To my mind, there are two types of events. 1) Events that create a community and 2) events created by communities. I recently sat down with Vicky Twomey-Lee, a passionate member of the Python community who’s been evolved with inclusive events of both types over more than 15 years.
In previous conversations I’ve had with Tito customers and beyond, the audience is always the focus, as is the case with Vicky. But I’m always eager to learn how organisers keep their communities comfortable, safe, and welcome.
I had it on good authority that Vicky has a reputation for providing those qualities at her events, so I wanted to pick her brain about what’s needed to imbue these elements into a conference, workshop, or any other gathering that aims for inclusivity.
This is what she had to say:
I encountered Python back in the early 2000s. The meetup group started in 2004 and I took over running it in 2005. Everyone was just super nice. They never judged you. You asked a question, they answered. They never talked down to you. That’s the reason I ran and chaired Python Ireland for over 10 years, and chaired the first four Python Ireland conferences.
Right now, with my Dublin Maker advocate role, it is based on a foundation of the Python community. PyLadies Dublin was launched during my final year running PyCon Ireland in 2013 because we invited our first female technical keynote speaker, who was also the co-organiser of PyLadies SF.
Around that, I met Andrea Magnorsky via Ireland Girl Geek Dinners, and she brought a few of us together for a brainstorming session one afternoon. We ended up forming Coding Grace, where we run female-friendly coding workshops and events. A few years later, another friend invited me to join her as a co-director of Women Who Code Dublin. It’s like Pokémon, setting up or getting involved with all these organisations: I gotta catch ’em all!
PyLadies is a global organisation and Dublin is a city chapter. It’s open to everyone of all levels and diverse backgrounds. We have a very mixed audience.
The biggest event I’ve ever run in Ireland was 400-and-something people: PyCon Ireland. I have also worked with EuroPython handling about 1,200 people. I was curious as to how they scaled from 200 to 1,000 people.
1) When Planning Inclusive Events, Share Your Values In Your Logistics
In terms of when you’re just beginning to create inclusive events, take into consideration who you’re targeting. The message on your event page is probably the most important one. When you start pushing on social media, try to remind everyone that your event is open to everyone; all levels. I run mainly adult-only events. I’d suggest you should put that info on your site as well.
The big thing is to answer what FAQs you would want to know, just so people can get an idea if it’s for them.
Try to be as transparent as possible. It’s difficult if you don’t have all that information, especially if someone else is running the content for your event.
Twitter makes it a little easier now because of its increased word-count. You can put a lot more information in there and use hashtags. Your network is also important when it comes to social media. Mention folks and @ them to ask if they’d like to share your event with their network.
2) At the Event, Accommodate New Speakers and Make Your Environment Accommodating Too
At PyLadies Dublin, we encourage people to come and speak. I also have an open form for people to propose their talk details or demos. For PyLadies Dublin we tend to go for 5-10 minute short talks.
You can go for half an hour if you want to, but we wanted to give people a platform to try out their talks if they’re unsure about it, and terrified of talking in front of a large, technical audience. We have a smaller, cosier audience and people who are willing to listen to what you’re saying.
We have a mixed level of experience among the people that come to the meetup. If people are new and the speaker presented for 45 minutes to an hour, they could be sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know what this is about.’ I’ve been to Python Ireland meetup groups with people sitting there with 20 years experience and they still say, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about,’ never mind someone completely new.
After the short talk I tell people, if you want to keep talking about that subject, the speaker will be here to dive in deeper with a group somewhere else in the room and then everyone else can break up into their own activities.
You can chat to people, you can work on you own projects, you can be anti-social and work in a corner, that’s fine. ?
It’s a couple of hours to work on your projects and not be distracted at home. If you need help or you have questions, or you just need help to set up your machine, there are people there willing to provide that help.
I’ve been considering a workshop where, say if someone has a talk, they can come in and get feedback from people on how to improve it. If there’s any question and answers — because everyone’s terrified of the Q&A in a tech talk — we can help them.
We can teach them that you can say, ‘I’m not going to take any questions this time around. Come talk to me. I’ll be around the event area.’ There’s certain people who have to do Q&A, so to prep them we can help them find questions to seed. Maybe even help them get their friends to seed that question.
