Written by Elle Meredith, one of the RubyConfAU 2014 organisers and a Ruby Australia committee member. It was reviewed by the other conference organisers and committee members before publication.
February 26, 2014
The RubyConfAU 2014 organisers have come under fire for the conference's low percentage of female speakers. This started when Ms. Eleanor Saitta, the closing keynote speaker, displayed a final slide, listing 26 women who could have given talks at the conference. If you are short on time, what I would like you to take from this article is that diversity in the Australian Ruby Community is improving but we still have more to do.
Side note, diversity is about marginalised groups and the issues and barriers they face. For the sake of this article, I will concentrate on diversity of gender within the Australian Ruby community.
How were the talks selected?
We had an open Call for Talks process and there is already a post about how the talk proposals were selected. We had 103 talk proposals; with a mere eight submitted by women, only one of these talks made it through via the blind selection method. I then promoted Kinsey Ann Durham's talk (with the support from the other organisers) since I believed it would resonate well with newcomers to the community, regardless of gender.
Our objective for talks at the conference was great content for varying audiences and technical levels. I considered the other talks submitted by women and unfortunately I did not feel their content met our objectives. For example, we tried to avoid any talk that concentrated on a specific product, again regardless of speaker gender.
The two talks by Amanda Wagener and Kinsey Ann Durham were called "soft topics" but when reviewing the Twitter stream during the conference, it is obvious that they were two of the most popular talks.
Were we deliberately looking for women to improve our gender diversity?
Yes, we were. As the conference got closer, I wanted more women to speak and I began looking for tech women outside the Ruby community, who I considered leaders in their field who could inspire the crowd, and provide a role model for the women attendees looking up to them.
How was the criticism given?
I believe that the criticism was valid. However, providing it within the keynote talk and as the last slide of the last talk might not have been the right medium for it. I also wish the facts were confirmed with the organisers beforehand. For example some of the names listed were invited and declined the invitation.
What is not conducive to positive future progress is pointing the finger and asking the organisers to "defend" themselves because "it is not my job" without an open discussion. In addition, there were many vocal, uninformed voices from all sides conversing online without checking facts.
How did the community react?
I love how the Australia Ruby community cares about the topic and I appreciate all the kind words spoken to us as organisers since the conference ended. However, having multiple people tweet at Ms. Saitta, on a medium that is restricted to 140 characters and does not allow for appropriate expression of nuance, might not have been the correct method for an open productive conversation.
The response should come from the organisers, and it should have come sooner. I apologise for the delay, but I wanted to write this after recovering from the conference, in a state of balanced mind to consider everything I wanted to say, in a way that is thoughtful and considerate to many parties.
How should it have been done?
Again, I believe this should be an open and public discussion. When speaking on stage to a big crowd, it is very rarely a two-way conversation. Ms. Saitta could have approached the organisers to confirm what was and was not done. And lastly, constructive criticism should have come from both sides.
"@rubyconf_au I understand, and I do appreciate that. All I can see are the results, though." -- @Dymaxion, Feb 21
"@cliffordheath You get points for results, not effort. And I'm done here." -- @Dymaxion, Feb 23
If a hacker is to compromise a system, the end result matters a lot, because if the business' efforts fail, the hacker wins. Unfortunately, or maybe luckily, we are not under attack from hackers. We, as a community, should work to foster a welcoming environment for all, regardless of background or experience. Diversity is about the opportunity to contribute, not the actual outcome.
What has been done to improve diversity in the last year?
Rails Girls events have been run in all major cities around Australia multiple times with the support of local volunteers, local businesses and under the umbrella of Ruby Australia (which provides help with insurance, legal matters and finance).
A Code of Conduct for Ruby Australia was developed publicly on GitHub. It was derived from recognised public examples such as the Python community and JSConf. It was then ratified by the committee members in mid-October, posted live, and shared. All attendees, including sponsors and speakers, at Ruby Australia events are expected and required, to abide by the Code of Conduct when at any Ruby Australia event.
In the recent Rails Camp, in November 2013, the organisers had scholarship tickets aimed for women and students. Also at the start of the camp, the topic was addressed and people with high visibility vests were pointed out as point of contact in case any concern may arise.
What have we done for the conference?
- We emailed female speakers, from within the industry and related industries and invited them to speak. Out of the women Josh Price or I approached, five said yes, out of which three then cancelled. And the majority of the others turned down our invitation.
- We offered to cover travel expenses to speakers.
- We offered student discounted tickets. These were also offered to General Assembly alumni.
- We offered scholarship tickets.
- We asked the speakers to sign an agreement, stating their responsibility to adhere to the Code of Conduct.
- We developed and offered the world's first free Rails Girls Next workshop, and offered the attendees the option to purchase a ticket at student prices, whether they are students or not.
- We included beginner level talk options.
- We offered shirts in both man and female cuts.
- We catered for special dietary requirements and allergies.
- We opened up the speakers dinner to be inclusive to anyone who wanted to join. The dinner cost was subsidised by Ruby Australia and did not include alcoholic beverages by default. We also organised Luna Park rides as an non-alcohol centered activity.
On the topic of child care, I had seen it addressed at another conference recently, so I investigated. Unfortunately, the timing was too close to be able to offer it or to be utilised at scale this time around. We did however accommodate a recent new mother, who brought her newborn son to the conference.
Things we could have done and should be done next time
- Personally invite more diverse speakers. Research the topic and review the list provided in the closing keynote.
- Allow the option to submit talks that is not public.
- Plan for curated content and be open and transparent about the process of talk selection.
- Describe what is provided to accepted speakers.
- Consider available resources to help first time speakers.
- Introduced the Code of Conduct at the beginning of the conference and explained how to act in case of concerns.
- The conference website should have included a name and contact details for the people to contact in the case of something happening.
- Child care facilities.
- Mentorship program.
Furthermore, we can only grow the speaker diversity from our community by improving the community diversity first (although we can temporarily force an unrepresentative ratio to help drive the change).
We are getting better, particularly when it comes to promoting diversity in the community and contributing to making this a reality. Four years ago (at a 2010 Rails Camp) I was the only female at the camp. Two years ago, we had just four female developers. This year, at the conference, we had 52 female attendees. I believe this change over the last year is due to the conscious effort by community members and Ruby Australia to promote Rails Girls events and welcome newcomers into the community. Now, as I said at the beginning, if we can achieve all this in one year, just imagine what more we can do within this coming year. So basically, what we as a community say is that we are trying; we will try harder.