Tech has a white dude problem, and it doesn't get better by not talking about it

The organisers of the British Ruby Conference have cancelled the event due to their failure to invite a diverse speaker line-up.

The British Ruby Conference announced, last night, that the 2013 event would be cancelled, because of a furore stemming from one developer's reaction:

Ruby is a programming language, developed in the mid-1990s, which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as the basis of a framework used for building web applications. As with programming in general, the Ruby community undoubtedly skews heavily male, and the conference – known as "BritRuby" – cites that in its defence.

In their official explanation for why the decision was made to not put on the 2013 event, the BritRuby organisers write:

We wanted innovative ideas and we whole-heartedly pushed everyone that submitted a proposal to think outside the box. Our selection process was the content and nothing more. Not the individuals gender, race, age or nationality. It’s about community…

The Ruby community has been battling with issues of race and gender equality. We at Brit Ruby were well aware of this fundamental and important issue. This was one of the reasons why we encouraged everyone to submit a speaker proposal.

It is often the case with situations like this that those under attack cite the belief that they picked the line-up based entirely on quality. For instance, it remains true that orchestras are dominated by men, and for years, explanations were given about how only men had the strength, or control, or innate musicality to play certain instruments, and so on.

Yet as orchestras gradually introduced blind auditions – actually picking the line-up based purely on quality – the gender balance shifted. And it appears much the same may be true of technology. Josh Susso, the developer whose tweet sparked the whole discussion which ended up leading to the conference being pulled, ran his own ruby conference in San Francisco, GoGaRuCo, which had a completely blind selection process.

As a result of that, and explicitly reaching out to women's programming groups, the slate of speakers was a quarter women. Even though it may be easier in a city like San Francisco, it is possible.

Sadly, the debate around BritRuby's monoculture led, according to the statement, to their sponsors getting spooked after accusations of sexism and racism threatened to toxify the brand. With uncertain sponsorship and personal liabilities, the organisers were forced to cancel.

They did not go out in a blaze of glory.

Sean Handley, who has run previous conventions with the BritRuby team but was not involved in this one, posted his own take on the situation which is slightly more self-pitying than the official one:

Yes, gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team's motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester. Turns out, a lot of the famous Rubyists are white guys and all of the ones who said they'd like to come were, indeed, white guys.

Making an issue out of that is, frankly, misguided. Adding a token minority speaker is offensive to that speaker, it says "You're here because you tick a box - not because you're skilled." It doesn't matter who speaks at a conference, as long as they're capable, interesting and relevant. That's what matters: content, not style.

Even that defence starts getting a bit uncomfortable in the end. If you are defending your all-white, all-male speaker line-up by saying that you only wanted the "best speakers", it's hard for non-white, non-male people to not infer that they are considered sub-par. Saying that the only way to fix the problem would be to add "token" speakers makes it sound like there are no non-token speakers worth inviting.

And saying that "it doesn't matter who speaks at a conference, as long as they're capable, interesting and relevant" is plainly untrue: it does matter, to a hell of a lot of people, and if you set out to be a leading voice in your community, you owe it to yourself and that community to try and make it a better group to be in.

Some – not all – elements of that community sorely need help, judging by the comments beneath Handley's post.

The whole event ruined for everyone but a few narrow minded individuals.

Yes. The people who want not all-white-male-speakers are narrow minded.

Next thing would be people complaining about the lack of Unicorns on the conferences.

Women in tech: Literally Imaginary, apparently.

[Quoting an earlier commenter] I feel this needs to happen more and more so Conference organizers are forced to start considering diversity from the beginning and initiate programs or reach out to more non-white-males to speak

While we're at it, let's make sure to throw in a few over-50s, a disabled woman and a couple of homosexuals. We need to focus on diversity after-all.

Where is the line?

Oh no! Gay people might be at the conference?!

Seriously, this whole equality crap is… crap! One thing is when there are cases where women are not treated fairly (not good) or abused (very bad), but equality is a non-issue for most of us in the Western world. In cases where exploitation or abuse are confirmed, society should act for sure, but the reality is men and women are not equal in many ways. It's not that one is better and the other is worse is that, quite simply, we're different. I see plenty of "Women Seminars" (not very "Men Seminars" I should add) and I don't see anyone rushing those asking for "equality" or "lack of men on these".

I'm done here.

Update: Changed the headline slightly, and corrected the reference to Sean Handley

Photograph: 2013.britruby.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”