On BritRuby

I am, or rather was, a speaker at British Ruby Conference 2013. If you were planning to attend, or if you follow many Rubyists on Twitter, you probably know that the conference has been cancelled. As one of the invited speakers, and as someone who briefly took part in the Twitter kerfuffle that eventually lead to its cancellation, I want to say a few things about the situation, and about what other conference organizers might learn from it.

But first, I want to talk about polymorphism and virtual machines.

In a dynamic OO language like ruby, when you send a message such as speaker.speak, you don’t have to know or care what kind of object “speaker” is. So long as it responds to #speak, it just works. To paraphrase the old song: Red or yellow, black or white, they are all ducks in the VM’s sight. All objects satisfying the right interface are equal.

Of course, things are never quite as simple as they appear. A VM that performs run-time optimization will eventually notice if speaker is an instance of the same class, 90% of the time. Say, for instance, the WhiteGuy class. In that case, the VM will optimize for the common case of calling WhiteGuy#speak. It might cache the code for WhiteGuy#speak at the speaker.speak call site. It might even arrange to have the CPU pre-load that code and start executing it in parallel with the check for whether speaker is actually a WhiteGuy. 90% of the time, it won’t have to throw out the result of the partially-completed computation, so it’s worth it. Of course, even the developer of the code will probably never notice that this optimization is going on, unless they deliberately examine the live VM with the help of diagnostic tools.

We might say that the VM develops an implicit bias for WhiteGuy objects over time. Human brains are susceptible to implicit bias as well. And while the diagnostic tools aren’t as well-developed, they do exist.

As I probably mention way too often, I’ve been part of the Ruby community for over a decade. And there’s no question that it’s been mostly white guys involved in Ruby for a lot of that time. I’ve picked up some implicit bias as a result.

Want an example? Despite my being a speaker, it took Josh Susser pointing it out for me to realize that the British Ruby Conference advertised a slate of 100% white male speakers. If the line-up had featured a bunch of women and minorities, I would have immediately noted it and thought “ah! what a diverse conference!”. But my white-guy-optimized brain didn’t make the converse observation when the diversity was absent.

Note that you don’t even have to be a white dude to have absorbed this implicit bias.

One problem with this optimization is that it’s out of date. The Ruby community is, thankfully, becoming more and more diverse. More and more great talks are being given by women and minority speakers. Just as an example, GoGaRuCo 2012 had a consistently stellar slate of talks, and fully 25% of the speakers were women. One of the things that stood out to me about the talks was how many fantastic talks were by “new blood” rather than the Ruby old guard.

The BritRuby organizers decided to invite 15 speakers, and leave 5 more slots open to submissions. I fully believe them when they say that they set out to create a diverse conference. However, I think some implicit bias crept into their selection process. Even that is not an accusation I make lightly, so here’s why I say it.

As I mentioned, 15 speakers were invited. Now, given that there is still a big disparity between men and women in the community, not to mention between white folks and other races, I figured it was possible that they had indeed invited a diverse representation of the community. Let’s say 15-25% non-white-dudes, given that it’s still harder to find prominent women and minorities in the Ruby field. And then, in a stroke of rotten luck, every single one of non-white-dude invitees turned them down. This scenario is definitely within the realm of the possible.

So I started asking around. I thought of all the prominent non-white-dude Ruby conference speakers I could in the space of a couple minutes. Just people who came easily to mind, nobody too obscure. I wanted to know if they had been invited to be part of that initial group of 15, and had said no.

Sandi Metz. Bryan Liles. Reg Braithwaite. Angela Harms. Sarah Mei. Katrina Owen (Norway). Keavy McMinn (Scotland). None of these people were invited to be part of the initial line-up. In fact, I couldn’t find a single woman or minority Rubyist who had been invited to be part of that 15.

 

Now obviously, this list is not exhaustive. But these are some of the first people I think of when I think “fantastic Ruby speaker who doesn’t happen to share my chromosomal and/or melanin allotment”. And they aren’t just token minorities either. Just to single out a couple of people, I’m certain either Sandi Metz or Katrina Owen would have blown away any talk I might have come up with.

