Andy Lester

Technology, careers, life and being happy

Distracting examples ruin your presentation

At OSCON today, I went to a talk called “Why Know Algorithms” by Andrew Aksynoff. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the speaker was the author of Sphinx, a powerful full text indexing engine that I’m considering adopting for a project.

However, halfway through I was shocked, especially in light of all the problems with sexual harassment and sexist attitudes at conferences that have been brought to the fore lately, to see the example that Andrew used: Selecting women from a database, ranked by “hotness.”

Here’s the table layout he used (and I apologize for the blurriness):

CREATE TABLE usertest (
    id INTEGER PRIMARY KEY NULL,
    sex ENUM ('m','f'),
    age INTEGER NOT NULL,
    hotness INTEGER NOT NULL,
    name VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL,
    INDEX(sex,age,hotness)
)

His sample code revolved around ways to optimize this query:

SELECT *
FROM usertest
WHERE age >= 18 and age

The latter half of the talk discussed various ways of creating indexes to efficiently provide answers to that query, and which queries would run best with different indexes, in case you want to order by age instead of hotness, for example.

I was angry about two things. I’m specifically not going to address the crass sexism here. I know plenty of others can (and will) address it better than I can.

I was more upset about the effects of the sexism in the classroom. When I’m here at OSCON, I’m both teacher and student. When I’m a student at a session, I want to pay attention to the content, not wonder how the women in the audience feel about the instructor’s attitudes towards them. Are they offended, but afraid to leave? I saw no women leave, although plenty of men did.

Andrew clearly knew his material, and he explained it well. Strictly from a teaching perspective, Andrew’s problem was that the examples overshadowed the lessons to be taught. It’s the same frustration I had with Steven Feuerstein’s book from O’Reilly on Oracle 8 where his examples included a table of war criminals including Henry Kissinger.

When you’re teaching a class, don’t include anything that detracts from the message you’re trying to teach. A LOLcat slide is fine but include too many and that’s what people will remember rather than what you’re trying to teach. It should go without saying that examples that make the audience uncomfortable will also ruin your class.

Note: I will delete any comments that include personal attacks on anyone.

61 Comments

  1. And we wonder why we have trouble getting women into technical fields. Grumble.

  2. Thank you for documenting and speaking up about this, Andy.

  3. Just wanted to say “thank you,” Andy. Your reasonableness and support is being noted throughout the community of women in tech.

    As is the immaturity of the presenter.

    We do remember, even if we are sick of walking out.

  4. Andy,

    I missed this talk, but I’m glad to see someone flagging things that aren’t appropriate. I would have had the same problems you document here with the talk.

  5. I’m waiting for the men’s rights advocates to come in here and claim this ok. But as a male developer I must say this is not good or OK. It hurts the FLOSS community. Please accept that the audience is far more diverse than one expects. At the same time one should have the common sense to not do this.

  6. Can someone please explain to me how this is “crass sexism”? I’m not trying to be sarcastic, as a 20-something male developer I sometimes have a hard time connecting these things. I understand the need to not have scantily clad women in our presentations, but this doesn’t strike me as bad.

    sexism |ˈsekˌsizəm|
    noun
    prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.

  7. thank you for documenting this.
    O’Reilly Media — what have you really learned?
    You’ve had 4 years since Spock (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lwaldal/463750916/) debuted at the Web 2.0 Expo with Victoria’s Secret models (my pic on flickr of said models during the presentation has expired – gotta renew my pro!).
    Now even after much conversation, you’re taking no lead for your OSCON presenters who select women from databases via hotness. Really; what have you learned?

  8. It is horrible that these attitudes exist, but as a woman in the industry, I can say with certainty that they are quite common.

    Reading this post made me think of one of my very first interviews after college. I had applied for a position as a C++ developer and was granted a face-to-face interview. Afterward, the older gentleman who had conducted the interview walked me out to the building’s main entrance. He grabbed my rear and told me he could definitely see me bringing his coffee, but not developing his software.

  9. I didn’t attend OScon (saidly) and I’m really trying to understand what the fuzz is all about! Did something happen that is not meantioned here that turns this into sexism?

    Rating people (enum sex f/m) by attractivness is an easy to understand example that isn’t offensive to ether sex (is it? Hume s are superfical and stupid ‘is he/she’ hot sites exist for decades. So was the Problem that the search was for hot women and not for hot men?

    If thats the case then thats not a problem with the presentaion (men and women are equal and I can’t see how something is ok to say about me. that isn’t ok to say about woman)

    Did the presenter make remarks degrading women?
    Did something ‘meta’ happen that turned that into a sexism Problem?

    I’m really really trying to understand what the issue behind this post is but ican’t figure it out :(

  10. Wow. Glad to see this being called out, but it’s too bad that this kind of immaturity can ruin what I’m sure was otherwise a decent talk. Based on that O’Reilly blog post that you referenced, did anyone report this or send it to the event staff?

  11. I’m confused as to how exactly this constitutes as sexism.

    Perhaps it is a somewhat crass example, I don’t see how it is discriminating on anyone or giving preferential treatment towards a specific gender.

