Calling out SciPy on diversity (even though it hurts)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been heavily promoting the SciPy conference, a meeting about scientific programming in Python. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that they should submit a talk abstract and go, because scientific programming is increasingly common in any scientist’s work and SciPy massively improves how you do that.

I have also been guiltily ommitting that the speaker and attendee diversity at SciPy is shockingly bad. Last year, for example, 15% of attendees were women, and that was an improvement over the ratio three years ago, when just 3% (!!!) were women.

I rationalised continuing to promote this conference because there was talk from past organisers about making efforts to improve. (And indeed, the past three years have been on an upward trajectory.)

A couple of days ago, however, the full list of keynote speakers was announced, and lo and behold, it’s three white guys. I have to acknowledge that they are extremely accomplished in the SciPy universe, and, if diversity were not more generally a problem at this conference and in tech in general, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Excellent choice of speakers, really. Looking forward to it.

But diversity is a problem. It’s an enormous problem. I’m inclined to call it catastrophic.

Let me try to quantify it. Men and women are equally capable scientific programmers. So out of a total pool of 100 potential SciPy attendees/contributors, 50 are women and 50 are men. Now, let’s assume the male side of the community is working at near-optimum capacity, so, 50 of 50 those men are at SciPy. 15% of attendees being women means just 9 of the 50 potential female contributors are making it out to the conference (9/59 ≈ 15%). Or, slice it another way, a whopping (50 – 9) / 50 = 82% of women who could be contributing to SciPy are missing.

Now, think of where we would be if we took 82% of male science-Pythonistas and just erased their talks, their discussions, and their code contributions. The SciPy ecosystem would suck. Yet that is exactly how many coders are missing from our community.

Now, we can sit here and play female conference speaker bingo until the cows come home to roost, but that is missing the point: these are all only excuses for not doing enough. “Not my fault” is not good enough anymore. It is everyone’s fault who does not make an active and prolonged effort to fix things.

The keynote speakers are an excellent place to make a difference, because you can eliminate all sorts of confounders. I have a certain sympathy, for example, for the argument that one should pick the best abstracts/scholarship recipients, rather than focus on race or gender. (Though the process should be truly blind to remove pervasive bias, as studies and the experience of orchestra auditions have repeatedly shown.) For keynotes though, organisers are free to pursue any agenda they like. For example, they can make education a theme, and get Lorena Barba and Greg Wilson in, as they did last year.

Until the gender ratio begins to even remotely approach 1:1, diversity as an agenda should be a priority for the organisers. This doesn’t mean invite the same number of women and men to give keynotes. This means keep inviting qualified women until you have at least one confirmed female keynote speaker, and preferably two. Then, and only then, you can look into inviting men.

Women have been found to turn down conference invitations more often than men, irrespective of ability or accomplishment. I don’t know why, but I suspect one reason is lack of role models, in the form of previous female speakers. That’s why this keynote roster is so disappointing. There’s tons of accomplished female Pythonistas out there, and there would be even more if we all made a concerted effort to improve things.

I don’t want to retread the same territory that Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics) has already covered in “Calling attention to meeting with skewed gender ratios, even when it hurts“. In particular, see that article for links to many others with ideas to improve gender ratios. But this is my contribution in the exact same series: love SciPy. See my previous posts for illustration.

Even looking back at my recent post, when I looked for a picture that I thought captured the collegial, collaborative feel of the conference, I unintentionally picked one featuring only men. This needs to improve, massively, if I’m going to keep supporting this conference. I really hope the organisers place diversity at the centre of their agenda for every decision going forward.

I thank Jonathan Eisen, Andy Ray Terrel, and April Wright for comments on earlier versions of this article.

9 thoughts on “Calling out SciPy on diversity (even though it hurts)

  1. Thank you very much for the honesty in writing this post. Recognizing that this is a problem and that there’s still much work to do is something not everybody is willing to do. I appreciate your effort and I am sure many others do.

    1. Juanlu, thanks for the encouragement. I must say I’m still quite conflicted about this, because I love the conference and I know the organisers are well-meaning. I was reluctant to bring negative attention to it. But I also want it to improve, and I don’t know whether that will happen, fast enough at least, without prodding like this.

      So, thank you. It’s really good to hear.

  2. Torsten, you’re right of course… I’ll cite Eisen again:

    I have taken on the issue of women at STEM conferences and meetings because, well, it is easy to identify cases where the numbers are anomalous and it is relatively easy to solve. But it is also important that we consider other aspects of diversity of speakers (age, ethnicity, career stage, etc).


