It’s the Small Things That Count

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.less than a minute ago via HootSuite Favorite Retweet Reply

    I responded with this:

    RT @elissab: #musichackday … Let’s split the men from the boys and see who’s standing at 5am on Sunday. // not sure where that leaves me.less than a minute ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

  • 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.

18 thoughts on “It’s the Small Things That Count

  1. I work in the SEO industry and while it isn’t quite as bad as what you just described it’s still pretty disgusting. I think that as a whole society is definitely moving in the right direction on gender equality, but there are definitely pockets of regressiveness. It’s sad.

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  3. This is outrageous. I am shocked that this kind of blatant sexual harrassment can exist given the laws in place in our society. I will be making a note of this organization and avoiding them and mentioning their name to anyone of my business associates. I would recommend legal action against them.

    • I don’t really think legal action is required, I’m just hoping for some education. If you’re a member of a certain culture, it can be difficult to see the flaws of that culture. I’m just hoping that pointing out some of the flaws will cause others to adjust their own behavior.

      The participants in hacks are wonderful people that don’t intend to be discriminatory. I think they sincerely would like to see more diversity at these events and don’t understand why that isn’t happening already.

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  5. Thanks for writing this up. This was my first MHD, and although I had a lot of fun, those issues you brought up bothered me too. I’m not from the Bay Area either, so it makes me wonder where the local females were. This was also my first hack that I did by myself – I usually work in mixed gender teams, so usually a male or much more confident female takes the responsibility of presenting. I remember feeling really nauseous maybe 20 or so presentations in and realizing that no female had presented yet.

    As a musician, people usually assume I’m a friend/girlfriend of a musician or working the merch tables at gigs. At least in tech, there are awesome females like yourself who are vocal about these issues to make other people more aware of what they’re doing and how it affects us. 🙂

  6. The photos on the bathroom door are happy polaroids of TokBox employees – I suspect they got moved around at some point to indicate “unisex!” (my photo’s the one on the “Women” sign) after it quickly became clear that 140 men using one bathroom didn’t quite make sense. It sucks if it was perceived as “no women allowed”; with 150 people and just two bathrooms, gender assignments (that came with our building, sorry!) in our casual little space didn’t occur to me; to your point, the bathrooms are pretty much identical.

    fwiw, lots of people asked me what I was hacking on (but I, alas, don’t break any stereotypes, and wasn’t), nor was I in any way bothered by the Musixmatch slide, or Elissa’s use of a common figure of speech. But there’s a spectrum of how small things affect people differently (e.g. I do wish more tech swag, beyond music hack day’s, came in XS for girls) and I can respect how for you in all your experience with events like this, it adds up.

    In my mind, the big thing is that we need role models like you! And Joanne, and Elissa. And men who support role models like you (like the army of Echo Nest guys, Dave and some lingering hackers who helped Elissa and me clean up my office in the aftermath)

    Hope you weren’t holding it all weekend and liked our space, bathroom situation notwithstanding. Thanks for coming and congrats on a fun hack.

    • Thank you Janine and the rest of TokBox for being such wonderful hosts! And I really appreciate the effort put forth by Elissa.

      I know the bathroom and tweet were supposed to be jokes, it’s just as you said, the little things add up. As for the Musixmatch slide, porn and developer conferences have a sordid history that is best to avoid.

      I did have a great time, I’m just hoping to improve an already good thing.

    • A better way to communicate “unisex” for single-stall bathrooms would be to cover up the existing male/female signs with a sign reading “Restroom” or “Unisex Restroom.” Putting a gendered image on the door is understood by most people as exclusionary to the gender not shown.

      Think about it–if someone had covered up the “male” icon on the restroom door with a picture or a drawing of a woman, would you assume it was OK to go in there?

  7. Thank you for your intelligence, humor and great narrative. I am 58 and the older girlfriend of a music hack day participant. I packed the coffee and the cone, the sunglasses and the hat, called when I saw he forgot a crucial piece of equipment. He spent mothers day with the three awesome women hackers (thank you for being there, hacker and enlightened witness) and scores of boyz as I cleaned the cabin and contemplated why a woman with my history was on my knees cleaning grit As a bay area printer movement activist and writer in the 1970’s I found I needed my combat boots, my tits and my smile for the chance to show off my skills. Once in the door, I was a comfortable one of the boys, tits and all, but I fought to hold the door open for others. Rough climate then, rough now. When I had daughters, I worked as a parent volunteer to bring the fledgling Apple Computer to partner with our elementary school in what was known as the vivarium project.
    I am one of those gals who was not at the hack, but intimately involved with the development and packaging of an app that did show up with in San Francisco. I really wanted to be wrong about the turning back of time on sexual parity in tech.

