Blog An exploration of the art and
craft of software development

RubyConf 2013 CFP and Diversity

Posted by Marty Haught on Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The RubyConf 2013 program was partially announced yesterday and there was immediate fallout regarding the lack of women speakers. At first, there appeared to only be 2 women-led talks out of 44. Indeed this percentage is terrible and a step back from where we have been. At the same time there has been a lot of misunderstanding and jumping to conclusions that simply couldn’t be answered over Twitter. I’ve been terribly busy and traveling ever since this all came out and I finally have some time to take more than 5 minutes to respond.

First, I want to apologize to all of you who expected better from the RubyConf program. We really should have done better on many more fronts than you realize and the lack of diversity is only one symptom. For anyone that cares to look into my background or what I’ve done with the tech community over the last several years, you’d see that I am not one to discriminate and am more like a defender of diversity. I also had the most involvement with the CFP process and am ultimately responsible for the end result, which I will take the blame for.

The next thing I want to make perfectly clear is that RubyConf does support and encourage a vibrant and healthy community, of which diversity is an important part. We have the Opportunity Scholarship which is often used to promote diversity. In the next week we will open up applications for scholarships to RubyConf. It is absolutely false to claim that women or any marginalized person would not feel welcome at RubyConf. We have a solid Anti-Harassment Policy and have had this policy for some time now.

There’s a lot to cover about the process and what was lacking that I’ll go into shortly. First, I need to clear some things up. We’ll start with some numbers. The numbers are constructed as best we can as the CFP process does not ask for gender or any other demographic. I can confidently say we know how many women vs. men proposed talks. I cannot say anything about people of color or any other segment of marginalized people.

We had 278 total submissions, of which 25 were by women (9%). If you look at individual proposers then we’re at 207 total with 19 of them women (also 9%). The final program will be at 47 talks, 6 of which include women (or a girl in one case). That’s 12% representation which is lower than we’d like but not as bad as many who thought our program was at 2/44. Since our process was blind, I’d say that women actually fared much better than people are acknowledging. What’s even better was the process was driven by talk quality so this is not some quota or artificial percentage. Their talks rose above many, many others. One really important thing to point out is that we had a ton of good submissions for 47 slots. Many good talks were rejected simply because there wasn’t room. I don’t think people realize how tight the competition was.

Let me talk a little bit about the CFP process. First, it was blind. This means that reviewers could not see the name or bio of the speaker and thus could only be influenced by the content of the proposal. Second, we had a review committee (8 people) where every talk got at least 4 reviews. Since I was managing the entire process and could see all the data behind the talks, I did not review a single submission, since my reviews would not have been blind. I wanted to respect the blind process that way. I was only involved in the final selection. We had decided how the CFP process would go months ago and this is the first year RubyConf had run it like this.

One notable piece missing from the the CFP was any sort of proactive outreach. We didn’t do anything in this department and just announced the CFP as normal. Since we only had 9% submission rate you can’t expect better representation. This is something we need to do better for next year.

Another piece that felt lagging was giving better instructions on the CFP. We gave specific instructions to reviewers and there were some things that we left implied, based on what RubyConf has been. Which I think is important to speak a bit about: this is the conference for the niche and unusual talks about Ruby. It is not a general purpose tech conference but the one time where all those really interested in Ruby come together to talk about the language. Thus reviewers rated talks that met this criteria higher. Many great talks that would be perfect at a conference didn’t meet muster as they may not have focused as much on Ruby. This criteria would not be clear to someone new to RubyConf. It seems obvious now that we should have communicated this better and we’ll get this fixed.

The CFP process lacked feedback. Many reviewers simply didn’t leave comments for proposers. If we had started sooner and given feedback as talks came in, then proposers could have adjusted talks and known why their talk(s) may not have made it. When you’ve got nearly 300 talks to get through in 2-3 weeks, it’s daunting. We used our own software for the CFP and it lacked some important features to do this process properly. I personally finished off this code but I had to fit it into my busy schedule and thus it wasn’t ready until late August, just a week before the CFP closed. What would it have looked like if that would have been ready from the beginning and our review committee was ready to go as the talks slowly trickled in? Unfortunate circumstances that usually do not affect smaller conferences due to our size.

This may not be clear to many of you, but this isn’t a full-time job for most of the organizers nor the program review committee. We’re volunteers and in my individual case, I have to balance organizing two large conferences a year with running my business, raising my family and the other obligations that come with life. I simply don’t have the time to do everything I want to do. When I ran Rocky Mountain Ruby, a small regional Ruby conference, I could take extra time because I had a 1/4 of the submissions and overall less logistics to deal with. I know many of you say you’re willing to help but that’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve tried delegating to volunteers in the past and that’s gone poorly.

I don’t want to make excuses as we will figure out a better way next time. However, I did want to give a fuller story to the tidbits that have come out on Twitter over the last 24 hours. It saddens me to see how quick people are to react so strongly on all sides of the issue based on assumptions without waiting to hear the real story. I don’t think there are any villains here and things are way more nuanced than they seem. I’m just sorry that I’ve let people down. Hopefully you can all make constructive actions for improving our community going forward. Yes, RubyConf will still be a great experience this year. We care too much to not let that be the case.

blog comments powered by Disqus