Thoughts on Scandal at PyCon

I feel compelled to write a post in response to all of the attention surrounding an incident at PyCon concerning sexism.

First and foremost, thank you to PyCon (and especially to Jesse Noller) for handling this situation quickly and with such grace. I am excited to see how seriously PyCon / the Python Software Foundation take their commitment to creating and maintaining a diverse Python community. Their work makes me feel welcome at all PSF events and assures me that I will be safe and respected while I am there.

That leads me to my next point – yes, sometimes being “safe” is a fear that people, women or minorities in particular, have. I suppose that logically it makes no sense that I would be standing in an auditorium full of thousands of people and feel at risk for sexual assault or harassment. But try to put yourself in my shoes:

You’re a 23-year-old queer woman who is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. PyCon is your first large tech/programming conference ever. There are only one or two women for as far as you can see; the rest are all men. You’re nervous, feel out-of-place (as a newcomer), and shy. On top of all of that, you are very conscious of how much bigger and stronger than you a lot of men are in general. You’re hoping that the people at the conference are accepting of you, your sexual orientation, and your nonstandard gender presentation. You’re hoping that they want to talk to you about programming, about your research.

Then, behind you, some men start making thoughtless comments that have sexual implications. Suddenly, you become overtly conscious of how few women there are in the vicinity. You realize that if they decide to become aggressive in any way (as unlikely as it may be), then you are the nearest target for their attention. You start to stress about how long it will be before they notice you are within earshot of their conversation and their comments become directed at you. Every snide joke or suggestion you’ve ever heard about lesbians starts to run through your head, and you brace yourself for the moment when you will start hearing them again realtime. You know it will only be moments before they begin asking you how two women have sex, telling you that such interactions aren’t “real sex,” or propositioning you to “join in” your sexual relationships.

You begin to hyperventilate, trying to remember how to be a strong woman and stand up for yourself in the face of sexism. You try to find some sort of armor within yourself to put on in preparation for the moment when you will finally have to say “Not cool, guys.” At the same time, your years of socialization in a society pervaded by rape culture keep you glued to your seat, head directed forward at the keynote speaker. “It will pass; they’re just messing around; they don’t really mean it,” you think. White noise roars in your ears, interrupted only by more lewd remarks. You can’t focus your eyes on Jesse anymore; you can’t focus your eyes at all.

You begin planning an exit strategy. If the men haven’t noticed your presence by now, maybe they won’t notice it at all. You chart the exact path you will take through the auditorium to get to the doors, predict the waves of people who you will have to move through, estimate the number of steps it will take to be safely away from this situation which has now started to feel threatening. You don’t listen to a second more of Jesse’s speech; you’re simply waiting for it to end. When the applause start, you make a beeline for the bathroom, try to regroup, and vow never to put yourself in such a vulnerable situation again…

To me, being the only woman in a room full of men feels threatening, regardless of the conduct of those men. I would guess that other women feel similarly, independent of their sexual orientation, gender identity or abuse history. When men engage in sexual humor, overt flirtation, or objectification, the sense of threat is magnified. In addition, those behaviors indicate that men are more interested in our appearance (or vaginas) than our opinions and ideas. In technical fields, women are so often surrounded by men; it is all too common for these threatening and demeaning situations to arise.

Describing the exact fight-or-flight feelings that I have when in a situation I find sexist or triggering is extremely difficult. But I can say is this: I do not think that Adria did anything wrong by requesting help via Twitter rather than confronting the men herself. We should celebrate that she was able to ask for any sort of help. We should also celebrate that the entire Python Software Foundation agrees with her on the fact that the Python community must hold itself to a higher standard of respect.

I want to be clear that the fear that I described is not uncommon. I live with it on a daily basis, and I’m sure many other women (people?) do as well. Try listening to the world around you sometime for every comment about sex, gender identity, gender presentation. Try on a different day listening for every comment about race, or age, or education level. The world we live in constantly reminds me that I’m a woman – even if it’s something as simple as a waiter saying “Hello, ladies. May I take your order?” Consequently, when male-dominated venues like PyCon want to increase their diversity and encourage women to attend, it is imperative that the community take whatever measures it can to create a safe and welcoming environment. The PSF Code of Conduct is simply one of those measures. Even better, it has shown to be a measure that is effective in fostering a healthy environment for diverse conference attendees.

So that’s it. Thank you to Jesse, to Titus, and to all the allies to diversity that the Python community has. Thank you for recognizing that invisible white male privilege does exist. Thank you standing up for me and for people like me. And thank you for fostering a community that will do the same.