The inconvenient truth of Codemash diversity

How can we impact the big picture when we refuse to look at the small ones?

8 years ago this week I attended my first tech conference, CodeMash. Located at a water park, early January, in the Midwest with the promise of bacon…uh, sign me up!

Back then I had about a decade of development experience under my belt, but never ventured far from the familiar. I knew of people in the industry and followed them on Twitter, but never really got involved and met the rest of the larger development community outside of my circle.

I was nervous, but excited to get there to be challenged with new ideas, technologies, and see what all I could soak up in the three days I would be there.

The conference was huge. Lots of people, lots of session tracks, and incredible keynote speakers. But I quickly learned I was different. I couldn’t get anyone to have a technical conversation with me. The only time I was part of a technical conversation was when I was with a bunch of guys, and even then they were not speaking with or to me. I was injecting myself into the conversation.

By the second day I looked around and realized I was one of only a handful of women that were attending. When I would talk to people I started to ask them what they thought I did. Not one of them said developer or engineer. To them I was either a designer, project manager, or most thought I was a recruiter.

My conclusion leaving CodeMash was that I didn’t belong. But I felt that this was the industry. This was the community I was working in. If I didn’t belong here, where did I belong? Maybe I shouldn’t be a Software Engineer.

I love engineering and writing code. And I wasn’t going to let them make me feel like I shouldn’t keep doing what I loved.

The next few years I went to CodeMash every year. Each year dressing the part of “developer”. I packed my geeky t-shirts, jeans, sneakers and hoodies. I thought if I dressed the part I would be accepted. That in order to be a “geek” I need to dress like a “geek”. Figuring then I would finally feel like I belonged in the software world.

But all I was doing was playing the part of someone else. I wasn’t being myself. It’s almost as if the more time I spent in a hoodie the more I felt my confidence plummet. I wanted to wear clothes I liked and felt confident in. The harsh reality was that the more I dressed as I wanted to the less I was accepted into the engineering world of Codemash.

Over these years the percent of women attending seem to never increased nor did the percent of women speaking. I went there and spent days talking and listening to men tell me about the latest technologies.

I thought I left inspired, all my male colleagues did. But unconsciously I just took a massive beating. Year after year.

“You Cannot Be What You Cannot See.” — Reshma Saujani

It wasn’t until last year I put all these pieces of the puzzle together. I had taken a break from CodeMash… which means I really made excuses to my male colleagues for a few years on why I wasn’t able to attend. But over that time I changed. I got involved. I started traveling to attend and speak at conferences, I got involved to local Meetups, was now a leader for the Girl Develop It Ann Arbor chapter, and even on a committee to help plan a conference myself. I felt great about myself, my capabilities, no way CodeMash was going to knock me down again.

As it turns out, last year CodeMash donated a booth to Girl Develop It. I was super pumped and thought, “They finally care about diversity!” I gladly went to the CodeMash site to buy my ticket. I was even impressed that when they asked my shirt size I had the option for women’s sizes. As January hit I was ready to get to Sandusky and help CodeMash continue all the great diversity changes they seemed to be making.

Like most attendees I got there and immediately hit the registration line. I finally get to the front am handed my badge, wristband, and the guy behind the counter asks me, “What size shirt?”

I respond, “Women’s large.” Checkin guy, “Uhh, we don’t have women’s sizes.

Me, “What sizes do you have?” Checkin guy, “Small through 3XL.

Me, “Are those mens sizes?” Checkin guy ,“I’m not sure, thats just the sizes we have.”

Me, “Have of what? Am I getting a t-shirt?” Checkin dude, “This year we have hoodies.

Me (:facepalm:), “Well I don’t know what size hoodie I wear in mens sizes. Why did you ask for women’s size and only order mens sizes?

Counter dude, “Want to try a medium?

Me, “What do I do if it doesn’t fit?” Guy ignoring me, “Next!

Then I track down our Girl Develop It booth. Now I had no grand location expectations as it was a donation, but it was the last booth in a row at a dead end hallway. All that was beyond our table was the door for staff to bring food in and dirty dishes out.

After all that, at my core, I’m a numbers person. Surely the percent of women speaking at CodeMash has improved.

As a baseline the percent of Women In Technology is about 26–27%, and has been around that number for the past few years. Let’s assume from 2015–2017 a +0.2% growth each year.

From what Codemash has in their blog, and from looking at 2017 speakers list here is the diversity numbers for the past 3 years:

2015– 10.7% women speakers

2016–13.3% women speakers

2017–15% women speakers**

15% women speaking this year equates to about 30 of 200+ total speakers. Yes, awesome that the trend is upwards, but still incredibly far off. That means in 2 years they have only added 10 more female speakers out of a 200+ speaker conference lineup. This is by no stretch even close to a fair representation of the technology community & work force.

