RubyKaigi 2013 – great conference, but I probably wouldn’t go next year if I was a woman

RubyKaigi 2013 is over and it has been a very positive experience for me, I applaud the organizers and the attendees. But one incident left a bad taste in my mouth.

During a presentation, the speaker mentioned that he wanted us to come visit a conference in Taiwan next year. He gave us many good reasons of why, but one that stuck with me was that he said “Taiwanese girls are ‘kawaii'”. Kawaii is a Japanese word that means “cute”.

This was said in a joking manner. The largest room in the venue, full to the brim, lit up with cheers, applause, and laughter.

At a conference where I estimate at least 95 % of the attendees are men, how will such a thing affect how women feel about coming next year? Would this comment and reaction give the impression that this kind of conference is for men and women are meant to be looked at?

Note that I don’t mention who the presenter was. I don’t think he is a bad person, he seemed very nice. It is not only what he said that is the problem, but how almost the entire audience reacted. This is a problem in our community culture, not the fault of a single person. So I see it as my duty to bring it up, so that we can learn from it and improve. It would be much worse if I saw a problem and kept quiet about it.

Many people at RubyKaigi are also involved with RailsGirls. So there is awareness that female participation at Ruby conferences and, more importantly, in the programming community, is a problem.

I know, I know. This is not a DongleGate, nor is it a “Perform Like a Pr0n Star”. This was a minor hiccup at an otherwise great conference. But since we already have so few women here, we need to be really careful not to scare off the ones that show up.

If I was a woman, I’d feel a bit alienated. Wouldn’t you?

8 thoughts on “RubyKaigi 2013 – great conference, but I probably wouldn’t go next year if I was a woman

  1. Ches Martin

    I’m a male, so take this for what it’s worth, but I personally feel that this is an overreaction; I don’t feel that the joke was offensive or in poor taste. It’s a guy joking that there are cute girls in his home country — to interpret that as “women are only here to be looked at” is an over-sensitive and unfair stretch in my opinion, with all due respect. Risking potential logical fallacy accusation, if a heterosexual woman made a similar joke about men, I don’t believe that I would feel offended or objectified, even if I were in the audience of a predominantly female-attended event.

    Offensiveness is relative, I’m a male, and it’s an important issue that people should feel at liberty to talk about, but I wonder if we’re becoming hypersensitive. I’m curious to hear how others responded and I hope this won’t mar a great event with negative publicity.

    1. peter Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      Yes, the choice of words might be stretching it. I was trying to provoke people into thinking how it would be received by a small minority, but might have gone too far there.

      Comparing it to making a joke about men, while logically correct, isn’t the same thing in my opinion. Men aren’t a minority at this conference, so they aren’t feeling like aliens. Therefore the joke wouldn’t be received the same way. It is more relevant to compare to a joke about a minority race or religion.

      I haven’t heard from any woman who was at the conference. I’ve gotten a few positive comments from women on Twitter and not a single one of them said I am overreacting. Neither did my wife, when I asked her about this. Only men have, which I find interesting.

      Then again, all those women have only heard my side of the story.

  2. mark

    Wait … you are not even a woman, yet you write about women who could potentially be offended?

    Perhaps you should become a woman yourself before you want to speak in the name of women.

    1. peter Post author

      mark: So I shouldn’t speak out against racism since I am white? Or maybe not extreme poverty, since I am living in the rich world?

      I believe this is a human problem, this is not a women’s issue. This is men’s behaviour.

      I have received nothing but support from women (although none of them were there) after writing about this. The only people who think I am overreacting are, rather unsurprisingly, men.

    2. gwenhwyfaer

      Hmm. Are you calling someone out for white-knighting, or just pretending to so you can shut down a discussion that challenges your privilege?

  3. Smon Tewbi

    This is a grey area which is likely to get anyone who comments burned, regardless of whichever side of the debate they side with.

    I have a woman friend who is touchy about possible slights or insults relating to gender. She sees gender equality as a battle that has been fought for centuries and feels she has to hold the line as the struggle isn’t anywhere near over. She would almost certainly be offended by the kawaii comment at the conference.

    On the other hand, I have another friend who is Samoan and a big rugby fan. A couple of years ago there was a media storm when a prominent players agent claimed that our local rugby team had a racial quota to limit the number of Pacific Islanders in the squad. A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon, enraged on behalf of the “racially oppressed” Islanders. My friend was highly irritated by this. She said that, as an Islander, she didn’t believe the rugby team operated a racial quota, and she enjoyed following the team, and who were all these white guys to get offended on her behalf if she wasn’t offended herself? She found it very patronizing.

    My point is that regardless of which side of the debate you come down on, you’re going to offend someone, it’s a hiding to nowhere. There are some very blatantly sexist remarks which are relatively straight-forward to have an opinion about but it’s these borderline ones that are going to cause trouble. There is no right answer.

    1. peter Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      I agree that this is a touchy topic, but we should still discuss it since it is something I believe we should always think about. If we keep the discussion friendly and constructive, we’ll hopefully move forward.

  4. Ebmo

    It wasn’t necessary by the speaker to even go there, why use sexuality as an nice-thing-we-have over there in Taiwan when Taiwan have sooooo many other nice things to offer. Stupid! Yes, sensitivity is a good word, but everybody knows that we are getting more and more sensitive to things that are unfair. So keep up the good work Peter Parker 🙂 and me myself & I will support you all the way. Peace

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