    If it were right out pornography, then that would be even more distasteful, but its NOT sexism, at least, not by any definition I understand.

    Its merely a demonstration of trivial code that would, in all reality, exist in some form behind each and every porn site, and each and every dating site that I can think of.

    And “dating networks” and “porn sites” are not inherently sexist as a concept, they’re just people exercising their freedom and rights as an individual, there’s no gender-specific discrimination.

    ‘to see the example that Andrew used: Selecting women from a database, ranked by “hotness.” ‘

    I don’t really see how that constitutes as sexism either. The database clearly states in its design that the database can contain both males and females, and its simply logical that he, who I assume is a straight male, would naturally be inclined towards searching for the females of this subset.

    Had the example used males however, I doubt anybody would have batted an eyelid, which is really the real tragedy, because its demonstrating an inherent sexist bias that is only prevalent when the affected party is female. And that in itself, is a form of sexism.

    Had he examples intermittently of males and females, I’d hope it would have negated your claims of sexism, even though I don’t see one in the first place. But even then, its hardly what constitutes sexism in my books, it is at best, an oversight. ( Unless the speaker has a history of sexism of note ).

    In my mind, it really does tarnish claims of being a logical and impartial person and fighting for freedom and equality when people make claims of sexism that don’t really hold water. All I see is “Oh, sexism is fine when its against males? …. “, and that doesn’t really hold with me well.

    Would you call me a sexist if I only wanted to be in a relationship with a female, or only wanted to observe porn involving females? Or would you instead demand the whole world become bisexuals and have relationships with either gender at alternating times?

    Is every photograph of a female automatically sexist? Is every photograph of a male sexist due to the absence of a female?

    Yes, the choice of example was poor, and the choice of example was tasteless, but I simply fail to understand why it is deemed sexist, I do not see any gender being marginalised, I do not see any gender being repressed. I do not see any gender being given preferential treatment.

    nb: ” sex ENUM (‘m’,'f’), ”

    If your argument would involve “Females object to being referred to being referred to/ranked by a hotness value and it is thus sexist”, I would point out that the enum states , the database contains both males and females, and thus, both males and females are collated and ranked in order of hotness.

    All this means is “some people are shallow” because equal percentages of either gender would likely resent to being ranked on their hotness.

  12. Infantile, crass, inappropriate? Absolutely.

    But ranking or rating women by “hotness” is not sexist, it’s human. We all look at and, whether we know it (or admit it) or not, rank/rate/categorize/judge other people on many aspects of their person, including their physical attractiveness.

    Again: I wholeheartedly agree that the speaker’s examples are not appropriate in a professional setting such as an industry conference. But throwing sexist around at anything isn’t really very effective. Not everything that makes some women uncomfortable is necessarily sexist based on that discomfort alone.

  13. Not the best example to speak to both potentially male/female attendees, but I am not sure I would call this “crass sexism”, especially without hearing the talk and if there were any comments on if this algorithm could be switched for your (his/her) preference.

    There is nothing wrong with men being attracted to women, women being attracted to men, or any which way you want to do it. It is part of being human and a real use case that some people also rate beauty on age too, typically around their own. Again, let me say that this is not the best example to use in slides that could be taken out of context. But I would also hate to see everyone move to the far other end of the spectrum and take gender and and refer to everything as “it”. There has to be balance. Likewise, the speaker could have come across as creepy to and the context of “crass sexism” could be warranted. I certainly can not tell with the info you presented.

  14. Maybe I’m daft, sexism but I do not see any sexism here. The database schema allowed for both males and females, and it is reasonable to assume that someone who was searching such a database in real life would have a gender preference.

  15. And let us note that the hotness factor on that table applies to both men and women. That the speaker may have made mention of running a search for women based on hotness, in my opinion, only gives away his sexual orientation, and not necessarily a personal conviction that women are to be treated differently or condescendingly strictly because they are women.

  16. Thank you for posting this. It reminds me of spock’s similar presentation at web2expo in 2007 http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/moyalynne/462148528/

    I’m very fond of O’Reilly and I wish they’d clear out the objectification of women in presentations at their conferences

  17. Anonymous Coward, because it reminds any women in the audience that her colleagues value her primarily for her “hotness” and not for her intellectual contributions. It sends the message “you think you have something to contribute to the software industry? I’ll put you in your place — all you have to contribute is T ‘n A (and if you don’t have that, then GTFO).” It has a similar (though less intense) on any people in the audience who aren’t women, but who are attuned to issues of power and privilege.

    So why would somebody want to alienate the majority of their potential audience like that, for no good reason? Why would you want to tell potential listeners “you’re not welcome here because of the assumptions I’ve made about your gender and sexuality”?

  18. For frick’s sake. Cannot believe this. You nailed it, Andy… this is just a poor presentation approach regardless of whether attendees found it personally offensive, etc. — because it is a distraction. It introduces cognitive load and from that point forward, the rest of the presentation is potentially less effective. I would not have walked out or been insulted; but I would have lost respect for the guy’s presentation AND audience awareness skills. But I would have assumed the guy is just totally clueless, then said something afterwards.

    pro tip for anyone giving presentations: be edgy, be provocative, shake them up. But whatever you do, do NOT make them focus on the *wrong thing*. I am all for using examples with a pulse, but once it moves into this level of distraction, you’ve just spawned a ton of background threads as everyone in the room starts leaking cognitive cycles on the inappropriateness (potentially) of the example. If you were doing a presentation *about* cognitive load, then by all means, use this example as a perfect demonstration.

