I had just gotten some very relevant facts about this and was about to update with corrections, when Alex Sexton posted his comment below. Please scroll down and read that before taking this without a giant grain of salt. I definitely jumped to some incorrect conclusions, and he's got the real story down in the comment section.
I was really disappointed to see that jsconf is now the most recent "incident" on the geek feminism wiki. If you're not familiar, that wiki collects things like sexual assaults and jokes about things being so simple even your mom could do it. That is, damaging and insulting shit. I may catch a lot of hell for this, but I didn't find the presentation that happened during lunch on Monday at jsconf sexist. I assumed the guys presenting were trying to call attention to the lack of women at the conference in a humorous way. It definitely ended up being awkward, but my impression was that their hearts were in the right place. As for the thing about homeless transvestites, I admit I was only half paying attention, but I don't think it's unreasonable to simply mention homeless transvestites. Homeless transvestites exist. Anyway, someone explained later that the homeless transvestite thing was part of a botched anecdote about one of the presenters getting flashed, which had the potential to be a funny story.
However.. jsconf and nodeconf were the first two conferences where I've ever actually felt uncomfortable as a woman, and neither had anything to do with grade school humor onstage. This is why it fucking annoys me that what gets blown out of proportion on the internet is "OMG someone was mentioning women by name". That's not something anybody can do anything about now. If you saw the presenters afterward, it was pretty evident that they felt awful about it. I'd like to talk about shit that can actually be corrected, and I think it's going to be a lot less well received than "don't make jokes about how there aren't enough women at this conference"."Are you a wife, or a girlfriend?"
Admittedly, I haven't been to a whole ton of technical conferences. However, jsconf was the first I've ever been to where anyone assumed upon meeting me that I was there to do anything other than learn about tech shit. And - with apologies to any of the organizers or anyone else involved who may read this - I blame this on jsconf's Significant Others Track. (Colloquially referred to as "the ladies".) It was difficult for me to even purchase the ticket to my first serious technical conference because I was afraid I wasn't qualified to be there, that I wasn't good enough or smart enough. I don't have any facts, but my guess is that a lot of women go through that, and it keeps a lot of women from ever attending a conference. But no one ever treated me as though I didn't belong, until this week.
My impression was that the Significant Others were exclusively women (and babies), and that they outnumbered the women actually attending the conference. For me, this created a really upsetting dynamic where it was statistically correct to assume that any woman you saw hanging around the conference venue was not there as a developer. Good lord, it's hard enough just mustering the confidence to attend these things. But generally, once you're in the door, you're safe. People know without asking why you're there and there's mutual respect among the attendees just for showing up. I shouldn't have to wear a sign around my neck saying that I've been doing this for over a decade and paid a fucking grand to be there to be entitled to that default level of respect, to not be assumed to be there merely as arm candy. Filling a conference with women who are not developers makes it that much fucking harder to be a female developer at that conference.
I told a friend how I felt about this and she pointed out that the SO track makes jsconf more family friendly, and allows men who might not otherwise be able to attend to come to the conference without leaving their wives/kids/girlfriends behind. My opinion is that if you want to be family friendly there are better ways to accomplish that. If you just want men to be able to bring their families, nothing fucking prevents them from doing that at any other conference. Their SOs can still go tour all over the city while they do their important man stuff, assuming they're homemakers or otherwise in the position to take a week off to go chasing after their man while he pursues his professional interests.
I was really not trying to hate on the SO track but, bluntly, I do hate it. I hate that there's a special place for women at this conference and it's not in the seats watching the presentations. I hate that, as many times as I've had to jump the fence between what a woman is supposed to be doing and what I personally want to be doing, I come this much closer to my goal - as far as where I want to be and the kind of developer I want to be - to find that same fence erected again where I least expected it. I hate that the comfort and community involvement of wives and girlfriends is more important than the comfort and involvement of female developers because we are outnumbered. But I'll try to quit ranting and actually say something productive.the perfect couples' getaway
In a pretend world where something like this would exist, it would be really awesome. Yeah, any woman who took advantage of it would have to get over the whole arm candy stigma, but it's a lot easier to go to a conference if you know someone there. If that someone has to be a husband or a boyfriend, it's better than nothing. We need more female developers so we don't keep losing female developers due to the lack of female developers. As far as I'm concerned, anything that gets 'em in the door is rad.what about the children
Nodeconf was a complete sausagefest, but I don't want to pick on them too much. As far as I know, there are no famous women within that community. There weren't any female speakers. With no female role models, you're just not going to see many women getting involved. The ground has yet to truly be broken there, but that's not the organizers' faults. (Ahem. Ladies.) However, there was one fairly wrong thing that happened. To their credit, it was corrected almost immediately, but it still kind of blows my mind it even happened in the first place.
Developers - male and female - can sometimes be more logical than is healthy, and I assume that it was in the name of efficiency that the women's bathroom was relabeled a unisex bathroom, with a single stall reserved for ladies only. Like I said, I think the sign was gone before the first talk had ended, but it's important to know why this was uncool. There were totally way more men than the men's room could accommodate and so few women in attendance that I only saw another person in the ladies' room once. But the ladies' room is the one thing that's ours by default. We had to fight to be taken seriously as developers, fight to get good jobs and interesting projects, fight to overcome the fear that we're not good enough.. we shouldn't have to fight for a bathroom without boy-pee on the floors. I feel like seeking out more diverse participants is an endeavor best left to more mature communities than node's. But that doesn't mean you can reclaim resources already dedicated to diverse participants if you don't see enough people using them. It's always good to keep a women's bathroom around and work toward the day when there's a line out the door.I am so tired of talking about this
Something you might not know about me: I write approximately one women in technology blog post per month. I usually don't publish them. I get angry and then, by the time I'm halfway through writing, I'm sick of it. This one is going to make it cause I think the stuff about the significant others needs to be said and I don't think anyone else agrees with me and is going to say it. The bathrooms thing shouldn't need to be said, but apparently folks need a reminder sometimes.
There was one thing about the lunchtime presentation at jsconf that bugged me. It wasn't the things being said, but the way they were said. It felt as if the presenters didn't think of the women at the conference as their peers, as being exactly like them in every way but their sex. I'm scared to talk about this stuff. I'm scared to isolate myself, to always be part of some exclusive third party my male peers have to tiptoe around when mentioning us. I would rather be down in the mud listening to dick jokes and #twss than be part of a group that's on some pedestal where no one can talk about us or to us without complete political correctness and unfailing reverence.
I think with a slight shift, the lunchtime presentation could have been fucking hilarious (while also a little tragic). If they'd brought up a close female friend they knew they could fuck around with instead of a guy as their first "guest", there could have been some very funny teasing of the giant elephant in the room. I think. It made me wonder if those guys knew any of the female developers there well enough to fuck around with them on stage. The change in tone when they finally did bring a woman up made me feel like maybe not, or maybe they did know her well enough for that but were worried about what the audience would think.
I no longer think the scrutiny we apply to this issue is healthy. I'm actually having doubts about the All-Girl Hack Night, based on this week. I'm tremendously worried about mentioning the bathroom thing outside of an intentionally-not-hashtagged tweet, lest that too fucking end up on the geek feminism wiki. We need to be able to talk about this shit without fear of repercussion. That means men, too. We need to be able to make jokes about it. We need to do this so we can stop fucking discussing it.