Next Year: addressing the more subtle sexism at Pycon

By | April 10, 2013

From a gender equality point of view, I’d call Pycon 2013 a success, though perhaps a better word is “progress”. The gender ratio apparently doubled to 20% this year. If that continues (depending if it’s a constant, linear, or quadratic curve) we could be at parity in as little as two to three years.

Another indicator of forward momentum is that women this year were able to behave, to use a sexist term, “like women,” without fear of reprisal. That is to say, I saw makeup, heels, and skirts, and they did not seem out of place. This is not to suggest that women should or must dress up to attend conferences; the traditional vendorware is equally acceptable for all genders. However, it is progress that more women felt they had a choice in the matter and did not feel an obligation hide their physical differences. I think the fact that there was more variety among the male dress styles is also a sign of success.

The worst charges coming out of Pycon 2013 were the use of inappropriate jokes. To the best of my knowledge, there were no reports of women being harassed, assaulted, or groped during the conference. I’m not aware that this has been an issue at past Pycons either, but I think it’s a sign that the Python community is better behaved in this regard than some of her sister tech conferences.

So all in all, while it wasn’t completely successful, Pycon 2013 was a terrific step on the road to eliminating sexism and creating gender equality. Let’s make next year an equal sized step. Here are a few topics I think we, as a community, can work on to engender further progress.

I’m going to start with a couple links. Ruth Burr wrote a terrific essay titled Things You Think Aren’t Sexist, But Really Are a couple weeks ago. In summary: Men, you are instructed to go to conferences to network and interact, not to date or hook up.

Yes, you might meet the love of your life at Pycon, but don’t expect, intend, or plan for that to happen (at PyCon or anywhere). Behave professionally, and consider each woman you meet for her knowledge and intelligence, not her figure or her marital status, just as you would when interacting with a male.

Ned Batchelder, with his amazing talent for understanding and explaining problems wrote another great article on the root issues. Summarized, he says friction is inevitable, and that education is better than shunning when people make mistakes.

I started planning this article while attending Pycon this year. I had to scrap those plans after the so-memed “donglegate” fiasco. I don’t have anything to add to that discussion, but as Ned illustrated, there were many many instances of similarly inappropriate comments at Pycon. I myself made such a joke, most of my friends did so, I overheard a conference organizer say something inappropriate. This is not sexism per se, but sexual and other potentially offensive comments need to be reduced. Comments laced with sexual innuendo do not belong in a professional or a family setting, and Pycon is intended to be both.

Let’s start with interation between the genders. In her article, Ruth Burr mentioned that women can feel awkward when they interact with men because the men assume they are flirting rather than interested in the topic at hand. Many men see cleavage and assume the speaker can’t possibly know as much as them about whatever topic that is. Some girls avoid interacting with men because of this awkward sensation, and if they do, the interactions are tainted.

I had a related problem. While I comfortably talked to men of varying skill levels at Pycon, I felt uncomfortable addressing women because I was afraid of sending some vibe that I was being flirtatious. So I tended to ignore the female attendees. This is unfortunate for everyone who missed out on that potential conversation. Pycon 2014 needs to increase the interaction between the genders, not just the attendance ratios. Ladies, talk to the shy guys, they need to be taught that you aren’t that intimidating. Guys, talk to the women, they need to learn that we are interested in what they have to say about tech, and not their figures. As it stands, only the sexist guys are interacting with the women, and it makes us all look bad.

The gender ratio really fell during the developer sprints. I don’t think there were any female sprint leaders presenting projects to hack on. Worse, I’d estimate between one and two percent of the sprint attendees were women. This is a huge area for improvement. To the various diversity groups out there, please encourage your members to stay an extra day or two and attend the Pycon dev sprints. Get them involved with Open Hatch if they are unsure how to contribute to open source projects. Sprint leaders, make sure female attendees are welcome, especially if they are new coders (indeed, make all new coders welcome).

I noticed a lot of Impostor syndrome among the female attendees and speakers. Programming really is easy. The fact that you enjoy it and find it quite simple is not a sign that you don’t know the “hard stuff” and therefore you’re not a “real programmer.” Quite the reverse, in fact. It’s not necessary to apologize for your lack of knowledge if you’ve been invited to do a talk or are about to join an open source project for the first time. Find ways to build your confidence (contributing to open source and getting feedback is a great start), and start believing in your skills. Even if you don’t believe it yourself, try to project confidence in your coding abilities; it will send a much more effective signal that women are capable and here to stay. Don’t worry if you over-present yourself; faking your way through it is a great way to find out that you’re actually better than you thought!

I’d like to close with an admonishment to those people who open their articles on sexism with a discussion of their gender. These usually take one of two forms: the disclaimer and the shocker. The disclaimer is most often used by men and sounds like, “I am a privileged white male so I don’t understand what it’s like for women, but I still think I have something valid to say on this topic”. The shocker is used by both genders and sounds like, “I am a man/woman, so you’re going to be amazed that my opinion on this topic is different from other members of my gender.” Yes, it is useful to state your bias and frame of reference. However, be cautious that your purpose in doing so is to remove distortion from the lens you are applying to the discussion, not to add to it.