    Thanks Andy.

  19. Folks who are saying “I can’t see why this is sexist”, I suggest familiarizing yourselves with two concepts: othering, and microaggressions.

  20. I just think it is sad that we have to loose gender at all times and become “objects” to avoid “objectifying”.

  21. I’m glad to see the honest questions about why this is sexism. Maybe sexism isn’t the right word. Using examples that cause women to feel like sexual objects instead of valued members of the audience is mean. It’s a put-down. It’s unwelcoming. It’s isolating. Do those words work better? It causes us (and apparently Andy and other men) to lose focus. So it’s also stupid. You want your audience to stay focused. Another reason that it’s stupid is that the computer industry needs more people. Why not welcome women instead of engaging in behavior that we have repeatedly reported makes us feel unwelcome? If you really can’t understand it, that’s OK. Can you please just STOP anyway? Thank you.

  22. Tim, your explanation still leaves me wondering how this is sexism? Hotness is a subjective attribute, you might could also call it attractiveness. It’s not as if he was ordering the results based on cup size or waist-to-hip ratio.

  23. Andy, thank you for a great blog post. Tim, thank you for an excellent summary of why this is sexist, and for the links to those articles. I’m going to keep those handy.

    The more we keep sending the message that this kind of behavior is unprofessional and childish (not to mention self-defeating!), the sooner it will go away.

  24. Is a “hotness algorithm”, as an artifact divorced from its setting, inherently sexist? Probably not. Is a hotness algorithm, presented as an example to a bunch of dudes and very few women at a tech conference sexist? Yeah, I’d say it is. Because the funny thing is, no matter how many times people say “it’s just a silly slide!”, somehow the “silly slide” always seems to showcase stereotypes that pander to hetero men.

    If slides were filled with fun objectification of every race, gender, and body type, well… it might get a little distracting, but it would make the calls of “we’re all adults here” a bit more believable. As it is, it rings hollow when every. single. time. someone defends one of these slides as “harmless” it just happens to be a slide catering to hetero dudes.

  25. @Avdi: Also worth noting is that it was not just a “silly slide”, it was the basis for the second half of the presentation. All content from that point forward focused on how to efficiently do filtering on hotness and age.

  26. I think this slide is like a Rorschach test: you see in it what is already in your mind. If you’re a woman thinking about how you’re valued according to someone else’s system instead of the things you actually care about, that’s what you see in the slide. If you’re secure about your social position and want other people to feel good too, you see the slide as an invitation to lighten up a little. I suppose (maybe) there are some men who like to think of women as toys, and maybe they see this slide as an encouragement to do that. But I wouldn’t immediately assume that Andrew is one of the latter group instead of the second.

  27. I don’t think of this as *sexist*. A guy searching for women based on “hotness” seems a typical use-case. It’s using this example within the context of OSCON that makes me think the guy is clueless. Either that or he deliberately wanted to make a statement. Either way, not a good presentation strategy for a tech conference that just formally announced the desire to make women feel more welcome there.

    Maybe I don’t understand the definition of “sexist”, but this doesn’t seem sexist. Just really stupid.

  28. There is more sexism on this page in protest then there was in the slide shown. Why? The assertion that the presenter did it to bias against or degrade the gender, and this assertion is based solely on the fact the presenter was male.

    As noted by others, had the presenter chosen to use ‘m’ instead of ‘f’ this page would not exist. To assert that a filter on a dataset that clearly applies to both sexes is suddenly sexist based solely on the sex of the person presenting the filter as part of an exposition is itself a sexist act by definition. No amount of handwaving can eliminate that.

    At most all it really represents is the inherent preference for a (presumed) heterosexual male to think naturally – that when he thinks of ‘hotness’ he thinks more of women than men. I’d expect no different from a heterosexual female thinking of men first and automatically when thinking of the word “hotness’. Just as there are very few of us that would think of our mothers, grandmother, father, grandfathers when that word comes up, there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

    Unless it can be shown that the presenter consciously chose to select females in the example for the express purpose of denigrating, harassing, or otherwise intentionally causing an issue, it is not plausible to call it sexism. One can not say it was a slide *catering to heterosexual dudes* without automatically imparting some of the very sexism assigned to the slide.

    Are we asserting that all the women in the audience are heterosexual? Perhaps it was a subliminal message to homosexual or bisexual women? It’s as plausible as assuming it a subliminal message to heterosexual men. And to ignore that aspect, and to assert it is *only* heterosexual mean trying to appeal to *only* other heterosexual men is inherently sexist without proof or evidence. And no, handwaving about unconscious inherent and “invisible” actions (aka “microaggressions”) does not constitute evidence any more than hypnotherapy uncovering hidden or blocked alien abductions is evidence or proof of alien visitation.

