Diversity at PyGotham

This post originally appeared at https://late.am/post/2018/04/27/diversity-at-pygotham-2018.html.

This year, for the first time, PyGotham is asking everyone who has submitted a talk to our Call for Proposals to fill out a brief demographic survey to help support our efforts to ensure that PyGotham is representative of the Python community we believe in, welcoming to all our conference attendees, and helps to broaden and advance the conversation on diversity and representation that the wider software development community is undertaking.

Multi-colored crayons
Saaleha Bamjee

Why is Diversity Important to Us?

Without any outside influence, experience has shown us that tech conference speakers tend to predominantly come from a single background: male career programmers. There are exceptions, but this is the pattern we see most often at PyGotham and other tech conferences.

At PyGotham we want to do more than reflect the current demographics of professional developers. We want to hear from scientists and designers, from teachers and students, from community organizers and political activists, from everyone. Anyone with an interest in technology, be it academic, recreational, or professional, has something interesting to give a talk about. Often, we are too close to our work to notice what is unique, misunderstood, or confusing about it, but with a little effort, great topics can be found everywhere.

In order to tap into that variety of topics beyond those of interest just to professional programmers, we have to engage with speakers outside of that group. This is, in a word, “diversity.”

The Diversity Survey

The organizers debated taking this step back and forth. Might collecting this information frighten away speakers from under-represented groups, exactly those we most want to attract? Would it spark controversy and enrage majority members who nevertheless take every opportunity to cast themselves as victims? Would anyone even bother to fill it out?

The argument that won the day, ultimately, is that in order to improve the diversity of speakers at PyGotham, we first need to know something about what kind of diversity we have. Last year, I eyeballed the list of speakers and guesstimated that about 23% of talks had a female speaker (some talks had multiple speakers, so we were probably a bit lower as a share of speakers in general). This is comparable to women’s representation numbers at a variety of large tech companies, but as they are all pursuing internal improvements to their diversity and inclusion programs, we too want to aim higher.

Of course, I don’t mean to simplify all of “diversity” or “inclusion” to just the share of women speakers. It is the only measure on which we have any data at all, even as unreliable as name-game guessing. It’s from this position that we decided to launch the survey this year.

What Information We Request

We will be asking about gender identity, ethnicity, level of speaking experience, amount of programming experience, and age.

How We Will Use the Results

PyGotham’s program selection process this year will be similar to last year’s: we will begin with a round of public, anonymous voting beginning shortly after the CFP ends in late May. During public voting in 2017, 116 people cast over 12,000 votes for the nearly 200 proposals we had. (I hope we can count on the community to show a similar amount of engagement this year!)

The public talk voting is anonymous. Demographic information about the author of each proposal will not be available to public voters nor PyGotham organizers during this time. To do so would risk introducing bias, and the purpose of public voting is to take the pulse of likely attendees with regards to their level of interest in the submissions we receive.

After public voting, a smaller committee of PyGotham organizers and volunteers from the community will work together to select the 60 talks that will make it into the final conference. The vast majority of this process is also anonymous, and will be conducted without regard to the demographic survey’s results.

After we have a very strong candidate talk list, we must de-anonymize the results to ensure that a) no individual speaker has too many talk slots (this is unfair both to that speaker and to others who, by definition, don’t get those slots), and b) to ensure that we have the proper balance of speaker backgrounds. We will use the survey results to ensure that among the major axes, and for the information that we have collected, that our final speaker lineup represents at least as much diversity as is present in our overall submission pool.

The often frustrating reality of putting together a conference schedule is that the committee is often forced to choose a small number of talks out of a pool of excellent proposals. Voting helps us break the tie in one dimension — how can we produce a conference that the attendees will enjoy and learn from — and the demographic survey results will help us break ties in another dimension, to favor having a more diverse rather than less diverse speaker lineup.

Further up the Pipeline

Even if every submitter fills out the survey, by the time we are making individual talk decisions, it is often too late to do much to move the needle on diversity. We can ensure that our speaker lineup is representative of the submitter pool, but what if even that pool doesn’t live up to our expectations for what PyGotham could be?

Building on the success of last year’s Proposal Brainstorming workshop, we are holding at least 4 similar events this year, with one more event scheduled on May 2 with NYC PyLadies. At all of these events, attendees get a chance to work with one another to suss out what is great and talk-worthy about each of their experience.

We are also planning to proactively reach out to a number of NYC-area tech meetups and societies representing women, people of color, and other under-represented groups, in order to solicit their members to participate in our call for proposals.

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