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British Ruby conference cancelled after diversity row

It started with a tweet about white males in tech

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The British Ruby Conference has been cancelled, after a row started over allegations the speaker roster at the conference is insufficiently diverse.

The row seems to have started with a tweet from Josh Susser, a chap who, among other things, organises the Golden Gate RubyConf.

Susser's tweet was as follows:

“Nice speaker lineup for @BritRuby. Except for the 100% white guys part.”

The @BritRuby account replied by saying speakers are chosen on merit.

The exchange has, of course, led to a social media controversy in which the validity of the original tweet, diversity in the IT industry, selection criteria for conferences and much more were all debated.

Susser's responses included: “The comment is not unfair. Else why do you think selecting based on merit results in 100% white guys speaking?” and “I don't think adding diversity at the end works. You have to start with it as one of your goals. Who wants to be the token female?”

The controversy eventually became too much for organisers, who have cancelled the event.

Conference founder Chuck J Hardy wrote in an official statement on behalf of all conference organisers, writing:

"The Ruby community has been battling with issues of race and gender equality. We at Brit Ruby were well aware of this fundamental and important issue. This was one of the reasons why we encouraged everyone to submit a speaker proposal. Sadly, BritRuby was used as the arena to air these issues on Twitter and this has fundamentally destroyed any chance we had of addressing these issues."

Hardy has also posted a personal statement about the cancellation in which he pointed out “This is not the first time a developer conference has been accused of lack of diversity. BritRuby was well aware of this point and we were in the process of rectifying this without diminishing our strict selection process.”

But once the social storm gathered pace, he felt unable to continue because “these discussions became more than one person’s opinion and more a global debate, which increased our financial and legal risk margins beyond an acceptable level, thus becoming the fundamental reason as to why I chose to cancel the conference.”

Hardy magnanimously says Susser can't be held responsible for the cancellation. He also writes that no sponsors were sufficiently aggrieved by the all-male, all-white lineup, to cancel their presence at the event.

One sponsor, globaldev, has said as much in this statement, which says, in part, “We want nothing more than to see the community become more diverse in every shape and form and we sincerely believe that events of the scale of BritRuby are the perfect platform to make more and more people aware of the huge demand in this particular area of development.”

Another organiser, Sean Handley, has posted a personal statement about the cancellation, writing on github

"We love this city and we want to bring as many high profile speakers here to meet the local devs. It's about making friends and relationship building.

And here it is, brought down by careless words.

Yes, gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team's motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester. Turns out, a lot of the prominent Rubyists are white guys and all of the ones who said they'd like to come were, indeed, white guys."

Susser has become the target of some rather testy tweets about his role in the affair, and has responded by pointing followers to this blog post by developer Avdi Grimm, who was shceduled to speak at the event. The post, Susser tweeted, "says most of what I'd want to say for me."

One paragraph from that post reads:

”The BritRuby organizers decided to invite 15 speakers, and leave 5 more slots open to submissions. I fully believe them when they say that they set out to create a diverse conference. However, I think some implicit bias crept into their selection process.”

Grimm says he cannot discount a co-incidence being behind the homgenous nature of the speaker roster, but also started with thinking about “... all the prominent non-white-dude Ruby conference speakers I could in the space of a couple minutes. Just people who came easily to mind, nobody too obscure. I wanted to know if they had been invited to be part of that initial group of 15, and had said no.”

Grimm then lists several potential speakers and says “None of these people were invited to be part of the initial line-up. In fact, I couldn’t find a single woman or minority Rubyist who had been invited to be part of that 15.”

Conference founder Hardy's statement says the decision to call the event off “was solely my own. I stand by my decision as I will not condone or be apart of any personal racial and sexist accusation.”

The footnote to this unhappy tale is that others have already hatched plans to run a new Ruby event also in Manchester. ®

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