    The real shame of these attempts to label such things as sexist is that it distracts people from actual sexism. There are fundamentally two kinds of sexism: server side and client side. Here is the difference:

    Situation: A person shows a slide as was done today.
    Server side: it was chosen because the presenter wants to in some way demean or objectify the opposite sex.
    Client side: Though the presenter had no intention and no willful act to do so, the client believes that because the presenter used a sex opposite their own, the presenter was thus sexist.

    Now, in this case if the client then takes their assumption as states it as fact, that turns it into server side. The difference being that the client is assuming a negative about someone solely because of their sex.

    I don’t doubt that people were genuinely offended. Whether they should be or not is a separate yet important issue. Were they offended because the presenter was male? Then quite frankly they need to look at themselves for holding a clear and unambiguous sexist position before throwing stones. Mankind certainly has a lot of growing up to do. But quite frankly most of it is realizing that we need to analyze ourselves first and hold our own sexist/racist/OS-ist/language-ist/whatever-ist reactions to the fire of maturity before labeling others with those thoughts.

    From a societal standpoint we should be focusing our attention on the sexism front to the server side, and leave the client side to the clients. A secondary risk, yet one that is very real, is that the conversion of client side into server side creates a hostile environment that counters the goals of combating sexism.

    Let us not cut off out nose to teach our face a lesson. Not only does it make us have … less hotness, it also make sit harder to distinguish when something smells’

  29. Thanks for calling this out, Andy.

    I think it’s fair to call a presentation sexist if it disproportionately makes people of a particular sex or gender identification feel invisible, dehumanized, or under attack. I can’t speak for others, but if I’d been in the audience for this talk, these slides would’ve made me feel like I, along with everyone else in the room who’s perceived as female, was being sorted like cattle. At that point, the hierarchy of needs kicks in, and I’m too uncomfortable to, say, learn about database indices.

    The fact that ‘sex’ is listed as ENUM(‘m’, ‘f’) just adds insult to injury. How clueless can this speaker get?

  30. Thanks for calling this out, Andy.

    I think it’s fair to call a presentation sexist if it disproportionately makes people of a particular sex or gender identification feel invisible, dehumanized, or under attack. I can’t speak for others, but if I’d been in the audience for this talk, these slides would’ve made me feel like I, along with everyone else in the room who’s perceived as female, was being sorted like cattle. At that point, the hierarchy of needs kicks in, and I’m too uncomfortable to, say, learn about database indices.

    The fact that ‘sex’ is listed as ENUM(‘m’, ‘f’) just adds insult to injury.

  31. Arguing whether this is sexism or not is kind of missing the point. We live in a world where all too often women are objectified and discriminated against because they are women (or hot, or not hot) in a way that does not happen to men. In addition you are at a conference that has, according to reports, had an issue in the past with sexual harassment of female attendees.

    In this context it is fair to apply sexism when a man uses this example. If it had been a women, or if he had use male as the gender it would have been different, but he did not.

    In any case arguing over whether you should describe it as “sexist” or not is missing the important point that is being made here. The examples were inappropriate and disrespectful and they needent have been.

  32. Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is the application of the belief or attitude that there are characteristics implicit to one’s gender that indirectly affect one’s abilities in unrelated areas. It is a form of discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, with such attitudes being based on beliefs in traditional stereotypes of gender roles. The term sexism is most often used in relation with discrimination against women, within the context of patriarchy.

    That’s wiki’s definition of sexism. I’m at loss to how selecting women from a database based on hotness isn’t using gender and unrelated areas that don’t affect a women’s ability to present. Thus it would appear it is sexism.

    I would like to see both women and men walking out of presentations of this nature perhaps then speakers would avoid such behaviour.

  33. In what way is this sexist?

    It is just a fun, engaging way to put across an interesting topic.

    I wish more lectures were like this. Even if the topic is one that I am extremely interested in it can be put across in a very boring way to send me to sleep. This topic was conveyed in light hearted, comical way to keep everyone interested.

    Adding the element of multiple sexes prevented it from being sexist.

    Please grow up!

  34. Dear women.

    I want to assure you that no diminishing of your gender was EVER intended. Rather to the contrary. If you were at the talk are were offended by my choice of a sample gender condition, please kindly accept my apologies. That was unintentional and unforeseen (I delivered this talk before, and to mixed audiences, and noone was ever offended).

    Dear men.

    Problems focusing on the technical material at hand when one of the columns involved in an SQL query is “gender” – chosen, by the way, simply because it’s as unselective a real condition as it can ever get – are, in my humble opinion, your personal problems. I was not really expecting that “sex” or “gender” is a column name that adults might find inappropriate. Thank you for labeling me and playing the sexism card so swiftly, though.

    Yours,
    the guy who delivered the talk which created so inifitely much controversy than there should have ever been.

  35. SELECT *
    FROM usertest
    WHERE age >= 30 and age <= 36
    ORDER BY penis_size DESC
    LIMIT 10

    Sexism or just bad taste? In any case, I know that deep down you'd like to see the output of that query :)

  36. Moya Watson, I’m sorry to hear that a man grabbed your butt and said that. I do hope that you reported him to a superior immediately. I had someone almost run me and my unborn child over with his truck and then tell me to go wash my dishes. I still, however, do *not* try hard and look for sexism everywhere I go.

