Diversity at SciPy2014

Jul 17, 2014 by Andy R. Terrel

SciPy2014 logo

SciPy2014 is over, but there is so much more to do. I expect to be reviving my blog with a set of prose on my experience. Today I want to talk about a topic that was dear to my heart when I started this blog, diversity in the scientific python ecosystem. I'm focusing on gender diversity, but we also need to be aware of racial and other diversities, as well. I hope helping one will lead to helping others.

For the record, I am writing this post from my personal perspective. It is not representative of any company or community that has graciously chosen me as a representative.

SciPy, we have a diversity problem and it's not anyone else's job to fix it. We've been trying to fix this problem, but this has uncovered other problems with our methodologies. It is my sincere hope that this amazingly brave post by April Wright and follow up will help shape the future of our community. Thank you, April, your courageous anecdote has been hugely impactful ... if the community listens.

Working on diversity at SciPy

First let me outline some of the efforts that have been taken in the past three years that I have been involved with organizing the SciPy Conference. Even getting these seemingly trivial changes has been a challenge I never expected. I've had community members tell me I'm wasting my time, others tell me not enough is being done, and the larger part of the community a bit uninterested in the topic. Folks, SciPy is a community conference, it is on us to work hard to make it the community we want and I don't want to be in an exclusive white male club any longer.

First, in 2012, Matt Davis noted via twitter that more men had walked on the moon than women attending SciPy. How dare he say such slander! ... wait let's count how many women are here ... I only see 3 ... très ... ¡Qué hostias!

The first thought on how to change was to find more women to be on our organizing committee and keynotes. Becoming chair in 2013, I asked every woman I knew in the community to help out. We increased to 8 out of 58 in our organizers. Jonathan and I asked a half dozen women to keynote, but were roundly rejected. Not only do we have a problem with diverse groups coming to the conference, they have to be heavily persuaded to be a part of the organization at all. I could send one or two emails to community men I knew and get a avid contributor. This is the hill we must climb.

In 2013, we also had a social funded by NumFOCUS and the PSF. The result was about 20 women of a variety of races coming together to talk about the issues. The message the organizers took home was cast a wider net. There is amazing quality from women in scientific computing, but they will not be looking at conferences that are primarily white men. We are also a very small growing conference (150 in 2012 to 460 in 2014) so people outside our clique aren't going to come for prestige. Also the overwhelming opinion was, a social is nice, but less alcohol more food.

This year, 2014, we did similar things as last. Increase women on the organizing committee (19 of 84), added a diversity committee, asked my uber-prof friend to give one of the best SciPy keynotes ever and host an event for diversity. We also worked with NumFOCUS to fund scholarships explicitly for women in technology through a generous donation from JP Morgan. This funding helped 5 more women attend the conference, in addition to the 15 other students (which included 3 women) supported to attend. We estimated 15% of attendees were women, not great but better than that original 1.5% in 2012.

The conference also had several discussions on the topic during the conference.

Additionally, I opened up the mailing list for the conference organization with the hope of encouraging more participation from the community. The efforts to take the conference as open as possible is one other effort to build the community we want. Being open isn’t sufficient to be diverse, it’s a necessary but not even close to sufficient condition.

Needed Changes

First, April hit the nail on the head. Who cares if you do all the things above if your conference is not welcoming to everyone. Below, I outline a few specific actions the SciPy2015 community can take.

  • Welcome to SciPy track in all event categories
  • Better social events to get to know each other
  • Cast wider nets via smaller user groups
  • Teach the community how to run events better
  • Have a welcome committee to help people know who we are.

I've discussed this with many many community members and SciPy2015 will have a "Welcome to SciPy" arc to help folks know who we are, what tools we use, and why. The comment that it is a great conference if you already know all the things to succeed with SciPy has been repeated often.

Additionally, we have discussed quite a bit about having social events that are not alcohol or food related. There have always been smaller events not organized by the conference but we need to encourage this activity more broadly. This year if you watched twitter, you would have found folks swimming, running, and climbing, but having this in a program would be a big help.

As Katy pointed out we need to advertise our activities more. Some folks are chatting about starting meetups around the SciPy community. A small way to make sure folks are seeing local faces more often.

Sheila Miguez pointed out the incredible in-person event handbook from Shauna G. of Open Hatch. I think taking up the principles in this handbook is really needed. We have not made welcoming, goal setting, and clarifying structures a priority at events.

In the past, I have held events for other orgs where we made sure that a small set of folks were explicitly tasked with shaking hands and talking to people who were alone. It seems foolish to some, but making folks break from the clique and talk to others only helps build the community.

We Need You

Finally, SciPy, we need you. Today all these events happen because of a few concerned volunteers. We need more people helping with our events, advocating for the minority, and building the community.

Community building doesn't fit nicely on a resume nor does it always feel good, but it is critical to everyone. You will be depressed after you read a blog showing how far our community has to go. You will have colleagues tell you that you are wasting your time. You will miss deadlines that affect your funding or day job. Without community we will not sustain.

When I sat down with folks to encourage them to join our executive committee, I typically made the argument that if we don't build the community we want, no one else will. There are a lot of challenges we need to face, e.g. promoting code as a real scholarly work and promoting an open sharing culture among coders in scientific computing. We cannot do this without a diverse functional community.

Please go sign up for the mailing list and start making this a better place. http://mail.scipy.org/mailman/listinfo/scipy-organizers


Thank you to: April Wright, Kelsey Jordahl, Anthony Scopatz, Matthew Turk, Dan Katz, Sheila Miguez, and Kyle Mandli for reading an early version and edits to this document.