Thursday, April 30, 2009

Woman in a non-traditional study area

I am a "woman in a non-traditional study area". In fact, I had a scholarship that said so during undergrad. In truth, that scholarship always made me a bit uncomfortable. It was one of a collection that came under the auspices of the Targeted Access Program, a program designed to attract under-represented groups (racial minorities, people from low socio-economic backgrounds etc) to university. I felt a bit like I had it under false pretences, since I would have attended university with or without it, I was applying for courses with cut-off scores well below my high school score so I would get in regardless, and I was actually much more comfortable in a male dominated group than a female dominated one. I wasn't about to turn down very welcome financial support though.

I had similiarly ambivalent thoughts about whether any of my blog should focus on this particular aspect of my life. Many of the blogs I read and enjoy are Women in Science/Academia blogs and by definition I am one. And yet... I am one of the lucky ones that has not really had to deal with explicit sexual discrimination. As such, again I feel like I am operating under false pretences to play up that aspect of my identity which has more often been an advantage than a disadvantage. I often enjoy being in the minority, my personality is such that I don't get spoken over, ignored or mistaken for the secretary and my technical credentials have generally made it very difficut for any of the males in my various groups to lord it over me. I can recognise the female-unfriendly aspects of my field, but I feel fake trying to pose as the part of the offended group, because most of the time these aspects are not turn-offs to me.

Something happened this week though that I could relate to without pretence. There's been a story going around about a presentation at a Ruby on Rails conference. The best summary I have read is at but the basic story is that one of the technical presentations (about a database) had a subtitle Perform like a pr0n star and contained many slides with sexually suggestive pictures of women. When there were complaints, the reactions from some prominent people in the community were "I'm sorry if you were offended, don't be so thin-skinned" and "We should have more of this, not less. We are an edgy community". There has been a lot of talk on this story on the tech sites that I read, so I got curious and had a look at the slides. Wow. This is not something horrific but quite specifically aimed like the Kathy Sierra incident, nor the every day things that could happen to woman in tech but either don't happen to me, or don't affect me. This is a situation I could very easily see myself in and one that would make me very uncomfortable. I like being in the minority in situations like conferences where attracting attention is generally a good thing, but being one of very few women watching that presentation would not have been good attention.

There's been lots of comments on the affair, some sickening but also some insightful comments that helped me understand my own reaction. My take is that one of the complications to the discussion is that there are two ways this presentation is wrong, but people aren't making the distinction. The first is that it is inappropriate to have those sort of images in a professional context. This is the aspect that has been most often discussed which is probably why it has been so controversial because this statement is debatable. There's no doubt these slides would be inappropriate in a business context, but this wasn't a business context. Whether it was appropriate in that particular conference is not so clear-cut. Personally, I'd say no, but I am not part of the Rails community and don't claim to understand the atmosphere. The second way that presentation was wrong was best expressed by one of the commenters:

It’s not about whether it’s porn or not porn. Those commenting on people’s supposed hypersensitivity to nudity or bodies are completely missing the point.

It’s about presenting women as ‘the other,’ not ‘us.’ It would have been just as offensive if all the women shown were domineering mothers in aprons, shaking their fingers and threatening with rolling pins.

This to me was the important point that I had been struggling towards. These slides said very clearly that women were not the intended audience. I have been involved in open source communities in the past, and I would like to get more involved in the future (after PhD) but that presentation is enough to make me think that I wouldn't be welcome in the Rails community.


  1. I thought you were a boy all the time! Sorry. Makes me a bad reader I guess..

  2. Not really. I fairly deliberately wasn't making an issue of my gender, though I wasn't hiding it either. I was curious whether anything in my writing style would suggest I was female. I guess now I know that it is not immediately obvious on casual reading.

  3. You make a very good point CC.

    I am like you, I generally appreciate being a lady CS-er my case it has generally been positive rather than negative. I have dealt with some negative incidents, but my personality generally is able to sweep those under the rug and/or deter them in the first place.

    But I read about that shiz and I just get pissed/depressed/sad. Not everyone is as enlightened as the people I happen to hang out with and that sucks.