Something like that was run for Global Diversity CFP Day and was started by someone who runs Scotland CSS and Scotland JS. They’re very inclusive events when it comes to how they do their call for papers. They wanted to get together people who wanted to try to encourage new people to give talks, and to help them know how best to deal with open calls, and how to go through the CFP applications.
They showed videos of people who have experience giving talks and more interactive workshops where people can brainstorm their ideas.
Even though I run technical workshops and inclusive events, I’m also looking into more soft-skill workshops.
It’s all well and good when people have their talk and abstract and slides and they’re brilliant, but on the day, how do you handle those nerves? You can’t get rid of the butterflies, but how do you manage the anxiety? I think that’s one thing we all are guilty of forgetting about.
There’s no alcohol for most of our events. In fact, the food and drink is optional. People are happy to bring their own. For us, it’s the right people that turn up. They’re not just there for the free food and drink. They’re there for the content and the network that’s around and trying to build that community.
3) Be Welcoming to Everyone, Regardless of Seniority
The Python Community is always in my line of sight whenever I looking into things like conference diversity and codes of conduct. In 2018, PyCon (the main Python conference in the U.S.) released a transparency report. They didn’t give any identifying information away, but they did report stats and explain what happened.
I remember going to my first EuroPython in the UK. I went with my husband, but we bought different tickets. When I got there, I was wondering why we had different Monty Python names on our badges, and it was how they separated people up for dinner.
That was my very first time going to a huge conference. I didn’t know anyone so I was just sitting there, feeling really scared. I didn’t know what to do. Then, one of the organisers, who I didn’t know was the organiser at the time, came over and said hello to me.
I was wearing my Python Ireland t-shirt because I wanted to represent, so we got talking about t-shirts and then he said, ‘Why don’t you come sit at this table?’ So I ended up sitting at this round table full of people and my husband came over to me and said, ‘I’m really jealous!’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘You’re sitting at the cool table!’
I ended up sitting with the committee members; the core Python developers. If you’d told me that before I would have frozen and not said anything, but they were just genuinely really, really nice. You can approach anyone and talk to them. They’re super helpful.
The first conference we had in Ireland was in 2010. Back then there was only a handful of conferences. Now there are many around the world. But, when little Ireland showed up, the chair of the Python Software Foundation flew over.
He wanted to see what we were about, and gave me lots of helpful advice like, ‘You’ll get it right the seventh time.’ Soon after that, he and the EuroPython chair nominated me as a Python Software Foundation Fellow for my contribution to the community. I just kept thinking, ‘How did I get there?’ The answer was that the community put me there.
4) Address Oppression Head On, and Embody Your Principles
CW: Assault. This section contains details that may be potentially triggering or difficult for individuals.
The only thing this year that I’m a bit frustrated about is — I don’t know if you’ve heard about a company called DataCamp? They’re a platform that has data science courses and mentors via video. An exec assaulted an employee there and it was not dealt with properly.
The R community (R is a statistical programming language), they have a group called R-Ladies and they were really vocal and provided a statement about the incident. A friend of mine does a lot of work with data in Ireland and he reached out to me asking what the stance is with PyLadies and the Python community so I started writing letters and taking other steps, because that company is still a sponsor of PyCon in the US.
Thankfully they released a statement saying they couldn’t take the sponsor off because what happened wasn’t at their conference, and that’s not covered in their policy or contractual agreements. They donated the US$9,000 the sponsor put in to the National Women’s Law Centre. Still, some of us thought that wasn’t a strong enough stance.
You have to stand up for things like that, because it’s your community at the end of the day.
Especially because I’m in PyLadies, representation really matters. After talking to a few PyLadies on Slack, they got in touch with me directly with a statement in opposition to the company and I put my name to that. Even though the events say we’re open and inclusive to everyone, there are other things in the community that we will stand up against as well.
5) Communicate with Groups Who Also Run Inclusive Events
A few years ago, a few people and I were envisioning that there’s potentially going to be a problem where we’d have too many fragmented diversity in tech groups organising these inclusive events, especially in Dublin.
