A Brief Response to an Incident at PyCon
I’ve been thinking a lot about an incident I witnessed at PyCon, which has received a fair amount of attention. On Sunday I was sitting a few rows behind Adria Richards during the closing ceremony. At one point I looked up to see conference staff approaching the men seated behind her. I watched the staff members ask these people to step out into the hallway, which they did without much commotion. I didn’t hear anything that was said, but it was clear that this had something to do with the Code of Conduct.
I think it’s important to understand this situation, because it has become a very public test of the Python Software Foundation’s new Code of Conduct. It is difficult to judge everyone’s actions from a distance, because to fully evaluate the situation we’d need to know:
- exactly what was said in the initial conversation between Adria and these men;
- the context in which that conversation occurred;
- the exact conversation between the men involved and the conference staff;
- the exact conversation between the men involved and their employer.
One of these men lost his job as a result of this incident, and we are seeing numerous people blame Adria for that. This is a clear example of a culture we live in, where it is more appropriate to blame the victim than to blame any other offenders. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether Adria’s response to this situation was ideal or not: whether she should have posted the picture publicly, whether she gloated or not. That misses the point that everyone is responsible for responding to the situation appropriately. If the employer fired people as a gut reaction, then they are responsible for overreacting. While I am comfortable questioning some aspects of Adria’s response, I am not at all comfortable with telling her to be quiet and think of what this might mean for the people making unwelcoming comments.
A critical question
What do we do when no one person is severely violating the Code of Conduct, but instead we have a fair number of people throughout the conference making moderately inappropriate comments that can be just brushed off? Many people have grown a “thick skin” and do just that, but this response avoids the problem. Women shouldn’t have to grow “thick skin” to go into a technical field.
Making the Code of Conduct more visible at PyCon 2014
The PyCon staff did a great job of publicizing the new Code of Conduct this year. For those of us who understand and value the Code of Conduct, we saw it all around us in different forms. We saw the Education Summit, we saw the Young Coder’s workshop, we saw the PyLadies booth, and many other visible examples of a community that values diversity. Next year, we can take this a step further and make it visible to everyone exactly who supports the Code of Conduct.
One of Adria’s goals was clear: she wanted to take away the anonymity which allows this behavior to remain pervasive. There is a simple way we can do this for Adria, and for everyone else who was made to feel unwelcome at some point. We can use the White Ribbon concept, and apply it to the conference setting.
What would a White Ribbon campaign look like at PyCon? When you go to register at PyCon 2014, you would see a pile of small white ribbons next to the name badges. It doesn’t matter if they are actual ribbons, or small stickers in the shape of a ribbon. When you take your badge, you have the option of sticking one of the ribbons on your badge. Wearing the ribbon is a public, visible way of saying:
I understand the Code of Conduct, and I am willing to call out unwelcoming behavior and comments when and where I see it. I will not just laugh uncomfortably when I hear comments with obvious innuendo. I will not give tacit approval to this kind of behavior.
How does this change the situation? It does so in a number of specific ways:
- It takes the resopnsibility of calling out unwelcoming behavior off of individuals like Adria, and shares that responsibility between everyone wearing a white ribbon.
- If enough people wear the ribbon, it makes it clear to most people, just by looking around them, that innuendo is not going to be received well.
- It obviates the need for PyCon staff to intervene, except in the case of the most egregious offenders.
- It is non-confrontational, but effective.
If it works, then this becomes a symbol that can be adopted by other conferences, and in other contexts as well. The PyCon community has come a long way in the last few years towards becoming a fully welcoming community, where no one has to have “thick skin”. Let’s get all the way there.
This issue has blown up to receive attention from an audience much larger than the attendees of PyCon. So I will offer a few clarifications after watching reactions to this post from the past few days:
Many commenters are responding to my use of the word “victim”. Of course hearing a dongle joke and a possible innuendo about forking does not put anyone in the same class of being a victim as someone who is assaulted. I still believe, that when this all started, Adria was trying to stand up to a culture where women have to listen to sexual innuendo on a steady basis. I know from speaking with many colleagues and friends that this culture is not comfortable in professional contexts for many women.
The ensuing flare-up of attention really came from PlayHaven’s firing of one of their employees as a result of this incident. If that had not happened, this event would not have grabbed the attention of people all over the internet. That is especially true when you acknowledge that no one was kicked out of the conference. “Men spoken briefly to by PyCon staff” does not grab anyone’s attention like “Man fired for making joke about dongles”.
Despite the role that PlayHaven played in this incident capturing everyone’s attention, the majority of disparaging remarks and attacks have been directed at Adria and SendGrid. Adria may have gloated a bit and made it harder to sympathize with her, but nothing she has done warrants attacks against her and SendGrid. Rational arguments are entirely appropriate, but attacks and threats are not. I don’t think people should post pictures of people who annoy them publicly on a regular basis. I do recognize, however, that some form of activism like that can serve to bring an issue into a larger realm of discussion. I think that was the role Adria was originally trying to play.
The white ribbon concept does not need to be taken literally. There is a white ribbon project, in which men wear actual ribbons to signify their willingness to speak out against violence towards women. The point I was trying to make is that it might be a good idea to let people make a small visual indication that they support having a code of conduct. This makes it clear to many people that we do want a culture where people can let go of the thick skin they have developed elsewhere.
Most of the comments on this post are negative and dismissive. But there have been a number of “likes” and retweets of this article by people I respect in the Python community. So there are some ideas here that do resonate with people who have direct experience in the Python community. I can understand why people would not write supportive comments for ideas like these right now, given the overwhelming sentiment being expressed in these comments and elsewhere. I make no assumptions about how much support is out there, either.
In closing, the PyCon staff themselves have acted appropriately throughout the conference and during the ensuing flare-up. Their approaches to encouraging and supporting diversity are paying off in a variety of very visible, and measurable ways.