Women, Diversity & Discrimination

Background: Presentations that include female nudity and references to porn in professional presentations. The first incident occurred at GoGaRuCo the Ruby conference in April, the second and far more blatant one at the Flashbelt conference just two days ago.

This is my take on the issue, and my personal experiences with these kinds of incidents.

Incident one: I had gone to the Bangalore FOSS.in conference about two years ago. An extremely attractive lady from linuxchix came up on stage to speak on The Black Art of Makefiles. As has happened many a time before to many a speaker’s laptop, hers refused to play nice with the on-screen projector and the slides just wouldn’t come up. Yes, probably a screen resolution mixup. What was unusual though was the ten guys who rushed up on stage and started working on her laptop. They tried for a minute or two to fix the problem (without success) before the lady eloquently managed a few keystrokes in. And voila, the slides came up and the crowd dispersed, sheepishly. Yes, the lady knew best—it was her laptop after all.

Incident two: One of my friends is studying for her MBA at a good institute where companies come up to place people for summer internships. An interesting statistic: 80% of people who got placed in high-profile companies were girls, and a reputed technical MNC only gave out internships to girls. I theorize that this is because as a rule, girls sell products much better than guys.

Fact: There are subtle (and not) gender differences in the technical community that’s visible every day. While most often this is genuine discrimination, sometimes (as in incident two) it’s biased towards women too.

Fact two: Not all discrimination is deliberate. I’m pretty sure the Ruby presenter was just trying to be “edgy” (Ruby is much more conducive towards such non-mainstream behavior) but ended up offending the women in the audience. I’m not sure many women realize this, but men do not have an internal radar on the things that offend women – this is a general extension of the “cluelessness” that is often attributed to us, albeit with more serious consequences in this case.

Whatever the case may be, there’s one solid fact. We genuinely need diversity in the technical community – a broader opinion and insight on every topic just leads to a better community and this is true however cutting-edge it might pretend to be. Most of the people do want to encourage this diversity too and not make women uncomfortable at formal presentations and in a crowd which is >80% men.

One suggestion. I know women are not confrontational, but early intervention will help – if you feel uncomfortable, speak out, and the earlier the better. If you are in a mailing list and there’s a sexist troll, speak out and say you are not happy. Some men do listen (and those men are usually the ones who are in charge).

I’ve got to admit the blog posts and news coverage have made me think on what is appropriate behavior in public. Some people want to portray conforming behavior as a dampener to creativity but that’s hardly the case – you always follow some sort of rules (for e.g. imagine a guy taking off his clothes on stage – I’m certain the 80% won’t be amused). Creativity within constraints is a challenge and if you want a discerning minority to listen in and come up with suggestions, make sure your slides do not offend too.

One more thing—As many women have pointed out in the Flashbelt incident comments, it’s not the bawdy humor that’s the problem—it’s the context. If you want an analogy, imagine yourself as the only person in a crowd of women all laughing at a joke about how size does matter after all.

One response

  1. Very true!

    A good number of female technology graduate drop out of jobs post marriage or choose a different career path. Female techies are very few – and even those who exist aren’t competent enough, per se.

    Expecting more female techies in the future! 😀

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