This year I attended and gave a talk at Europython in Florence. There were tons of great sessions, including one keynote on diversity in the Python community. This started people talking about how to get more women to come to Python conferences, and one person mentioned studies that have shown that women come to events that other women come to (more on this later). So one of the guys asked me to write a blog post about coming to Europython — “if women hear that other women are coming, they’ll come too!”
While I’m happy to write a blog post about women at Europython, I think it doesn’t quite work like that. Read on for more about:
- Why more women should come to Europython (and to programming conferences in general) and
- Some thoughts on why women don’t come or don’t come back.
Why women should come to programming conferences
Europython was a fantastic learning experience for me. There were many different tracks including some longer labs, and I think no matter what level you’re at, you will learn a lot when you go.
There are all sorts of people at Europython, and all of them are happy to meet you. One thing I loved was that the “rockstars” were just other participants — you can’t tell them apart unless you know who they are (or go to one of their amazing talks).
I’m really much more of an iOS developer, but I co-presented a talk at Europython on building APIs for mobile. It was a great experience — preparing for the talk was work but the kind of work I love, and the talk was very well-received. Looks great on the resume, too!
There is a sprint after every Python and Django conference where the developers hang out all day and work on projects together. If you have an open source project that you want help with, you can get free help! If you don’t have one, you can learn a ton. I joined Tom Christie’s sprint team and probably learned more about how to write great Python code in a day than I would have in a week working by myself. And again, everyone is happy to have you there and happy to help.
4. Be accepted
The Python community is especially welcoming of women right now. They recently created a diversity statement and there are people in the community working to get more women to come to conferences. There may even be help paying for your ticket or finding lodging.
5. Make Python better
Diversity brings creative ideas — your perspective might be a catalyst for you or others to create something new. And the more people use Python, the more support there is for it.
6. Build your resume
Whether you give a talk or not, going to a conference gives you credibility.
7. Great way to meet guys
I say this facetiously, but in case you’re looking — there are a lot of men here. Men who like smart women. :)
So now that I’ve tried to convince you, my feminine reader, to go to Europython, I’m going to talk a little bit about:
Why women don’t come to these types of conferences.
After the diversity keynote, Laura Creighton commented that studies in universities in Sweden have shown that women come to classes that reach a certain threshold percentage of women in them. In an effort to get more women into a highly male dominated engineering class, one university added one small topic and changed the class description; since they reopened the class (with a curriculum that is almost identical) it has had more than 50% women. Another commenter mentioned that in one country (I think Italy?) science is considered masculine, but math is considered feminine; university-level math courses in that country are female-dominated, unlike math programs in the US.
I totally agree with these findings (they match my personal experience) — there isn’t some grand reason why women aren’t programmers, it’s mostly because they don’t see other women being programmers. So there are two issues here — why women don’t come to something the first time, and why women don’t come back. I’d like to present some numbers kindly offered to me by the organizers of Europython in the context of why women might not come back.
Europython 2011 had 681 attendees of which 42 were women; that’s about 6%*. There were various tracks going on at once, and the rooms ranged from 30 to 300 people, so the chances are good that there is at least one other women in any one class. But you’re probably not scanning the entire audience looking for women; you’ll probably just notice the 10 or 15 people around you. Chances are > 50% that the 10 people around you are all men. Many of the women I met at the conference (me included) expressed that being surrounded by men seems normal to them, but for most people being in a group where you only see the opposite gender is uncomfortable.
This conference was five days long starting on Monday. By the end of day that day, I thought there were about five women there. But each day I saw a few that I hadn’t seen before, and by Thursday my estimate was 25. I was surprised to hear that there were in fact 42. I was looking for women the whole time (the diversity keynote was on Monday), so I mention this only to say that it’s pretty easy to feel like you are more in the minority than you are.
A number of times at the conference I heard men talking about their wives or girlfriends and explaining that “they’re not geeks/hackers/programmers” and so didn’t want to come to Florence if he was going to be at the conference all day. The unspoken cultural implication is that women aren’t geeks/hackers/programmers, and some women might consciously or subconsciously interpret that as a subtle cue that they are doing something inappropriate. Am I saying that these guys shouldn’t make those comments? Absolutely not, I like that people at the conference talk about their personal lives. But I also like bucking gender stereotypes. Imagine it in gender-reverse: you’re one of very few men at a social work conference, and over and over you hear women saying, “my husband really isn’t interested in social work, so he’d rather stay home than come to Florence with me.” Might make a lot of guys slightly uncomfortable.
These are the subtle reasons why women who come to Europython might feel uncomfortable. An entirely separate question is why don’t women come to programming conferences in the first place?
I wouldn’t be surprised if only 6% of programmers are women. Throughout our lives, everyone makes a million tiny decisions, and those usually end up with people doing things that are expected of them. Filling the funnel of math/science girls to math/science college grads to math/science hacker chicks who come to programming conferences is not going to happen in a day (or a blog post). But there are some interesting things happening in that space right now — I know of a number of groups running Python workshops for women non-programmers — so who knows? Things might be a-changing. I like Audrey Roy’s effort to get the women developers to come out to the conferences and participate in the sprints, and I’ll be organizing some events for women developers in Boston to get to know each other. One thing conference-going guys can do is to encourage the women programmers they know to go — make a point to ask your hacker-chick acquaintances if they’re going to a conference you’re going and encourage them to submit a talk proposal. Thanks!
* One thing I didn’t ask is if these numbers included the “partner program.” The partner program was a separate track designed for wives/significant others that went on tours of Florence. If these numbers included those women, then the percentage of women at the conference would be even lower.