I’m not accusing the BritRuby organizers of being racist, sexist, or misogynistic. And I don’t think anyone else involved in this conversation is accusing them of those things either, despite misguided claims to the contrary. But I don’t think it’s farfetched to suggest that in their process for coming up with names to invite, their brain VMs might have been over-optimized for the common case: white dudes.

Of course, there were still those last 5 slots. But to quote Sarah Mei:

 

Indeed. I’ve heard from at least two women who were at least mildly put off, when submitting a proposal, by the makeup of the initial slate. Not enough so to refrain from submitting; but still, they didn’t feel entirely welcomed.

Interestingly, several of the people in the list above hadn’t even heard of the CFP until after the issue blew up on Twitter. I’ll come back to that point in a bit.

So there was this lineup of all white dudes, and both Josh Susser and James Rosen took notice and called the BritRuby organizers a bunch of racist misogynist pigs. No; wait; that’s just what the participants in certain discussions seem to think happened. What actually happened was this:

 

 

In fact, as far as I can see no one ever leveled accusations of racism or misogyny. Others also failed to locate these rumored attacks by packs of vicious PC police.

 

 

Elizabeth Hendrickson went looking too, and found only “expressions of regret and offers of help”. (Stop now and read her whole post, it’s important).

For my part, I offered to cede my slot if it would help remedy the situation.

The response from the BritRuby organizers, via their Twitter account, was defensive but polite. Then, scarcely 24 hours after the brouhaha broke out, they abruptly cancelled the conference.

I’ve tried very hard since then to understand how a brief spate of largely constructive criticism on Twitter led to this cancellation. As Steve Klabnik has pointed out, the cancellation announcement doesn’t actually cite a reason. Assorted claims to the contrary, it was not cancelled merely because “people said mean things”. (And frankly, I can’t fathom how anyone could suggest that that is why veteran conference organizers would cancel an event a year in the making. That’s just silly.)

I did contact one of the organizers, and while he couldn’t cite specifics, he said it came down to finances. The best I can gather is that some sponsors expressed concern. Contrary to some rumors that were floating around, there are no confirmed reports of a sponsor pulling support for the conference at the time I’m writing this. I suspect we won’t know the details of the decision until the dust settles and the organizers have time to do a proper postmortem.

I’m disappointed. This was going to be my chance to visit the UK for the first time in my life. But that’s not why I’m recapping this story. I’m recapping because I want something good to come out of this.

One of the things that’s amazing about the Ruby community is how active the community is in building events, whether users groups, hack nights, or full-blown conferences. I dare you to name one other programming community that offers the same breadth of events. Just in the US alone I could easily attend a conference a month, and still miss some conferences because they are scheduled simultaneously with one in another part of the country. And these are all grassroots community-organized, with hardly a corporate-spawned conference to be found.

We are do-it-yourselfers. We have an astounding number of self-made amateur conference organizers. And that’s fantastic. But it means that some of these community organizers may not be as well-equipped and on top of everything as they could be.

Let’s bring things back to GoGaRuCo. It’s a conference that once got a very public black eye because of a rather insensitive talk. The organizers listened to the community, and learned from their mistakes. As I mentioned earlier, when I attended this year, it was one of the most inclusive and diverse conferences I’d ever attended, at least in terms of gender.

Let me stop here and answer a common question: “does encouraging diversity actually make a difference to the quality of a conference?” My answer, based on that experience, is oh hell yes. Believe it or not, men and women still have different experiences in our society, and bring different perspectives to the subjects they talk about. Even software. If emphasizing inclusiveness in conferences means more surprisingly mind-expanding talks like Carina C. Zona’s “Schemas for the Real World“, then bring on the diversity, because it’s a breath of fresh air.

So who was it that bounced back from community criticism and organized this exceptional conference? Why, none other than my fellow Ruby Rogue Josh Susser. Yep, the guy who first tweeted about the monoculture reflected in the BritRuby speaker lineup.

So it seemed logical to ask Josh how GoGaRuCo had succeeded in creating such a rich conference. In response, he forwarded to me the text of an email he sent to a Ruby conference-organizers mailing list. I’m just going to reprint it here in full.

Hey fellow organizers,

CoGaRuCo 2012 went great, which is what happens when you work with such a capable and dedicated team. Yay.

