Smut On Rails

30 April 2009

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.

It's my view that the people in a community have the power to set the tone of that community, to decide what is and is not acceptable behavior within it. If something questionable happens and people remain silent, that is an implicit acceptance of that event. That is why I feel compelled to write this page, because I think that this talk, and more importantly the rails leadership response to this talk, is objectionable.

My observation is that most men in the software business think that there isn't much sexism left in the profession - that this curse is a memory from a previous generation. Yet when I talk to women, I hear a different story. Nearly every one can tell me recent stories where they were clearly expected to feel degraded and belittled because of their gender. So some sexually suggestive pictures aren't a joke to them, they are a pointed reminder of disturbing behavior, and a reminder that such events can happen again at any time. One of the great difficulties for white guys like me is that we haven't been in that position; where prejudice can appear out of any corner, reinforced by the fact that every other face looks different.

This becomes more of an issue because the rails world faces a notable lack of women. The software world struggles with Diversity as it is. It's a problem for our profession, in that we lose access to talent, and it's a problem for many women who don't get the chance to develop a satisfying career in programming. The open-source world in general has even bigger issue, and the rails community perhaps more so. I'm sure it's not the only factor but the encouragement of talks like this creates an unwelcoming atmosphere of NetNastiness which deters many women from starting and staying in the community.

There also seems to be a generational factor in this. My colleagues have noticed that younger women, typically those under 30, are much less conscious of sexism than their older colleagues. This is partly because of the successes their elders have had in opening up the workplace to women. It may also because younger women haven't yet met the glass ceiling (and I hope it will be gone before they get there). Younger women also seem much more tolerant of sexual imagery. Yet I don't think this is cause for complacency. An important element in nurturing women in our profession is to have role-models who can show what's possible. Alienating older women makes it harder to do that.

So where does this go? I won't attempt to predict the future, but there is a scenario where this little presentation may be seen as a defining event in the rails story. This doesn't mean that people will suddenly leave in droves, but it does begin with a few departures, such as Mike Gunderloy's. The community continues with more alienating events, encouraged by the fact that those who are more sensitive are no longer around to object. This encourages more departures as people don't want to be associated with such a community. Thus develops a positive feedback loop making the rails world increasingly brash and unwelcoming for many of us.

I have a different vision - one that sticks it to the suits so hard it will make their eyes water. How about a community where women are valued for their ability to program and not by the thickness of their skin? How about a community that edgily pushes new boundaries without reinforcing long running evils? Perhaps even a community where women reach equal numbers? Such a community would hand the suits the defeat in the long battle women have been fighting for centuries. I'd love to be part of that.

Further Reading

A selection of commentary on this issue on the web. It's not a comprehensive list, just the items I've felt are particularly interesting and relevant to this story.

Some thoughts on common statements

These pictures were less revealing and sexual that what you'd find in a mainstream movie

This is where the context matters. Watching a movie is a different social space to being in a software development talk. As result people react differently.

It is important to realize that the same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate for different people in different positions. The risqué banter between partners and often in teams (mixed and unmixed) can be normal and healthy. But a newcomer who is not part of that group may perceive that same banter as demeaning or threatening. The corollary is that when strangers are around you need to be more careful about what you say.

-- Chris Stevenson

These kinds of sexualized images have long been associated with men's clubs. Condoning a presentation like this can imply that the powerful (the community leadership) wants this atmosphere, to create a context that excludes women. I don't think the rails leadership actually wants to do this, but if someone did want to do create such a group, this would be a good way to go about it.

Women shouldn't get so annoyed, men don't when women make reverse jokes

You can't ignore history. Women have been comprehensively discriminated against for generations, indeed in most societies in the world they still are. It's the same reason why it's insensitive to make jokes about blacks and slavery or jews and the holocaust. The joke makes it look like you think the actual wrong was no big deal.

