I am not a Pr0n Star: avoiding unavoidable associations

I just read Matt Amionetti’s thoughtfully worded response to the reaction he’s got from his presentation, “CouchDB: Perform like a Pr0n star”.

Indeed, reading the response, it seems almost inconceivable that anyone could possibly be offended by his presentation. Matt warned people beforehand that there would be potentially offensive images, I believe in his stated intentions, and I heed his call that we should be contributing something useful to the discussion.

So, I’d like to give you, the reader, a little bit of insight into the human brain, how it makes connections and comparisons, and help you to understand your power over other people and their perceptions.

I’d like to start by telling you another story.

The Tale of the T-Shirt

On one dress-down Friday, a colleague came in wearing a beach T-shirt, featuring a topless woman coming out of the surf. It was just a black and white image, and the focus was on the scene as a whole, but nonetheless some of us felt that it was inappropriate. So I asked him not to wear it again.

“Why?” our colleague said. “I didn’t think it would offend anyone.”

“It’s not really that it’s offensive,” I said, “but think about this. I’m pair-programming with you, sitting next to you at a table. Someone else comes along to talk to both of us. They see your T-shirt, with that image, and then they scan across from that image to me. Can you see the comparison they’re making in their mind? Even subconsciously? That’s why I would prefer you not to wear that T-shirt – so that people don’t think about topless women while they’re talking to me, and while I’m trying to work. At worst, the comparison is offensive. At best, the t-shirt is distracting.”

Our colleague took the feedback very well, and agreed not to wear the t-shirt again.

How the brain makes associations

The human brain consists of a bunch of neurons, between which connections and pathways are built. Those pathways form associations. There are associations of which we’re conscious, associations of which we’re not conscious, and a blurred space in between.

Here’s a conscious association. If I want to remind myself to pick up my dry-cleaning after work, I can hide my handbag. Sound strange? Well, as soon as I go to pick up my handbag, and it’s not where I left it, I’ll remember why I hid it. I’ve built myself a conscious association between the absence of the handbag, and the task I had to remember.

For a subconscious association, watch yourself thinking of all the things you remember about Germany, when I say the word “Germany”, or “Elephant”. The vast majority of our associations are not in, and often not available to, our conscious mind. They add to our personality, drive the learning we get from our experiences, and there are simply too many of them for us to be aware of them all.

For an example of the blurred space between, I offer my fiancé’s habit of driving directly home from the station, even though we agreed we’d stop at the Chinese takeaway on the way home. He associates the act of driving down a particular road with a particular route, and consciously manipulates the car to follow his subconscious association.

So what does this have to do with pr0n stars?

Human beings learn associations by – amongst other things – proximity; either in time, or in place. That is; they will build associations more easily if two or more things are experienced close together.

If you’ve watched Matt’s slideshow, and you find yourself using CouchDB on a project in the future, will you be thinking of his slideshow? It was very memorable. I think I will find it hard in the future to disassociate that slideshow from the featured product. That’s a conscious association I’ve built. I’m aware of it.

There’s a subconscious association going on in that show, too; another proximity which is harder to spot. We’ve just experienced words of technology – key phrases like scalability, REST, public interfaces – with images of women whom we’re told are available for visual sexual gratification. There are a few men in some of the images; they appear to me to be in positions of power and influence. The images of women, on the other hand, tend to be submissive. So we’re learning, subconsciously, that women associated with technology are also associated with sexual gratification and submissiveness. (The only strong women in the slideshow are associated with conflict, which we try to avoid.)

If you doubt this is true, look through the presentation (and bear in mind that it might be considered Not Safe For Work). At some point, Matt introduces a picture of a typical development team. To which team member are your eyes drawn, and why?

At the very least, we start making comparisons. No wonder she doesn’t look happy.

The power of people with influence

Earlier this year, I finished reading Robert Cialdini’s “Influence”. It’s a very readable, memorable book. It explains some of the ways in which associations are made. In particular, he describes these mechanisms for influencing other people (his titles, my poor definitions):

  • Social proof – if other people do it, we should do it too
  • Authority – if someone in a leadership position tells us to do it, we should do it

Examples which Cialdini uses to demonstrate these concepts include the mass suicide at Jonestown, and the Milgram experiment.

So, if a community is building associations, or you’re recognised as or portraying yourself as an authority telling people to build associations, those associations will be stronger than normal. People will be more likely to act on those associations. In the same way that my fiancé takes the turning for home, “routes” will be set which the brain naturally follows, and acts upon. And it will seem perfectly reasonable, or justifiable, to do so – at the time.

So what can you do now?

