I had coffee this morning with Greg Wilson and chatted about DemoCampToronto9 that happened this past Monday. Greg continues to encourage his students at the University of Toronto to come out and participate in the burgeoning technology and entrepreneurship community in Toronto. Greg sponsors, supports, attends, presents, hosts, organizes, influences and shapes this community. He sees the value that an open community brings to companies, universities, professors, students, etc. So I was quite dismayed that to hear that 2 of his students would not be returning. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me a whole bunch: DemoCamp may not be for everyone, it’s about technology. But it’s the reason they were not coming back that really concerns me.
The reason that the students are not returning is that they felt uncomfortable because of sexist, misogynistic remarks made by DemoCamp attendees.
The specific incident was when Jane Zhang and one of her colleagues (I apologize for not remembering her name) were speaking at the beginning and someone in the peanut gallery felt compelled to make inappropriate comments about this woman’s chest. Correction: It comments during the ConceptShare demo, not during Jane’s colleague’s presentation that there were inappropriate comments about the perfume model’s chest.
“One of the guys standing behind my table made a couple of locker room comments about her breasts while the image was on screen, and another couple of guys near him laughed. They probably didn't notice the looks on the faces of the women at my table, but I did. As the one who had invited those three women to attend, I felt embarrassed, and ashamed, and more than a little bit angry.” – Greg Wilson
These comments from the peanut gallery made these students uncomfortable. The students felt that DemoCamp represented the same old privileged white boys club (or frat house) that has permeated the technology industry for years, and rather than fight an uphill battle they’d look for something else to dedicate their time and effort. There were other examples throughout the evening that reinforced their perception of the DemoCamp culture.
An Open Apology
First, let me personally apologize to the 2 individuals were made uncomfortable by the juvenile and offensive behaviour of others. BarCamp and DemoCamp are meant to be an open, safe community where people can come together, share, learn and generally get excited about what’s going on in technology and on the Interweb.
Second, let me unequivocally state that this behaviour is unacceptable and will NOT, should NOT, and can NOT be tolerated.
Greg has written about respect. Sutha responded to Greg’s original post, as has Leila Boujnane (*full disclosure*: I work for Sutha at Ambient Vector, Inc. and Leila is on our Board, to the best of my knowledge this is all true for now). Chris Messina has written about The Future of White Boys clubs and web conferences. It concerns me that we are potentially building a community that does not reprimand or prevent this behaviour. Many of the people who inspire me would potentially feel excluded.
Greg noted on Monday that the make up of the audience at DemoCampToronto9 was approximately 10% female and 5% non-white (or as Mr. Colbert would say Ethnic Canadians ). Is this a self-selected community? Is the makeup of the community a self-fulfilling prophecy? What can we do to change our culture? What can we do to change the community values and beliefs?