If you always worry about people being offended, you'll just end up being bland

Yes, that's a real risk. But being aware of causing offense doesn't mean you have to dial all the way down to corporate blandness. It means thinking how what you will cause offense and being comfortable with the result. You may feel that certain people should be deal with being offended, you may think that only a very small amount of people will be offended. That can be a reasonable response, but it has to be a thoughtful response.

As often, I find my black colleague Chad Wathington puts it well:

I think we don't have to get caught up in managing to every insult. I do think that people who have privilege need to do their best to not offend marginalized groups, realizing that no one is going to be perfect. Best effort is good enough as long as we respond gracefully and truthfully when we fail. As someone on the receiving end, I've always maintained that my job is be compassionate during those failures

-- Chad Wathington

The presenter made an apology

The presenter effectively said "I'm sorry you were offended" - that translates to "don't be so thin-skinned". The presenter claims that he wasn't intending to be offensive, and I can believe that. But his failing is not realizing that what he considers to be offensive isn't the same as that of some of the audience. His pseudo-apology suggests to me that either he doesn't care that those people were offended, or doesn't understand how they could be offended - probably the latter.

The people who were offended are being thin-skinned.

That's a comment often made by those who condone NetNastiness, but it doesn't help those who are offended. The crucial point is: do we want to create an environment where "thin-skinned" people aren't welcome? After all the consequence of a society that is tolerant of nastiness and bullying is one where only the thick-skinned need apply. I'd prefer that people are welcomed for their ability in software development, not their ability to withstand offense.

This goes further than just our profession. To be successful as software developers, we need to collaborate with people in other fields. Tolerating this degree of nastiness makes it difficult for people in other walks of life to work with us, which impoverishes us all.

Humor is an important tool to puncture the self-important

I agree, but this only works if the power relationship is in the right direction. Someone of low power poking fun at a powerful person is a different situation to someone with lots of power skewering someone with little power. Women are (still) in a position of low power in our society (particularly in software development) so we have to be more careful with our humor.

Should be organizer be blamed for this?

No. It's not up to the organizers to vet talks. Certainly it's up to the organizers to choose talks, but there's no way they can be responsible for what happens on the day. It's sad that all of this has landed on GoGaRuCo and I think Josh Susser's apology was very gracious.

If an organizer rejected a talk like this, that would be censorship

It's not censorship. Censorship is when the powerful stop people organizing their own conference, or prevent people publishing their own web site or pamphlets. A conference organizer or a web site host has the responsibility to set the tone for that space. An important part of this is selecting content. Not every talk that's offered gets accepted, and the choices the organizer makes determines what the conference is like. Organizers will reject poor quality talks all the time, and it's reasonable to say that offensive talks are poor quality.

You're just trying to impose your moral and 'professional' standards on us

You might be surprised by my personal attitude to sexuality. But the point is not about judging various standards, it's about whether we want to make a group of people feel alienated. When looking at this I ask: "who is being offended" and "do I care about that group".

This is no worse than what happens in other professions

I don't know, although I've certainly encountered more overt sexism in worlds other than software. But I don't think that's relevant - we should do what we can to make our environment so that it doesn't exclude worthwhile people.

Can we get off this subject now and on to important technical issues?

Actually I think a social issue like this is worth spending time on. To build software effectively you have to be able to collaborate with other people, both other programmers and people outside of the software community. Discussions like this help us understand how we relate with other people, which makes a huge contribution to both our professional and personal lives.

Being a professional isn't just about being good at your job, it's about being proud of the impact you have on the world in general. We have a duty to make the world a better place.

-- Jez Humble


I always find it particularly difficult to write these kinds of pieces. When I do, I find it particularly valuable to bounce thoughts off several of my colleagues and other friends. My thanks to David Heinemeier Hansson, Jez Humble, John Kordyback, Cyndi Mitchell, Mai Skou Nielsen, Rebecca Parsons, Kathy Sierra, Roy Singham, Chris Stevenson, and Chad Wathington for reading and commenting on the drafts. Thanks also to lots of people who have posted their feelings and analysis both on public channels and internal Thoughtworks mailing lists. I have learned a great deal in the last few days.