If you were sitting in Matt’s presentation, or have experienced similar presentations or associations in the past:

  • you might consciously choose to wear a topless women on your t-shirt, because your brain subconsciously confirms that it’s acceptable.
  • You might expect women to be more submissive; to accept delegated tasks more easily, or question process less, or accept lower pay.
  • You might find it uncomfortable to have a female manager or team lead.
  • You might cause the women around you start dressing in less feminine ways, to distance themselves from any association.
  • You might erroneously think you have a chance of scoring with your female colleague (notwithstanding cases of genuine mutual attraction).
  • You might not expect the woman on your team to be able to teach you anything new.

And, if you’re Matt, or one of the many commenters whose opinions I’ve read, you might not completely understand the backlash. Hopefully this post helps.

If you’re not suffering these or similar biases, trust my experience that others are, or have done, and start thinking about how you might have been influenced. The associations aren’t helpful for me, and I doubt they’re helpful for the people who have them. Recognising the influence of others will help you to consciously choose different paths.

Hopefully if you’ve found the presentation through this blog, you’ve now read through this post and are now better guarded against these associations. (That’s why I didn’t put the link at the top).

You can also strengthen more useful associations. Go find the women in your team and talk to them about their technical abilities; the things that brought them to IT; times when they’ve felt empowered and assertive. Find strong female role-models – I recommend Esther Derby, Desi McAdam, Sarah Taraporewalla, Johanna Rothman, Cyndi Mitchell, Rachel Davies, Angela Martin, and many others too numerous to list here. If you’re looking for something more entertaining to get into your subconscious, try Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers, Alan Moore’s “Promethea” or Manda Scott’s “Boudica” series.

And, if you’re thinking of presenting something similar in the future, be aware of the power that you have.

On engendering subconscious reactions

Matt entitled his response, “On Engendering Strong Reactions“. I’m worried about the subconscious reactions; about the effect that it has on the people who see that presentation and the way in which they react to me, and to my other female colleagues, afterwards. Matt said, “I would have hoped that people who were likely to be offended would have simply chosen not to attend my talk or read my slides on the internet”.  That doesn’t stop the associations being built, and I can’t necessarily avoid working with people who have built those associations.

So I’m not offended by the presentation – I can understand why some women might be – but I am concerned by it. Hopefully this provides some positive insight into why. Matt – I hope you find it useful and enlightening; please let me know.

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54 Responses to I am not a Pr0n Star: avoiding unavoidable associations

  1. Christian Romney says:

    Exceptionally well-written and thoughtful response.

  2. Tinco says:

    “You might expect women to be more submissive; to accept delegated tasks more easily, or question process less, or accept lower pay.”

    From pictures of porn stars? You know not all women are porn stars, and even if they are, they’re not all underpaid, submissive or less questioning. Frankly I find the way you ‘defend’ women quite demeaning. Besides that you totally ignore the way the brain separates fiction from reality. It is clear you have not studied psychology. Please don’t post as a doctor when you have read a wikipedia article.

    “You might find it uncomfortable to have a female manager or team lead.”
    Right, because you might think of her as a porn star, and porn stars are very uncomfortable to work for.

    “You might cause the women around you start dressing in less feminine ways, to distance themselves from any association.”
    Maybe you should try some social training to avoid coming over as a creep on people. Where does the idea that watching porn makes you creepy come from, do you go to church or something?

    “You might erroneously think you have a chance of scoring with your female colleague (notwithstanding cases of genuine mutual attraction).”
    Why would this be a bad thing? It can only be a confidence boost, it’s up to the boss to make sure people don’t break any in office intimacy rules.

    “You might not expect the woman on your team to be able to teach you anything new.”
    Again the idea that men immediately relate all women to porn stars and the downright offensive thought that porn stars cannot be intelligent.

    Reading your article makes me think your really ignorant about porn and the way men react to femine beauty. It also causes me to think you might have been raised with some kind of christian indoctrine which makes your views on sex rather misinformed.

  3. Mike Moore says:

    Thank you for this.

  4. ab5tract says:

    Wow, Liz, thank you so much for writing this. This kind of analysis is precisely what has been most missing in the blog posts (as good as they have been) so far. I hope you don’t mind if I submit this to Rubyflow and post a link at _why’s quotes from women on this topic at hackety.org?

  5. planetmcd says:

    This really puts it in clear terms why the presentation and the support it got, are net negative even if you deem the pictures appropriate for your lifestyle. It’s something I was unable to articulate, thanks.

  6. liz says:

    @ab5stract – not at all. I read the topic at hackety.org; thank you. Great to hear the female voices in chorus.

    @Tinco – Try these books:


    This one is also good but very academic:


    I’m not a doctor, but I do study this stuff both for fun and because I need to know how people work to coach them.

