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How To Prevent Inappropriate Presentations

Three reasons why inappropriate conference presentations happen and what we can do to fix the problem. 

By Sarah Mei (Founder, The Ministry of Velocity)

This weekend there was another inappropriate presentation at a technology conference. This is sadly not a new phenomenon. But in my work with RailsBridge over the last four years, I have found the secret to preventing these types of talks.

I am not talking about anti-harassment policies, or speaker agreements with a clause saying talks can be pulled from the stage for inappropriate content. These are always a good idea to have when you’re running an event, but they are just mechanisms for damage control should such a presentation make it through. They don’t prevent inappropriate presentations, for three reasons.

Speakers Don’t Read Them

OK, when I’m a speaker, I read them. Sometimes. But in general, putting important information in a legalese-style document is a great way to make sure most people miss it.

Giving Speakers Good Guidelines Is Hard

It is impossible to explicitly list everything that’s not allowed. Let’s try, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

First off, let’s prohibit pictures of naked people in presentations. That seems straightforward, but what about pictures of Michelangelo’s David, or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus? Either of those could be used in a vulgar, inappropriate way. But they could also be breathtakingly appropriate in the right talk.

All right, let’s try it from another angle. Let’s prohibit the use of pornography in presentations. But there again we run into a problem of definitions. A Supreme Court justice wrote in 1964 that he could not precisely define pornography, but “I know it when I see it.” While there is a lot of pornography that you absolutely could not mistake for anything else, there is also a lot of material in that gray area of erotica, sensual or sexy photography, and in that region, everyone draws the line a little differently. Hardly the clear-cut definition we were hoping for.

That’s OK, you say, because we probably don’t want erotica or sensual or sexy photography either. So let’s prohibit pornography, erotica, and sensual or sexy imagery. But there again, we run into problems of definitions. For example, does The Matrix movie poster count as sexy imagery? It’s got Carrie-Anne Moss in a skintight latex outfit, which certainly some people find sexy. And personally I don’t object to that photo of Laurence Fishburne.

But this movie is part of our nerd culture. And actually, depending on what the speaker is talking about as this poster is shown, the imagery could be appropriate, or not. If someone put this up and drew a big red arrow pointing at Moss’s chest and talked about how much they liked to stare at it, that would be inappropriate. If someone put this up and talked about the red pill and the blue pill as a metaphor for choosing a software development methodology, that would be appropriate.

Man, this is hard. It seems like the only wording that covers everything we want is “inappropriate content.”

And we’ll know it when we see it.

The Word “Appropriate” Is Hard

We leave it to our speakers to figure out what’s appropriate and what isn’t. But appropriate is tricky. Different people define it differently, and even the same person defines it differently in different situations. What’s appropriate for a bachelor party is not the same as what’s appropriate for Sunday dinner with the family. In any situation we are in, we take our social cues from the people around us and adjust our working definition accordingly.

Our perception of someone’s gender is one of the most powerful social cues we have, and generally, it has a dramatic effect on our internal definition of appropriate. If we’re in a circle talking with folks all the same gender, and then a person from another gender joins us, the dynamic changes, and most people revise their definitions of appropriate.

And this is why some men, when they get up on a stage and look out over an audience that is overwhelmingly male, form a definition of appropriate more suited to a locker room than to a tech conference. They miss the cues that tell them otherwise. Engineers are not particularly known for their facile perception of social cues, so this probably affects us more than the general population.

Is There Really Nothing?

This sounds like bad news. It sounds like there is nothing we can do to make sure that all speakers at tech conferences define appropriate, uh, appropriately.

But think about this. If the two men who made the “Titstare” app took the stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference and looked out over an audience that was half female, even they would have known that their app wasn’t appropriate. In fact, if they had gone to a hackathon that was half female, it probably would never have been developed in the first place.

The only way to put us all on the same page is to change the ratio. So if you want to do your part to ensure that these types of presentations stop happening, start doing these things today.

  1. Get the women in your life interested in coding. Ask them what they’d like to build, and then build it together. Send them to aRailsBridge workshop, or a PyLadies event. Meeting other women who code can be a powerful motivator. If you have daughters, take them to KidsRuby.
  2. Help women already in your community. One blocker for a lot of women when they think about becoming a developer is that there aren’t very many role models – women already coding – so they can’t picture themselves doing it. So if you know women who are already in your community, help them learn how to do conference talks, or help them learn how to blog. The more different types of women are coding in public, the easier it will be to get more in.
  3. Be a vocal ally. When something like this does happen, make sure people know that you’re against it. Silence is often misconstrued as tacit support.

A New Hope

It is possible to change the ratio. In the San Francisco Ruby meetup, we’ve gone from 2% women to 15% women at our events, thanks to four years of RailsBridge workshops. Changing it is not easy, and it’s not fast, but it’s worth doing. Maybe we can make “Titstare” the last horrible example of what an unbalanced culture gets us.

This post was originally published on Sarah Mei’s blog.

SarahAbout the guest blogger: Sarah Mei (@sarahmei) has been a software developer for fifteen years and a Ruby developer for seven. A co-founder of RailsBridge, she’s a recent Pivotal Labs alum and is now running the Ministry of Velocity, a new software consultancy. She lives in San Francisco near the beach, where it is never warm enough to go swimming.