One thing I heard positive feedback about all throughout the show was the gender balance of the speakers (we had 25%). Take a look at some of the tweets and you’ll see how big a deal it was for people. Here is my favorite:

https://twitter.com/legion/status/247518171886653441

#GoGaRuCo was one of the best arguments I’ve yet seen for the positive impact that increased gender diversity brings to a dev community.

My goal here isn’t to rehash the reasons or tradeoffs about having women speakers, but to give some simple steps for how to get there if you want to. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s not likely you’ll magically end up with a lot of women speaking – you actually have to work for it. But you can do it in a way that keeps everything fair without making compromises on quality. Here’s what we did.

  • I decided it was worth putting effort into it.
  • I invited Sandi Metz to do a talk. I invited a few early speakers, which I like to do before opening the CFP. It is much easier to get proposals if people see reputable speakers are already part of the program. It also helps for ticket sales if you have to open registration before you have the program complete. It was easy to include Sandi there because she is so awesome.
  • We featured all the early speakers on the home page for the conf site. Having Sandi featured there showed women that there could be a place for them in our program.
  • Sandi and other women devs evangelized our CFP to the DevChix list and others. This resulted in a large number of proposals from women.
  • We evaluated proposals that had been stripped of info that identified the proposer. We didn’t know name, gender, ethnicity, home town, etc. This has been shown to help get around unconscious biases and increase diversity in hiring, so we used it for selecting talks for the same reason. After the initial pass we included speaker info to help us make final choices.

Results:

  • We ended up with 25% women speakers. (5 out of 20)
  • We had a lot of women attend. I don’t have the numbers on this, but it sure felt like the biggest percentage yet.

I got a ton of comments from people at the conference about how much they appreciated the gender diversity, what a big difference it made for the event, and that particularly they felt there was no compromise in quality to include women speakers. Early feedback numbers show that 3 of the highest rated talks were by women. This validates to me that the extra effort we put in was worth it and had no downside.

Last thing: I was chatting with one woman speaker at the after party and let her know that her talk was one of the best (a big deal for her, since it was her first talk at a conference). I explained how we had blinded proposals to select talks on merits, and she responded that that was hugely important. She had actually decided not to submit a proposal to [a Ruby conference] because she was told her proposal would be selected automatically because she was a woman, and she didn’t want to be a token female on the program.

EDIT: Here’s an article about how JSConf EU achieved similar numbers. Worth a read as well.

One thing that really stands out to me about Josh’s steps, and that a lot of people seem to be missing in discussions about this, is that it’s not enough to have a CFP that’s “open to everyone”, or to have a blind proposal review process (although that helps). If you want to be reviewing proposals from diverse sources, you have to get the word out beyond the usual suspects. Not everyone reads RubyWeekly (sorry Peter!). The sad thing about the status quo is that it’s self-perpetuating: women may not be in the habit of submitting talks, because everyone knows women don’t speak at tech events. You have to make a concerted effort to if you want to bring more people into the tent.

But note that Josh didn’t say “I contacted all the female developers I knew”. Instead, Josh reached out to the existing community networks that RailsBridge and DevChix had created. You don’t have to have a complete mental Rolodex of the Ruby community to make diversity happen. You just have to get the ball rolling, and lean on the community.

I want to close out with another quote, this one from Sandi Metz in an email to me.

I have enormous sympathy for conference organizers in their attempts to get engaging, compelling, well-prepared speakers and I can see how this would lead to pre-selecting known qualities. However, the slate of pre-selections doomed their 5 remaining slots. How do they (would they have gotten, as now seems true) get diversity without arbitrarily choosing women and non-whites for the few slots remaining slots? They created a situation in which they had to choose based on gender and color and we all hate that.

It sucks to be them, and I hate this for all of us. I believe they were well intentioned and I do not believe them intentionally sexist or racist, but they made a bunch of very bad decisions which blew up in their faces. I wish we could harness all this energy for good, dang it.

I really couldn’t have said it any better. I have the utmost respect for the efforts of the BritRuby organizers, and every other conference organizer. It’s a thankless, exhausting task. I believe everyone involved was doing the best job they could with the tools at their disposal. My hope in posting this too-long article is that is that organizers of future conferences will be better-equipped to tackle the diversity question earlier rather than later in the process. I sincerely believe the conferences, and the community, will be better for it.

