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: I 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.