    May I also suggest you try the Harvard Implicit Association test out some time? You might find it enlightening, if my article wasn’t:


  7. Very well written, Liz. As I and others have said, it’s the context that’s the problem, not the content.

    @Tinco: no, you won’t get those associations from a single incident like this presentation that caused the discomfort and subsequent furore. What a lot of folks aren’t seeming to understand is that there’s a pervasive sexism in Western software development environments (especially in North America) that tends to be self-reinforcing. This presentation is “another brick in the wall.”

  8. Soleone says:

    Guess what, men don’t need pictures of naked girls to visualize their female co-colleague naked, that’s just how most male brains work… I guess 😀 But the point is you just can’t prevent thinking like this!

    Please don’t try to play thought police to ban provocative ideas like Matt’s presentation or make him apologize for something which wasn’t meant to offend anyone! While I certainly don’t approve of the porn-industry, I don’t think it has anything to do with that presentation, he just used it has a funny metaphor! Just because the porn-industry treats women as objects doesn’t mean this presentation does!

    After all, I am just amazed by all the serious responses, it’s a JOKE, people! Seriously, I am all for responsibility and being nice, but I just can’t understand how so many people (male or female) think this is a nono, and worse are even offended and want an APOLOGY for that (not directed at your, liz)…

  9. @amynewell says:

    Liz, awesome post, thanks! Silver lining to whole thing is finding so many cool women developers online….

  10. Nice summary, Liz. I have been biting my tongue on this issue (at least stopped myself from writing a blog post) because I thought all bases were covered by others – nice to see your unique take on it.

    @Soleone – the reason why I believe it has blown up as much as it has is because just highlights the issue that IT is still very much a mans world, and sometimes being a women in it can be a challenge (whether it be listening to these types of jokes or realizing that the only reason someone was talking to you at a conference was to get your number)

  11. David says:

    Lol. Now it makes sense! Matt was using sex to sell CouchDB. God is CouchDB that bad that it can’t stand up on it’s own technically!

    And the next time I am watching porn I’ll start think about CouchDB and have the sudden urge to start building a schema. My wife will love that!

    Wait, I got it!! Videos of babies laughing to sell more copies of Linux. I love it!


  12. Ryan Platte says:

    Thank you so much for your refreshing and sound approach to this topic.

  13. Jane Q. Public says:

    Personally, I think this diatribe makes you appear to be defensive and rather intolerant, with a “look at me, the poor little victim” attitude.

    I found the presentation to be amusing, and even fairly clever in spots, not at all degrading or forming of bad associations. I think you are making some VERY heavy assumptions here that are not true of all women, much less all adults. Not everybody makes the same associations that you seem to think are universal.

    What I find offensive is this portrayal of women as “victims”, every time somebody does something some woman does not like. Grow up and get over it!

    If an employee of mine gave this presentation in the workplace, my response would likely to be to tell him or her that it was a clever idea, but perhaps just slightly over the appropriateness line. If I saw it somewhere else — like at a conference — I would laugh about it and remember it.

    There was not a single picture in that presentation that I would consider “not safe for work”. Not one image displayed more nudity than what I have commonly seen on billboards along the highway, or in underwear ads in the newspaper. I would say exactly the same about bad taste, except for that one picture of the skinny older woman… now THAT was offensive! My sense of good taste in fashion literally caused me to cringe.

    And the picture of a “typical development team”?? In all honestly, my eyes were drawn straight to the guy with the weird hair… because he had weird hair.

    In our working lives, we are expected to be adults. Liz, you give me the very strong impression of still being stuck in high school. I would probably not hire you.

  14. Stephen Waits says:

    You’re doing it wrong.

  15. Steve says:

    *Very* well said… I know that my brain, at least, now has an association between CouchDB and thick-headed macho programmers.

  16. pepe says:

    the fact that some guys can’t understand why such presentation is offensive to women really don’t surprise me, even if it is well explained as in this post. that is why most companies just fire anyone who makes gender remarks or use sexual language at the workplace. mix sex with work and you are out, period, very simple to understand.
    what amazes me is Matt Aimonetti saying that people “were warned by the organizers before I started that I would be using imagery potentially offensive to some.” looks like a great mechanism to deny access to certain groups of people. don’t like Christians in your presentation? simple, warn them that your presentation will be filled with Satan images. don’t like Jews in your presentations? simple, just warn them that you will present it wearing a Hitler costume.

  17. Insane Dreamer says:

    Very well written, and a compelling argument. I completely agree with you on the inappropriateness of the presentation and similar instances (such as the T-Shirt example). If nothing else, it’s a lack of common courtesy. It’s unfortunate that all to often people don’t think about how their actions might be received, and that other people might perceive things differently than they do. (This especially happens between males and females, each assuming that the other will react the way they do. “If it’s no big deal for me, why should it be for them?” Something done “in jest” will not necessarily appear so to someone else. By nature women are more sensitive to this than men, but not always!)

