Diversity is not a check box

I try really hard not to talk about diversity in tech and instead focusing on being diversity in tech. I believe I do more good for the cause by getting on stage and being very nerdy than I could do by speaking publicly about the sexist behavior I’ve dealt with or engaging with folks on social media. Also, technical talks are much easier to write than culture talks. This post will be different.

I’ve noticed a trend during the last few years of events and organizations striving to appear diverse but Just. Not. Getting. It. It feels like they are treating diversity as a series of check boxes. “Do we have a woman speaking? Do we have an ethnic or racial minority speaking? How about someone from the LGBT community? What does our average attendee profile look like?”. It feels like there’s no thought given to why having different perspectives is important. As someone who checks off two of these boxes it doesn’t really sit right with me.

When I’m invited to speak at an event I get super excited. When I realize I’m under-qualified to speak and the speaker line up is a majority women I get sad. I assume, and this has been verified, that I was invited because of my gender not my skills. This has happened a handful of times and it really rubs me wrong. When I get on stage I want to be seen as an interesting, intelligent, and skilled developer/tester/whatever who also happens to be a woman. When events put me on stage because I’m a woman first and only then worry about if I’m even vaguely qualified it shakes my confidence. It also makes me concerned that if I mess up some jerk in the audience is going to have his “girls can’t do tech” beliefs reinforced instead of challenged.

I don’t like it but the reality is I’m often seen as a representative for all women.

Another trend I’ve noticed is events that want to increase the diversity of their attendees. This on the surface is great. And there are many fantastic ways to do that. But I’ve seen a number of events do this by extending free or reduced cost admission to junior folks who check off a diversity check box. An unintended side effect of this is that it can create an event where most of the women are junior and most of the men are senior or fairly experienced. This attendee composition may actually reinforce unconscious bias rather than help to erase it.

So what does fostering diversity look like if diversity isn’t a check box?

I don’t have all the answers but I do have some suggestions. First, stop focusing on what your attendees look like and instead focus on combating your own unconscious bias. Do you think technical women need a different type of event than technical men? If so, think about why that is. Things like childcare and a variety of t-shirt sizes and fits aren’t just women’s issues. A focus on culture issues and networking instead of technical content shouldn’t be how you make your event more appealing to women. Perhaps reading this it seems obvious but this is thing I’ve seen happen again and again by well meaning people.

Second, make it clear your event is welcoming. You don’t have to do this by putting together a program looks a specific way. Being welcoming can be simple. Clearly state that proposals will be evaluated blind (and evaluate them blind at least for the first round). Mention that childcare will be available. Make visible any special events like lunches or BOF sessions that could appeal to a wider audience than what you normally see. And also reach out to the communities you want to engage. There are qualified members of minority groups out there so make sure you are reaching them. That probably means using multiple channels to announce your event (social media and email) or having someone who is connected to that community amplify your announcement.

Third, don’t set folks up to fail. I’m seeing more and more events get the first two things right. But I’m also seeing more and more incidents where someone has been put in an environment they are overwhelmed. I’ve seen a group of folks invited to an event that wasn’t really relevant to their skills or professional interests just because they fit a diversity box. I’ve seen folks struggling to understand content that was way beyond their skill level. It turned out they were encouraged to attend the event because of their gender.

The worst is when I see someone who checks a diversity check box get on stage and give a talk that shows their lack of technical skill or is irrelevant to the audience at hand. All I can think in that moment is that the person has been pushed beyond their skill level because they satisfied a diversity check box for their company or the event organizer.

These type of situations are not in anyone’s best interest. It is good for all of us to be the worst in the band sometimes. But there’s more subtlety to it. I think this quote from Maria Montessori sums it up well:

Never let a child risk failure, until he has a reasonable chance of success.

We should be encouraging people to stretch themselves but not throwing them in if they can’t swim. This is especially true when their missteps will be in front of 300 people and published to YouTube. The internet is forever.

Finally, I want to emphasize that there are many kinds of diversity. We all benefit from an environment with mixed experiences and perspectives. Quite objectively I’m not very diverse for the tech community. I grew up relatively well off in the Seattle suburbs during the 80s and 90s. I had a computer at home in 1985. I started programming in 2nd grade. In high school I worked on our school network, took computer programming and network administration, and had an internship working at a local tech company. By these metrics I’m the majority in this field not the minority. I’d like to see us broaden our definition of diversity to include veterans, people with disabilities, and people who grew up poor or without access to technology as well. I’d also like to see more inclusion of people who changed careers or whose use of tech is focused on helping folks in need.

Doing this won’t be easy but I don’t believe it is impossible.

Special thanks to the folks who helped me out by reviewing early drafts of this post.

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