When I read the original PyLadies announcement, my first knee-jerk reaction was a very common one: “separation is bad, dividing the community, …” Like many of my privileged peers, I was always pro-diversity, but I thought this is the wrong way. My views changed over time and I filed it under “lessons learned”. However these issues seem to pop up again and again, so I decided to share my perspective.
So first of all, let’s get one thing out of the way:
Diversity is good for a community.
If we can’t agree on this fact, the rest of the article is futile. There are many studies that support this point and if you’re not convinced, this article isn’t for you.
In this article, I’m using women as the IT minority in question, simply because I live in Europe where women are the one group that is most underrepresented in tech in relation to their total number. One recent data point: ~51% of inhabitants vs. 8% EuroPython 2012 attendance. And that was an improvement by 100% compared to 2011.
That doesn’t mean I don’t care about other minorities. In the end, I’m an immigrant with working-class background myself. I came to Germany as a kid with barely existing German skills from a quick language course and grew up in a neighborhood that was usually considered ambition’s terminal destination.
But: working on women’s diversity isn’t hurting other outreaches. This is one of the craziest straw men ever used. You care more about having more working-class Eskimo albinos coming to your community than about women? Great! Start an outreach program and if your proposal is sound, you may even get a grant from the PSF! You want more male nurses? Start an initiative! But FFS stop blaming women for fighting their own fight!
Why We Tend To React Like I Did
This is the first real section of this article because this is the biggest reason why the majority (in this case: white, 20-ish years old males) has problems with such outreach programs:
We don’t get it.
And why don’t we get it? Because most of us haven’t ever been in the shoes of a minority and virtually none of us has to endure it on a daily basis. Then we see stuff we don’t agree on like affirmative action or gender quotas (which both aren’t without controversy in the feminist community either) and dismiss the topic as a whole.
We don’t have this problem, so it can’t be that big of a deal.
I had to laugh when I read this tweet which – although referring to Code of Conducts that aren’t the topic of this post – illustrates nicely our blindness for the problems that aren’t our own:
Yes it worked for him obviously! And for guys like him or me! Because the EP consisted by 92% of us! And 96% the year before! But if we want to change the ratio, we have to empathize with the other 8% and look how we can help them.
I’d like to conduct a small thought experiment with you to help you understand. I used a similar one before and it worked, so I thought I share. It’s not scientific and I omit details, I just try to force-think you into a situation so you may start to see the point.
Imagine you’re a young white dude (chances are, this is the easy part). You happen to move into a perfectly mixed neighborhood: 50% blacks, 50% whites – we’ll keep it simple here. Your neighbors of both races like you and you like all your neighbors. Everything’s dandy so please resist the urge to mix racial issues into this hypothetical thought experiment. I could have used green aliens or talking narwhals, but I wanted to keep it realistic so you can imagine the situation better.
Now let’s add you’re totally into watching basketball and want to learn to play it yourself. So you get your ball on Amazon and head to the next court. A corner away you already see that you’ll be the only white dude on the court.
How does this make you feel?
Does it kind of feel repelling to come alone and be the only distinguishable person there? To be of a race that isn’t exactly well-represented in that sport? How comfortable would you be learning the basics?
What would happen if you make a stupid beginner’s mistake? Probably something like this? They probably won’t say it – they’re nice guys after all and they like you – but you’ll always have this lingering feeling that they think or feel that way. That may even show by “gallantry” in the form that they go easy on you in games and you can tell that they never take you for full.
If there were more of people like you, maybe. But being alone? Hmm…isn’t the soccer field with all the white guys suddenly much more appealing? Maybe basketball isn’t that cool anyway…
Now you know one of the psychological barriers for women to attend tech get-togethers.
I haven’t even started about blatant sexism, male tendency to alpha-nerding and general creepiness (if you want to witness that one, I dare you: sit for a few hours next to a woman at a drink-up and watch people talk to her after some beers). Or worse.
