And you wonder…

25 May 2007

…why it’s difficult to get women to attend IT conferences — much less speak at them? Check out RailsConf2007 (not really SFW…and you don’t have to watch the whole thing — the first 45 seconds is plenty for you to get the idea).

I actually know a gentleman who was at the conference, and he said there was at least one woman in attendance (how many more? Check this Flickr set of pictures from RailsConf 2007), and there was even a woman presenter.

I don’t know about you, but for me, that video is only slightly less mature than last1 year’s2 Rails conferences3.

I truly hope that the good, valuable tech conferences won’t start turning into beer parties.



  1. I’m told that http://www.grindergirl.com/home.html was featured at JavaOne, though it may have been at a sponsor’s after-party. I don’t get it.

  2. Kerri,

    Everybody I talked to, men and women alike, thought the marching band thing was the stupidest idea ever. They were embarrassing, SMELLY, and ridiculously over-sexed.

    Yes, they could play their drums pretty well.

    Chad Larson, the conference organizer, basically apologized for them later.

  3. There were atleast between 20-25 women out of the 1,600 attendees. I am one of female attendees.

    Like I said, I work in a male dominated environment so I developed some kind of tolerance over the years and a humorous approach to certain things. That’s how I deal with it but it’s not the same for everyone. πŸ™‚

    I paid most attention to the drummers while watching the band and they were awesome. That male dancer is the most flexible person I’ve ever seen. The band was there to merely entertain.

    Two women presented at RailsConf too. Amy Hoy and Andrea Wright. I am hoping to see more next year.

  4. Yeah, this is really obnoxious, and I wish it would stop. I remember when tech conferences were all about the conference. Contests were held, cool posters, socks and tee shirts were given away, and you got to talk directly to the gurus who wrote the software you love so much.

    Now there’s a sex/beer/a-hole element at every large tech conference, and it genuinely sucks. It’s just completely out of place.


  5. Hi, My name is Desi McAdam and I sort of run DevChix. There were quite a few women at the conference, myself included. DevChix received a lot of attention from the conference and in general we had a lot of very positive feedback and support from the crowd.

    The band didn’t offend me but like I have told others I actually like things that are out of the ordinary and unique. This was definitely a unique entertainment. So I did enjoy the show. However, I can see where it might put some people off and I know that many were put off by it.

    I hope that you don’t let things like this discourage you and if things like this bother you then I think you are doing the right thing by pointing it out.

    I have told many people that there are things that happen that don’t really bother me personally but it bothers other women and since I am in the business of being supportive to my fellow women developers I will take a stand with them. If I add my voice to theirs its a little bit louder.

    In general the conference was very good and hopefully as more and more women developers start to come out of the woodwork things like this won’t be an issue.

  6. Hi Kerri et al —

    I was a woman at RailsConf and the band didn’t bother me. It was more of an absurdity than anything, and that was my take on the reactions of those watching it near me. Rather as if a space ship had landed. Even walking away from it people were talking about the next session they were going to..

    The only thing about it I found actually problematic was that when they entered the conference hall the sound of the trombones made it hard to hear the end of the “Rails Consulting” talk. But beyond that, I find it just one more form of expression and didn’t experience any vibe of personal discomfort (or objectification) while watching it: it was more a strange intersection of cultures — the programmers and the bump-and-grind crowd. And why not both? For my money, I felt genderless at that moment as we [the programmers] all stood and said, “what is that?!”.

    That said, I tend to be pretty loose in my appreciation of stuff, and sexualized cultural events aren’t natural triggers for me. When I get offended, it’s usual a result of a personal interaction as opposed to a cultural one, if that makes sense. Although, as I think about it, if I had actually *felt* some frat-vibe at RailsConf, in the culture there, stemming from the bump-and-grinders it would have definitely bothered me: I didn’t. I didn’t hear or see any lecherous behavior directed at the group or at me, and the level of attention (or lack thereof) I received at the conference was commensurate with my experiences at other conferences.

    It’s easy for offense to be taken at sexualized behavior, on both ends. It can make people uncomfortable as potential objects (“am I seen in that way?”) and can cause heightened sensitivity to being judged (“Am I insensitive if I liked that?”). Those aren’t things to dismiss and it’s important to take tolerance levels into account in order to create a comfort zone for the most amount of people. And maybe the place for those ambiguities is not at a programming conference where there is such a large gender diff to start with. But in this specific instance, coming back to my experience of the band and my experience of the collective experience of watching it, it had the emotional resonance of a drop-in carnival: bizarre and out of place perhaps, but not much else.

    The thing that actually did annoy me during the conference was during the “Rails Consulting” talk that I had to strain to hear over the trombone… One of the consultants was saying how helpful his wife had been with his work, she’d been his secretary and his support system, etc., and basically, it helps to “get a wife”. To me, that was a stupid, annoying statement that pissed me off. Get a secretary if you need a secretary. If your wife helps your work, great. But don’t conflate the two, even linguistically. It’s when women are lumped into those types of “helper roles” and no one bats an eyelash, that’s where questions need to be raised.

    This not to say that cause I wasn’t bothered others shouldn’t be, either. Even articulating viewpoints on this stuff is helpful and interesting, so this is just one more.

