Last week, Matthew Turk asked me to give a brief, 10 minute talk to weekly the Astronomy department lunch at Columbia University. He specifically requested that I talk about diversity in technical fields and SciPy 2013. This was my first time speaking on this topic. I was nervous. What follows are my mostly undoctored notes.
Matt asked me to talk today about diversity in the worlds of science, scientific computing, and software development. I am guessing this comes out of our organization of the SciPy 2013 conference, where I was the communications chair. I was changed with increasing attendance from 200 people in 2012 to a hopeful 350 people. We sold out weeks in advance.
Diversity is a topic near and dear to my heart, so I’d like to start off on a personal note.
Most of the time, the vast, overwhelming, majority of the time, I think of myself as a Python virtual machine. Occasionally, for survival purposes only, I am also a C++ compiler. Largely I run physics simulations inspired by reality. Since computers can do these things way better than I can, I am fairly useless.
But this is not how most other humans perceive me. Most people see me a male, a man. I didn’t ask for that. I am also Jewish - currently a privileged class, though not so historically. I am straight as a broken arrow, have just celebrated my first 29th birthday, and earn well above the $40k annual family of 4 median poverty line in this country.
I could change any of these aspects of myself, but the activation energy to do so is high, and most of the time I am going to hum along as a Python interpreter anyway.
The current state of diversity is shameful. Looking only at gender, in software development 11% women is considered normal. PyCon, which had 20% women attendees in 2013 is lauded for its extraordinary efforts towards inclusion. In the physical sciences, percentages are not much better, being between 25 - 50% most places. Need I remind you that biologically males are the minority!
Issues of race, orientation, national origin, etc. are often times even worse off than the gender axis. These are technical fields. We should be agnostic to these issues and the percentages should roughly match those of the great society we live within. For technical integrity, we should relate to each other as Python interpreters and Physics engines, and then as friends. We should never interface with each other as classifications. Types belong in programming, not the programmer.
Say what you will about LBJs foreign & domestic policy, but in justifying affirmative action for African Americans he said the following which I believe is pertinent to us:
Nothing is more freighted with meaning for our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American…In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope…But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair…This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result…To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough.
If the goal is to get to a steady state of equality, then our actions require more than not being racist and sexist now.
So what to do? We still need to uphold the meritocratic aspects of our fields — no one gets a free pass. But there are ways to do this that are more inclusive than others. They all involve being more welcoming. That is it. Just let people know that you provide a safe space, you’ll treat them and their ideas equally (either equally well or harshly), and that you encourage them but will not drag them to participate.
Often times, it is the little, overlookable gestures that make a world of difference. Have a diversity statement, have a code of conduct statement, provide ladies T-shirts, have a diversity mailing list if requested.
The Python Software Foundation has been a true source of leadership in this area:
The Python Software Foundation and the global Python community welcome and encourage participation by everyone. Our community is based on mutual respect, tolerance, and encouragement, and we are working to help each other live up to these principles. We want our community to be more diverse: whoever you are, and whatever your background, we welcome you.
If you want to go above and beyond this, engage with professional societies that cater to diversity. PyLadies, Women in Science and Engineering, Nuke Pride, and so on.
If you really want to jump over the moon, start a non-profit. Advocate for inclusion. Advocate for change. In the face of adversity, stand firm.