Pragmatism Beats Purity
One of Python’s pillars is that we value pragmatism over purity.
The “pure” approaches to this problem would have been to wait till women “get over it” being creeped out by creepy things and being human beings that don’t like to leave their comfort zone. Or that we stop being creepy and start being more welcoming.
Obviously, the pure approach failed and if we want more women at conferences and in tech in general, we have to look for solutions elsewhere.
A Pragmatic Solution
So what is the pragmatic way? Let’s get back to our experiment: and let’s say you know some other white guys which you feel comfortable around and that are into basketball too. So how about learning your ropes with them till you get comfortable and then you can join the main gang together? You’ll have enough skills to be accepted as a player and you won’t come alone. Double-Win!
And even when you’ve joined the rest, wouldn’t you appreciate to just talk to other minority guys about your minority-specific problems, because the “others” won’t get it as they never experienced it? It doesn’t even have to be problems either, it’s often just nice to talk to people with a similar perspective the majority lacks. You can observe this pretty easily on vacation when you meet someone from your country. Isn’t it nice to talk to someone with a similar background from time to time?
Now, swap basketball for Python and you’ve got various Python outreach programs and women-only meet ups at conferences which many find divisive and damaging.
Obviously, such outreach programs don’t divide our community; they incubate people which aren’t comfortable to cope with us from the beginning on and grow our community in the long term when they feel like joining us.
Frankly at this point, it doesn’t really matter whose fault that is. Whether they’re being over-sensitive (hint: they aren’t, but if it helps you to follow my reasoning, knock yourself out) or whether we’re a bunch of assholes (most of us aren’t either). The fact is: we want them to enrich our community, so we have to look for pragmatic ways to get them in – even if the means don’t seem sound to us on the first sight because we don’t get it.
“Yes, but…” discussion don’t help. PyLadies – and similar outreach groups – on the other hand found one of those ways. So thank you so much to their organizers for doing this! And again: if you know of a better way, stop shitting on their approach and go for it! The world isn’t binary; the more approaches, the more diversity, the better.
And by the way, that’s also how Code of Conducts work. Maybe you think we don’t need them because you’ve never been affected by harassment or discrimination. In that case you should read this article about what a woman endured at DEF CON. This shit is happening today and everywhere! An enforced CoC it’s the only way we can show people who fear this happening to them, that they are safe with us and we genuinely care about them. That’s my definition of a community anyway.
Let me stress the last point once more: most if not all women heard about incidents at conferences with poor handling by the organizers. Some even witnessed or suffered them. The chances of them going to a conference again are rather slim. After all, I avoid situations which I expect to lead to unpleasantness too – and I’m a big, strong guy. And absolutely every conference on earth claims that they’re nice guys and nothing ever happens. But that’s a lie we like to tell to ourselves. An enforced CoC is our firm promise to anyone who fears harassment that our turf is safe and if something should happen anyway, we will be there for them. That we will not leave them alone and that we will not weasel around if the harassment isn’t a law violation or was technically not inside the conference venue. A healthy community gathering needs much more than everyone abiding to the penal code and behaving only within the bounds of the venue. Suddenly, the chances of attendance rise.
Closing, I’d like to stress how happy I am about the direction the Python community is moving right now and the growing list at Let’s Get Louder gives me hope, that this article will be worth a tired “duh” soon. Well let’s say, in my lifetime.
- Black Girls Code
- Boston Python Workshop
- Girl Geek Coffees
- Girl Geek Dinners
- Girls Who Code
- ladies learning code
- Linux Kernel Newbies
- Open Source Bridge
- PSF Outreach and Education committee
- PyLadies Main
- PyLadies SF
- Python Core mentorship
- Python Sprints Projects
- Software Carpentry
- The Ada Initiative
- Women Who Code
Feel free helping me to make this table more complete! I’m not limiting it to women’s and/or Python initiatives – any kind of outreach is fine.