I inadvertently found myself in the middle of a minor Twitter storm on the topic of diversity. The organisers of a conference that I attended made some, to me, intemperate remarks on the subject.
They were asked why there were so few women on the programme and responded in a way that came across as being, again, to my mind, overly aggressive and defensive.
I am a big fan of Twitter, but it is not really an effective vehicle through which to explore complex ideas. You can’t represent nuance in 140 characters.
So here are my thoughts on the topic.
I believe that our industry has a shameful history in terms of diversity. It is largely populated by young, white guys, at least in Western Europe and the USA. This is disproportionately the case, even compared to other technical disciplines.
This matters for a variety of reasons, social, emotional, political but also pragmatic.
It seems obvious to me that if I recruit people who are passionate about programming, enjoy science fiction, are obsessed with aeroplanes, aerobatics and physics, like playing the guitar and driving too fast (people like me) then we will tend to jump to similar conclusions and make similar mistakes.
I like working with people that have different ideas to me. I know that when I do this, it brings that best out of me, and I think it brings the best out of them. I think that we are at out most creative when we value ideas and work in teams that trust one-another sufficiently to feel free to debate those ideas freely and vigorously.
Software development is a VERY difficult thing to do well. I think we should maximise our chances of success by doing whatever it takes to be intelligent, creative and do great work. I believe that part of that is creating diverse teams. Not just having a smattering of women around, but teams populated with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, education, ethnic groups, sex or sexual orientation. I believe that this is one of the hallmarks of truly great teams.
The problem is that we live in an unfair world. I don’t know enough to solve the problems of inequality in our world. I am a software developer. I care deeply about these problems and believe that they represent an injustice, and a loss of potentialy great contributions. I believe that we can do better.
However, I also think that this is not a problem of the software conference industry. Poor representation of women at conferences did not get us into the problematic position that we find ourselves in. I have some sympathies for the conference organisers. Even though they responded in a manner that I thought at best intemperate, at worst inappropriate, there were mitigating circumstances.
At this conference there were 25 speakers. Of those, 2 were women. The organisers were criticised for the lack of women speakers, but actually in terms of representation of women in our industry that does not feel too far off being a proportionate number. The organisers words came across badly, but the English is not the first language of these conference organisers and I think that a reasonable interpretation of what they said is that they did not really get the nuance of what they implied with their comments.
I suppose that the key question is, what can be done to change the situation that we, as an industry, find ourselves in?
Well there are several positive examples that I am aware of. Even if we constrain ourselves to the conference arena. The Pipeline Conference, in London, does an excellent job of actively encouraging female speakers. They also work to eliminate subconscious bias in the selection process for talks by using a blind evaluation process. Submissions are stripped of identifiers so that the selection committee can’t be swayed by the sex, ethnic background, or fame of the prospective speakers.
QCon work hard to encourage and promote female speakers for their events and operate a code-of conduct for speakers and other participants that encourages and open and respectful approach to all.
These are important things, conferences are one public face of our industry and the roster of speakers will provide, albeit subliminally, an impression of what a software professional looks like and how they act.
However, even if we had a 50/50 split of men and women and a perfect representative sample of all cultural or ethnic groups at every conference, it would mean nothing if we don’t address the real problem, which is that there aren’t enough of these people in our industry. Worse than that, focusing only on women for a moment, they are after all 50% of the population, our industry no longer appeals to women and girls. We have driven them away to the extent that few even consider software development as a career.
I think that software is an important thing for the world. I feel privileged to have found a career that I love, that also happens to be interesting, challenging and pays pretty well. I don’t want that privilege to belong only to people like me.
I have done what I could in my career to treat people with respect, whatever their sex, sexual orientation, ethnic group or religious persuasion. That is not enough.