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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.