March 22, 2020

Tech Conferences: Diversity considerations in 2k19

Tech Conferences: Diversity considerations in 2k19

Diversity is a god damn hot topic today. Diversity quotas, Women-Only Conferences, #WomenInTech hashtag, and so. Suppose, you’re a conference organizer, what should you do?

Disclaimer 1: I don’t believe there are any biological limitations on women doing tech jobs. However I think there are slight biologically inclined cross-culture differences in interests and personal traits between men and women, which is proven statistically(See hereand here).

Disclaimer 2: This is an informed opinion. I may be wrong but I commit to support my opinion with researches, studies and facts.

Disclaimer 3: This is a first take on the topic from my perspective. It will evolve and definitely receive updates.

Disclaimer 4: I believe in equality of opportunity and every sane person should. Also, I strongly believe that equality of outcome is a terrible idea at should be avoided at almost all costs.

Common perception

The usual misconception(and also a good intention) is to think that women do not differ from men and there are no obstacles for women to make the same successful career as a lot of men do. However, it is not correct.

State of the industry

I wanted to get a bird flight level overview of gender distribution in the industry in general in the world and this is quite a tricky thing to do. First of all, there are some curious experiments, like trying to recognize Github users gender by their avatar. Other data is more tenant: this study, based on the Bureau of Labor, tells women hold only 25% of computing jobs, however this is only the data about the U.S. I didn’t find a proper statistics for Russia for example, but moikrug.ru reports it’s only 7%. During several last weeks the Stackoverflow developer survey completed indicatingonly 9% of its audienceare women.

According to several, independent, easily googlable sources the Software Development industry is in a state of shortage of skilled software developers. Not the folks who can create a “Hello, world”, but ones, who can solve real world issues, know what makes a suitable software architecture and so on.

At the same time women are leaving the programming industry, despite of being better programmers overall. They go to other industries bringing their expertise there. Industries outside of technology employ more women software engineers than do the tech industry.

Women accounted for about 32% of software engineers in healthcare and 25% in banking, compared to only 20% in the tech industry(the number are different due to different sources, countries and methods of estimations).

The reasons for low women enrollment into the industry are complex and are not easy to fix: the hostility of environment, the hiring process, the prejudice in the families and in the workplace, the sexual behavior and many more(each requires a separate article or may be a book).

All of that means to me the following:

  1. Women are a huge potential for software industry
  2. As women are definitely not worse than men in creating software bringing more women into tech means more brainpower there, and IMO this is the only thing that matters
  3. Thus we, as an industry, are morally obliged to ourselves to facilitate that process. Although, the conferences can’t fix the workplace environment or hiring process, it definitely can put much more effort into bringing professional female programmers on stage.

Conferences goal

I believe that conferences are multi-purposes events. Networking, discussing and hanging out are important. However, I don’t see a way you can make a popular conference without proper talks.

So, you(as an organizer) need to care about the quality of submissions, make sure they are sufficiently technical, they bring fresh ideas and value, they are properly articulated and so on, so you screen by quality.

However, there are two more considerations here:

  1. There is a number of unreasonable Social Justice Warriors which are going to eat you for breakfast if no women of color(for example) is present in your lineup, and it doesn’t matter if you’re hosting the event in Vietnam. Not because they are malevolent or heroic, or any other kind of stuff. Usually, they are just short-sighted, because the diversity problem is very deep(as mentioned above) and is not solved by line-ups.
  2. You can actually help tech industry and yourself encouraging more women in tech by having women speak at your event.

And this is an advisable strategy by several reasons:

  1. It definitely works, and again: more women engineers the more brainpower we have in industry, the farther we can get as a humankind.
  2. There is a lot of prejudice(which by definition is unfair) against women in tech(which is proved by the state of industry section). I personally know at least dozen of brilliant women engineers which encounter men doubting their abilities(after the talks!) based on the mere fact that they are women. The history of Dr. Katie Bouman who did an incredible job and instead of congratulations received a reprehensible thread on reddit saying it’s not her accomplishment is a disaster.
  3. There is no compromising on quality. Accepting a woman to talk on the conference not because of the quality content but because of her gender is pure sexism. The women in general are more open to anxiety and much more often  discouraged by parents in coming with an engineering career path, but that only means they are harder to find and get on stage, so may be it’s your job to fight it.

So, “You should try your best to invite as many women professionals in the field”. Pay attention to every word:

a) You can’t just say “Every submission is welcome”, it doesn’t work

b) You need to directly and may be publicly invite famous, successful professional women in the field of your conference. Many will decline, unfortunately =(

c) You can invite as many as you get. If you get 80% of professional women — good for you. Again: your goal is not diversity, but quality content; but your moral obligation is to help the industry by getting more women.

Arguments against

Of course there are some arguments agains. Let’s think about them:

  1. What you suggest is a positive discrimination. I am not suggesting giving stage time to women because they are women. I suggest widening the speakers pool you invite folks from with women. Positive discrimination would keep the total number of submissions; inclusion means getting more of them.
  2. Who we need to get apart from women? Gay people? Transgender? People without limbs? Let’s talk about it whenwe discover the women in tech problem is solved.
  3. Women are not interested. They are really less interested in things than in people(otherwise why 97% of nurses are women), but the difference is not big, it is much less the men/women ratio in the industry.

Resume

As you may noticed, the topic is complex. You can’t operate with your personal experience, you can’t use the number of women in your particular organization(by the way, my last two projects have more women than men in the team and in the more senior position, I don’t have a single issue with it). I think that the only more or less reliable source of facts are statistics and studies. What I am doing here is trying to provide the relevant facts and then to come up with some conclusion. And the conclusion I make at the moment is:

Encourage more women in a software industry. It’s beneficial for literally everybody.

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