  37. Some of the commenters here miss the point, confuse the issue – it’s not about the label (sexist or not, it’s not respectful of the audience, and thus a bad choice), it’s not about just how you might feel having you, your friend labeled insensitive, sexist, etc. — it’s about failure to appropriately consider others in the audience.

    It’s all about relationship – in this case relationship between the presenter and the conference goers (oh, sure – some guys would chuckle at this and “feel good about it”; but it’s not the the “some-guys” conference…).

    Some of the comments here are like arguing about what condition caused a crash, if that will ever happen in the field, and if it’s worth fixing or not (and which way to fix it) without putting in an exception handler, or addressing the issue.

    And even worse – it’s like ignoring exceptions passed on to you.

    You don’t need to bikeshed about the details of the labels, the over- under- sensitivities that _might_ be involved. All you need to ask is:

    Am I involved (have relationshipo) in this system?
    Who else is part of this system?
    Do I care about others in the system enough to pay attention, accept them as part fo the system?

    And what does that mean?

    How does “oh – that’s not really sexist” sound?
    It sounds like it’s concerned with how the person saying it: “Oh, don’t label me, because I’m super-coder and without fault; I can do anything” – perhaps overstates it, but you get the point:

    And the point is:

    It fails to consider the system.

    Your phone, your computer, your server wouldn’t even power-up if you coded like this. This doesn’t “power-up” here either.

  38. … or put another way:

    You wouldn’t accept a smart-phone app that crashed your network connections;

    Don’t be accepting this crashing connections here.

  39. ::facepalm::

    I am frustrated and embarrassed that some of the men in the FOSS community keep forcing us to have this discussion.

    Why is it so hard for y’all to get it? Objectifying women in a presentation example is wrong. The presentation would have been just as effective if it were ranking puppies/kittens by cuteness/fuzziness but wouldn’t have implied to the women in the community that their primary value is their appearance, not their intelligence or ability.

  40. Anon said: “I’m at loss to how selecting women from a database based on hotness isn’t using gender and unrelated areas that don’t affect a women’s ability to present. Thus it would appear it is sexism.”

    I’m at a loss as to how gender and other areas are unrelated. Unrelated to what? Do we know the context of this hypothetical use case? I don’t know it. Do you? If I had to guess, I’d say this is likely a database for a dating site. Now tell me, how are gender and “other areas”, as you so vaguely call them, possibly unrelated to that context?

    Whether the label applies or not is indeed very relevant. Particularly in a society where, increasingly, any act that springs from the attraction a heterosexual man feels for a woman is deemed sexist, nothing less than an objectification, and —in some circles— comparable to rape. And it’s applied across the board, too: including harmless invitations to cups of coffee. I’m not making this stuff up.

    It is clear that the example is in poor taste, lacks tact and professionalism and has no place in an industry conference, but it is far, far from being sexist. And the distinction is important because every time some dude gets called sexist for an act that is merely inappropriate, we all end up agreeing that any expression of attraction, interest or mere admiration is wrong.

    Some of you have chosen to see sexism there, but the only logical way to arrive at that conclusion would be to assign your own —very convenient— context to the example. Oh, I bet this is a table meant as an example of how to select candidates for a technical position at a high profile tech company, so of course it MUST be sexist, because the table couldn’t possibly apply to absolutely anything else in the world.

    This kind of reactionary rhetoric aims to balance the male/female equation simply by chipping away at anything at all that may come from a purely heterosexual male perspective, instead of embracing and exploring a female perspective.

  41. Thanks for calling attention to this issue publicly. As evidenced in the comments, there is not enough awareness of why this is unacceptable, and it’s a subject we need to discuss more in our community (despite the inevitable discomfort).

  42. This was clearly in poor taste for a professional presentation. Leaving aside the question of whether this _is_ sexist, it’s worth considering whether including this material in a conference presentation _encourages_ sexism and hyper-awareness of sex/gender. The impact depends not just on what is presented, but on the context in which it is presented. The presentation almost certainly wasn’t given to an audience with a roughly equal gender ratio, but rather to a crowd that was likely 90%-95% male.

  43. I know cats who would be offended by being ranked on cuteness/fuzziness.

    And yes, ranking by hotness *is* offensive to *some* females, but not all. Its an entirely individual matter, sometimes a cultural thing. And likewise, some men are offended by being compared on the size of their penis alone, while others use their penis as their sole metric of worth.

    Its probably worth mentioning I’ve seen code that does this: SELECT *
    FROM usertest
    WHERE age >= 30 and age <= 36
    ORDER BY penis_size DESC
    LIMIT 10

    Perhaps not exactly like that, but yes, sorting by penis size would have been a viable choice for the user.

    Though, that particular example is more likely sexist, as "penis_size" is a trait generally only relevant to males, which would have the inference that only males are in this database. Although I have this odd notion that that could in itself be sexist, its more "grasping for straws" that it could be sexism really. More than likely just poor database design, or possibly a female-centric dating site, and that in itself is not sexist in my mind. A female centric dating site that specialises in females finding men is barely of more concern than a lesbian-only dating site.