    – Sarah

  7. A few things. First, John Allsop has written a rather insightful post about this topic on his blog.
    Second, I very much appreciate the thoughtful comments here. One thing I want to make clear is that the performance itself does not offend me. Were it at an adult-video conference, for example, Extra Action would not only be perfectly appropriate, but contextually, quite entertaining.
    But this was a tech conference. If an attendee at the conference had come up to you, grabbed your rear end, and made suggestive comments, would that have been OK, too? I mean, it happens, and you get used to it, right? Where do you draw the line for what’s appropriate in a particular context?
    @Sarah: Thanks for sharing the anecdote about “get a wife”. So when we as (presumably) straight women need administrative help, what are we to do? πŸ™‚

  8. Kerri, clearly the solution there is to get a husband. Preferably a Rich one.


    (Sorry… just kidding. Sorta. Ahem. Going away now…)

  9. Two comments.

    1. I wasn’t there, but the video does seem out of place for a professional (software) conference. Agree that if it were an adult video conference, it would be “fine”.

    2. The “helpful to get a wife” comment. I have to say it’s incredibly helpful to have a supportive spouse, regardless of your gender. I didn’t hear the comment, so I don’t know the context in which it was presented, but I CAN say that I have said that I wish that I “had a wife” (meaning a “stay at home spouse”) at times. It’s exhausting having a career and children, and a spouse with a career as well. And of course, the solution really is that administrative help can be hired (and fired) more easily than finding a spouse, so I’m pretty sure that the guy didn’t mean to be offensive.

    Dianne (who should hire administrative help)

  10. get a rich husband? that’s not funny. and really below the level of discussion here. i think the point about women getting automatically lumped into helper roles and no one batting an eye is a particularly salient one.

    i wasn’t at the conf but can understand the varying points of view on extra action. on the one hand it is kind of weird and out of place, but on the other there’s something to be said for not keeping work events utterly devoid of the unusual or sexually nuanced. i agree with the point about context – if there’d been a frat-vibe, the extra action thing might have seemed more offensive to more people.

  11. @Dianne — re my “get a wife” comment. The guy who said it didn’t, to my perception, mean it to be offensive. (Though, a lot of offensive things aren’t meant that way — they become that way because they unveil some assumption that no longer sits well with people). I can even relate: support, and support from a loving spouse is invaluable. So I don’t mean to bag on him personally. What bothered me that he lumped the words “secretary” and “wife” together, unthinkingly, in casual talk. And I feel like that kind of conflation is more common than I’d like.

    I don’t mean to belabor the point, but I get a lot of blank stares when I say I’m a web programmer. And I get consistently “misheard”: “you’re a web designer?”, guys often echo back at me… (I wish I were, btw — I’d love to have those skills!).

    Oddly enough, when I tell them I’m a web programmer they never echo back, “wait, you hump flagpoles in shorty shorts?” So maybe that’s why the dancing didn’t get to me but the “wife” comment did. πŸ™‚

    Oh well — lots of great things happened at RailsConf. This was 5 minutes, the wife comment was 10 seconds, and I went to about 20 great talks and learned tons. I hope we can keep this in perspective.

  12. @Jennifer: That was a little joke there, as I do have an actual husband, and his name happens to be Rich. πŸ™‚ And we are both supportive of one another — he did a zillion loads of laundry this weekend, and then I gave him some UI advice this morning, so we’re a good team.

    That said, I agree that women being lumped into roles is as wrong as men being lumped into any sort of roles. There are great husband-and-wife teams that are very successful in business, and that’s great, but one partner shouldn’t take advantage of the other — which is what I believe the original poster inferred from the speaker’s comment.

    I guess it’s all about context.

    @Sarah: I get the same thing. I don’t even say ‘web’ anymore, I just tell people I’m a programmer. Often, they smile and nod and have no idea what to say. The other night at dinner, I mentioned that to a friend of mine’s Mom. Now, my friend is in his mid-40s, so his mother is of a certain age. And when I told her I was a programmer, she said, “Oh, *I* was a programmer, too!” And she really WAS. At Harvard, and at Raytheon, and various other places.

    I thanked her. πŸ™‚

  13. Sarah and Kerri,

    I understand the distinction and the issue, but I was mainly trying to say that sometimes people say things and go home later and say, “Crap! I hope no one thought I was implying ….”. I do this myself, so I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt on that one.

    I get the same reaction about being a programmer. Mine usually comes in the form of, “But you don’t LOOK like a programmer”. I’ve heard it for 20 years and I suspect I’m not done hearing it. Not really sure what a programmer looks like, but sadly enough, the statement is accurate based on gender.

    I have actually become increasingly incensed as the day has gone on about the choice of this band for the Rails Conference. It’s not JUST that the show lasted 5 minutes. It’s that the conference organizers CHOSE this band knowing fully well the band’s reputation, demonstrating their immaturity and cluelessness. And that’s really unfortunate because now THIS is providing an idiotic band with some publicity that they obviously crave, while the really cool stuff that happened at the Rails Conference is taking a backseat.


  14. I owe an apology to the Rails conference organizers who I mistakenly assumed were responsible for the band selection. I’ve been told that it was a sponsor who thought it would be a good publicity stunt and organized it independently.


  15. @Sarah Gray: I was “that guy” in the panel who made the comment about my wife being part of my small home-based business.

    Although I probably need to work on my terminology, what I was trying to communicate was that my wife is a crucial part of my business and that I couldn’t do it without her. She has worked in finance and works regular hours handling the financial part of the business which enables me to spend 100% of my time on development and new products. If you are a solo developer, you’ll need to hire, subcontract, or otherwise find someone who can do that for you since most developers don’t have good financial accounting skills (myself included).

    Like employees of any small business, she has multiple roles and also arranges business travel, does purchasing, and buys advertising space which I (maybe inappropriately) summarized with the word “secretary.”

    The difficult thing for us has been convincing friends and family that she has a fulltime job and is not just “hanging out” at home during the day. Many people assume that if a woman is at home she is not really working, which is inaccurate in this case.

    I also encourage you to listen to a podcast I recorded with Carmelyne, Desi, and other commenters in this post:


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