EDIT: For this discussion, I’d like to keep the comments strictly focused on what constructive advice for conference organizers. I invite those wanting to discuss other aspects of this incident to reply from their own blogs, etc. Thanks!

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  • http://twitter.com/gmile Eugene Pirogov

    How do I get the password? :’(

  • http://twitter.com/iain_mk2 iain barnett

    > Indeed. I’ve heard from at least two women who were at least mildly put off, when submitting a proposal, by the makeup of the initial slate. Not enough so to refrain from submitting; but still, they didn’t feel entirely welcomed.

    I’m white. I used to go out to clubs where there were a large proportion of black people, sometimes more than whites, sometimes it would just be me and a friend that were the only white people were there and the friend would point it out, I could see they felt uncomfortable (but it soon passed as fear was diluted by positive experience). Sometimes I’ve sat with white people and asked them to come out to a club and they’ve said something along the lines of not feeling comfortable or welcome, so I understand those responses simply from experience.

    I never forced anyone to change their mind, *but* I think it’s wrong to take that decision, and not just because their fears are likely unfounded, but for something more insidious. If you choose not to do something because the group you’d be joining are different to you, then I’d say you’re the one with the problem regarding race or gender or whatever. It’s how I felt about my friends, and it’s how I’d feel if someone told me they didn’t want to speak at a conference because “they’re all X and I’m Y”.

    Nobody was stopping anyone speaking, and this stuff about being the token black or female is disingenuous IMO. Opportunity is opportunity, take it if you want it. If you make your decisions out of pride or fear then don’t try and make it out that you were excluded, because the truth is you excluded yourself.

    • Sebastián Ventura

      > I’m white.

      That’s the thing. You are not in a minority for that, and you don’t feel constant oppression for your skin colour. Your experiences, even the one at the club are just that, your experiences. If you felt discrimination your whole life, you would understand minorities a bit more. And maybe you wouldn’t say things like this:

      > If you choose not to do something because the group you’d be joining are different to you, then I’d say you’re the one with the problem regarding race or gender or whatever.

      That’s a part of the problem. You don’t feel discriminated in your normal life, maybe even constantly. You have anecdotes where you felt something similar, but you can’t extrapolate that feeling to what they feel in these scenarios, so easily. One of the reasons many of people in minorities don’t want to participate is because they feel like no one will pay attention to them because they feel they are there just because of affirmative action. I bet that’s a reason you didn’t have when you went to the club.

      To sum it up, you can extrapolate your feelings all you want, but don’t tell minorities how they should feel. Why should they change and not society? Why shouldn’t we transform society so these people don’t feel unwelcome? The problem is not as easy as there are more than them than us, it’s about constant discrimination.

      • http://twitter.com/iain_mk2 iain barnett

        Nope, I never said I’d felt discriminated. I said others had felt that and they’d made decisions about that and I disagree with them and think they’re wrong. I’ve been to places where I *could* have decided I would be discriminated, but I didn’t (and I would’ve have been wrong).

        It helps if you aim at the right target ;)

        • Sebastián Ventura

          Oh, sorry maybe I don’t understand your anecdote at all! : ) I’m a bit lost:

          > I could see they felt uncomfortable

          Here you are talking about black people, and then here:

          > Sometimes I’ve sat with white people and asked them to come out to a club and they’ve said something along the lines of not feeling comfortable or welcome, so I understand those responses simply from experience.

          You are talking about white people, right?

          Either way, my point still stands. You cannot extrapolate those experiences to what minorities feel.

          • flografle

            > > I could see they felt uncomfortable

            > Here you are talking about black people,

            Nope, I’m talking about a white person with me, being the only white people in place full of blacks – my white friend was now the minority and he felt uncomfortable. I didn’t, if I did (or do) it’s not something I will give credence to.

            I’m not sure how you think one form of discrimination (actual or feared) is more acceptable than another?

            My point still stands too ;)

          • http://avdi.org Avdi Grimm

            Please see my updated guidelines for comments on this post. This thread is now closed. Thank you!

          • http://avdi.org Avdi Grimm

            Please see my updated guidelines for comments on this post. This thread is now closed. Thank you for your contributions!

  • Brian

    Well spoken!

  • http://twitter.com/tekin Tekin Suleyman

    Great piece Avdi, thanks for your balanced input. Where can I find this Ruby Conference Organizers mailing list?