  44. Thanks Greg Lund-Chaix, can’t say that any better.

    Me, now, encountering hostile environment? F* you.

    Me, age 14, messing around with LISP at MIT-CCC, mocked for being small female nerd? I never went back. My loss, FOSS loss. Please think about it.

  45. It’s not the worst sexism I can imagine, and I can understand why a very young man might think it’s a nice attention-getting example.

    But my intuition tells me that it’s in bad taste an unprofessional. It would be like positing an employee database that had a field to encode an employee’s degree of nerdiness. It’s like using in a presentation the seven taboo words that you’re not allowed to say on radio. It’s like wearing cut-off jeans shorts to a wedding.

  46. Pingback: pinboard July 27, 2011 — arghh.net

  47. I think that the problem with this post is its lack of precision and the poster’s refusal to deal with the sexism directly — that is, his assumption that everyone will just “get it.”

    That said, I have a hard time wondering why people can’t see the sexism here. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that the presenter should have anticipated the presence of professional women in the room and that they might find distasteful the notion of being in a room full of men chuckling over this sort of example.

    And I don’t think it’s a matter of saying, “Oh, that’s ridiculous, I know lots of women who are perfectly fine with it and it’s been proven that women are actually more bawdy than men and yadda yadda yadda …” because, aside from the anecdotal nature of these kinds of claims which more or less invalidates them, these claims also ignore contexts, situational and intentional. While it’s true, yes, that many women are quite capable of engaging with colorful commentary in a variety of situations, this particular situation had a professional context, so it’s reasonable to expect that the subject matter should remain professional. That expectation is very important, because it allows for certain assumptions about expected behavior. If I’m going to a business meeting, I can expect that others will be there wearing business-appropriate attire, for example. If I get there and a number of people are wearing swimsuits and nudging each other as participants in an inside joke, then my assumptions about the context of the meeting are being toyed with. I can either go along with joke, though clearly I haven’t been a part of it, or I can object with respect to how meeting participants are making a game out of a situation that I was expected to take seriously, thought then I’ll risk derision for not being socially flexible. Either way, it’s an uncomfortable situation for me, at least potentially.

    That the example illustrated here had to do with an inside joke that involved the sexual adjudication of a specific sex means quite non-controversially that this is, yes, sexist. Some comments here wondered about what would have happened if both sexes were included in the example. Then, yes, the example would have been less sexist, somewhat, although not as much as I think some might imagine. But this wasn’t the case, if this reporting is accurate — and even if it had been the question would legitimately remain as to the appropriateness of the example given the assumption of a business context. There are, after all, more ways to be humorous than to play on assumptions about sexual perceptions.

    Really, this all very wearily boils down to having a certain sensitivity to what others might be feeling. It’s strange to me that some men regard this as an imposition on their “rights,” of all things, or on their masculinity.

    It’s incorrect, too, to state that sexism is only applicable if there’s an identifiable loss of rights in some context, or an allusion or perception of a loss of rights. That’s extraordinarily short-sighted. It’s easily understood, and well established, that an imposition on the generally expected level of respect in a given context based on attributes intrinsic to an individual is, in fact, a loss of rights. The distinction only seems subtle or esoteric when one hasn’t experienced that kind of imposition.

    What strikes me as odd and fairly disappointing, too, is that some of the comments here — as I’ve noticed in other situations — regard this objection to sexist behavior as a “loss” of some kind. A “loss of gender,” as one commenter puts it, or a loss of humor, as though humor without sexual reference can’t be nearly as fun or funny. Because this is a maturity issue, I think that, sadly, the term “boy’s club” still applies.

    And attempts by commenters to isolate the issue — to ask if “hotness” is inherently sexist — is simply an attempt to isolate, period. Context is always critically relevant.

    Finally, the commenter above who states that the mishandling of the term sexism leads to a perception of any expression of attraction as wrong is, himself, wrong. What leads to objections to any expressions of attraction is, again, a lack of appreciation or perception of context, which, admittedly, can occur on both sides of an issue. I think that it’s quite right to say that some individuals have become hypersensitive and inflexible with regard to sexual commentary in the public sphere and that rights can be violated in both directions.

    But this wasn’t an occasion for the expression of attraction or admiration. It was a presentation about databases. This issue, in any form, really shouldn’t come up at all. Not even vaguely. If that’s too difficult to expect, if it’s just too much of an imposition to ask a presenter to exclude from a presentation ideas which might be humorous at the expense of certain classes of people who might certainly be present, then I think we do have a fairly large maturity issue here.

    And, yes, I know, women rate men, too, a behavior I’ll anticipate whenever I walk into a bar. But at a development conference, I think it’s safe to say that that subject matter is strange, at best.

  48. Definitely the speaker can replace the topic easily without mentioning anything related to sex.
    As a poor grad student, I think a free food database would be more fun and appropriate. We can rate the free food provided at talks and look for the distance of the free food from us. For example: (http://food-bot.com/node/3723)
    As a female student, I am kinda accepted the fact that these jokes come up when you are working with lots of guys, but I definitely believe that we should work on it.

