Debugging Diversity

So, like, where the ladies at?

Image via innowest.org

BREAKING NEWS! Women under-represented in digital fields!

We’re being facetious, of course, but the dicey topic of diversity in tech was revisited yesterday by Australian journalist Amy Gray in her criticism of Melbourne’s Pause Fest’s inequality of female speakers to male, as published on the Guardian (and supported by NAB).

In it, Amy outlines the festival’s supposed failings on its remit to focus on gender diversity within the industry. “Greater gender diversity was the festival’s focus, but there were still more men up on stage talking than women.” A 60:40 breakdown, she estimates. Beyond gender, Amy also touches on a broader diversity problem in her observations of a local conference that, to her, was largely homogeneous. “Racial diversity was almost non-existent, with a mainly white roster of speakers,” she writes.

Noticeably upset by the write-up, the event’s festival director George Hedon responded on Facebook, defending the event with various criticisms of the article’s author. Without relaying the nitty gritty, an unsurprising Twitter furore followed and people were quick to defend Amy, who, in addition to being a journo, is an accredited scrum master with more than a decade of project management, usability and accessibility experience.

That “yikes” moment

There are a few key takeaways from all this. 1. Lots of people care that women and non-white people are still under-represented in tech. 2. If you’re hosting a conference and use gender diversity to promote your event, you’d best walk the talk. 3. The issue of diversity is not personal, but global. In this instance, a finger was pointed at an event with every intention to address diversity, in order to address a larger issue in need of attention. Indeed, moments like these are great reminders of how far we (all) have to go.

These lessons are wildly important and timely for us at Wildwon. As an organisation also making a conscious effort around inclusion and diversity, we are presently two weeks out from hosting our own tech conference, Link Festival (at Melbourne’s Deakin Edge too, no less), and also proudly state diversity and inclusion — amongst attendees and speakers — as a primary concern. Like Amy, we believe that attempts to curb inequality with gender quotas and good intentions will not cut it. They are a start, but not what ultimately brings about large-scale, lasting change.

Yes, diversity is tricky. Get it wrong and people will punish you for it.

Hashtags such as #ILookLikeaAnEngineer highlight the issue, while making leaps at correcting it. Female faces count among the world’s top engineers and programmers, and the more women who are seen, acknowledged and celebrated for their profession, the closer we are to not needing said hashtags. That said, we have to applaud the recent attempts of #WomenAlsoKnowStuff to make #AllMalePanels obsolete.

Staying vigilant

The whole situation has forced us to reflect on our core values as an experience provider. Diversity is important to us because as an all-female team with racially diverse leadership, who work almost exclusively on events about social change, ensuring we’re not limiting the opportunities of talented professionals due to gender, culture, sexuality or otherwise means something to us. As Amy says, “No conference can be perfect, despite their aims, and diversity is laden with complexity.” The issue is much more potent that what can be observed at a single event, but we’re certainly going to be vigilant as a result.

Furthermore, diversity is also important to us because quality is important: more diversity means a medley of styles of thought, which means more ideas, better design and better outcomes.

Of course, there are multiple ways to tout and deliver on one’s diversity aims. At Link Festival, we’re asking attendees to alert us in advance should they have accessibility requirements and we consulted closely with Enable Development (who are amazing btw) on the design of the event. Our speakers and program this year was consciously curated to feature numerous and powerful women. At Link Festival 2015, the heavy presence of women in the program meant that we attracted 60% female attendees — at a tech and engineering conference. (Our most recent event in December 2015, Purpose, achieved a 50:50 gender split.) Though we don’t yet have concrete figures on cultures represented, we are conscious of featuring more than a mere segment of the population.

A diversity checklist?

  • Accessibility for mobility, sight, hearing
  • Women and men given equal representation on stage and in audience
  • Diversity in the race and cultural background of speakers
  • Both young and old represented
  • Diversity of sexuality and of physical ability welcomed and given voice

Yes, diversity is tricky. Get it wrong and people will punish you for it. Get it right and you might just be one of those change makers who move the needle (finally). In short, there are questions to be asked when delivering on diversity. Does your event welcome all people to the best of its ability? Are minorities given a platform to share their expertise and lessons learnt? Have you instilled a code of conduct to set out rules of play? (UX speaker Rachel Nabors has written an honest, forward-thinking blog post on this topic.)

This Forbes article succinctly nails it:

Successful companies are not the ones that build a business, then look at diversity as a nice-to-have attribute. Truly successful and innovative companies are those that build diverse teams when they are just starting out in their own apartment or their folks’ garage. Diversity is a mentality, not just strategic imperative.

You don’t chase diversity for a pat on the back, nor to please the progressives, nor to look good. You actively promote diversity because you know that it leads to growth, a more productive conversation, new ideas. It, simply put, makes absolute sense.

By April Smallwood for Wildwon
@aprilsmallwood