    And it’s unfortunate that so many responses were immature and unhelpful . That, not one person’s mistake in the presentation, taints the ruby community.

    One of the main problems with people’s reactions to the whole event is to use a single incident to categorize or label people in a broader sense (“ruby/rails programmers are sexist”, “women can’t handle a joke”, etc.), which is unfair and untrue. Again, it manifests a lack of concern for others (not that selflessness and humility are highly-prized virtues among programmers to start with).

    However, I can’t say I completely agree with your general conclusion that most people’s association patters are so easily altered. I think people’s personal convictions and sense of what they hold to be true is much stronger than that. I think that many such associations made over time can result in an altered perception, but not a few incidents. That only occurs if the person is relatively weak-minded or easily swayed (which granted, more people are today thanks in part to social pressures brought about through the media). Unless they felt the incident was personally directed at them (in which case they would be rightfully upset), I think that most people would go away from the incident with “that was way off course” feeling, but not let it taint their general view or form new associations (though it could reinforce existing ones). We’re exposed to a lot of junk in our lives, and we have to learn to dismiss that which is without value and not let it affect our view of things that are important to us (in this case, someone’s views about women in general, or female programmers’ role in IT, or ruby, or rails, the community, etc.)

  18. robo says:

    @Tinco Hey, wonderful post. I couldn’t agree more! I hope that you’ll attend my upcoming talk, “CouchDB: Perform Like a Minstrel Troupe.” It will make a series of entirely appropriate analogies between traits desirable in databases and in blackface performers. The slides will be full of pictures of black people singing and dancing! It’ll be so funny! I will of course warn everyone that overly sensitive types may not appreciate the humor in my presentation, and so they should probably stay away.

    @Jane Q. Public, you’ll be happy to know that all of the minstrels pictured in my slides will be fashionably attired, so I think that’s all of my bases covered.

    Afterwards, when all the whiners with easily bruised egos start complaining, I’ll need both of you to explain that everyone knows that not all black people are entertaining buffoons, so if anyone was offended it’s their own damn problem.

  19. liz says:

    Pepe, your comments about firing people match what my fiancé said on the issue. (I guess I’m more tolerant than he’d be!)

    I’m not personally worried about Satan images (not every Christian believes in hell) and the idea of wearing a Hitler costume actually brings up memories of the Producers for me, which… well, I’m not Jewish, but I hope there’s ways of finding humour in everything. I loved that film (the original, not seen the remake).

    So, context is everything. Dan makes comparisons between Maven and “the girl who sleeps with all your mates” – but he doesn’t sell that as a good thing, which makes it funnier (you should hear what he says about singletons).

    I don’t want to ban people from making such references. I just want to give them an idea of the power they have when they do it. I’m aware of my power, and am trying to use it for good. No doubt I’ll make mistakes too.

  20. liz says:

    Are we invoking Godwin’s Law? I’ll have to ask an expert…

  21. Scott says:

    FWIW, the “typical development team” is the cast of The IT Crowd, a British TV show.

  22. liz says:

    @Insane Dreamer: It isn’t true of most people to the degree I’ve suggested, but everyone has biases (including myself) of which we’re completely unaware.

    Every single one of the examples I mentioned is something that’s happened, either to me or to a friend, or to several friends. The conditioning’s come from somewhere! I find the way that a mix of authority and social acceptance can make behaviour seem justifiable fascinating (think of the Prisoner experiment, or the true story on which the film “The Wave” is based). For that reason, I’m calling it out the way it would be, if there wasn’t a certain amount of social pressure to avoid the behaviour in the first place.

    I’ve worked in a company which had swimsuit calendars on the walls and which permitted harassment of its female employees. I actually thrived there in some respects – I was young, had a pretty good body and liked the attention – but it wasn’t really good for me or my self-esteem, and it only played into an environment that alienated every woman who didn’t fit the image.

    At some point if I’m feeling brave I might post how _my_ behaviour changed as a result of the environment! Women can buy into this stuff too…

  23. pepe says:

    hey Liz, i didn’t know this law, i think my arguments are doomed now. 🙂

    and i agree, a humorous point of view is always possible, but things get very tense when a minority is involved. for instance, a sexist joke can be funny with a balanced audience, the women will boo the funny fella and everybody will laugh. but if there is only one or two women then it will be intimidating and uncomfortable for them no matter how clever the joke is, that is just how crowds work. that is why wise managers/organizers simply do not tolerate any potentially offensive thing in their workplaces.