We talked about how we would handle that. I said we should keep communications going. It’s easier said than done: I tried. Now I’m trying to keep a list of diversity in tech groups. It’s on Medium. You would think there’s a dozen in Dublin, right? There’s actually, all around Ireland, over 40. And 30-something are in Dublin.
Editor’s note: For those who don’t know, Ireland has a population of 4.7 million people in Ireland. 500,000 of whom live in the Dublin area.
The only communication I can do right now is to ask people to tell me if there’s new groups. I know most of the organisers in the current groups because I try to do a monthly newsletter about upcoming events. It takes a lot of my time. The newsletter includes the events that I run and attend with Coding Grace and highlight all the diversity in tech meetups that are happening around Ireland: any call for papers, grants, financial aid, sponsorships, opportunities.
6) Go Further With Your Code of Conduct
When it comes to inclusion and diversity meetups, I notice more and more people are starting to implement a code of conduct. I don’t know if people understand codes of conduct thoroughly, though. When I first tried to bring it in within one of my previous groups, a lot of people said, ‘You don’t trust the community.’ Or, ‘Why do we need it?’
It’s not enough to put a code of conduct on your website and tell people about it.
You have to inform the volunteers on the day about who the contact person is for incidents, and what the procedure is if anything happens. Even when you’ve implemented it, there are incidents that don’t get reported. In hindsight, they’ll tell me something happened but they didn’t want to bother anyone at the time. That could be a joke that someone tells afterwards in the pub. That’s not okay. That’s still part of the conference. There’s still a lot of micro-agressions happening. It’s not just tech, it’s in all areas.
Something else that comes up is that accessibility is not great. When you’re trying to find a venue big enough for after-events and it’s a busy period, you try to locate as best you can. Unless you’re in a hotel, but that tends to be more expensive. So then you tend to go to bars, but then it depends on whether it’s a new bar or an old one. If it’s a new bar then they’ll have lifts and accessibility, but if it’s older it can have rickety steps up tiny corridors. It’s something we have to improve upon.
7) Always Keep Track of What You Can Do Next
I still have a lot of things on my list that I’d like to improve, like childcare where someone can mind the child on-site, not in a childcare facility nearby. Childcare laws are very tight here in Ireland, so I’m still trying to figure out how to get a childcare professional involved at conferences.
I’d like to make sure I have a quiet room for people to make events more inclusive. Not just a green room for speakers but a room for attendees. I’ve seen sign-language interpreters and live-captioning services. PyCon Ireland brought live-captioning in as part of their recent conferences, which was really cool.
You can’t implement everything, but you darn well try.
8) Identify the Next Steps for Inclusive Events and Beyond
I think, for me, I’ve veered towards ethical improvements and rights for tech workers. Because, you know, in the tech industry, we don’t really have unions. These companies are so big, so how can you immediately introduce a union and have them recognise it? It’s not going to happen quickly. People can only protect themselves at the moment. So we’re trying to figure out what we can do; what are the immediate steps we can do? How can we, in a few years time, start? It’s not easy.
Once we have rights, we can have transparency in terms of wages, we can talk about inclusion in terms of equality of pay. There’s a lot of things at a policy level that need to be considered. With the Google Walkouts, genome data, data privacy, camera surveillance, etc, ethics in this industry are becoming a huge focus. People are trying to get their colleagues to acknowledge that this is not okay.
We’re small, but in numbers we can try to get people to change their minds.
We’ve done tremendous things here in Ireland. I know the tech industry has a certain level of privilege but it doesn’t mean certain groups aren’t being underpaid and overworked. People are working overtime and not getting time in lieu and they’re just trying to be part of the team. It affects the community, it affects the people on the ground. The community is where I come from and I see that there are people who need these inclusive events and appreciate that there’s thought put into them and their situation.
Vicky Twomey-Lee is a coder, a tech event organiser, a mentor, advocating diversity in tech, and now just recently became a Maker Advocate as part of the Dublin Maker team. You can find her with many hats on, and in many places. You can find her on Twitter under; @whykay @eventgeekie and @dublinmaker.