I’ve just returned from the San Francisco Music Hack Day 2011. This was the 13th in the series of Music Hack Days and the 3rd that I’ve attended. I was at the very first MHD in London in 2009 and then the London MHD last summer. Along with the MHDs, I’ve also attended a Yahoo! Hack Day and a Culture Hack Day in London, so I feel fairly comfortable at these events. I have hacked at all but the first hack day I attended (the Yahoo! one) and have presented a hack at 3 of the 5 I’ve attended.
I’m no stranger to the gender dynamics of these kind of events and the communities that attend them. Multiple engineering degrees really drive home the point that women are thoroughly the others of the community. However, the last MHD in New York created a little bit of a discussion after Matt Andrews from the Guardian posted a short piece noting the overwhelmingly white male audience of the MHD. There was a twitter discussion that followed which included a complaint that no one seems to be offering advice to improve the situation, only observational commentary. So I wrote up a short list of actions that I thought would help and it received a fair bit of traffic, but the discussion never carried on into planning of another hack day.
When I arrived at tokbox for the hack, I was amazed at the gender disparity. It was certainly the worst female to male ratio that I have seen at a hack day. I just didn’t expect that from the Bay Area, though when discussing it with locals, they said it was very representative of the Silicon Valley culture and they thought nothing of it. Dave was doing a full female headcount of the room and I never caught the final number, but my estimate would be of the approximately 150 attendees, fewer than 10 were women (that were there to participate in the hack, the registration desk and kitchen were staffed by women which raised the total number of women in the room).
To reiterate the statistics in another way, of the 54 hack presentations, 4 involved a woman with two of those hacks involving me (HueSound,Shooting from the Hipster, Music Grid, and DJ DJ Revolution. That means that there were 3 women involved in a completed hack. 2 of those hacks received prizes. 100% of the mixed gender teams (2 of 2), roughly 25% of the male-only teams (about 12 of 50), and 0% of the female-only teams (0 of 2) received prizes. Small sample sizes give weak confidence measures, but still numbers to think about.
I refuse to accept that women just don’t want to attend these events and that there simply aren’t any women in the hacking communities. That’s demonstrably untrue and incredibly insulting to imply that it’s women’s problem if they don’t feel welcome. Talented women do show up, it would just be great if more would join them.
The following things occurred this weekend:
- The Friday evening before the hack, Elissa Barrett from the main organizer tweeted this:
Hey #musichackday folks, get some rest while you can! Let’s split the men from the boys and see who’s standing at 5am on Sunday.
I responded with this:
- Early into the hack on Saturday, the women’s restroom at Tokbox underwent gender reassignment. I don’t understand why they were gendered in the first place, they were each a room with a sink and toilet. Permitting the men to access the women’s restroom was absolutely fine, but the way the problem was “solved” left the building without a restroom for women. The women used both restrooms as well, but no where else in the building was it so blatant that you weren’t expected to be there.
- During the lightning API presentations, MusixMatch gave a talk introducing what they do. They felt it necessary to use a porn reference to add some excitement to their presentation and it predictably generated some twitter traffic. They threw out the statement that lyrics are googled more than porn and accompanied it with an image of
a woman in a sexual position with another woman.two people in a sexual position. (Ed: the creator of the slide informs me that’s a teenage boy, not a woman.)
I didn’t act fast enough to take a photo of the slide, but afterwards looked to see if they put it up on slideshare (the above photo is by Thoms Bonte).
They hadn’t, but I did find the slidebook for what they showed at SFMusictech the day after the hack. While it had the same text, they had removed the image. Why did they feel it was appropriate for the MHD audience and not for SFMusictech?(Ed: my mistake, that is a slide presentation from last year’s SFMusictech, not the one directly after this hack day.) If you feel you need a porn reference to spice up your presentation, perhaps you should reconsider the initial point you’re trying to make.
- Before the last London MHD a couple of the regular female attendees requested women’s sizes in the MHD shirts and they were supplied without any great issue. This seemed to have been forgotten for San Francisco as there were no women’s sizes for MHD shirts and most of the other free swag available shirts were in men’s L and XL sizes.
- I was timidly asked multiple times what I was doing at the hack. The person asking the question seemed to expect me to say I was in business development or the press or someone’s girlfriend. (I was seriously asked if I was there to represent my boyfriend since he wasn’t able to attend.) When I replied I was there to hack, I was met with visible surprise. This happened more than once.
Everyone likes to say — gasp, oh noes, there are mostly men here! how horrible, something should be done!!!1! But nothing ever seems to be consciously done by the organizers (or by frankly anyone in a hiring position at any music tech-related company) to address this. Instead, all these little things seem to slip by under the radar which scream at women: it is not normal nor expected for you to be here. It’s easy to improve the situation, just don’t do the things listed above.
What if every MHD attendee just did this one thing: when another MHD is announced, mention it to a female friend or colleague and say “These things are good times, I think you should go. You would enjoy it.” And then the next time you attend one, make sure the basics like restrooms are available to all attendees regardless of their gender identification.
Nonetheless I had a good time this weekend. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years, met new ones, and even returned with a little prize money for one of my hacks. But using one of my favorite phrases from the UK, Music Hack Day, pull your finger out.