A slightly more thoughtful post on diversity

(Some more meanderings on the brouhaha about diversity in the Python world.)

First, I've removed 'python' from the tags and made sure that neither Planet Python nor Advogato feed from this blog otherwise; I suspect by talking about politics and feelings in OSS I'm getting further from my normal target audience, and I don't want to spam the entire community.

Second, because my last two replies directly into a diversity-list-inspired discussion have inspired blowback of the form "why are you such a jerk for not supporting women/minorities in Python?", I want to CMA and point out that I'm completely in favor of increasing the diversity of the Python community, and I'd like to publish a community-wide diversity statement. Heck, I could probably convince you that I've worked reasonably hard over the last three years to bring women into the community. Unfortunately, expressing skepticism about statements like this: "...publishing a diversity statement is one of the only things that works" apparently means "I don't like women in my programming community" to some people, even though that's not what I meant by it at all. (If you're interested, what I meant was that Kirrily Robert's post/talk about how AO3 and Dreamwidth created communities with a more representative balance of men and women by, among other things, posting a diversity statement, DID NOT AUTOMATICALLY IMPLY that such a tactic would do much in the long-established Python community -- even though that was what some people were implying, and what GvR actually stated in an e-mail. See how controversial I am?)

I've also been astonished to watch otherwise sane and reasonable people embroil themselves in this discussion with good intentions but ... poor implementation of those intentions. When one person (who I know somewhat and respect as far as I know them) said that the PSF's discussion of the diversity statement "violated" their expectations, I had to throw up my hands and laugh somewhat ruefully; was that really the least inflammatory choice of words that that person could have used?? (There were many more examples, but that one stuck out in my head as possible the least appropriate word choice I'd seen that day.) The discussions seemed to often boil down to people questioning the precise meaning of specific words, frequently by choosing the most narrow and least positive meaning possible. That is not a productive way to discuss something, folks.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this whole discussion has been the disappearance of the normal assumption between long-term Python contributors that we all mean well to each other.

Perhaps because of this, I've gotten a number of private e-mails from people in the Python community expressing feelings of isolation from the community on this topic, either because they don't feel strongly about the topic or they feel their opinions are not welcome. Given what happened to me after expressing an honest inquisitive opinion about why women didn't feel comfortable coming forward in the Python community, I can hardly blame them; the Thought Police were out in force, and there's no winning when someone implies that you either agree with them completely or you're a bigoted misogynist asshole. (That would be me, incidentally!)

So why do I keep thinking about this so much, anyway? (To give you an idea of how much, I have two other posts in the pipeline that address this issue and I've read more e-mail and had more conversations about this in the last two weeks than any other topic... I'm debating deleting the posts, you'll be happy to know ;) Partly it's because of my general surprise at the inflammatory nature of this discussion in the generally fairly friendly Python community, and partly it's because I liked & respected the guy who (in paraphrase) called me a bigoted misogynist asshole and I still very much respect the guy (GvR) who called me a wanker and asked if I'd actually read Kirrily Robert's post (I had, and I stand by my point of logic). I don't like losing potential friends for stupid reasons, and I think you can probably understand my feelings about the author of the wanker comment...

Today while driving I thought about this topic some more, and settled on something specific that I actually think is worth addressing: namely, could this whole topic have worked its way through the Python community with fewer misunderstandings and in a less inflammatory way? There are a couple of things I would suggest doing next time, if there is a next time for a topic of a similarly divisive nature.

Zeroth, I don't think there's any way the diversity list could have been made more pleasant for me. By nature I'm very much a skeptic, and that was a poor fit for the list. (I'm glad I joined, though; the links and discussions that I read while on that list were indeed eye-opening.) What, then, would I have changed?

First, I would have communicated the diversity statement to the PSF list with a request for a simple up-down vote by the membership, along with an additional request that anyone who thought that it was worth discussing in detail move over to the diversity list itself. There was quite a lot (QUITE a lot) of duplicated discussion on the PSF list.

Second, I would have tried to keep the diversity list better informed about the depth of the discussion going on in the PSF list. One problem with mailing lists is that you tend not to realize that everyone else isn't on them; with closed mailing lists, this is even more of a problem! Perhaps because of this at least a few people seemed to think that the PSF members had read the diversity statement generated by the diversity list and collectively shitcanned it without much discussion. Not so, my friends - we had lots of discussions! I can give you screenshots of my mailbox if you doubt me ;)

A third thing I might have tried would have been to gather more background material than a few blog posts for people who wanted to read more. (This is definitely 20-20 hindsight; I didn't realize how much material was easily accessible on things like increasing diversity in the sciences! That's one of the blog posts I have queued up...) Blog posts are almost necessarily advocating something, and to do so they take a biased perspective on that topic. That bias can in turn bias conversations. I'm reasonably certain that the diversity list is ignoring possible options because of the set of background reading material that was sent to the list. Watch This Space?

