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Bias row sinks British Ruby Conference

Industry split over how to tackle issue of speaker equality

The British Ruby Conference 2013 has been cancelled, due to accusations of gender bias that caused sponsors to get cold feet. The line-up was said to be all white and all male.

On the conference website, a statement said the speaker line-up was selected on the basis of knowledge, and calls for proposals were open to all Ruby developers: "Our selection process was the content and nothing more. Not the individuals [sic] gender, race, age or nationality. It's about community. It's about helping one another to strive for success and drive budding developers to do the same."

The statement added that the Ruby community had been battling with issues of race and gender equality, hence encouraging everyone to send proposals. It continued: "BritRuby was used as the arena to air these issues on Twitter, and this has fundamentally destroyed any chance we had of addressing [the issues]."

On GitHub, Rails developer Sean Handley argued that the cancellation of the conference was not OK. "It was pointed out on Twitter that the line-up so far is white males. This became frenzied and shared with allegations of racism/sexism," he said, adding that this then caused problems for committed sponsors, and the knock-on effect was that the venue contract couldn't be signed, owing to a lack of financial security.

Handley noted the team had put in a year of hard work to get to this point, and that while gender equality and racial equality are important, "the team's motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester. Turns out, a lot of the prominent Rubyists are white guys and all of the ones who said they'd like to come were, indeed, white guys". He argued that making an issue out of this was misguided, and that any kind of tokenism would be offensive.

A demand for diversity

Taking an opposing viewpoint, developer and product designer Faruk Ate, who recently penned an article for .net on industry sexism, took to his own blog to argue about the problem with a slate of white, male speakers. He dismissed the notion of quotas or tokenism, instead framing his argument as a "passion for seeing diverse viewpoints fairly represented on a stage". He suggested conferences that end up with all-male, all-white speaker lists have some kind of problem, perhaps regarding a perception of which speakers are "best". And while Ate noted "diversity for diversity's sake is no guarantee of quality," he claimed "not putting in a conscious effort to also find diversity, does effectively mean that your quality will come from a very homogeneous point of view, and this has historically and statistically been proven to actually reduce quality".

Developer and designer Amy Hoy on Twitter was angered by the British Ruby Conference's cancellation, calling this "disgusting" and adding: "'Sexism scare' perpetrators destroy perfectly good conference. This shit has got to stop." She suggested "if you want more women speakers, be a woman who speaks," and said that she'd approached a few and they'd all turned her down. Tiffany Conroy in a recent interview with .net suggested women often needed more "aggressive encouragement", which she's aiming to provide with We Are All Awesome. Her thinking: the "best way to change the culture is for women to participate in it".

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