And now, feel free to analyze my bias in this article. I am a privileged white male from a blue-collar family. I’ve had many amazing opportunities in the tech industry. I have very little experience as the target of discrimination, outside my mental illness. My interest in feminist issues comes from my sister’s master’s degree on the subject; I proofread most of her undergraduate and graduate level essays, and gained a relatively deep understanding of the topic. I acknowledge that I am a racist, sexist jerk by culture and conditioning. Sometimes I forget to compensate for that. I find it exceptionally easy to overlook the patriarchy when it’s doing me favors, and I will never be as keenly aware of its negative impact as someone who is directly experiencing it every day.

4 thoughts on “Next Year: addressing the more subtle sexism at Pycon

  1. Carl Trachte

    The only thing I didn’t like about this post had nothing to do with the topic. I guess it’s just human nature, but I hate being told what to do. This is very superficial and banal, but it’s my 2 cents.

    Also interesting was your gender assignment of the conference as feminine. IIRC you referred to Pycon as “she” or other conferences as “her sister conferences.” It just struck me as funny, because in the Navy we always referred to ships that way traditionally.

    All in all it sounds like you thought this through. I am not qualified to judge it one way or another. Peace. CBT

  2. Myra


    Another good post. I find your ability to be candid about yourself refreshing and something lacking by many in the modern world.

    I read the articles by Ruth Burr and Ned Batchelder before posting this and confirmed just how far out of touch I am with the modern world. As an older female (62) I find the extreme sensitivity of the younger generation sad. As you did, I will state my bias upfront. I spent 30 years working in the service branch of the oil and natural gas exploration industry. I started in 1974 when there were few women and the rule for acceptance was “If you are going to work out here, you just have to be one of the boys”. I’ve come to believe I’ve heard and seen it all when it comes to gender bias, off color jokes, etc. A lot of the sexist behaviour still exists in the oil field today and the off color comments can be a lot worse than “hey good lookin”.

    I’m not saying that outright nasty comments, sexist jokes, etc have a place in the work place (including conferences and such), but people today take seem to take every thing they think/believe as inappropriate has some form of harrassment. My roommate and I have chosen to live somewhere that if you can get called sweety or honey by the waitress in a restaurant. It’s not offensive, it’s just southern hospitality. Like you there are times I’m afraid to open my mouth for fear of ticking someone off with one of my culturally based idioms that can be offensive in nature (racial, gender, ethnic, or just plain nasty). I also hate to break the news to some of the females out there who think only men who do these types of things, I know some women who can make men blush and run for cover when they get cutesy with their comments. There are too many people today who need to get over themselves and figure out how to get along in the world. That’s my bias, a bias that comes from culture and conditioning. A bias that makes each of us an individual. IMHO if everyone were the same the world would be a boring place.

    To illustrate my thought about the younger generations hypersensitivity, there was a dodo storm on in response to a survey “How many man-hours would you say you’ve invested in learning perl?”. Someone actually took offense to “man-hours” and the dodo (please note use of dodo to represent what I really meant, don’t want to upset anyone with sensitive eyes/ears) was on.

    I’ve had to work hard to learn to compensate for my cultural upbringing when I’m placed in a situation where it’s necessary. I got tired of pulling both feet out of my mouth. My biases are one of the reasons I don’t participate in the open source community, think big square peg in very tiny round hole.


    PS: The running comment around our house is “Men have a couple of useful purposes in the world, mowing the lawn and washing dishes”.

  3. Si

    Hey Dusty.

    I bought your book, and it was a good read, I’ve had nervous system and vestibular system troubles since the end of last year, and have found the content to be useful in this difficult period. Big thanks for writing it.

    How does dwelling on political issues affect your mental health?

  4. Awebb

    Dusty, you have a special talent. Every time you write something not directly technical, I do not agree with you and I think you dash into the wrong direction, then you add something valid, totally agreeable, obviously thought through very well. I really like the way you separate fact from opinion.

    I have a sexist ex-girlfriend, you know, the mid-to-late-30’s type (more cliché!), with a strong opinion on what roles males and females have. Every time she did not agree with me (like most of the time in those six months, it was not because I was wrong, but either because I am a man or because I am almost a decade younger. I did not have a real chance at a person, I was reduced to the attributes “age” and “gender”, fulfilling a specific role in her life. The rest of my friends consist of a random variety of dudes and a and a not so random number of the strong woman type, born in the early to mid 80’s, growing up in an environment, where “equality”, “emancipation” and “independent woman” were not just the large goal of women rights movements, but – to a certain degree – reality. Short: They don’t take shit from us dudes. While this is nice to see, it is still irritating to hear, that it is because we are men, every time we do something wrong. I always opposed this, until one day I replied: “…and you do not understand this, because you are a woman.” Instead of more and more discussion, they seemed to be satisfied by the outcome of the situation, as if they only said such things to provoke male chauvinism.

    Such things would never find entry into the public sexism debate, because…
    a) …a man who says that he is “oppressed” by sexist women will automatically lose all credibility among his peers, because sexism is not only an inter-gender thing, but also used as a form of peer-control. You are no real man, if you do not do X, think Y and look like Z.
    b) …the sexism debate (which used to be an equal-rights-debate) is now almost feuilleton-exclusive outside the US – at least in the so called western world. Yes, I just said, that there practically is no equal-rights movement any more, just a bunch of self-proclaimed intellectuals discussing the topic among the literate high society, a sheer number of spontaneous outbursts on blogs and twitter and the occasional radio news item about how women still do not have the same salary as men in certain positions (usually middle to upper class jobs).


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