and others have made is that the only way to fix the substantive problem would be to add token minority/female speakers, but because that's not fair to the would-be token speakers, the whole thing has just been called off. By defending this claim, it sounds very much like you are asserting that there were no female/minority speakers of note worth inviting...

... it would have been a much better idea to say "yes, this line up is very male and white, it is not because there aren't qualified speakers outside of white males, but we just kind of fucked up our lineup this year. We will endeavor to do better next year....

...What if you'd get some people on board for this who are well respected for their engagement re: diversity and have them review your process, be very open about everything on your blog, explain what went wrong (include your own mistakes, if you see any) and how you're going to fix it...

My two cents: Publicly inviting your speakers, regardless of demographics, shows what you tried to build. No one is going to blame you for inviting a diverse set of speakers and having only one demographic showing up.

Why are people acting like speaker diversity and quality are mutually exclusive? Other Ruby conferences have successfully achieved both:

...If you're inviting speakers you have a tremendous opportunity. You can get some known quantities, who are often white men, and you can target some people who aren't on stage at every conference. ...When you hand-select 75% of your speakers and they all fit in one over-represented demographic, people are going to notice...
....The problem here wasn't the mistake — it was the reaction...

...There are other ways a conference can foster diversity. Rocky Mountain Ruby offered "opportunity scholarships" for women and minorities...

thayerPrime: stated on Twitter, happy to be the person that helps make that happen: speaker assistance, promotion, engagement, and sponsors.

...I think this could have been a positive outcome, but I am not sure why you felt compelled to cancel.

Is this the end of an era? Or, at least, the beginning of the end? I used to work at a tech behemoth and I heard about the grumblings from both male and female engineers about the gender gap. Terrifyingly, many believed it was because white men are inherently better at programming — not only is that wrong, it's a dangerous myth to circulate because it closes doors and takes away possibility. In light of that experience, reading these comments is heartening. It's encouraging to see so many people, many of them men, stand up and speak out for necessary and important diversity.

The organizers of Brit Ruby 2013 were challenged to do better by almost HALF of the github commenters, including one of their own white male speakers, and by many more around the web — and it's the absolute best thing that could've happened. Well, the absolute best thing would've been for them to get a diverse group of presenters to begin with, but you know, as one of their commenters puts it:

piersadrian ...encourage more diversity amongst skilled Rubyists and try again next year.


Why Brit Ruby 2013 was cancelled and why this is not ok[Github]