I received an email inviting me to join a group to help improve diversity at an upcoming EclipseCon. I was surprised at how reluctant I was to help. My first reaction was ‘I do my bit and it’s just not my job‘. Maybe it hadn’t help I had just been reading research suggesting women and minorities are the ones most penalized for promoting diversity. Nevertheless, the request had come from Alex Schladebeck, someone I have a lot of respect and admiration for and I simply could not say no to her. And I’m really glad I did say yes. One meeting had us all thinking, raised a lot of questions and generated useful suggestions. It also inspired me to look into the topic more thoroughly and I was surprised where the research led me and what the solutions should be.
Lack of diversity at conferences
Going back to the original email, it was specifically looking to address gender diversity, the current yardstick for measuring diversity in tech communities, and was looking to gather ideas related to:
- What possible hurdles are there for female attendees at EclipseCon?
- What can we do to encourage participation / speakers who are women?
Having attended these conferences over the span of 10 years I am well aware of the issues. As a community, we’ve discussed this before, we’ve made changes (conference & community code-of-conduct, focus on intro-tracks and mentoring initiatives) and yet things don’t seem to be improving. If anything, it is getting harder and harder to find the women in the community. Take the most recent conference, while it was a great technical conference the gender diversity figures are bleak:
- 100% male program committee (14 in total)
- ~5% women speakers
- ?% women attendees (no data is collected on this, but I’d be surprised if we hit double figures here)
It seems like it is only a matter of time before the number of drones featured in talks far exceeds the number of women speakers at the conference. So should we be looking to change this? And if so how do we fix this? (without banning drones from featuring in talks of course).
Is this really a problem?
So numbers aside, what is the real problem here? For the past 10 years I’ve adopted a WORKSFORME attitude, coupled with looking on the bright side (tech conferences really are the only public events I never, ever have to queue to use a toilet). However, the recent discourse on women in tech is gradually making me realise I’ve probably been more part of the problem than the solution. If you’re new to it, here is a good primer on why it is important what the challenges are and some actions we can all take.
There are many reasons this is a real problem and we should all be motivated to solve diversity. I am not going to talk about how much more fun and enjoyable conferences could be. And I’m not going to talk about how much better it would be for usability, problem solving and innovation in the community. It may not be the best reason, but I am going to focus on the reason that most compels me to want to do something about it, and it comes down to this quote:
If the rate of change outside your organisation exceeds the rate of change inside your organisation, the end is near – Jack Welch
Other communities have acknowledged this as a real problem and are doing something about it:
- FOSS4G NA focuses on diversity, has a 50/50 organizing committee and achieves ~30% women speakers at their conferences.
- The Python community went from 1% women speakers in 2011 to 33% in 2014. They have a great track record and they clearly and openly lay out their diversity targets and how they intend to meet them.
- The Linux Foundation are working on diversity too. They recently announced a partnership with Women Who Code in their bid to improve diversity at their conferences.
As things stand, I don’t want to be part of a community still debating whether we should be doing something when others already are. Change is happening and the effects are starting to take place. Computer science is now the top major for women at Stanford University. In the UK too, university admissions are on the rise for women. As students graduate what will be the factors they use to decide which communities to be part of?
So how do we fix this?
So how exactly can we fix this? First thoughts revolved around more conference initiatives: free tickets, childcare and the like. But on examinations these didn’t seem to be getting to the crux of the issue. What about ensuring we are more welcoming as a community? From my perspective, the community is generally very respectful, open and friendly. It’s no secret how much I love this community. So it was hard for me to have the perspective of someone on the outside.
Turns out other communities have already been down this path and come up with answers for us. Here’s a great talk ‘Outreach Program for Women: Lessons in Collaboration‘ by Marina Zhurakhinskaya. In it she outlines how the GNOME and Python community dramatically improved gender diversity in their communities. This one presentation blew me away and changed my thinking from ‘this is just the nature of things’ to ‘this is a solvable problem’. The key takeaways I formed were:
- The importance of having a Diversity Champion to spearhead the changes over the long-term
- Using outreach problems (such as Outreachy) to specifically market to women
So could it be that the real answer lies in marketing? To me that makes sense, even if it seems ironic considering that there is a school of thought that marketing was part of the problem of why women stopped coding in the first place. So marketing and outreach could be the solution to dispelling the terrible reputation tech communities have and promoting the benefits on all sides.
What if we didn’t leave this to chance?
The good news is that this community knows a thing or two about marketing and outreach (aka evangelism). For example, a few years ago Eclipse had a handful of projects related to machine-to-machine technology. Then a conscious decision was made by the Eclipse Foundation to focus on this area and rebrand it as Internet of Things (IoT). Through the tremendous evangelism work spearheaded by smart, dedicated individuals at the Foundation, Eclipse IoT has established, in a relatively short space of time, a reputation as a serious place for collaboration on open source IoT technology. It appeals to everyone from humongous corporations to innovative start-ups to innovative start-ups acquired by humongous corporations. Now imagine if this had been left to chance?
Today we have a few diverse members of the community. It is time we made a conscious decision to change that.
The Eclipse Foundation needs to take that decision to hire or otherwise dedicate the time and budget to have a smart, passionate individual lead the charge on diversity.
We as a community need to commit to supporting them and taking the steps to change.
Imagine what we could achieve together? I dream of an Eclipse community with the reputation as the open source community of choice for women. And that’s just the beginning of it.