    I am on board to get a girl hack thing elevated, funded, gyrating. I am your available elder in the Scottish way, you being Stuart me being Robertson. My daughter works at the technology and construction high school in LA, so we have lots to say and wish you loud voice and wide audience.

    As the mum of two girls who attended the vivarium project elementary schoolc

  8. Becky,

    Thank you for you post regarding Music Hack Day in San Francisco last weekend. Before I say more, I should say that I was the primary organizer of this Music Hack Day along with Janine & Lauren from Tokbox and some members of The Echo Nest. This was the 5th MHD that I have organized or have been a part of the organizing team. 2 Boston, 2 SF, 1 NYC.

    I am proud of what the events have become and what they mean to the tech community in the music space. What is most appealing about them is that they level the playing field for developers – male or female – by being a friendly open environment for anyone that wants to be involved by being free to attend.

    Sponsors are what make it possible. Because it is free to attend, there is also a lot to take into consideration when planning the event. The list of registered attendees changes right up to the day before and of course there are the folks that had full intentions to come to the event but can’t make it for some reason or another. I read your first post regarding the male/female ratio and I feel that I should answer some of the questions from an organizer’s point of view.

    This brings me to the t-shirt comment that you had. It’s not an exact science, we don’t know what sizes we will need. We guess based on past events and we really try to do our best to get a good mix of sizes and accommodate everyone. We deal with our manufacturer to give us the best pricing and bulk sizing makes the difference when placing these kinds of orders. But again, this is free to attend and even if we asked for sizes in advance, we’d still end up with the drop off of registered people and stuck with the wrong sizes for others. We do what we can with the budget that we have and we take it from there. There’s never any funds for ‘just in case sizes’ or ‘extras’. It might be one of the tightest budgets that I ever work with therefore again, we do what we can. I can only speak for the ones I’ve organized, but I’m guessing it’s the same with the others. We had SM size shirts available in SF, unfortunately, there might not have been any left when you registered if you didn’t get one. I should note that the shirts we purchase are considered unisex from our vendor at American Apparel. We made 35 small shirts for SF. Considering we only made 150, that’s a decent percentage of the total.

    I can’t speak to the porn but I would agree that it wasn’t appropriate. I’m guessing since the image was removed for the next presentation, it became apparent to them that it wasn’t well received as well. They learnt from their mistake and at the end of the day, I would say that’s a win.

    Regarding my tweet, as Janine pointed out, it’s an expression and wasn’t meant to offend or exclude anyone.

    Regarding the bathroom, I’m guessing that after seeing many men lined up for one bathroom someone decided to take matters into their own hands and cover the ‘wo’. I don’t know who did it, but I’m guessing it wasn’t done with the mission to offend. What I do know from talking to the volunteers after the event is that they were grateful that someone did something because it made their life easier by not answering once again whether or not they could use the ‘other’ bathroom. Would a ‘unisex’ sign have been better? Yes, and in the future, if I would notice this I would take the time to make the sign speak to all attendees. In all honesty, I didn’t notice until clean up day. If someone would have said something, this topic wouldn’t be necessary.

    I appreciate what you are trying to do, believe me, I would like to see more women involved in this space. I was thrilled when Janine became an advocate for Tokbox to host the event. It wouldn’t have happened without her opening the minds of her company to the benefit of being involved in this kind of thing. You’re right, the numbers don’t match up with male vs. female in this space but I think continuing to be involved and continuing to foster the creative environment for all is a big piece of what we can do to encourage women who are programmers to come to MHD.

    I hope my answers put some of the questions to bed. The biggest take away that I hope people have when they leave a MHD event is that they learnt about about a cool API or product, they had some interesting conversations and overall they had a good time.

    I’m open to any suggestions you might have to get more women to MHD or other tech events. Any lists you might follow or groups you might think would be interested – please forward them to me and I’d be happy to add them to our list of targets for attendees.

    I’m going to continue to organize these events and hope that my involvement inspires other females to be involved and to participate. You don’t have to be a programmer to be a part of it. A simple love of technology and music is more than enough for volunteering.

    Please seek me out at the next MHD, if I’m there it would be nice to meet you.


    • Re: “I’m open to any suggestions you might have to get more women to MHD or other tech events”, I think this post, rather than an attack on any one particular person or group, was intended to be just that. The suggestions being:
      1) If you give away items that can be seen as gender-specific in any way, ensure that there are some for both genders.
      2) Don’t have any official communications (or public communications from event organizers about the event) take the stance of only speaking to men. It doesn’t matter at all if it’s an expression. If it’s an expression that only recognizes men, it’s an expression that blocks out women.
      3) She didn’t spell it out, but some sort of note to speakers about what isn’t appropriate would help hold off episodes like the slide in that presentation.