  49. Several (male?) commenters have said, “Had the presenter chosen to use ‘m’ instead of ‘f’ this page would not exist.” I disagree. It is no more-or-less offensive if the speaker is gay or hetero. The problem word is hotness, because it — and the age range — imply that the only data set of value is based on sexual attractiveness.

    What makes the entire thing offensive, to me personally, is that using a sexual theme for a professional presentation is baiting the audience. It is knowingly choosing an example that could offend, even if it doesn’t. Why choose something that pushes buttons? That applies as much to a database select statement with a political or religious slant (i.e. “kills babies” or “idiot about deficit”). It creates an us-versus-them dichotomy that is wholly unnecessary.

    So I am annoyed that the speaker chose this example, because there are so many entertaining subjects that could be used instead. (Chocolate, man, chocolate. Select people who have Favorite_Chocolate=’dark’ and no one would ever argue.)

  50. Had him made a presentation with dogs I most certainly would leave as I’m a strict cat person.

    Jokes aside, I did not found the presentation microofensive or distasteful.

    I’m terribly sorry for Aksynoff that people prefer to launch witch hunts instead of valuing his expertise and learing from him.

    But well, if you people find his example cognitively overloading you are all free to leave.

  51. My 11-year old daughter is well on her way to becoming a great programmer. She is, quite frankly, brilliant. :-) She read this over my shoulder and wanted to know more about what happened, so we explored a bit of what the conference was about in the first place.

    Her response? “I thought you said women programmers are accepted in their field. This seems really rude to me and I wouldn’t go to a conference where I thought the men would act like that.”

    I have been realistic about the challenges of being a woman in the tech field after 22 years of it myself. I have warned her that she will have to work harder than an equally-talented boy to be accepted as technically proficient, and that she will have to put up with some rude comments and perhaps even unwanted attention. I do think things are getting better, but if you guys really want smart, talented young women to consider programming as a possible career, you have to stop acting like hormone-crazed 18-year olds in public. Even if you think — no, ESPECIALLY if you think — that’s a stupid thing to need to change.

    If this is the only example the presenter can possibily think of that will hold the audience’s attention (by causing distress or distraction), he is a crap presenter and should not be invited back to the conference. Where are the conference organizers in all of this?

  52. Alfonzo (@agarzola) said:

    “Particularly in a society where, increasingly, any act that springs from the attraction a heterosexual man feels for a woman is deemed sexist, nothing less than an objectification, and —in some circles— comparable to rape. And it’s applied across the board, too: including harmless invitations to cups of coffee. I’m not making this stuff up.”

    but left off some context. I don’t know of anyone (including people who are more feminist than I) who would think it sexist or objectification for anyone to say to anyone else “I think you’re interesting, could we catch up for coffee later?”. But the context Alfonzo is referring to wasn’t that. He’s referring to the recent Internet meltdown because a feminist suggested that asking her, alone in an elevator at 4am after she said she was going to bed, to come and have coffee in your room *right then* was creepy; and asked men not to do that. As G McClure states, context really matters.

    If a man (heterosexual, bisexual or pansexual etc) is interested in a woman, then context matters. Hitting on a woman at a technical event because you find intelligent, technically interested women attractive; is actually a problem. It drives women away, because they feel that they’re not appreciated for their input, but instead just for their bodies. They feel objectified. Context matters. I’m not saying men shouldn’t express any interest in women ever, but context matters. Don’t be creepy. Find out what these women do. Treat them with the same respect you show the men at the conference. Demonstrate that you appreciate the women around you for their contribution not just for eye candy. Pay attention. Are they actually showing the remotest romantic interest in you? If not, don’t hit on them. If you can’t tell, don’t hit on them. Whatever you do, don’t corner them when you attempt to express your interest.

    Keep in mind that nothing happens within a vacuum. Large parts of society tell women (all the time) that they’re only valuable for their bodies. So a conference presenter using the hotness of women as an example, is (probably quite unwittingly) reiterating that message. But it’s also really distracting. Suddenly, instead of feeling like part of the audience, some women in the audience are likely to feel self conscious. They might wonder how they’d rate in hotness, or whether the rest of the audience is rating their hotness. They might think other things, such as rating the other women. But the important thing is that they are not thinking about the purpose of the talk. Also, a small part of the audience has just been distracted into feeling like they’re not like everyone else, that they’re different, they are other.

    Some men in the audience are going to be distracted by now rating the women in the audience. Others are going to be distracted by wondering how they rate. Some are going to feel un-included because they’re not particularly interested in women. They’re not thinking about the purpose of the talk.

    Finally, many audience members are going to be distracted because they know the mess on the Internet your talk is going to cause. They’re not thinking about the purpose of the talk.

    As Priscilla said, even if you don’t understand why this example was bad, just take our word for it and don’t do it any more. Avoid examples and images which could even possibly be accused of objectifying either gender.

    (Finally, there are indeed examples where (done well) this kind of thing might be okay. If this were a talk about something like Match or OkCupid; then the discussion might talk about indexes and optimisations etc; and this kind of thing would be well in scope. But this talk was supposed to be about algorithms, which doesn’t really suggest the user of heavily gendered examples.)