Oh, and fourth, I probably would have tried to make a stronger effort to make the point that a diversity statement is almost certainly not going to matter in the slightest without substantial backup efforts. (This point was made by several people, but didn't seem to percolate effectively in the face of disagreements about 'the' vs 'a'.) I will post a viciously disappointed post about this if I don't get good turnout for GHOP.

This is all debatable and in hindsight, and I certainly wouldn't have thought that the topic would blow up to this extent in advance.

I will always have more to say on this topic but I think I'd better cut my losses while only half the community thinks I'm a bigoted misogynist asshole wanker... ;)

--titus

p.s. Comments welcome from the Python community, except from that one guy.

p.p.s. Does anyone else on either list find it strange that so many messages were exchanged on both lists without much comment in the Python blogosphere?


Legacy Comments

Posted by TKT on 2009-09-19 at 23:42.

I'm sorry someone thought you were a wanker.  I think you're very
supportive of women and minorities in the open source community and
Python in particular.  And FWIW, I have never read a diversity
statement before picking a language, so I agree that it doesn't mean
much without some other efforts.

Posted by Carl T. on 2009-09-20 at 05:17.

Titus, this is long, and a bit strange.  I haven't slept in days and
I'm melting down.  Publish it at your discretion.    This really
doesn't answer what you blogged about, Titus.  A bit rambly and Carl-
centered.  Hope it does some good and no harm.  Focus is on diversity
group; I am not a PSF member.    three part answer: human (touchy-
feely), pragmatic, conclusion (where do we go?)    touchy feely:    I
can't speak for everyone else.  All the discussions left me
emotionally raw.  Don't know if other people were like this, but
everything we talked about on diversity dug up stuff from my life
experience that I had stuffed for a long time.  Every time a woman
talked about getting shit on for being smart, it was my sister I'd end
up thinking about.  Every time somebody talked about a guy being a
jerk, I would think of times I did something similar.  This takes an
emotionally charged topic and amplifies it for the individuals
involved.  I'm probably misplacing the word, but I think this is
called internalizing.  Not suggesting making people aware is a bad
thing at all.  Just saying I ended up after three months not being
able to hack it (I hate using this word!) emotionally.  My last tweet
says it all:  mailinglist was like country cheatin' song - just made
me want to chug whiskey and bash chairs over people's heads - had to
disengage.  Again, probably projecting myself onto others, but there
is a contingent of people on the list who keep treating the PSF like
it's "The Man" as in "working for The Man" or, better said, authority.
Somehow I suspect they're projecting something in their life
experiences on to this situation.  Problem is, all those things are
visceral, and strong.  Result:  megaflame.  FWIW, list admin Aahz, did
a hell of a good job in an impossible situation.  Please, God, don't
let him be the one who called Titus the 20 part insulting misogynist
whatever name.  Thanks, God.  I'm not mentioning any women for a
reason.  One of the things I knew about, but really learned, is that
women get threatened, stalked, and harassed online if they are quoted
or have their names out there.  Probably overly cautious on my part,
but I'm not naming any women.  Have a lot of respect for the women on
the group, though.  Would work for at least three or four of them in a
heartbeat, if the opportunity and time and willingness on their part
to hire me were there.  Some really mature and sensible people, both
men and women.  Just having contact with about 5 or 6 people on the
list and getting to know them a bit probably made it worth the time.
So what went wrong, if anything did go wrong?    practical:  (I
actually just wrote something similar to this in a private e-mail to
someone recently).  I naively went into the list thinking we'd be
doing fun things like fundraising for sending women to conferences and
contacting historically black colleges and doing international
outreach. From past experience (I once had an ill fated naive foray
into the Decimal module when I thought I was up to it), I knew if I
were going do anything for the Python community, it would have to have
a low technical barrier to entry.  diversity - cool - bake sales and
fundraising, right?   The 101 thing hit me like a truck.  After about
two weeks, I think I learned what I needed to learn and what I was
going to learn (read:  if I was a real jerk, I somewhat more
thoughtful and less of a jerk).  After a few more weeks of that 101
stuff, I was like a shark that had cut itself, smelled blood, and
started trying to eat itself.  It kinda sucked ;-)  We had an
expression in the Navy (that I'm sure everyone has everywhere):  "The
task expands with the time alloted to it"  We (and I mean we; Aahz
allowed us room to make our own decisions) decided to keep crafting
the diversity statement.  There were a couple at the outset that I saw
as "looks good to me", but getting everyone to agree on something was
tough.  It will sound wishy washy, but it's true:  everybody did the
best they could; some went above and beyond; this sh**t is just
**really hard*    Why you don't hear more in the blogosphere:  I am
probably as guilty here as anyone, and worse.  Everytime voidspace
would make a tweet about the list that might be suggesting that the
list was not the happiest place, I'd countertweet challenging him.
Mea culpa - in a twisted irony, as a hyper competitive jerk guy, I
can't stand losing.  No mailinglist **I** was on was going to be seen
as anything less than perfect.  F********ck . . .  Michael, if you're
reading this, I apolgize.  Even now, suggesting we did anything not
right (I can't even print the word "wrong"!) makes me feel like I'm
betraying the people who were almost universally decent to me on the
diversity list.  Titus, I hope you consider this a stupid reason to
screw a friendship, because, um, yeah, I was part of **that* problem.
conclusion:    My thing (and I may be full of it and crafting the
vision to my personality):  action.  I can't help with GHOP.  I'm not
far enough along in Python service work to say, "Hey, guys, spend
money over here on this low barrier to entry fun project like a
(shameless plug) foreign language page."  And I don't have what it
takes to work on the project that GHOP needs.    Still, my "bake
sale/fundraiser" (no, I'm not seriously suggesting we have a bake sale
- it's just what I remember from church growing up) is an idea.
Mainly, if you put a number of people working together on a concrete,
tangible project, they might actually bond.    Will the guys be jerks
and constantly bully and interrupt the women?  Maybe.  Will guys hit
on the women and try to do inappropriate things?  I'd like to think
we're better than that, but who knows?  It's a huge risk in the form
of trust.  I'd just like to give some diversity related action and
projects a try.    The first time I met Catherine Devlin (she's an
exception for mentioning because she's everywhere - go to Ohio Linux,
everybody, and see her talk!) and the woman from Tummy.com whose name
escapes me was folding shirts for swag at Pycon 2006.  It was cool,
and for a few minutes, at least, it didn't matter who we were and
whether we were men or women.  (awwww, isn't that sweet? - now go to
the cover of Beautiful Python and the cartoon of the irresistabley
cute little girl with the snake halloween costume and feel nothing but
love for Python and **all** its members).  Seriously, I could
desperately use some positive right now.  So badly I can't even
apologize for all the sappy syrup I just slimed you with.  Titus, man,
I love you (manhug).    Disclaimer - I did unsubscribe from the list,
mainly for personal reasons.  When you stop sleeping and taking out
the garbage, mailinglist obsession becomes a real problem ;-)