  24. Insane Dreamer says:

    Liz, I agree with you that, unfortunately, “social acceptance can make behaviour seem justifiable”. I think that is key; often the response (or lack) of those around you to the event that tend to shape your perception and subconscious reactions to future similar events, more than the event itself.

    All in all, I find your writing thought-provoking. I hadn’t come across your blog before this, but I’m now subscribed to your feed 🙂 Cheers.

  25. ab5tract says:

    It seems reasonable to me that the fact that so many people do not see these associations implies that those associations already exist in their mind. For those who do not have those associations, or for whom the associations were not invisible, the presentation came off poorly (to say the least). For those whom the associations are already established, and therefore invisible, no qualms.

    Or is that reaching?

  26. Tinco says:

    @robo: How to make your development team wail like a jazz band? A presentation on how to boost creativity and harmony in your development team. I can picture it right now, and I think that if you do it well it wouldn’t be offensive at all. It’s very nice that you try and convert the female minority thing to a race minority thing, but I think my point still holds. If you approach it in a positive way like the couchdb guy did there just is no problem.

    @liz thanks for the book url’s, I actually have read parts of the cognitive psychology book since I have a few flatmates who are studying psychology. I am fully aware that we can be influenced in subtle ways, I just don’t think that these semi-pornographic images push us in any direction we are not already in.

    What I would agree with is that even though this presentation was funny, if it would become a trend lines could easily become vague and be crossed. Maybe it was Joel Spolsky who started it with his sex sells (part of the) talk last year at railsconf and maybe this is the next step which is still funny but the step after that might cross lines like they are crossed at every motor exposition and games convention. So I guess it’s not bad to stay vigilant.

  27. liz says:

    @Tinco, glad we have found a place we agree on! I’m going to hold out on the effect of semi-pornographic images. Sexual portrayal of women generally doesn’t bother me – it’s not like I wear a lot when I go out to the goth clubs in London – but I don’t think it has a place at work, and a professional conference counts as work for me.

    Also I hear that the presentation on the day contained slides which were far more graphic than the ones which remain.

  28. John says:

    This is not a men vs women argument. This is an A type personality vs all other personality types.

    The A type personality is very aggressive and does not care as much about what others think of them. They proud themselves on being different and probably get fueled from the controversy you are creating. You will never change them:

    Type A personality is characterized by an exaggerated sense of time urgency, competitiveness, anger and hostility. People who share certain characteristics with you are often concerned with the acquisition of objects and generally dissatisfied with the world, including oneself. You don’t know how and when to relax. People probably get tense around you, and they tend to feel threatened in your presence.

    Looks a lot like what I am seeing in this reaction.

    BTW, Women are not a minority anywhere. There are more women in the world than men. Also, during the current global recession, women have taken the majority in the work place: http://dodsonandross.com/blogs/carlin/2009/01/recession-effect-gender-balance-workplace.

  29. robo says:

    @Tinco, that’s a wonderful idea! I can picture it now. I’ll have slides full of happy jazz musicians representing creative, harmonious team members. I won’t say one negative word during the entire presentation! It’ll be so positive. Here’s an outline:

    – Good team members are always ready to perform
    – Good team members are always cheerful
    – Good team members are naturally uninhibited
    – Good team members never complain
    – Good team members always follow the band leader

    I’m so excited I went and found matching pictures for the slides already. There’s even one white person, the band leader! I’m predicting these slides will be a big hit.

    If anyone has problems with this, I’ll just tell them that they’re really ignorant about race and the way that white people react to black entertainers. Then I’ll explain that they were probably brought up with some overly-PC indoctrination that made their views on race rather misinformed.

  30. Jimmy the Geek says:

    The reason his presentation failed is easy to spot. After the presentation nobody is focused on the information he wanted to present.

    This simple fact alone is all the proof you need to know it was a horrible mistake.

  31. Rachel Blum says:

    Thank you for writing this! It was a much more eloquent (and rational) response than most people have formed to this. I just hope that at least a few people read and understand what you’re saying…. Some of the comments here left me a bit perplexed.

  32. liz says:

    @Rachel: Some of the commenters (Jane, for example) are trolls. I don’t mind feeding trolls, but I try not to give them anything bloody they can sink their teeth into. It only makes them stronger.

  33. Rev. Dan says:

    I think there are several examples here of why allowing anonymous comments is counterproductive. If someone isn’t willing to own their words enough to stick their name by them then often what one ends up with is cowardly chickenshit like what “Jane Q. Public” has posted.

    I don’t like that folks were upset or felt singled out. That just sucks. I am personally grateful that there have been quite a number of folks who have posted thoughtful responses from varied perspectives. I hope I’ve learned something from this, even though I wasn’t/am not really “involved” beyond agreeing that the community is lopsided in terms of gender representation and being receptive to hearing thoughts about how to make everyone feel welcome without succumbing to pandering to particular demographics.

