2013-08-09

Co.Labs

What Every Coder Community Can Learn From Python

"We didn't set out to have more female featured speakers than male," says PyCon organizer Diana Clarke—it just happened that way. Here’s how the community around the Python language, which kicks off its annual conference in Canada today, became the most welcoming one in tech.



Python is one of the most popular programming languages today, powering a ton of the technology we all use every day. It has a robust community and nonprofit foundation behind it, the Python Software Foundation. But like any segment of the tech sector, Python has struggled to build a diverse base of coders.

What makes the Python community different is its concerted effort to recruit and welcome people who are underrepresented in tech. From their detailed codes of conduct, to the plethora of community outreach groups, to the workshops they hold at their annual conference PyCon—which starts today—the Python community is in many ways a beacon of what the tech world should aspire to.

Diana Clarke attended her first PyCon in 2010 and helped start PyCon Canada in 2012. She chaired the first PyCon Canada last year; the second annual PyCon Canada is underway now through August 13. The Python community responded so well to her initiative in founding PyCon Canada that she co-chaired PyCon USA 2013 and has been made chair of PyCon USA 2014. Clarke has been working as a developer for over a decade, working with (predictably) Python as well as a host of other tools and frameworks.

How did you first get into software development?

I feel incredibly lucky to have discovered computing by chance during university. I was two years into a general science degree when I took my first computing science class. It was a required course, and not something I would have elected to take. Up to that point, I had worked really hard to get pretty average grades. The computing classes were different—less memorizing, more doing, building, creating, problem solving. I was doing really well for the first time in university, and almost immediately it started opening doors. Instead of working as a receptionist, cashier, or waitress, I was teaching undergraduate computer science labs, marking exams for my professors, and working at the university IT help desk. All of those jobs afforded me more money and flexibility than the stereotypically female jobs I had held in the past.

What kinds of support structures are in place within the Python community, beyond the PyCons, for women?

There are so many! Where do I start?

PyLadies is one of the most interesting and promising initiatives to come out of the Python community in recent years with respect to outreach for women. There are PyLadies chapters around the world teaching women Python, mentoring them through conference talk submissions, and hosting all sorts of women-focused Python events. They provide a ton of resources online to help others kick-start their own chapters and outreach events.

The Boston Python user group is another great community success story. It's the world's largest local Python user group. They host the "Boston Python Workshops for women and their friends," which is an introductory programming pipeline that has brought hundreds of women into the local Python community and is being replicated in cities across the U.S. The organizers, Jessica McKellar and Ned Batchelder are absolutely amazing educators and members of the Python community.

The GNOME Outreach Program for Women is something I really wanted to participate in this year, but there's only so much time in a day. It's like Google Summer of Code, but open to women that aren't necessarily still students. I've always thought that GSOC should stand for "Google Sabbatical of Code" instead, and that's exactly what the Outreach Program for Women internships are. A number of the projects were Python-based this year and all of them were open source. Such a fantastic initiative!

Do you think the Python community is especially welcoming or supportive of women compared to other development communities, either FOSS or corporate?

It's hard to comment on other communities from the outside, nor would I want to undermine their outreach efforts by focusing on isolated incidents. That said, I do think the Python community is particularly welcoming to women.

The Python community was one of the first communities to adopt conference and community codes of conducts as well as incident guidelines that set the tone for safe and inclusive environments.

The Python community is also backed by a mature nonprofit corporation, the Python Software Foundation, that funds a wide range of outreach and financial aid initiatives. The PSF awarded $100,000 in financial aid for PyCon U.S. 2013 alone. Much of that financial aid went to directly supporting diversity at the conference.

PyCon provides booths in the exhibit hall, free of charge, to open source and community groups such as PyLadies and Open Hatch. These are booths alongside our top corporate sponsors like Google and Facebook so they provide high visibility and reach for those groups.

The Python Software foundation funded a PyLadies lunch this year during PyCon that was so well attended people ended up sitting on the floor and standing in the back. The PSF also ran a charity auction that raised $10,000 with all proceeds going to PyLadies. The Python community is invested in the success of groups like PyLadies, and it really shows.

Less formally, the community as a whole is incredibly supportive of the various outreach initiatives. The bigger names in our community make a point of retweeting outreach meet-ups, calls for fundraising, diversity grant opportunities, etc. Not only do those big names set the tone and lead by example, but their support and influence enables these groups to reach their goals.

I’ve been seeing people talk about how this is a "curated" conference. What exactly does that mean and how is it at play in the current PyCon?

Last year's PyCon Canada was the first. As such, we couldn't rely on a proven track record to collect a sufficient number of talk proposals, attract sponsors, and drive attendance, so we deviated a bit from the traditional PyCon model of putting out a call for proposals, having a large review committee vote on the submitted talks, and announcing the selected talks months down the road. Nor did we have months; PyCon Canada was organized in a short four months.

Instead, the PyCon Canada team held multiple brainstorming session, reached out to the community for suggestions, and tapped our connections higher up in academia to come up with a wish list of speakers we wanted to see at PyCon Canada, and approached them directly about being featured speakers. Each year those featured speakers and keynotes comprise about 10 of the talk slots, with the remaining slots going to those that submitted a talk proposal for review by the talk selection committee.

