On PyCon2013 and Equality

Over the past day, I've been thinking and talking to anyone who will listen about the Adria Richards / PyCon2013 incident, not just because I'm struggling with the overwhelming sense of disappointment in the IT community, but also because I think it's important that we use these incidents to actually get people to challenge what we think we know about the situation with women in IT.

I want to talk as much as we can about this incident - not because it's something that hasn't been going on in the community for ages (it has), but rather because it provides an entry point for us to actually start discussing some of the really important, batshit insane things are are also going on, but are either too personal or too confronting to be documented and publicly discussed.

If you get bored of this post, at the very least, please, read the 4 links down a little bit. They will help to actually give you some real perspective into the real issues I think we need to discuss.

I had no intention of blogging about this, until I saw this tweet tonight :

First British Ruby Conf goes down. Now some dude gets fired. How much more are we gonna take? https://twitter.com/adman65/status/314658755893661696

I had so much to reply to this, but there is no way a pithy 140 character post could contain my outrage - The unspoken division of us and them (because these horrible people keep ruining our conferences and firing our friends); That a dude getting fired is more important than 20% of our community actually feeling safe and comfortable at events; The suggestion that it's outrageous for people to be called out when they are (consciously or not) biassed in their selection criteria.

So here it is.

I've been thinking about feminism and equality a lot over the last 4 months. This started, actually, from a tweet I read following the BritRuby cancellation. Paraphrased, it said that if you were a developer, and looked at your twitter feed and saw nothing but white male faces, you were part of the problem of why women are under-represented as speakers.

This struck a chord with me as I looked at my feed of white, bearded fellows staring back at me. So, I went out and found as many different developers as I could (mainly Rubyists) who would give me a bit more perspective.

Reading the tweets and links from these people, both men and women of different backgrounds, origins and orientations, was simultaneously enlightening and depressing.

As a white, heterosexual male, I've never experienced any kind of discrimination first hand. I've seen some (I live in Australia after all), but you only ever really see the event, never the impact. Some of the links that I have read over the last few months left me amazed and shocked at some of the things which happen frequently, probably in the same conference halls as I have sat, but I, my friends and colleagues have never been aware of (or at least never discussed).

Probably the most confronting posts I've read are these. You should really read them and let them sink in.

These are respected IT professionals. These are members of our community. And their experiences at industry events have included situations which range from uncomfortable to downright freaking dangerous.

This is not acceptable. How much more are we gonna let them take?

(For the record, I don't think this kind of behaviour should be tollerated outside of our community either, but for the purposes of this essay, let's focus on IT).

So this brings us to the PyCon2013 incident.

People are right - the PyCon2013 incident escalated rapidly. What started as a female attendee (Adria) feeling uncomfortable, and asking the conference organisers to uphold the event Code of Conduct, has resulted in both parties losing their jobs, conference organisers receiving harassing phone calls, DDoS attacks on employers, and the attendee receiving death threats citing her home address.

I want to address some of the points in this discussion and share some of the perspective I've gained over the past few months.

Some people have called out Adria's complaint as petty; that she should have just turned around and told the guys to quit it and move on; that involving the committee and taking a photo was unwarranted.

What I have realised from my months of reading is that, as white males, we very very rarely feel in a situation where we are unsafe. I've only really felt physically threatened 3 times in my life, and I can recount to you those incidents in specific detail. They stick with me not only because they were intense moments, but also because they are definitely not the norm - typically, I never need to give my safety a second thought.

For some event attendees (and, indeed, from essays like this, women in many other situations) that pervasive sense of trust and security that I have doesn't exist, or seriously damaged - they may often have empirical evidence from their own lives that suggest that they are, indeed, at risk.

As a white male, I have absolutely no idea what this feels like, or how this tempers one's response and reactions. I think most men are probably in the same situation of having no concept of how this feels.

Sure, Adria could have turned around and asked the guys involved to stop. But what would that have precipitated? Would they have apologised and sheepishly hushed? Would they have argued with her and told her to lighten up? Would they have made lewd propositions to her? Would they have turned to her and screamed in her face and threaten her family? What may have happened to her in the past when she made the decision to confront people in similar situations? Could that have played into this?

It's trivial and safe for us to speculate what might have been the better approach when we have no sense of the risks involved, or how unsafe those situations could be.

The irony is here that most of us have made a similar decision to Adria in different situations - where we've backed down, asked someone more experienced or influential to handle a situation, because, well, it's not worth it and the potential risks are many. If you've ever hit Submit on a complaint form, or marked a tweet as spam, you've done exactly the same thing - extracted yourself from the situation and let a higher authority handle it.

The other item I want to discuss is the notion that she should have just gotten over it; that the joke and conversation wasn't a big deal at all.

First and foremost, this argument assumes that you are in a position to judge what should and shouldn't be offensive to another. This is blatantly naive - we haven't lived their experiences, we don't have their understanding of language, their mindset, and so we can never truly understand the impact our words or actions have on another.

Perhaps the best illustration I've seen of this idea is this Louis C.K. segment about the word "faggot". In it, the point is made that the term "faggot" may be considered hurtful not just because of the intention behind it, but also because of the memories and thoughts that it triggers, causing pain. The words or actions themselves are entirely open to interpretation, that interpretation is what does the harm.

Now, I'm not trying to say that a joke about a dongle is equal to a heavily loaded homophobic slur. But what I am suggesting is that the memories, emotions, and understanding of it could be profoundly different from one person to next.

And to be honest, this is the whole intention of the notion of a professional level of discourse at professional events - because we have no idea at all what might offend others. Codes of Conduct exist not just to enforce the most common areas where people screw up, but to educate them that these areas are likely to cause offense.

Realistically, though, we're all going to mess that one up at some stage. People will interpret things differently to how we intended it, or read far more into it than was intended. All that can be done here is to own up to the fact that, yes, you did just make that person feel uncomfortable or hurt them (hopefully not too badly) and try not to make the mistake again. You can't ever undo the fact that you have caused them pain. People are hard.

The important bit of this incident is not that dongle jokes are bad, or the damage that has been caused. Rather, it is important because it gives us a real opportunity to actually challenge whether our perspective is the only valid one, and start discussing the horrible situation that lies under the surface of all this.

Other things to read:

Addendum:

Do I think the discourse was unprofessional enough to be fired? Probably not. I think that situation was probably poorly handled by his employers. But that isn't Adria's fault - that is the fault of the employer, and the fault of the guys acting the way they were, surrounded by a bunch of people they didn't know. This should have been a learning experience.