    So, to paraphrase, it’s just an easier issue to notice, measure, and act on. Indeed, the gender ratio for the past three years has already been measured and discussed by the organisers, so I knew a bit about it. Not so for e.g. the ethnic representation at the conference (to my knowledge).

    I also can rattle off the top of my head several deserving female programmers who would have made excellent keynotes. I’m sad to say I don’t know any e.g. black programmers. I suppose that makes it an even bigger problem… But perhaps one that the organisers could do less about.

  3. Women often have to take care of their children and can’t take off weekends to go to conferences. I’m speaking for myself here, I get invited to give many more talks than I can deal with because of child duties.

    1. Cathy, thanks for chiming in! Facebook sponsored subsidised child care at PyCon this year, which I and many others thought was a fantastic idea. Would something like that free you up to attend some of these conferences that overlap with the weekend?

      By the way, attending SciPy Mon-Fri (missing the first day of tutorials and the last day of sprints) would still be a very valuable experience, in my opinion.

  4. I think it’s really important to write posts like this, especially focussing on your own area … and a couple of years ago I wrote a not-dissimilar post.

    Interestingly the next constraint programming conference had 4 keynotes, of whom two were white males, but one of those only has one leg, one was a non white guy, and one was a woman. When I congratulated the programme chair on this he said “Oh really, I hadn’t noticed”, which was a great response. I.e. you CAN think only about getting the best possible speakers and end up with a very diverse program.

    1. Hey Ian, thank you so much for your comment. I’d never seen your blog post and it is excellent. SciPy, thankfully, already has point 1 covered (diversity/code of conduct statements), and I’m only addressing point 2 in my post (invited speakers), but the whole list is fantastic. Indeed, I don’t think point 3 (child care) has been addressed by SciPy, even though PyCon, a conference with much overlap, has subsidised child care this year (thanks to Facebook).

      But this bit in particular was really helpful for me and reassured me that I made the right decision writing this:

      As a man in the constraint programming, it’s time to stop worrying about appearing to be politically correct, and it’s time to stop thinking that maybe sexism isn’t a major problem in constraints because we are all nice people.

      So, again, thank you.

  5. As a first time attendee to SciPy, I have been largely pleased with the conference. Speaking anecdotally and as a straight white woman, I haven’t noticed any overt aggression or unintentional gender-based buffoonery. I cannot say the same for most conferences I attend.

    Software Carpentry was great. I think that should be included in the discussion of diversity initiative because it is a welcoming on-ramp for anyone who may have had less encouragement to get into programming in the first place (possibly due to sub-conscious bias throughout society nudging women and people of color away from technical fields?). It isn’t all that common for professional conferences to have an “intro to the profession” workshop, let alone two full days of fully staffed, well-run, pre-tested intro workshops. At professional conferences, attendees are assumed to be experts already which can be alienating for non-experts. The open-to-all-levels attitude at SciPy may help attract people who have somehow ended up on the wrong side of a stereotype about which kind of students should be nudged towards technical fields. Software Carpentry is a healthy part of a multi-pronged inclusivity strategy and I think it’s important to keep it in the inclusivity conversation.

    Another prong of the multi-pronged inclusivity strategy is the diversity luncheon that is held off-site. It is helpful to have a time and place set aside for talking about inclusivity. Metaphorically, the fact that the diversity event is held off-site might be something to change in the future. In order to feel included, minorities and their allies-in-lunch leave the conference site? Symbolically, it might be more inclusive to have the diversity lunch at the conference venue. Pragmatically, it is also easier for people with certain physical disabilities to stay on-site and to reserve a space where the speaker won’t have to speak over the dish washers. I realize no lunches are held at the venue, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. Creating a safe space for inclusivity seems like a great reason to break the off-site lunch precedent.

    Maybe the speaker at the diversity lunch can become a fourth keynote, opening another slot for a woman/person of color/transgendered/differently abled/some-combination-of-the-aforementioned speaker. To be clear, having a set-aside ‘diversity keynote’ is not what I’m suggesting. I’m mostly suggesting a way to add a fourth keynote to squeeze more excellent content into the SciPy format.

    Though it is my first year, I agree with the author that SciPy is mature enough to address new vectors of diversity in addition to gender and inter-disciplinarity. These two are in some ways easier to address and natural starting points. The next phase in inclusivity can include racial/ethnic diversity, LGBTQ status, and differently abled people.

    Thanks for starting a thread on inclusivity. Having a place to talk about what more work could be done is helpful.

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