It was refreshing to hear a white man talk about diversity last week in a keynote address given by Dave Thomas at RubyConf 2010. Just one part of his keynote focused on diversity, specifically on gender diversity. This is was in stark contrast to the second day’s keynote by David Hansson (aka dhh), the engineer who created the initial Rails implementation and still leads the core team. David Hansson’s keynote was quite different. While both talks dove into technical details at times, Dave Hansson’s talk aimed to shock or titillate the audience, whereas Dave Thomas aimed to inspire. David Hansson seemed lazy by resorting to analogies of recreational drug use and airport body searches. It is much harder to inspire people. David Hansson has done lot of great work with Rails, but I think he could be more ambitious. I think he could do something awesome if he got outside of his comfort zone. There are more subtle and powerful forms of liberty than those he referred to in his talk.

Dave Thomas cited US labor statistics of women making up 47% of the workforce. Of people working in computing or mathematics, there are only 25% women. (For those who don’t know, it is a strange fact that today about half of math majors in the US are women, but only 14% of the CS majors are women. Over the past 20 years the percentage of women studying math has steadily increased, while the percentage of women studying CS has fallen, after peaking at around 45% in the mid-80s.)

Dave also pointed out that the conference had 5.6% women, which is actually a positive stat given that the number women in open source is typically lower. (EU report found 1.5% Women in FLOSS.) I’d like to think Ruby is changing the open source stats, but maybe it is a reflection of Ruby’s adoption in larger companies. I don’t know.

On my request, Dave posted complete slides which cover these and other topics.

I was honored that Dave reached out to talk to me while preparing for his keynote. We had a good conversation then and subsequently at the conference. I find it heartening that gender diversity in computer science is no longer just a women’s issue. Before Dave even talked to me, he had decided to call this section of his talk “inspire someone.” He ended it by quoting me, challenging the audience to “inspire someone who is not like you.” Imagine If each of us found one women who wanted to be a software developer and taught her how. The problem would just evaporate.

In summary, here’s a few steps you can do:

  • teach a woman (or girl) to code
  • teach someone who has a different skin color, educational background or speaks a different native language than you
  • write about what you know
  • speak about what you know
  • get outside of your comfort zone
  • hire an intern
  • if you teach or organize for-pay events, advertise at least one scholarship spot to increase diversity in your community
  • volunteer at a school
  • seek to inspire someone not like you

“Pioneering happens when you don’t have to do it perfect, you just need to survive…and remember it is supposed to be fun” — Dave Thomas

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