Monday, 7 January 2013

Women, web developers, and conference quotas

As a pre-cursor to this post, it's probably a good idea to read This article on .net magazine's website about the issue of gender diversity in the web development profession.

Had a good read? I'll continue...

I don't subscribe to Andy Rutledge's view (as much as I can decipher it), that the industry will sort itself out regarding diversity. He seems to believe that if women want to get more involved with web development, that they will. It's clear he thinks that issues such as conferences being male dominated, perhaps even the actions at technology trade shows of severely objectifying women to sell tech, are non-issues.

If you are good at what you do, and want to do it, you'll get on board and ignore the culture. I can't really agree.

The trouble is that I do find slight common ground in the proposition that gerrymandering conference speaker quotas is the right answer, or even really an answer at all. I think if we're going to focus on breaking down barriers, conferences are so far past the barrier that trying to tinker with them is only internally symbolic.

Where there are party political conferences, or the public offerings of seats of parliament, it's very easy to send a message of diversity and equality by trying to implement quotas, and by fixing appearances so that your organisation can be reflective of society. The key thing here, though, is that they are public.

I would be interested to know how many budding web developers or designers know anything about web conferences. Maybe I'm wrong here but I don't think that conferences are something people get in to until they already get really in to web development. Once a person has gone past the "I can make this look pretty" and "I can create this cool thing", and they have gone past simply copy and pasting answers from Stack Exchange, it's only then that they say to themselves... "I want to really KNOW my profession".

From here they might get in to some articles, maybe some authors, and from there they might hear about a conference. It's here that perhaps I most closely, although hopefully fleetingly, align with Andy's view. By this point people that are keen to get involved are doing so because they want to see experts. By this point gender, race, dietary requirements all become secondary to skills and experience.

We can talk, if we like, about the image we portray...but the only image we're sending out (for now) is to those who want to go from simply being good web developers to being excellent ones. If we do things to represent better our diversity, although it would likely do us no harm at all, it would ultimately be to placate our own insular group.

Of course the key there is that it'll do us no harm at all. The idea from Andy that somehow it's a bad thing to get more women speaking in conferences because of some issue of stopping a "better" speaker from getting involved is inherently misogynistic, even if he can't see it. The web world is not like some kind of darts fraternity where there is always a world champion and a runners up in skill and capability. We have hundreds (more?!) of people that all reside in the same sphere, with maybe dozens that have been in that sphere for a bit longer and have a bit more experience on the circuit.

Replacing a good male developer with a good female one isn't going to make a shit of difference to the quality of the conference, it certainly isn't going to deprive the audience, and it may well help bring...albeit only slight...a different perspective.

But none of this, at this point in time, deals with the issue we're trying to actually help solve which is the involvement of women in the profession (and ethnic minorities, I know that is another strand of this same discussion). It might make us feel better about ourselves, and it may well make the experience for those that want to join the network of web developers that REALLY care about their profession feel more safe and wanted. For those reasons we should (and seemingly are given who is advocating such change) look at how these conferences are formed.

The primary focus we have to have though is much earlier, and we need to make it much clearer that this isn't a profession for white boys.

Andy Rutledge can sit there and pretend that socio-demographics don't matter, but to do so is entirely ignorant. Just as I wouldn't expect *anyone* to go and stand in the middle of a group of teenagers at a bus-stop, I wouldn't expect someone who doesn't fit the socio-demographics of the area they're interested in to feel comfortable trying to access it.

If we don't have prominent, celebrated and respected people from a wide range of diversities in our profession, then we have no hope of allowing those that have the skills and desires to become part of our group the freedom to do so.

We can nurture at a younger age, we can break down any initial barriers in people's minds that this is something only for the boys. Those running the Girl Geek Nights are an excellent example of this, a "safe space" initiative that allows people to naturally build it up, but it doesn't have to stop there. But let's also seek out and find those bedroom coders that are probably representative of the majority of people currently in our profession. We need to find a way to create avenues for these people in to our profession, and to give good advice on how to walk them. Schools and universities are only one small way.

That's a first step. But then we need to back it up with visible evidence that it's the case. This means a level of positive discrimination is necessary, unfortunately. If we have a woman and a man that both appear to be equally acceptable for the job, we should be choosing the woman to join ranks. This isn't, as Andy may cry, something about valuing tokenism over abilities, it's about improving our profession.

In my field where I've nurtured through three university sandwich-year students, everyone that got the role was because they not only fit the requirements, but exceeded them more or equally to the next best candidate. Yet at this level there is not a lot that is needed from a candidate, it is ultimately a work experience role, not even graduate level; the number of applicants each year is also extremely high, so it is extremely easy to positively discriminate like this. Except that it would be a lot easier if in each of the years I've run the placement...despite dozens of applicants...I've only ever had one female apply each year.

Ultimately it is important to realise that positive discrimination isn't about putting someone less able in to a role over someone more able...it's about picking the under-represented person out of two or more equally "good" developers, if they aren't already the better one.

In the end this will result in the situation Andy wants, we'll have an environment where everyone is free to enter or exit the profession without prejudice and without reservation...but it's naive to think we can get there through conference meddling alone, or by just letting nature take it's course.