Lyndsy Simon

Development | Humor | Internet Marketing | Miscellany | Politics

PyCon Drama

Weekend before last, I attended PyCon. It was a blast - I met a ton of interesting new people, caught up with friends I've not seen in months, and got involved in a variety of new projects I don't have time for. In other words - I was lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in the incredibly passionate and capable Python community.

This sort of thing is exactly why I've spent the last year or so restructuring my life to be more involved with the Python community. Every time I go to a conference or meetup, I come away more energized and excited than I arrived. This is the only place I've ever felt that to this degree, in my entire life. That's something very special to me.

A Wild Drama Llama Appears

... and then I got home, and read about Donglegate. Joy.

If you've somehow missed all this, I'll give a quick overview and spare you the gory details. Apparently two guys at the conference shared a couple of jokes based on sexual innuendo, in the middle of a conference room, during a speaker's session. A female attendee overheard and was offended, and took their photo, and posted it on Twitter and tagged PyCon. PyCon staff handled the report well, and then the Internet arrived in the conversation. First the person who made the joke was fired from his job, then the person who reported it was fired from her job. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

There has been a positive result, however! The PyCon Code of Conduct is now on Github, and there has been some changes designed to prevent the damage to our public image for future incidents. Far better than that, the changes have sparked a dialogue on Github as to how these sorts of things should be handled - the result of which will be a revised set of guidelines with great community input (and hence, ownership).


All of the discussion of feminism, women in the Python community, and how this specific situation has caused me to examine how I feel about the issue in far greater depth that I otherwise would have.

First, as you doubtless know if you know me personally, I'm an extreme libertarian - an Anarcho-Capitalist. I abhor the initiation of violence, and view politics through that lens. I'm predisposed towards solutions where mutual benefit is the result and minimal coercion is required. With that in mind, the popular concepts of affirmative action, hiring quotas, and anti-discrimination legislation are things that I resent and against which I am strongly opposed.

Leading up to PyCon, I read several articles where the author was decrying the lack of gender diversity in our community, and stating that women aren't universally comfortable within it. While I certainly see diversity as a strength within a community, I'm not particularly concerned with attempting to proactively influence others' behavior in an attempt to make a third party more comfortable. To be blunt, I simply don't see it as my problem.

What gave (and still gives) me pause is that this seems to be effective. Organizations like PyLadies and LadyCoders have increased the proportion of female Python developers at community functions, and at PyCon in particular - and while I wouldn't hold up a specific proportion as a goal, it is readily apparent that bringing different perspective and thought patterns into Python is a good thing.

So... do I think we are hostile to outsiders? Sometimes, sure. This is a tribe we've built, and there's a level of camaraderie that comes with what we do. That's intimidating to some, and it turns out that it's particularly intimidating to many women. I suspect that's because of the traditional gender roles held by (and via social pressure, enforced by) our society. Broadly speaking, passive and nurturing behaviors are seen as feminine while aggressive and self-aggrandized ones are seen as masculine. The latter is better suited to the meritocratic culture of Open Source. This became clear to me after reading:

What I mean is this: no more unwritten rules or expectations. No more assumptions that we're living in a utopian meritocracy. We don't. Sure, OSS has been defined as "they with the best code and who does the work, wins" - but that ignores the frequent corollary of "those with the thickest hide, and ability to fight win".

—Jesse Noller, The Code of Conduct, 07 Dec 2012

The thing that's striking about that is how well this fits my own personality. When I attended PyOhio 2012, I realized that this was where I wanted to be in my professional life. I spoke with my wife, and then I acted. I helped organize PyArkansas, I began driving an hour and a half each way to attend pySGF each month, I started contributing to Gittip, and so on. I asserted myself, because that's what I do.

Not everyone is like me, though. I'm empathetic to this and go out of my way to not run over the top of people who aren't able or willing to assert themselves and get their point across. Recognizing when this is about to happen is a skill that I've consciously developed.

Maybe - just maybe - the current unorganized diversity movement within the Python community is our collective way of developing that same skill, but on a community level.

I really think that's the case. As such, I will continue to do my best to bite my tongue as much as possible when confronted with what I perceive to be the beginnings of a touchy-feely, "politically correct" cultural shift. Instead, I will reach out to the people behind organizations and try to influence the development of a more accepting but still individualist, meritocratic Python community.

Foot, Meet Mouth

In closing, I'd like to share my own mis-step in the social minefield that are gender relations today. While sprinting with Gittip upstairs at the Hyatt, I was speaking with a female developer that was working with us. Regretably, I don't immediately recall her name or what she was working on, but we got off on a sidebar about how to implement something or other, when she said her coworker had implemented something similar in the past.

I asked her - and this part I remember with crystal clarity - "How did he do it?" Without skipping a bit, she replied "She _____".

Oh, crap.

She had stressed the word "she" just enough so that I knew that I had made an unwarranted assumption, and she noticed. Nothing else was said about this and the conversation continud on, but let me tell you - I felt terrible.

I certainly hadn't meant to offend anyone, and honestly if challenged directly wouldn't have made the assumption that her coworker was male. In my mind at the time, "he" was simply a generic pronoun. I had no mental image of her coworker, and honestly it's irrelevant what he or she looked like. Their sex was no more a concern for me than the color of their hair - I was only interested in how a problem had been solved. This is how it should be, and how I assume everyone sees the world unless that assumption is challenged.

It knocked me out of my hacking groove for a moment though, as I realized that this was an issue for her. Not necessarily a grave insult, but she wasn't thrilled that I had implied an assumption that her coworker was male. It didn't matter to her at that moment my intellectual ramblings on equality versus egalitarianism versus coerced affirmative action - I had been inconsiderate.

Thankfully, my hacking partner handled the situation with grace. I was shown that I was alienating her, and corrected my mistake for the future. Still, this is why the drama surrounding PyCon has impacted me as deeply as it has and taken so much of my mental energy over the past week or so - because I was inadvertently guilty of the same crime that had ended up crucifying two people and potentially ended their careers.