    What a crazy mess this world is, yet it’s what we’ve got. I’m hoping that we, the community as a whole, can use this as an opportunity to make life on our little blue-green ball better for everyone. Ruby is an excellent language, why shouldn’t we be striving to fix more than just technology problems.

    A point that I haven’t seen made is that there are groups which have a more difficult time in the technology community… for example, transexuals / transgendered folks. I met someone recently at a technology conference who is transgendered and thought “you’re all kinds of awesome to be who you are” let alone the fact that she is/was truly a “geek’s geek.”

    I like meeting people at technology conferences… to me, they’re largely social events. I’ve made friends at the last two years’ RailsConfs (sadly, I can’t afford to go this year) which I hope to maintain my whole life. It saddens me that I’ve met women at technology events who feel so uncomfortable that just offering a friendly “howdy, how are you?” comes across as an attempt to “pick them up.” If I’m treated like I’m an asshole for just saying hello, then where does someone who’s sympathetic to the issues women and others are facing in our technology communities do? Seriously, it’s like a no-win situation. Do I need to start wearing stuff that maybe makes me seem more effeminate or “gay” so that I’m not “threatening?”

    If I’m interested in meeting women to date, I go to places appropriate to do so, not technology conferences. I go to those to learn things and make friends.

    My last bit of commentary is that I was *kinda jealous* of the DevChix meeting I walked past on my way to the “Let’s Make Music” BoF session at RailsConf. I overheard just a little bit of it and thought “I wish there was something equivalent that men could attend… a way for us to really get to know other people and cut through the veneer to develop real relationships with each other.” At least that was my *impression* of what I’d overheard.

    If you (anyone reading this) see a big fat white guy with crazy curly hair who looks like some sort of acid-induced lovechild of Jerry Garcia and Bob Ross, please say howdy. I like meeting people (yes, even other developers)!

  34. liz says:

    Hi Rev. Dan, pleased to meet you. Come say howdy to me any time.

    FYI, all comments on this site are moderated. That means I read the diatribe, thought, “Okay, someone disagrees with me,” and posted it anyway (“defensive and rather intolerant” I’m not, at least in this respect).

  35. Rev. Dan says:

    Hiya Liz! Thanks for letting me scrawl my comments on your blog. 🙂

  36. Liz,

    I really liked your response to this ridiculous issue. I have no problem with Matt’s slides, and I think his presentation is spot-on in terms of technical content. The analogy selected could (and, let’s face the truth, the PR is negative, so it probably SHOULD) have been a different one and probably still had a similarly memorable and “edgy” effect, but I don’t fault him on it; he went through the proper steps, put out the general warnings, and did what he felt was right at the time. If we want to call this a mistake, then fine, we all make mistakes. He’s apologized for the fact that people were offended, pointed out it wasn’t his intent, apologized for offending the people that were offended, personally contacted various people, and made many efforts to try and help control this issue.

    Your message has, in my opinion, helped the situation and clearly informed people of at least a few of the reasons regarding why the presentation and it’s resultant handling had such a negative backlash. Matt has even pointed this article out through his own response’s comment thread. I think that will assist people, and I certainly hope this issue will be resolved. He’s attending RubyConf and will be in a panel for discussion for those not satisfied.

    Great writing,
    Ahad L. Amdani

  37. Rev. Dan says:

    I’m reading this right now and feel compelled to share it. I’m finding it to be really interesting:


  38. Jeff says:

    There has been an increasing trend of throwing in unrelated pictures into a presentation to alleviate boredom. While in most cases these pictures are inoffensive pictures of puppies or food or other tame topics the presenter tried to use suggestive imagery that basically distracted everyone from the topic he was discussing.

    Despite the rush of feminists everywhere to associate every tenuous feminist argument with this presentation, they were not the reasons, both I and the majority of my male colleagues were irritated by it.

    Frankly, most of us came to the presentation for its technical insights, which were not well represented, and were further overshadowed by the distractions of the lewd images. I doubt many of us would even bother feigning outrage at the imagery, if we saw it in a different setting. Say on a billboard in time square. That’s advertising. I expect mainstream advertising to do anything for profit including lewdness and a misrepresentation of facts. The proximity of similar imagery in the presentation, only cheapened both his efforts and the value of the product.

    Technology and the sciences are some of the few areas that can be assessed independently of appearances, personalities, race, gender etc and is what most often draws the people who work in these fields. If you have any doubts, on take a look at the mockery made of Ubisoft’s Jade Raymond and Assassin’s Creed by the technical community. The rants were not pro-feminism, but a cry against the industry trying to sex up the marketing for a game. We don’t want to be lied to, or have someone use those techniques used in mainstream advertising used in a field where we care deeply about the facts and correctness.