      Saying that these sorts of events level the playing field for all developers is great, but it’s not accurate as long as the events are littered with constant suggestions that women are intruders. Then it becomes a free event that helps male attendees while warding off women. Most women aren’t going to complain about a single slide, some photos someone stuck up on a door or a tweet. They’ll figure it’s just one guy, or a prank, or maybe they got lost looking for the bathroom. Their overall impression of your event, however, will be that it was unwelcoming, impersonal and cold. They may not come back, and they’ll probably suggest other events over yours.

      One final note: Ms. Stewart has been awfully polite about this, but the hard truth is that both your organization and your sponsors could be legally liable for sex discrimination. Legally, certain public buildings are required to have equality in terms of bathrooms for both sexes. (I’m not kidding. There’ve been lawsuits going on in Washington, DC for years because of the placement and number of women’s restrooms in some of the historic government buildings.) It wouldn’t be a problem if the bathrooms had been marked unisex, but items were clearly placed on the signs to make them both men’s rooms. How many people do you think would be interested in sponsoring these events if it meant opening themselves to discrimination suits?

      *Incidentally, shirts marketed as unisex are really men’s shirts. Women’s shirts are generally fitted, whereas most men’s shirts are loose and boxy enough to cover women without flattering. A lot of women will see those shirts from a distance, lined up with sizes way too big for most women, and understand that these are men’s shirts that they might fit into, not women’s shirts. Likewise, your unisex small shirts most likely sold out because men who wear smalls saw a pile of men’s cut shirts in their size and thought they were for men. I doubt any of them even realized that there weren’t any other options for any women attending.

  9. Seems like it’s on the companies to make sure there is a fair distribution of gender and race. Since Echonest is the most visible then perhaps someone should get with them on increasing the diversity? Couldn’t do anything but improve their already positive reputation.

  10. Since there’s a picture of mine and a slide i’ve built i wanna clarify something :

    – i do 100% agree with Elissa. In the past we’ve seen different women taking part of MHD . A lot of them

    – The pic in musiXmatch slides doesn’t represent 2 women, you’re totally wrong, the guy is a teenager and could look like a women. But he’s a boy.

    – The slide you’re referring to , this one is from 2010 (see the date) so i didn’t change anything.

    – Although we’re not porno-activitist (but we all love sex) the message we gave has always been stated in our site. In the home page : . Thank God we don’t need RT to be famous. We’ve a magic API for it.

    Beside this.

    I can understand your point and i do respect but believe me, MHD is a large, variegate and multi-sex family.


    • Thank you for taking the time to clarify, my apologies for misunderstanding/misreading things. I’ve corrected the mistakes in the original post.

      I don’t think that the gender of the actor in the photo on the slide is that important. I do think it’s important to be aware of the history of porn and gender relations in programming, particularly web programming, communities. Here is one summary and analysis of a now infamous presentation at a RubyConf. There was a large discussion surrounding that talk and a couple google searches will come up with many more posts about it. I would also recommend glancing through this list.

      As I noted, other MHDs have had better gender representation that the San Francisco one. However, the SF hack had a better racial diversity than any of the London hacks I’ve attended. (This is going off a very shallow racial classification by skin tone, an incredibly inaccurate measure. The vast majority was still white, but the presence of non-white Americans was much greater in SF than the presence of non-white British in London.) It is impossible to separate who attends from the immediate geography surrounding that hack, but there are still many cultural traits that are tied to the hacking culture and not a particular city that can be addressed.

      I’m sure I don’t have to go through the reasons why diversity is important, but I think that Music Hack Days can’t go by the ethos “if we build it, the non-white-male population will come.” That has proven to be false. I think the people directly involved with organizing, the sponsoring/participating companies, and the hacking participants need to examine what they can do to encourage more diversity and be aware that they might be unintentionally discouraging diversity. Obviously, some adjustment needs to be made and only through talking about these issues can things be improved.

      I hope musiXmatch becomes a proud advocate of diversity in future MHDs!

  11. Backing a person of color to attend the sf mothers day hack, I definitely put way more thought into prep than I would have if he were white. Racism and the pain it causes makes you protective of your friends. An experience a few months ago with one of the sponsors of the event and their ethical shortcomings made me neglect myself. What I might have wanted to do myself fell in the shadow of wanting a successful outcome for two men of color to show well and have a good time face to face with the churlish sponsor. The dynamics of race and sex twist in the wind….

    I hear you turnout was way low on the Latin side. No shortage in our state.
    I hail from the barrio origiinally and know that mothers day is a big deal in many Latino homes. You don’t disrespect mama for your boys. You want a big latino turnout on a holiday weekend, invite the family, have programming for kids…or even an all female programming class on the side, nonprogrammer participants or some other balancing measure againt returning to the fifties

  12. That is a pretty decent summary of why I don’t attend geek events. The main thing though, is getting a whole lot of the kind of attention I don’t want, and then suddenly getting ignored whenever I try to participate in any way.

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