On leaving your politics at home


I guess most of my readers in tech know what this post is about. This post is about the idea that at a conference on programming (or any other professional topic) it is possible to leave your political views at home. In the (functional) programming space is a very recent and hot controversy at this point whether or not that is possible. If you care to read more (not recommended at all, will make you sad whatever your opinion is) Google LambdaConf.

Leave your politics at home

So, is it possible, when asked by a conference, to leave your politics at home? TL;DR: no. Impossible for me. Not by choice.

You, a professor? Seriously?

My gender is a quite visible part of me. At any given programming conference*, I, despite being 1 meters 58 (5 foot 2), stand out. As such, my personal live is a part of every conference I attend. At every. single. event. I have gone to in the last few years (this is about 100 events) someone will bring my gender into it. Some interesting highlights:

“You are too pretty for computer science”
“Are you really a professor? You don’t look like one”
“You have got this speaking gig just because you are a girl”

I cannot leave my gender at home, and even if I would really very much prefer not to talk about it (which I mostly do) In fact, my politics were nurtured at those events, by encounters such as described below. I am quite sure that if I would have been a nurse or a school teacher, I would not be as feminist.

Why do you think you are the only girl here?

One of the most stunning and life changing things that happened to me was attending a conference where I was literally the only woman. 100 people event, 3 days, just me. This luckily happened when I was A) already faculty and somewhat well known in my small subfield and B) with a few colleagues and a good friend. That however did not shield me from the following conversation with person X. This was at a seated lunch, so it was quite hard for me to leave the conversation without obviously being upset/offended. Which, by now, trust me, I have learned to avoid, because you know (excusez le mot) I don’t want to feed “bitches be crazy”

X: “Hi! Did you notice you are the only girl here?”
F: (internal voice): “Seriously dude, you think I did not notice?”
F: (actual voice): “Ehm, yeah, I did notice indeed”

X: “Why do you think that is?”
F: (internal voice): “BIAS!! BIAS!!”
F: (actual voice): “Well, there is some research indicating that…”

X: “Do you want to know what I think?”
F: (internal voice): “No, not really”
F: (actual  voice): “Ehm…”

X: “Female brains are just not wired for computer science, especially not in very technical parts like program transformation”
F: (internal voice): “Please god save me”
F: (actual  voice): “Ehm…”

Yes, I have a choice, I can say ehm like I did then and ignore. But asking me about all women makes me feel like I represent them, and I want to do right by all of us. So, in the mean time I have now made sure I know a few bias papers by heart, with of course not just the conclusions but also all authors and the journal and the year, because these type of people do not believe you if you say “there is research” and I want to be able to have a good comeback.

My personal experience is: #(women at a conference) =  inversely proportional to #(times I talk about women in tech)

In short: I cannot leave my gender at home, and even if I would really very much prefer not to talk about it (which I mostly do), I do so at almost every event because people cannot shut up about it.

This conference is about programming

So, is the above conversation in scope? It is, in a sense, about programming. Suppose X would have taken a pledge to remain within the scope of the conference, would he be in violation? I don’t know. Many programming conferences have talks on the program that talk about diversity. This makes it in scope of some. And, discussing why or why not certain groups of people make it as a programmer can be interesting, fun and useful. I do not even want to exclude that topic. I just do not want to A) talk about all the time and B) be a representative specimen.

Apolitical = privilege

I have a number of male friends that identify as feminists and with whom I sometimes talk about these topics. They can choose at a conference, in any conversation to bring their stance up, and in what scale. From ‘hmm today I just do not feel like this’ to ‘I believe bias is a thing’ to ‘I am a feminist’ just based on how they feel or how they assess the other party. They won’t be asked “as a … how do you feel?” Probably they are not even asked how they feel about an issue. They can choose to chime in or not. I am not given such choice.

Being able to leave your personal opinions out of it, is a privilege that you have if your political views are not very visible

I totally understand that from a white male atheist perspective leaving your politics are home is a thing you can do, should do, and is a thing you want everyone to do, but this is not a thing I can do. My politics are grown from, nurtured in and tied to the programming space. In some other parts from my life, I, being a middle class white person, am the majority and I have this possibility, but not in tech.


If not at a programming conference, where else?

If we are not allowed to talk about (the lack of) diversity within tech at a programming conference, where else should we address this? If we don’t, things will never change!

* StrangeLoop being a notable exception
** Added on March 31st after yet another talk on this topic with a friend

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  1. Maciej Bańkowski

    Felienne, I am not convinced by your argument. You do not say what you think i.e. that you are not interested in someone else’s opinion, you grudgingly listen to it and than pour your frustration about the fact on a blog. This makes no sense to me. If you think NO, say NO – what is the problem?

    1. felienne (Post author)

      I see how you would think that, I myself thought like that for some time when I was younger. But there are social rules, and there is this tension in your brain between wanting to be liked and wanting to disagree. Especially if you already stand out, it is really very tempting to not speak up, or you will gather even more unwanted attention.

      Also, I am not posting this story because I was or am frustrated about what happened (this happened some years ago) it is meant as illustration of the point that I am making, i.e. that it is hard to not talk politics if it is solicited all the time by your appearance.

  2. Cameron Mauch

    I may be in the minority here, but I feel like the differences we have (gender, orientation, race, religion, politics, whatever) leads to different ways of thinking, which leads to a bigger pool if ideas from which to draw, which leads to better solutions.

    As for the LambdaConf thing, I may not agree with other people’s beliefs, but I celebrate that we are free to have different beliefs.

    1. felienne (Post author)

      I agree that different opinions are great and interesting and useful. But that sometimes means you cannot leave your politics at home (as your interesting ideas might fall in the scope of politics) and that is where the trouble can start, like in the case of LambdaConf.

  3. Nicholas Klug

    “Female brains are just not wired for computer science, especially not in very technical parts like program transformation.”
    This statement’s idiocy is only surpassed by the speaker voicing it to you. How did they think that was going to be received? “Oh, you’re absolutely right, let me get back to the kitchen and make some sandwiches.”

    1. felienne (Post author)

      I know right?!

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