    He basically, misjudged his audience when he created the presentation and generally insulted the group culture. Both he and his slides would have been more at home in a presentation that targeted a marketing or executive audience.

  39. dgou says:

    @Jeff: RIght, the problem isn’t that it creates an environment unwelcoming to >1/2 the worlds population and an already despicably pathetic lack of women in technology. No, it was just “off point.” Oh, and how nice that we don’t expect there to by any women in “marketing or executive” audiences, so that wouldn’t have been a problem. Some of your points are valid, but trying to dismiss the larger social issue as irrelevent, that’s just BS.

  40. liz says:

    @Jeff: Out of curiosity – who are the people you’ve identified as feminists?

  41. bosco says:

    Thanks for this blog post Liz. I read this because information about this controversy was linked from the systers mailing list.

    I enjoyed and admired your post for a number of reasons.
    1) I learned something new – the way you linked the issue to a psychological truth put something I felt vaguely into clear context.
    2) You present your discussion of the issue with clarity and simplicity
    3) You state facts about a mechanism you have seen operate in the past with examples. No value judgements.

    As a woman who has worked in computing, mostly with Unix/Linux and involved in internet discussion since Usenet , you put something I have sensed for along time into a sharp focus.

    One thing occurred to me. Imagine that the entire audience at the event had been female, and the presenter had presented the same thing. It would have been bizarre. Could he have done it? The presentation was obviously targeted to an audience of straight men.

    In a room of men, or where men are the overwhelming majority. this type of presentation tells the women in the room that they don’t exist (as equal technical minds, developers) they are not part of his desired audience.)

    When I was younger I found it very hard to be taken seriously in the Unix/Linux hacker world.
    Some men have a real problem with having a woman know more than them on a “macho” topic like hardware configurations, etc. I learned to sugarcoat suggestions, to get used to having my suggestions ignored until a man said the same thing, etc. In my current job I have an “old school” boss – And I find myself telling a male colleague my ideas so he can present them – so that they are not ignored.

    It’s not a question of sex or sexuality – two of my favorite things. But I want to have sex and watch porn when and where I choose to – by my choice and not as a choice of someone who is my boss at work – or a technical presenter.

  42. Elisabeth says:

    One other issue that hasn’t been raised here is this: do we think this kind of presentation encourages women to learn rails? to participate in the rails community? to become computer scientists?

    Computer science already has far too few women participating in the field. I believe this kind of presentation and its defense by its author will discourage women further.

    Speaking for myself, I do know that this presentation will make me think twice about attending a Rails conference, or a conference where Matt Amionetti is speaking. And if it affects other women in the same way, I think that’s a shame.

  43. Ponnu says:

    Very well written. Thanks for referring Robert Cialdini’s book about Influence, I have started reading it. It’s very interesting.

  44. Michael Binskey says:

    I don’t know about all this. It sounds like a very US-specific problem for me. After all, you guys are sometimes more prudish than is helpful.

  45. liz says:

    @Michael: I’m English…

  46. Jeff says:


    I don’t know exactly, but the majority of posts from female writers on the issue have been overtly feminist? I guess? I’m just trying to say that some people are turning this into a woman’s suffrage thing, which is fine, you don’t need my permission to do it. But I don’t think that’s where the majority of disapproval against his behavior is coming from. Obvioulsy, you are free to use any issue to push your own agenda.

    I believe focusing on professionalism, and respecting professional ability regardless of the source, would keep the field open to women without explicitly mentioning women. I’m not a big fan of ‘the first woman in bla’ awards, though I believe ‘greatest person in bla’ should be handed to anyone with the qualification. Dealing with professionals in the field with respect and courtesy also follow naturally, and that too shouldn’t be contingent on your race or gender. Just be nice :p

  47. liz says:

    @Jeff: Feminist means “of or relating to or advocating equal rights for women”. I hope that makes you capable of supporting the feminist agenda too. That this issue also plays into the issue of women’s equality shouldn’t be much of a surprise, and I don’t think it makes people “feminists” when they support gender equality, any more than it makes someone “a gardener” because they have a garden.

    Your arguments about focusing on professionalism and respecting ability etc. would be great, if we actually had that equality to start with. We don’t. Measurements suggest we’re still lagging behind men in pay, promotion and respect.

    However, your thoughts regarding the technical insights and their presentation can still be valid – it’s possible to support each “agenda”, if that term is even applicable, without discounting the other. (And it may not only be men who agree with you there.)

  48. KevDog says:

    I don’t mind that Matt went over the line, you have to cross it to figure out where it is, after all. But it was galactically stupid and reeked of frat-boyism not to immediately man up and actually apologize.