Posted by Carl T. on 2009-09-20 at 05:33.

Titus,    One more thing.  Stop worrying.  Be yourself.  Continue
Summer of Code, GHOP, and the day job and you'll do more for diversity
than 6 or 8 of the rest of us **could** do.    What's that line from
LOR?  Forget that ranger BS, you were meant to be king, or something
like that?

Posted by Doug Hellmann on 2009-09-20 at 07:47.

It seems to me that the "closed" nature of the list, originally
intended to encourage openness, actually encouraged some of the
harsher interactions you mention.  I think if the diversity list
archives had been public, the participants may have been less
aggressive.  On the other hand, there was pretty overwhelming support
for keeping them private, so I don't know if some of the valuable
participants would have been involved if the discussions had been
public.    I will say that as a new PSF member I hope all
conversations are not this heated and personal.  I have little
experience on which to base an opinion, but it has been a rough
summer.

Posted by Steve Holden on 2009-09-25 at 08:35.

Just to add a bit of perspective, diversity isn't something that has
been widely discussed and as such is a new topic to many people. The
reason I didn't blog about it (did I?) is that there was enough stuff
going on with just two mailing lists involved. No way I wanted to
amplify that with public postings about what was happening on two
lists foreign to most of my readers.    I was new to diversity when I
joined the list. I quickly learned that a) diversity has its own
jargon; b) gender diversity is a major issue because women are
everywhere and it's therefore the most universally visible failure; c)
women have to put up with an incredible amount of condescending shit,
some of which I have myself been responsible for; and d) whenever
diversity issues are discussed newcomers to the topic will fan the
flames by repeating mistakes out of ignorance - a goodly number will
then follow up with defensive reactions to any attempt to inform them
of the marginalizing or disrespectful nature of their remarks.    This
is exasperating in the extreme to people who have been working for
diversity some while (a community which I cannot currently claim to be
a part of). The only thing worse than having to repeat the same
responses to the same gaffes over and over again is being continuously
marginalized by people who refuse to accept that there is even an
issue.    In retrospect the worst mistake I made was a cross-posting
the first proposal to both the diversity and PSF-members lists. This
meant that a number of "reply all" comments osmotically crossed the
barriers, but that each side was unaware of a large part of the
discussions that informed the debate on the other side. Many of the
remarks people made had to be interpreted "in vacuuo", and this was
not helpful. I was careful to make two separate mailings in conveying
the results of the PSF members' discussions.    I think that the
discussions did bring diversity issues to abruptly the attention of
those PSF members to whom they were new. I don't expect everyone in
the PSF to be interested in promoting diversity (a lot of the members
have a primarily technical focus), but more of them will now be aware
of the issues (and the sensitivity that can surround them).    It
looks like the initial stage is now over, and that the PSF will
shortly adopt its first diversity statement. Then we can get on with
the real work of actually trying to increase the diversity of both the
PSF and the Python community as a whole.    @carl: It's probably
facile of me to say that you seem to have taken things very
personally. I am sorry you felt you had to leave, but you are quite
entitled to put yourself first in that situation. Thanks for your
continued work on the multilingual pages of the Python wiki.    @doug:
I can't remember any discussion in recent years generating such volume
(in both senses). Don't expect another such conflagration for a good
while!

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