October 6, 2015

Ally Skills Training at LinuxCon 2015: Uniting All the World’s Geeks, No Exceptions

In a culture that celebrates freedom and resists conformity, establishing rules and regulations isn’t always easy. So when LinuxCon introduced its Code of Conduct in 2010, it became one of the first open source conferences to outline an anti-harassment policy and act on reports of misconduct. Today, similar codes of conduct are in place at hundreds of conferences and events worldwide -- and this year’s LinuxCon continues to see more women on panels and at the podium than ever before.

It all came about thanks to work between Valerie Aurora, former kernel developer and open source diversity champion, and leaders at the Linux Foundation. But they didn’t stop with the Code of Conduct. In the past year, LinuxCon has also hosted the Ally Skills Workshop, which teaches men simple, everyday ways to support women in their workplaces and at events like LinuxCon.

We sat down with Valerie after her workshop at LinuxCon 2015 Dublin to discuss the diversity challenges we still face in the open source community -- and the ways all of us can work together to change the culture.

Why does the Ally Training exist? What problems does it aim to solve?

The Ally Skills Workshop teaches men simple, everyday ways to support women in their workplaces and communities. Participants learn techniques that work in the office, at conferences, and online. The skills we teach are relevant everywhere, but particularly in the open technology and culture communities. Diversity and harassment aren’t easy topics to discuss, and yet participants leave our workshops really happy. They’re more aware of the challenges facing women in their workplaces and communities, and they feel more confident in speaking up to support women.

Who benefits most from the training, and how?

First, we make it mandatory that people volunteer for this training. We won’t teach people if their bosses or HR departments have forced them to attend. It just doesn’t work. They have to somehow understand that there’s a problem and be open to changing things. From there, people who run large open source projects -- who have the influence to actually get a code of conduct in place or advocate for a new diversity policy to be adopted -- are the ones who are able to benefit the most from the training and make the biggest long-term impact.

How did today’s Ally Training go here in Dublin?

Today’s attendees were evenly split between men and women, which is ideal for these workshops. It’s all about men learning to listen to women, so it helps to have to have an equal number of women there. Even still, men often talk more than the women and dominate the conversations in these workshops. The difference is that we stop them and make them aware that they’re doing it.

What were some of the most compelling insights?

We had interesting discussions today around machismo -- this idea that in some cultures men must actively participate in sexism and homophobia to avoid being attacked themselves. Some people were shocked by this -- they’d never encountered it themselves. Others had been there and could really relate.

Can people change? Can the community change?

Yes, I think so, but it’s complicated. On the one hand, there’s an intensification of “good old boy” behaviors. On the other, there’s this growing movement toward social justice and equality, fueled by all kinds of movements on the Internet. I’m really excited by this Tumblr generation of feminist teens. Linus Torvalds’ daughter, Patricia Torvalds, is a great example. Her interview about the need for more diversity in tech was really inspiring.

How does Ally Training help bring about change?

We teach people to speak up in the moment when they witness or experience harassment. When people call someone out during a flame war for being rude or sexist, it really does makes a difference. We also talk about fixing systemic issues that take long-term solutions, like changing how performance reviews are conducted and promotions are given. We show people how to create more objective measures of performance that remove unconscious bias and stereotypes. For instance, if a woman has a baby, we can’t assume she doesn’t want to travel. We show positive examples of workplace policies and practices that remove the tendencies to make assumptions.

Who can make this change happen?

The burden should be on the people who have power and time to fix discrimination: men, and especially white men. If you put all the burden on already overburdened women, you will fail. Awareness of the problems that are running women out of the field is much higher than it was 5 years ago; now it's time for powerful men to listen to women and use their political capital to take action.

What positive changes have you seen in the industry?

The Python community is the biggest success story for women in open source. Their Python conference, PyCon, only had around 1% women speakers in 2010. Today, a third of its attendees are women and 50 percent of its speakers are women. This didn’t happen magically. It happened because the community has Guido van Rossum as their leader. He truly cares -- and he shows it with his everyday actions and his policy decisions.

The chair of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board, Grant Likely, is another example. For this year’s LinuxCon, he created a policy requiring people to write their post-session questions down instead of simply queuing up to ask them. This resulted in more thoughtful, high-quality questions -- and lots more questions coming from women. The Outreachy Intern program represents yet another important change. By setting up a program to get women, trans men, and genderqueer people actively involved in open source, these interns have been able to make a huge impact.

What’s your hope for the future of the industry?

I’d like to see all people treated like human beings. I’d like to see an open source culture that’s compatible for all kinds of people, who look a lot of different ways. We can’t just wait for all the old people to die. I want to see the end of sexism in my lifetime.

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