... and the wisdom to know the difference

The tech community has a diversity problem. Take gender diversity, for one thing. By most counts, the average open source project has 49 male participants for every female participant. Women at conferences – rare enough already! – are assumed to be significant others, designers or visitors from planet marketing, with disastrous consequences for all involved.

This is a problem, for lots of reasons. The worst is that it's self-perpetuating – women will (wisely!) avoid hostile environments, and through some broken-window-like mechanism, environments without women will quickly become environments that are hostile to women. (The same holds for other visible minorities.)

In discussions about "how to fix this", community leaders often appear to be at a loss, unsure how to progress. Their early efforts are often met by criticism on both sides – techies have a strong libertarian streak that tilts at all sorts of windmills, and the women who do "blaze trails" aren't always much better than the men. (In fields like physics, chemistry and finance – fields dominated by men for ages – which are, these days, however, beating our numbers by a wide margin – the first generation of women to brave the hostilities and pierce the glass ceiling are often later generations' harshest critics. "What? You want to have a career and a family? I didn't have that option. Why should you? You'll need to learn to drink scotch and smoke cigars like I did, or you're through.")

The problem, as I see it, is that the business of fixing this is more like evolutionary biology than most of us are comfortable admitting. That is, it may require a ridiculously awkward, clumsy transitionary phase, to get the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly. To move the needle, as Sarah Mei calls it, might require us to adopt practices and activities that later generations will think were crazy. But we're not going to make a dent in the ratios by pretending that everyone is the same under their clothes – an admirable attitude in good times, it's not going to help us make a difference now.

Those of us (I count myself among them) who want to see this change happen are actively looking for these spandrels – the "step-stools" of evolutionary biology – to find ways to bridge the gap. Because, if you decide that you want to make the numbers change, then a lot of other things don't matter. So what if some people don't think it's "fair"? What matters is getting people to show up. And if the people who do show up feel marginalized and decide not to return? That shit matters.

So, maybe you're gathering a bunch of techie people for a tech meetup or conference. You say "sure, I know that a diverse line-up will improve the experience for female participants, but quotas are icky." I say, "stop calling them quotas, then." Call them "expectations" or "standards" or "quality control measures". Call them anything that makes them feel less icky, 'cause, if you care about this stuff, then you probably need to do something about it.

Here's the thing: our brains do this thing where we compare ourselves to all the people around us, all the time. And to make this easier, our brain divides the world into "the group of people that are mostly like us" (aka "peers") and "the others" (it's like Lost, basically). We mostly use visible physical characteristics to determine our peer group: gender, race, accent, body language, shoe selection, choice of ironic t-shirt vendors, etc. are all automatically factored in.

So, everybody who comes to your event will be scanning the crowd (or the speaker list, if it's available in advance) to answer the question "are these my people, or are they 'the others'?" If you're a white male, you probably don't think this is terribly important, but probably that's because you've rarely been in situations where you weren't around other white men. But if you have been in a room where you're the only guy (ever taken a knitting class?), then you know what I'm talking about. (And, if you have never been in a situation where you were the visible minority – seriously? wtf? get out of your comfort zone a little, 'kay?)

Meanwhile, you've already got some ideas on your mental whiteboard about the sort and calibre of talks and people you'd like to see at your event, right? I mean, sure, you like "wacky" talks. Everybody does. One talk about curing bacon at home? Sure, sounds like fun! But, let's say you got a ton of submissions that were completely out-of-left-field, weirdo, super-niche kinds of talks. At some point, your finely-honed organizer instincts would kick in, and you'd say, "hold on, let's make sure this thing is balanced, or it'll never fly."

So, when you say "we don't want to have quotas", what I hear is, "I care more about being perceived as 'fair' than I care about actually making a difference in this diversity thing." If you're an organizer or community leader, and if you're on the "side" that wants to move this needle and change the way women (and others) feel when they go to tech events, then there's no reason to call them "quotas", because they are no different than any other of your already established criteria for inclusion.

But, look, I'll agree with you, at least, in part: "quotas" are a pretty blunt instrument. They're the sledge hammer. But they're not the only – or best – option. They're how you "hold the line", not how you make a major change.

The way you make a major change in the tech-diversity business is to create an environment where people can't not want to be there. You do everything you can to make your event impossible to resist.

You offer child-care. And or maybe a kids' track. You offer an introductory track. You offer scholarships for people who normally wouldn't be able to afford your event, because you don't want the ticket price to stop anyone from attending. You advertise your event (and your CFP) everywhere people you want to be there are looking, because you don't want "I didn't know about it" to be an excuse. You have decent food options for picky eaterseveryone, because you don't want "I hate food at these things" to stop anyone from showing up.

You do all of this without making anyone feel singled-out or isolated. You create an environment where sexist and racist and homophobic jokes just aren't tolerated, and if they do happen, you make it clear to the offending party (not the offended) and everyone who thinks they might belong in the "asshat" peer group that this isn't the kind of thing you do in your community, and if they can't adapt, they can take a hike.

In other words: You find every possible barrier that might keep someone away (except the "I don't like being in such an awesomely diverse crowd" one), and you get rid of it.

You ask follow-up questions. Survey people – especially those in all the groups you want to see more of – and find out how you did. You have to ask two vital questions here: "Will you come next time?" and "Will you recommend that others come with you?" Because those are the answers that add up to making the needle jump around.

You may find that some of the things you offer aren't taken up. Maybe you offer a kids' track, and no kids arrive. Maybe you offer vegetarian food, which no one eats. But that's okay! You need to keep doing it! Because, in making these things available, you've moved your event (and yourself), into the category of "events (and people) who care about this stuff" – and that is like a giant magnet, attracting all sorts of people, from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, who will want to be part of your community in the future.

There will be times when doing everything you can do doesn't accomplish much. This is a long game, though, and you have to be patient. The impression you leave with people (people who come, and even people who don't) will linger long after your event finishes. But, frankly, we have to do this. We have to do this, so that, someday, we can stop having to do this.

Permalink • Posted in: conferences, tech stuffComments (1)


Elise Worthy May 13, 2011

Totally, totally, totally. :)