  • http://twitter.com/mediafinger Andreas Finger

    To summarize my view on the situation, the email from Sandi Metz would be enough.

    But as this topic is so complex and stirs up so many emotions (and lack of understanding), I thank you for writing such a detailed and balanced reflection.

    It would be so fantastic, if we already had broad diversity so that nobody ever had to think about the issue. If then the rare occurrence of a non-diverse event would happen, maybe nobody even would take notice…

  • http://twitter.com/davedevelopment Dave Marshall

    The most sensible thing I’ve seen written during the saga, great read.

    I’m sure the community and conferences worldwide will be better for it, I’m just slightly worried our little island won’t get another event with potential like this any time soon, once burnt, twice shy and all that.

  • iwod

    I still do not understand. Call me Stupid or what. But do Diverse has to means between black and white? Woman and Men? And if yes then those who continual to put articles on the subject but failing to even include yellow are racist?

    I thought diverse could mean people working in different part of the Ruby Ecosystem.
    I thought people would be more interested in the subject of Ruby. And not who the speaker was as long as they deliver. I mean heck even alien can come if they program Ruby and speaks English. Why all the fuss about what i consider to be a non issue?

    And if the conference could only have 3 Slot, those three people are DHH, Matz, and … let say _why, would anyone consider to have one of them replaced by a woman for the sake of so called diversity.

    Again, i still do not understand.

    • Sebastián Ventura

      No one is saying that there should be minorities, but that from the results it seems that they had an implicit bias for white people. All people are saying is that it’s really difficult to only get white people if you don’t have a bias (intentional or not).

      • iwod

        “had an implicit bias for white people”

        Thanks. I think i finally understand what this drift is about.

    • http://jboxer.com/ Jake Boxer

      “lets say _why”

      Good luck with that.

      • iwod

        It was merely some figures that i think everyone would love to hear, Not that is is actually possible.

  • http://martyhaught.com Marty Haught

    I made a post over a year ago that might be helpful to those organizing events. I have a few half-baked posts that I never finished on the topic as well.

    http://martyhaught.com/articles/2011/11/02/event-organizing-101/

    Furthermore, Ruby Central will be providing resources for organizers in the near future.

  • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com maco

    I’m very new to Ruby (more of a Pythonista), but I did the LinuxFest speaker circuit for a few years.

    I remember being shocked at the first Southeast LinuxFest, because it seemed like there were a lot more women there than usual, even if the list of women speaking was still small. The organizers told me they’d had the “the women we asked were busy that weekend” problem, but that those women, after declining to speak, had put the word out to their networks, resulting in the large turnout.

    I used to help out with Ohio LinuxFest’s CFP promotion and speaker selection. In 2010, OLF had 38% women speakers, up from 16% the year before. At that time I wrote an article about how we did it. http://geekfeminism.org/2010/09/02/finding-more-women-to-speak-at-ohio-linuxfest-success/ The thing I think this adds to what you wrote is, in addition to sending the CFP to women’s groups, we also provided extra information about the audience, what gaps we usually see in proposals, and an assurance that it is a friendly conference for first-time speakers. (OLF 2008 was where I got started) I believe that was also the year that we designated someone to help first-timers with reviewing their slides. The idea was that the entire community benefits when there are more people sharing more information, so we need to help people learn to do that.

    • http://twitter.com/ginnyhendry Ginny Hendry

      Improving the CFP process would help bring in more new speakers from all groups. Many conferences just have an announcement that proposals will be accepted with no information about what kinds of talks (length and format) and what kinds of topics they’re looking for. They also rarely explain the selection process or the kind of information they want to see in a proposal so people know what to do and what to expect.

      I know conference organizers have tons of work to do but getting a good selection of established and new speakers and talks is important. Some conferences delegate the talk selection work to a separate committee which could help with the workload.

      • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com maco

        Absolutely, it’s useful for everyone. I used to do some accessibility stuff with Ubuntu, and in the a11y world, we talk about designing for everyone and how the things you do to improve for a minority group can be just plain improvements overall. The classic example is curb cuts for wheelchairs, and how much easier they make it to push a baby in a stroller or drag your cart of groceries home.

