PyCon’s Code of Conduct: The Next Step

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.

Clarifications, 3/23

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.

About ehmatthes

Teacher, hacker, new dad, outdoor guy
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14 Responses to PyCon’s Code of Conduct: The Next Step

  1. Anonymous says:

    “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” Well yeah it’s pretty cut and dry if you disqualify half the freaking event.

    • ehmatthes says:

      I meant that, no matter how Adria responded to the situation, it is the responsibility of the employer to terminate employees on reasonable grounds. The quick firing of the employee seems to be reflecting more poorly on the employer than what the employee actually did in the first place.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “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.”

    Sorry, can you tell me again how she was at all a victim?

    • ehmatthes says:

      Again, it is hard to know exactly what to make of the situation without having heard the entire conversation and interaction directly. Certainly, Adria felt herself a victim of a culture where a woman, while not directly harassed, still has to listen to comments with not-so-subtle sexual overtones steadily throughout a conference. There are many reactions to this incident online acknowledging that this pervasive culture still exists; I’ll just suggest this one:

      Pycon 2013 and Codes of Conduct, more generally

      I agree with most people that we should not routinely post pictures of people who bother us to online media. But Adria wasn’t trying to just fix this one situation for herself. She was trying to bring to light the fact that although PyCon has made huge strides forward, there is still a bit further to go.

      I hope that most people still paying attention to this understand that these men were not kicked out of the conference.

      • bbb says:

        The only pervasive culture proved by this incident is a culture of overreacting and a weird culture of codifying everything into written codes of conduct. Also, stop equating dumb middle school level jokes with harassment of women.

        I’m saying that as a women in IT. I do mind if someone considers me lesser professional or weaker person for being a woman. I do mind if I have lower salary then man with the same performance. I dislike “woman are incapable” jokes.

        But dongle by some random guy sitting behind me? Please. It is somewhat sexual, but you have to try hard to twist it into harassment. It is no more annoying then if they would talk about their kids or yesterdays lunch.

        I came to listen to talk, not you. Annoying, but all reactions except the reaction of PyCon organizers have been blown out or proportion. Stating with Adria and continuing with mans employer.

        On the other hand, I sort of understand Adria employer. Neither I would want her to be my public relation employee anymore. She proved to be incapable of such position.

  3. The writer of this blog comes off as having not read Adrias actual blog which is a huge smoking gun against her case actually.

  4. John Brown says:

    So…someone makes a mild sexual innuendo which is not directed at her, not about her, not about women in general, and not threatening in anyway and that makes her a victim because she happened to overhear it? Is she some sort of magical creature who takes loses HP because of juvenile humor?

    It certainly can be argued that what they said was unprofessional, but that in no way makes her a victim. It’s not juvenile jokes (said by both sexes, by the way…cause, wait for it…women are capable of making off color jokes, too. I swear to God. I’ve actually heard them do it with my own ears) which are giving people pause from attending these conferences.

    It’s this 1984 mentality that all language must be policed at all times and we must always, always protect and shield the delicate sensibilities of anyone who happens to be a woman. Because, the best way to promote equality is to treat women like infants who are unable to deal with adult situations like adults.

    Victim indeed. Grow up.

    • Walt says:

      I work for a big(Fortune 200-ish) international corporation.

      Based on what I’ve read about this, I think I’ve heard worse things from the (prior) US CIO in his all-staff meeting, which includes many women.

      I’ve definitely heard worse things come out of the mouth of (female) BAs and PMs.

      Running to conference organizers over it seems like an over-reaction and a bit cowardly. Those guys don’t look particularly dangerous or intimidating, and you’re in a room full of people. If you’re so offended, why not just say so, get an apology, and move on?

      Instead somewhere between thousands and millions of people have heard about it and multiple people lost their jobs.


  5. Gremlin says:

    If this is what it means to accept women, no wonder no one wants them around. Shrinking, withering precious little delicates that can’t bear to hear silly comments of an off-color nature. Why should women have to grow thick skins? No, that’s not the question. Why does everything and everyone else have to change COMPLETELY to accommodate them? At what point are they going to be expected to give a little, and make some compromise?

    No, it’s clear women have nothing to add here. Their coding skills aren’t superior. They bring nothing new, no new insights. All they bring is this kind of cultural terrorism and fear.

  6. TJ says:

    As a gay man, I have heard plenty of homophobic innuendo and insults at conferences, both directly and indirectly. There are simple, effective ways that I can deal with them as an individual.
    I don’t need straight white male conference organizers to protect my sensitive feelings. I think the PyCon code of conduct is counterproductive and deeply offensive. Knock it off.

  7. Moof. says:

    >Women shouldn’t have to grow “thick skin” to go into a technical field.

    No, but if you plan on leaving the house or getting on the internet, you probably should grow a thick skin instead of walking around with your antennae up all the time looking for excuses to be “offended” and poisoning the culture for everyone. It’s called being an adult, and Adria Richards has a history of not being one:

    To call her a victim because she didn’t like something she overheard is insulting to anyone who has been seriously wronged.

  8. Jill says:

    She is not a victim. By calling her one you are doing a disservice to any female that really has to put up with a hostile env or deal with sexism. There was no sexist remarks, all she was looking for was publicity for herself. She caused this drama and cost her and someone else’s job.

  9. Litolboy says:

    What Adria did was wrong; If we put aside the part where a man with three kids just lost his livelihood.

    What Adria did was shame a person in public, post this person’s photo in public (without the person’s consent), she got mad over a harmless joke (while her on the other hand spew out “offensive” jokes on her tweets as well), she ruined a man’s life (oh wait, we placed that aside), and she praised herself and likened herself to a modern “Joan of Arc” even after seeing that this man is in big trouble because of a joke (She is clearly lacking empathy).

    My opinion on this is, she is probably stirring up commotion to make her blogs and herself more popular. She also did this for personal gain and she willingly ruined a person’s life for it.

    Adria is no martyr, she was simply punished because she did a crime.

  10. Porphyre says:

    Seeing this was posted on 3/20, it should probably be updated to reflect the reality that has emerged.
    You said:
    “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;”

    Now that you know that a) there was no initial conversation between Adria and these men and b) the context of said non-conversation is that they were conversing amoungst themselves and Adria was within earshot, how does your evaluation of the situation change?

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