Last year when I called out the lack of women speakers at the conference they said they were actually happy with the number as it has improved from last year. I’m glad they were happy it improved, but the reality is that little amount of improvement is a sign of the organizers are doing nothing to improve it. That is simply the ebb and flow. That’s a “That burrito for dinner was delicious! It was worth the +3lbs on the scale.” Or, “Damn that 5k was incredible! And I burned off my burrito weight!”

Grow your % of women speaking from 10 to 20 percent and it makes it clear to all that diversity is actually important to what the conference is about.

Codemash organizers also claim the do a blind review of conference proposals and pick the best. Okay, maybe. Putting that aside, we can safely assume Codemash suffers from 1 and/or 2 problems:

  1. Extreme disproportion of male speaker proposals over conference proposals from women.
  2. Skewed selection criteria that favor men and power/stronger words they often use.

Regrading the first, not getting enough proposals from women points right to the audience you gear the conference to, who feels welcome there, and the channels you market your conference to.

Regarding the second… Fact, women suffer from self-doubt. We don’t apply for jobs unless we feel we are a master at each criteria listed. Meeting 100% of the job requirements. Men apply when they feel they meet 60% of the requirements. We are poor negotiators. We rarely will admit to having mastered a topic. And the words “master”, “Jedi”, “ninja”, “rockstar” will never be used when describing one of our skills.

All this translates to women being much less likely to submit proposals to conferences. And when we do chances are very high we will avoid words denoting mastering and being a “super rockstar Jedi” of some technology. But the fact is, if we have enough confidence to submit on a topic, without invitation, you boys best be prepared…as we ladies are about to eat your lunch.

I assume Codemash is trying to improve diversity, and I do greatly appreciate their willingness to donate a booth to Girl Develop It for 2 years now. I know it has been a beacon many women have come to for support in the sea of dudes.

I’ve meet some of the organizers, and talked to some on several occasions over the year, they’re good guys. But that is the keyword, “guys”. Their unconscious bias shines through near every part of the conference.

They offer a “Mother’s Room”.Which might be great if I were a nursing mother trying to attend the conference. But when I’m attending the conference my husband is with the kids. This is not a room he would ever feel welcome in to change a diaper in, or anything else he may need for the kids. Instead he is left on his own with 4 kids heading back to our room.

Like most conferences they also have a designated game room where I can go and apparently be Captain Kirk or Buzz Lightyear. But maybe not Nyota Uhura, or Wonder Woman.

I have talked to many people who have attended Codemash. Many men refer to it like college, or a frat party. A frat party. If there is ever a combination of 2 words that should incite change in a tech conference it is “frat party”.

Women that attend Codemash they do what we always do. Focus on the bright spots, ignore the rest. I’ve been there. Some will plan their schedule for the “Women of Codemash” picture. Others will try to avoid it in order to “fit in” more. We will Tweet out pics and quotes when we attend a session a women is giving to promote the girl power at the conference. For me, I always wonder, what unconscious baggage are all these women leaving with?

The most important thing each of us have is our time. After my experiences last year at Codemash, and seeing little change again this year, this is no longer a conference I can give my time to. There are too many other conferences and community groups that are working to change the ratio. I chose to support them, and give them my time.

I’m not giving up on Codemash, I’m challenging them to do better. I help organize a conference. Achieving diversity and balance is hard. But there is no measure for it’s importance.

If you are a minority in tech here in the Midwest I want say to you, you don’t have to attend Codemash. There are many other amazing & diverse conferences here is the Midwest for you to give your time to. Conferences you will feel welcome and appreciated just as you are.

If you call yourself an ally to women and minorities in tech then I challenge you to stand up and be an that ally. Tell the organizers of Codemash, or any conference with an unconscious bias who is not pursuing diversity that it is not okay. That we as a community can do better.

With the election our country has been through my social media feeds are a constant stream of voices saying we can do better. Outraged at things done and said, nervous for where our country is headed. I encourage you to look at our tech community and conferences through those same lenses.

Be critical, demand change. Be an ally and stand up for those who voices are not being heard. Don’t justify to yourself something you know isn’t right simply because you feel the need to fit in.

“You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not
always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once
but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have
because history has shown us that courage can be contagious
and hope can take on a life of its own.”
— Michelle Obama

** 2017 female speaker percentage was estimated from Codemash speakers page, as they made no formal declaration of actual percent.