Women and their friends

From OpenHatch wiki

Background and overview

Many programming communities have been running gender diversity outreach events in the past few years. If you're organizing an event where women are invited, and anyone else may also join if they are the invited guest of a woman, you might run into situations where you have to communicate something awkward to an attendee. This page exists so you can just copy-and-paste rather than stress out.

Organizers of "women and their friends"-style outreach events can find themselves in murky waters. We work to build communities that contain, welcome, and respect a wider range of people than before. But in doing so, we find ourselves in situations where tact seems advisable. We mostly communicate with attendees (and prospective attendees) in writing -- by email, and on meetup pages. It's easy to spend dozens of minutes, or hours, fine-tuning an email to avoid misunderstanding.

So this is a collection of situations organizers have found themselves in and some text that seems to have worked okay! It documents a collection of standard practices among groups like the Boston Python Workshop, the Chicago Python Workshop, and others that stay in touch through the OpenHatch events community.

(Also: Major credit to Railsbridge for coining the term "women and their friends.)

Most of this text is so short as to not need a copyright statement. As a special exception to the regular OpenHatch wiki policy, editors to this page affirm they release their text under the terms of CC Zero.

If you want to contribute text you've used for a workshop you've run when you've run into a bind, please just add a section.

General writing tips

  • When writing a possibly awkward message, minimize your attack surface.
  • One helpful tip is to begin as many sentences with "I" as possible. Describe what you see or know first-hand, and avoid assertions about the person's underlying motivations. Describe specific behaviors you saw, or indicate how you know about them, if you are writing about problematic behavior.
  • Where possible, defend your actions by the rules your group has already agreed to. If you're "just following the rules," that leaves fewer opportunities for attack, and also makes your point of view very clear.
  • Insist on a high standard of evidence. For example, ask for which specific person invited the person as a guest, rather than asking if they are the invited guest of someone. This may seem somewhat intrusive, but you do it to protect yourself and avoid any misunderstanding. Frankly, it means that the only way to weasel out of the "+1" requirement is for the person to make a direct lie which is easy to verify. This means that checking the truth of what they say is very easy.
  • Indicate the goals of the workshop, and indicate how your question helps you be sure you are reaching that goal.
  • Where possible, use deadlines liberally. For example, tell the person you will adjust their RSVP to "no" by (for example) Tuesday at 9 PM if you don't hear an answer. Keep in mind that you do have an event timeline you want to stick to, so timelines are very useful for you as an organizer.
  • Be courteous, if you have the patience for it. Being nice to people doesn't cost you anything, and keep in mind you could be reacting to a misunderstanding. Be prepared for that possibility by indicating what you saw and what your goals and concerns are.

Being welcoming to anyone who identifies as a woman (and welcoming trans women)

The Boston Python user group workshopped the following text which has stayed a part of the event invitation since it first appeared:

Audience: Women and their friends who have no or limited programming experience. This event is welcoming and respectful of trans women. Men are welcome as guests of women who are attending (please RSVP as well).

You can see it in context on a recent Boston Python Workshop signup page.

Write up a code of conduct and use it to empower volunteers

After one problematic attendee came to the Chicago Python Workshop, they created a code of conduct. They based theirs on:

You might enjoy reading the resulting code of conduct. I especially like the procedures they've written out for staff handling incidents and attendees reporting them, inspired by PyCon's.

It might seem like a lot of work, and it is probably a 10-30 minute investment to write a sample document, and a day's conversation on your staff mailing list. It's worth it to think about these before-hand.

Telling solo men they're not welcome to attend

On an event page

Two men asked, on the web page for the first Boston Python Workshop, if they were special enough to break the rules:

No male in this event :( i want to go


Any males allowed? Like Francis, I would love to get an intro to Python.

This is a disappointing situation for the organizer because the rules were pretty clear up-front, and now the organizer has to somehow explain to this person that they're completely missing the point while still seeming like a nice person; your message will likely be broadcast to everyone on the event.

Here's the text we used in Boston, visible on the same event page:

The goal of the event is to bring more women into the Python Meetup group. Men are welcome to come if a woman brings them.

But also, the event has been full for a bit! If the event goes well, we hope to run it again -- there sure seems to be demand.

The Boston Python Meetup group runs a bunch of intro events; the last one was a few months ago. So join the mailing list and stay tuned. We'll also be publishing the material we're teaching with.

Speaking personally (as Asheesh), one of my favorite things about running these events in conjunction with an existing, gender-neutral user group is that one can lean on the existing user group's gender neutral events when prospective attendees ask questions like this.

General things to mention when writing notes like this:

  • Be crystal clear about your goal for the event.

When they are vague about their +1

Sometimes men seem reluctant to indicate which main attendee invited them. Recently, one Chicago Python Workshop prospective attendee was asked who he was coming with; instead of answering, he generically assured the organizers he was a +1.

In my personal opinion (as Asheesh), you should absolutely not be lenient with this rule for attendees you do not know personally. What's at stake is your ability to create a reliably safe environment. Yes, it's true that women could themselves make the environment unsafe, but that's a risk we already accept by accepting all women, and it's also not a problem I've seen in conversations with many workshop organizers.

Therefore, you can use the following emails (or something like them) to contact attendees who may not have an actual +1.

  • Probably a solo dude -- used when someone was vague in answering if they have a +1, but you want to give them the benefit of the doubt

Sending emails like this can be very awkward. Therefore, it's helpful to structure your signup process to minimize the chance of this. For example, you can ask that men RSVP as the +1 of the woman who invited them, rather than individually, so you can skip checking up on them. Or you can ask them to list the person who invited them in the comments of their RSVP.

Kicking someone out of the group

A midwestern city's Python Workshop experienced a man coming to the workshop with the dubious situation of his daughter (who is younger than the age of majority) being the main attendee, with him as the invited guest. Eventually he was awkward and hugged and otherwise touched attendees as if they had a reason to be hugging him, which some found weird, and others found uncomfortable. The organizers discussed the issue on their private staff mailing list, concluded that his actions were problematic for a host of reasons, and concluded they wanted him to no longer attend their events.

Here is the email the organizers sent to him:

That story turned out very well, by the way. The person immediately accepted his mistake, apologized profusely, seemed to feel quite bad, and has not returned to the group.

Different circumstances might apply for a person who breaks the community rules at your events, so the specific text might not apply. Keep thes things in mind when writing it, and feel especially free to reach out to Asheesh or other people who can help you write letters like this.

  • Letters like this are way easier to write by someone who is not emotionally involved. So if you have been personally offended by the person who you need to ask to leave the group, try to get someone else to write it.
  • You should be firm and focus on the fact that you don't want this person to come back, if that's accurate.
  • It is best to have a written code of conduct before incidents like this happen, but it is okay to kick someone out of your group without a code of conduct.
  • If you don't personally want the person to ever email you again, then it is okay to say that. If you can find a person for them to keep in touch with who is not emotionally involved in the situation (such as someone not even living in the same area of the world as you), that's cool. If not, don't worry about it.
  • You are a volunteer focusing on outreach efforts, and this is a distraction and the sooner you can finish the task of asking the person to not be part of the group, the sooner you can get back to the real work you wanted to do.
  • Describe things you observed, and how they made you feel.
  • Link to your policy, if it exists, or if not, indicate that you plan to make one.
  • Again, feel particularly encouraged to ask for help. Reach out! Asheesh and others are here to help you by helping draft this so you can get back to the work you'd probably rather be doing.

Other resources

  • Asheesh Laroia is always very, very happy to help you write emails to attendees in awkward situations.
  • There may be other relevant, helpful pages on the Geek Feminism wiki.