        Actually, accessibility is something we made sure to call out with OLF too, and wouldn’t ya know, there’s been a hard-of-hearing speaker and a deaf-and-mostly-blind speaker as well. That year, I did my talk in English and Signed English (using ASL signs) simultaneously, because the HoH speaker was in the audience*. When the Diversity in Open Source Day was established, it was explicitly _not_ “we’re going to say diverse but really just mean women.” Accessibility was definitely on the list, and I believe gender identity/expression was as well. The person who organizes that workshop identifies as neither a man nor a woman.

        * Unfortunately, ASL interpretation can be a complex matter. In some locations, certain certifications are required in order to advertise “we’ll have an interpreter,” and interpreters tend to work in pairs, taking turns every half hour or so, as it can be very tiring. There are workarounds to the cost since the person in need can obviously pick someone not-certified (I interpret for my friends plenty), but IANAL.

  • http://twitter.com/girlgeeks Morna Simpson

    I think Iain makes a good point when he says that in situations where there is imbalance “fear become diluted by positive experience”.

    It is unfortunate that many women working in Tech have encountered some negative feedback at some point that could be described as sexism. I encountered a fair whack of this at Art School. For example the technician in the (only) computer lab at the time would randomly switch off the power to the computer that any girls were working on. As I was young (18) & just learning the basics this was quite damaging. If I got angry he would make an effort to humiliate me “Can’t you take a joke” etc. The guys would join in… if he was funny enough… It took a long time before I was in the situation where I had the same opportunities for learning *anything* tech.

    That was 20 years ago – and I hope that sort of thing does not go on any more. However, I think it is fair to say that coming across bad attitudes sets your expectations for the future. That is why i think it is important to make the effort to create diversity in all fields (not just technology). It is important on an economic and political level – never mind the personal.

    These days my positive experiences far outweigh the negatives which all happened a long time ago. I’ve always found the Ruby community to be one of the warmest and most welcoming. Its one of the most social groups around! So it is particularly surprising to me that the organisers of this conference did not approach any women.

    I think Avdi is spot on with his criticism.

    It only takes a very small change to make a difference. We just need people to be a little more mindful of the imbalance. Don’t blame women for not taking part. That is just ridiculous. As soon as people have a positive experience their negatives will become diluted. If people are encouraged along they will ask a friend next time. That is how change happens.

    One final thought – as a female working in tech you are frequently asked to speak at conferences and so on. It would be great if I could speak at them all – but… I’m not always qualified *and* if all I did was talk I’d never get any work done!! : )

    Its a terrible shame this conference was cancelled, whatever the reasons. Thanks Avdi for a great post.

  • Negro

    > as far as I can see no one ever leveled accusations of racism or misogyny

    You don’t need to say the exact words for a comment to be offensive.

  • trans

    What I want to know is how many of them had green eyes?

  • http://twitter.com/girlgeeks Morna Simpson

    I’d like to recommend a book that I think is useful for anyone who is interested in issues of diversity. This particular book focuses on gender in the workplace – but I am sure that the core theme – which is how different groups present themselves and are perceived by other groups could be extrapolated across a range of different contexts.

    It is a bit academic for some (I’ve been told)… a bit too “pop” for others (#irony).

    What I like about it is that there is no blame. Instead it helps you to think about how you communicate with other groups – and small changes you can make in order to be perceived differently.

    “Deborah Tannen looks at the role played by talk ‘from 9 to 5′, focusing in particular on the differing conversational rituals that typify men and women. Those common among men involve opposition such as banter, joking and playful put-downs; common among women are ways of maintaining the appearance of equality, avoiding boasting and downplaying authority. Arguing that no one style is superior, Tannen shows that when conventions are taken literally, there are negative results for both sides. She illuminates the different ways men and women make decisions, ask for information and delegate. Then shows how these styles affect how we are judged in the workplace.”

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Talking-From-9-5-Women-Language/dp/1860492002/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353363941&sr=8-1

  • Dr Spock

    Politicisation of technology is a very bad path to follow …

  • Vi Hart

    Does “white guys” definition exclude Asians?

  • boblog

    I demand that the next event has an equal part gay and trans people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Maj-Variola/100003091129531 Maj Variola

    You are ridiculous. This is a tech conference. Deal with it.

    Diversity is in the mind. Atlas shrugged, and flips you off.