GeekGenderFail ’09

(X-posted to Chrononautic Log)

It’s good to know the science fiction community isn’t the only one capable of major fail, I guess. From Martin “Refactoring” Fowler, “Smut On Rails” (emphases added):

A couple of weeks ago there was a Ruby conference in San Francisco called GoGaRuCo (Golden Gate Ruby Conference). This conference has grabbed attention due to a talk at which the presenter illustrated a discussion of CouchDB by using sexually suggestive pictures of women. Unsurprisingly the result has been a fair bit of heated, and occasionally offensive, debate.

The main lines of the debate are familiar. Various people, not all women, lay the charge that the images and general tone was offensive. Such material makes women feel degraded and alienated. This kind of presentation would not be tolerated at most professional events.

Defenders of the presenter point out that the slides were humorous and no offense was intended. The Rails community has always had a edginess to it — in part because much of the Rails community is focused on the rejection of enterprise values — both technologically and socially. David Heinemeier Hansson is happy to proclaim himself as an R-rated individual and is happy to consign “professional” to the same pit to which he cast “enterprise”.

I’ll admit to finding much to like in the general edginess of the Rails world. Innovation often involves seeing a generally accepted line and vaulting over it. There’s plenty of precious posturing around the software world that I’m glad to see skewered. Many of us have been delighted at how Rails has cheekily whacked over-complex frameworks, vendor bloatware, and other assorted ills. An important target of this skewer has been the rise of corporate blandness, where a fear of offense has transformed into a fear of any authentic communication and the rise of the anodyne press release. I’m right with the Rails people on this — software is too much fun to shriveled up in dry talks and writing.

So the view of the Rails leadership seems to be this: that the objections to the presentation are yet another attempt to foist empty corporate values on the thriving Rails ecosystem.

Except on this occasion I don’t see the suits as the people doing the complaining. Most of those calling foul are women who have had to struggle with very real sexism in their careers, and men who have seen this and side with those women. They have been fighting the suits since before the Rails leadership were born, and for much higher stakes.

This incident has now grown beyond a conference presentation and a slide-deck on the web. The issue is no longer the presentation, but the reaction of the community to this event. The leaders, particularly David Heinemeier Hansson as the most visible figure, now face an important time in influencing what the future of the community will be.

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.

This is the kind of dickhead behavior that makes me hate programmers. It was evident at the last conference I went to (Javapolis ’08) but I sort of put it down to the organizer and chief offender being Belgian. Unfair of me. He was just being an undersocialized alpha geek. Beware the alpha geek; he will fuck your shit up.

There’s a metric crapload of technologies out there, and geeks have got a choice what they want to use, learn, work on, participate in. Funnily enough, Hansson’s handling of this little crisis reduces my interest in making Rails my next technology of choice by about 90%. His defenders would undoubtedly sneer at that, asking what kind of geek picks a technology for “non-technical” reasons. I’d ask: what kind of geek picks a technology that bets its future on alienating the smart half of the human race.

Update: Some follow-ups:

Neal Ford: “Lots of people who aren’t affected by this will say that this is a tempest in teapot, and that the offended parties are over reacting. Insidious misogyny is like lazy racism: people who engage in it hide behind a casual facade of ‘Oh, really, that was offensive?’ Yes, by the way, it was.”

Tim “XML” Bray: “When you offend people but didn’t mean to, you should just fucking well apologize. And do it in an unreserved way, unless you think that offending them is a good thing and will produce a result that you’re in favor of.”

Update again: A very good post from Virginia DeBolt at BlogHer, with further links: “A tipping point for women in tech? Here’s hoping.

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