White Ribbons

The Ruby is world is known to be a happy place. Rubyists are friendly, relaxed folks who like to party and have a good time. And it's an inclusive community as well, just look at Rails Girls, Railsbridge, or the couple of speakers who do the conference circuit talking about diversity.

So far for the theory. While this is how the Ruby community likes to see itself, we've had enough incidents, stories and stats by now to know that reality isn't always so rosy.

A recent report of sexual harassment at a conference has brought this topic to the forefront again. But the Twitter flamewar is already cooling down again, as these things go, and gradually we slip back to business as usual.

Before that happens, however, let's all talk and think about how something good might still come of this.

I coach at a weekly study group consisting of former Rails Girls attendees, and at our last meetup we spontaneously ended up having a long group discussion about the recent events and the state of the community. Shortly afterwards some of us decided to set up Ruby White Ribbon, as a way to take this discussion to the conferences.

I was at dotRB in Paris yesterday, a really great conference. I wore and handed out ribbons, and again talked with many people about diversity, discrimination, sexism, and how we, as a community can become better.

This was new to me. While I really, really want to see a more diverse and welcoming community, I haven't been too vocal about it. I think mostly for fear of being misconstrued, of saying something clumsy, of getting the rage of the Twitters over me. I do help out with Rails Girls workshops and study groups, helped a bit with Rails Girls Summer of Code, so I figured I was doing my share. But I've realized that it's too easy to be silent. It's a very privileged thing. The status quo doesn't hurt me directly, so it's easy to just go my merry way without touching on hard subjects. But as I told some people yesterday, I don't want to be silent any more. We can't just leave it to a few people like Ashe Dryden or Julie Pagano to do this work.

The fact is that we're mostly running on auto-pilot. Perhaps the Ruby world isn't worse than other tech communities (perhaps), perhaps not even worse than society in general (unlikely). But even if that would be the case, that's still pretty bad. Do your homework. The daily experience as a woman, LGBT, person of color, etc, contains countless instances of discrimination, micro-agressions, and much much worse. That's not cool. That's horrible. We as a community shape our community. We can work on being better than that.

Opening your eyes to this stark reality is a process. It takes effort and learning to see through your cultural programming, to empathize with those going through these experiences.

One thing I've realized when deciding to be more vocal, is that that also means knowing what you're talking about. And I admit that I still have a lot to learn. Maybe there will be times that I unknowingly make someone uncomfortable by something I say or do. If so please call me out on it. I'm not perfect, but I want to live what I stand for, I want to own up to my mistakes.

I hope I can inspire others to speak up more as well. It's easy to say "of course rape is wrong, why do you need me to say that". That's not what it's about. But by opening your mouth you start a process of educating yourself and people around you, and to eventually grow to become a better person, and a better community.

It would be great if we could encourage "big names" in our community, the people that draw crowds to conferences, to do a conference talk on these topics for a change. A few people have been doing amazing work, but they can't reach everyone. If we want to grow as a community, we need a strong message from the icons that people respect and look up to.

So that's at least something actionable. Other loose ideas that have come up in discussions over the past week :

Can we please make it established practice that every conference starts with saying a few words about their code of conduct? Something along the lines of

  • These are our core values
  • We have a code of conduct
  • You can find the full document here
  • These are the main points
  • If something makes you uncomfortable during the conference, or you believe the code of conduct has been violated, these are the people to talk to

I know some conferences already do this (notably, Eurucamp), but it's not established practice. If you're going to a conference soon, please ask the organizers if they could do this.

Another point that has been raised and discussed are the pre- and post-conference drink ups. While it's not necessary to demonize people that want to go out and have a ball with their Ruby peeps, it's still unfortunate that this is often the only social event included in the conference program. Not everyone is comfortable with that. And as we have seen, tons of sponsored booze, darkened rooms and loud music can sometimes bring out the worst in people.

There are many alternatives that could be offered, perhaps as a "parallel track". I personally would love to just have a space in the evening where people can get together and hack on stuff. Especially with open source you often meet people on conferences that you otherwise only collaborate with on-line. It would be great to sit down and do a bit of pair programming face to face. Maybe with some snacks and drinks available. Can't speak for all, but I for one would love that.

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