  53. This is most definitely NOT sexist. Mentioning the concept of “Othering” is really reaching. These types of attacks that have no factual basis only serve to water down the term and detract from the situations where true sexism really does exist.

  54. Indeed, an unwise choice by Mr. Aksyonoff, in any case; hopefully he’s picked up a few bits of wisdom for future presentations. (Although, based on his comment above, it sounds like he’s not convinced that he should have done anything differently.) It is sad that most of the angry comments are about “objectification of women,” not the unquestionably useful lesson of not alienating your audience that Mr. Lester was trying to impart.

    As a male, I suppose I could be offended by the implicit objectification of males in the example, too. Or offended by the homophobic assumption that Andrew’s example was crafted from the perspective of a man and not a woman. I could also be offended as a writer by the use of the word “gender,” where “sex” is the better choice (a sad trend over the past few decades). I could also be offended by the fact that no one really cares about objectification of males–we’ve gone decades now with the attitude that it is perfectly acceptable to objectify men. A form of feminist revenge, perhaps?

    I think what is more sad is that people like Greg Lund-Chaix or Doris Beers above are willing to brand and demonize people, with no concern about their reputation, instead of offering advice and understanding. These are narrow-minded people who think one way and one way only, and insist that others must think the exact same way (“Why is it so hard for y’all to get it?”). The reality is–as evidenced by at least half the responders here–many people find such mild expressions of sexuality amusing or even reaffirming to their own human existence. Squelching all such expression as hostile is simply intolerant, anti-human, and bordering on censorship.

    Sadder still (as others have mentioned) is that most of the posters here, particularly G McClure and his/her rant, have not a clue about the real definition “sexism.” What Andrew did is absolutely not sexist.

    Indeed there are men (and women) who deliberately objectify people of the other *sex*, and understandably this is a cause of concern for many women. Certainly there are some ignorant and sometimes dangerous people who make sexist comments designed to harass, intimidate, or discriminate. We must, however, grow up and learn to divorce these people from those who make normal human expressions of sexuality (whether or not in an inappropriate place, such as Andrew chose). Otherwise we are guilty of ignorance and intolerance in our politics, unwilling to separate the Unabomber from legitimate environmental protestors, or unable to separate the Norway killer from legitimate political protestors.

  55. G McClure on July 27, 2011 @ 12:40 pm:

    “they might find distasteful the notion of being in a room full of men chuckling over this sort of example.”
    It’s not sexist. Both men and women are supposed to chuckle over this example. Then get over it and back to the presentation.

    “this particular situation had a professional context, so it’s reasonable to expect that the subject matter should remain professional. That expectation is very important, because it allows for certain assumptions about expected behavior.”

    Exactly, so why would you think that this was intended to be “bawdy” or sexist? It’s presented in a professional context, please make sure you’re interpreting it that way.

    “That the example illustrated here had to do with an inside joke that involved the sexual adjudication of a specific sex means quite non-controversially that this is, yes, sexist. Some comments here wondered about what would have happened if both sexes were included in the example. Then, yes, the example would have been less sexist, somewhat, although not as much as I think some might imagine. But this wasn’t the case, if this reporting is accurate”

    Right at the top of this page, you can see that the database schema presented has both men and women being rated by age and hotness.

    “It’s easily understood, and well established, that an imposition on the generally expected level of respect in a given context based on attributes intrinsic to an individual is, in fact, a loss of rights.”
    This might apply if the example focused on on gender, but it didn’t. It might have been inappropriate, but I don’t think it was sexist.

    “What leads to objections to any expressions of attraction is, again, a lack of appreciation or perception of context, which, admittedly, can occur on both sides of an issue.”

    Which is why this article is kind of useless – it has very little context, and mainly presents the opinion of the writer instead of giving information about how the talk was handled.

    “But this wasn’t an occasion for the expression of attraction or admiration. It was a presentation about databases. This issue, in any form, really shouldn’t come up at all. Not even vaguely.”

    Right, so why are you taking it that way? The presenter said he needed something as “unselective” as possible, and gender fit the bill. And, again, both genders were in the database.

    Here’s an example of a horribly sexist and objectifying database that was discussed in a technical way and was much better received, because of context. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2088995

  56. That isn’t sexist.

  57. For those questioning the use of the specific word “sexist”, please stop being a grammar nazi, step back, and try to get your mind around the actual problem being discussed. The examples are inappropriate, crass, and juvenile. More importantly, they result in “othering” any women who happen to be in the room. If you don’t know what othering means, please go look it up.

    The same ideas could have been communicated with examples that didn’t have this side effect. As such, they should have been. This was inconsiderate and unnecessary.

    The real question here is not which word should be used to describe it, but rather WHY would any professional speaker choose this example when others were available.

    If you’re really arguing against the choice of word, you’re missing the point. If you honestly don’t see that there was a problem (whatever the “right” word is), then you are part of that problem.

  58. Pingback: Quora

  59. I’m closing comments on this. Things are getting far too nasty.

  60. Pingback: Dear fellow speakers ... - The Mobile Presenter

  61. Pingback: Alyse.org » This Weeks’s Linky Things are Linky