    Using the words “I’m sorry” in a sentence does not make an apology. Neither does saying “I didn’t mean to offend and I’m sorry if I did”. An apology has to accept that the behavior was wrong on its face and won’t be repeated. I have yet to see such an apology.

  49. Hi Liz,

    I rather agree with Tinco. Women who choose to be porn stars aren’t necessarily victims, and its a bit condescending to suggest otherwise. The real issue here has less to do with gender equality I feel, then it has to do with our puritanical western culture that has historically found the subject of sex somewhat uncomfortable.

    As for Matts judgment, I believe it was poor. Given that he is well aware of the social sensitivities he should have found another device other then sex to provide his audience a cheap thrill. He should of also have apologised unreservedly.

    As a man, I would not be offending in the least if a female colleague chose to wear a T-shirt to work with a figure of a half naked male hunk on it. I may feel a little inadequate, but definitely not offended.

    Female sexuality has been controlled for decades. In many ways our attempts to marginalise and control porn is yet another way of controlling women and how they choose to utilise their bodies. After all if men are stupid enough to pay, then I would say that the men are the victims not the women.

    The feminist movement managed to some how find themselves on the same side as the puritanicals. There are many post feminists who see this as a mistake. Both Male and female sexuality are legitimate, and whilst I agree that the workplace or a software conference aren’t the right place to explore our sexual urges, I don’t believe that sex itself should some how be taboo.

    Interestingly, naked women are used to sell all sorts of things all the time, beamed into our homes and in the media at large. The strength of the reaction in this context does point to something interesting, but I don’t believe that it has anything to do with psychology, I would put it down to culture and our social taboos on what is acceptable in the workplace.


  50. Pingback: Rails is awesome … too bad the creater and much of the community are total dickwads. | Rebecca Miller-Webster

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  52. Guy Shelton says:

    “You might expect women to be more submissive; to accept delegated tasks more easily, or question process less, or accept lower pay.”

    well, you might expect men to be more ‘dominant’ among other things i found your opinion up to this set of associations quite exciting and insightful until i got to this line. ive been told im a pretty attractive guy by by both women AND MEN. its not that im naturally submissive, i just have this thing where i cannot be assertive until certain formalities have been exchanged, or im positive that my view has relevance.

    In my opinion I expect or wish women would be more dominant in the work place, because of the way men and harassment are understood in the present work state, I will many times unconsciously go to significant lengths to avoid my actions being interpreted as harassment, where in the future after i or she had moved on to different things but reconnected, I find out she thought i thought she was repulsive or something as she sighted these different times where she ‘put it out there’ and I just completely ignored it. Truth is, at some level i saw it, but there have been countless other times where I saw it and I was wrong.

    On the contrary, I cant think of how many times ive had unwanted advances… especially when i was the team lead and the girl very attractive, but given the company policy i simply turned that part of me off yet the problem only escalated to the point where I simply quit… it was too complex to explain to HR, I mean i could have yet it was equally embarrassing, and i was at a confusing point in my life and i just didnt come back after i had enough and took a good long break.

    one more thing, “You might cause the women around you start dressing in less feminine ways, to distance themselves from any association.”
    well, what if they (the girls and women) start dressing in more feminine ways, and not only that but doing things like dropping a pen or something as they pass me as im sitting giving me a perfect view while giving me a quick ?!1 glance… and i sit and think is she looking at me like that because she thinks i was looking up her skirt as she bent over because i definitely only glanced just to make sure everything was OK but omg this whole harassment thing i sometimes think being a eunuch would be better so i can just do the work im getting paid for so i can go home and use the money i work for to act in ways not suitable for work.

    OKOK i know im rambling but yeah theres definitely some reverse issues that need attention, like for instance what do i do when this guy who has stated he was gay constantly trys to tweak my chest jokingly yet I do not know if its a joke or what but it causes…. AH F* THIS YALL ALL NEED TO STOP FINDING EXCUSES TO BE THE VICTIM…. ah or not im so tired of this.

    but thank you for your article, i appreciate the way in which you defined associations since it is a solid fundamental yet many and most do not or cannot understand this concept at any level, but the way in which you put it has much relevance to the average mind.

    • liz says:

      Hi Guy, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you!

      I don’t expect normally that women will be more submissive. I believe it’s a bias which could have been introduced in this case, because of this presentation, without people being aware – an expectation, rather than an actual truth.

      Unfortunately, we tend to see what we expect, and as a society, already have large doses of this expectation:

      Adding more bias to this won’t help anyone’s cause, I’m afraid!

      At some point I’ll write an article about Systems Thinking and the men’s rights movement too. It isn’t a one-way street, by any means.

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