We announced those featured speakers, one at a time, during the weeks leading up to PyCon Canada. This enabled us to generate the buzz required to draw in the necessary sponsors and attendees. It also allowed us to "curate" the speaker list and set a tone of diversity in both speakers and topics. Like PyCon U.S., we also put a significant amount of effort into encouraging women to submit talk proposals. Being able to show them a "featured speakers" list that already included incredible women from our community, reassured them that we weren't reaching out to them just because we needed a token female speaker. They weren't being straddled with the burden of being the only female speaker and the pressure of representing all women in computing.

That was some of our most frequent feedback from PyCon Canada. Over and over again, I heard people say things like, "That didn't feel like a tech conference. There were way more talks by women than usual, and none of them were token!" And really, none of them were token. From Bonnie King, a Linux sysadmin, who demoed a Geiger counter she built with a Raspberry Pi, to Elizabeth Leddy who gave a bold and hilarious behind-the-scenes account of managing an open source team, and Jessica McKellar whose opening keynote blew the room away, I am immensely proud of the lineups that the PyCon Canada team has been able to put together.

Our $500 diversity grants contributed to this atmosphere as well, as did the makeup of our board, team of organizers, and volunteers. Not only were there more women speaking, there were more women in the audience, women on stage introducing the speakers, women doing A/V, female volunteers running the green room and registration desk. Our board consisted of two women and one man, with yet more women on the organizing and talk selection committees. Our logo was designed by a woman. The skyline you see on the current PyCon Canada site was created by a woman. And I'm sure I'm forgetting a few more things like that.

It seems like the curated approach worked, as the featured speakers at the current PyCon Canada is exactly half women. How did you accomplish that?

We didn't set out to have more female featured speakers than male; there wasn't a quota we were trying to meet. What we did do is challenge our assumptions and ask difficult questions each step of the way. Being female doesn't make me inherently immune to gender bias and stereotypes. I'm a product of the same culture and environment. I had to ask myself the same difficult questions: "Why is it that the list of people I just suggested contains no women?" As a group we asked ourselves those kinds of questions as we built our speakers wish list, reached out to advisers, and approached people to volunteer for the various committees.

And then we did the hard work required to shift that bias. Because really there's no easy way around this one. Women simply don't submit talks to technical conferences at the same rate men do, even after accounting for the industry-wide gender gap in general. Opening a call for proposals, and then simply hoping a few women will submit talks is a surefire way to ensure your lineup will be almost 100% male. PyCon U.S. knows this, and spends a great deal of time reaching out to women individually and encouraging them to submit proposals. There's no guarantee that those proposals will get accepted, but at least you have a significant number of proposals from women in the funnel. Hours and hours were spent researching noteworthy women in computing. We watched their talks, solicited their feedback, asked them for potential leads, and then repeated the process until we were satisfied.

Obviously PyCon 2013 was in the news a lot recently with the episode of male attendees making inappropriate sexual jokes in the audience of a plenary. How has the leadership of PyCon responded to that incident and tried to create a better atmosphere at future PyCons?

What we're planning for 2014 are the same things we've been doing for several years, the same things that have been working to create an atmosphere that is second to none when it comes to technical conferences of this size. We'll continue to engage the partners we've worked with over the last few years, such as PyLadies and The Ada Initiative; two groups who have experienced strong growth in the last year. We'll continue to host an environment that is inclusive of all types of people, from all types of places, with all levels of experience, by sharing our Call for Proposals with everyone, and making sure our announcements make their way to as many places as possible. We'll continue our financial aid program to make the conference a possibility for as many people as we can help.

Without the years of effort by our organizers to foster this inclusive environment and atmosphere, and without the partnerships and sponsorships we've established throughout that time, PyCon would be a fraction of what it is today. We're looking forward to bringing another world-class event to Montreal in 2014.

In my own reporting for Co.Labs I found that some of the most technical job titles (network engineer, senior software developer, systems administrator) can be as low as 10% female. What are your thoughts, more generally, on why the technology sector has such a huge gender gap?

I don't think women are opting out, I think they simply aren't being exposed to computing at crucial milestones. It's hard to opt out of something you don't even know exists. I can only speak for myself: I didn't even know programming existed before I took my first computing science class in university. And I immediately fell in love with it. Immediately.

That there were few women alongside me in the workforce, upon graduation, wasn't really a shock. They weren't there to begin with. I was often the only woman in any given computing science lecture hall. To expect that that number would magically change as I entered the workforce, would have been delusional.

But I think we're making progress, especially with initiatives like the Young Coders workshops we hold during PyCon to expose children to computing at those crucial milestones. I think the entire tech community has had ample opportunity to learn, grow, and move past some of the 101 conversations about gender. I'd like to think we're now in the position to take some of these lessons learned and tackle the outstanding issues like class and race. The momentum behind Black Girls Code at the moment is incredibly inspiring.

[Image: Flickr user Paris Buttfield-Addison]




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1 Comments

  • rdodev

    Having been to a plethora of technical conferences, I never felt such a sense of community and camaraderie among such diverse and disparate group of people. The energy, the implicit understanding that community trumps the individual was contagious to the point of motivating me to join the ranks and help the cause. 

    You couldn't go into the hotel lobby without getting "drafted" into one of many impromptu gatherings. The hackers, the speakers, the community impromptu the organizers all playing their role of being a good community citizen. That's something you don't see very often at all and that's something a lot of people new to the Python world notices and embraces. Further, it's not a sort of cult-like drove of followers, or flaky about-face attitude. It's understanding that the stronger the community, the stronger the base we have to stand on and move forward with.