Yesterday, WordCamp Europe (WCEU) — one of the biggest WordPress events in the world — announced its fifth round of speakers.
WordPress community member Michelle Frechette rightly so made the observation that there were only 25% women so far, and only 15% non-white people.
This was met with some fairly snarky remarks, including by an organiser. Here are some of the arguments that are captured in the comments, and why those aren’t valid.
🗒️ EDIT: Yesterday, organiser Sjoerd posted this tweet:
I’m interested to see the communications coming, but this is a great start. The apology is specific and it doesn’t use an “if” statement. I will leave the rest of this post as it is, but this should be an encouragement that opening a discussion about diversity is not a dead-end street.
Organiser Sjoerd replied something in the line of “just wait”. The implication of this was that Michelle was making wrong assumptions. What he didn’t acknowledge was that she went with the data in front of her: women and people of colour were under-represented in the first five batches of speakers.
By now, diversity should be high enough on the agenda of organising a conference that the communication around this also captures this. While the organisers maybe still have a bunch of speakers lined up that will change the balance, there’s no communication at all as to why they would wait to change that balance until the end. If diversity as at the forefront of the thinking, we’d expect this to show throughout.
Here’s how Sjoerd could’ve reacted instead (if indeed the balance will be better in future announcements):
Thanks for pointing that out. You’ll see that this is more balanced after future announcement. We did have this in the forefront of our thinking in the selection process, but could’ve done a better job in the announcements.
Choosing for diversity “or” quality
Dmitry responded with a meme suggesting that this would be a choice between inclusion and quality. There are several assumptions in there that I would argue are not valid. To need to choose between quality and diversity, there would need to be such a scarcity of expertise that it rests entirely with a tiny group of people.
Maybe there are niche fields out there where that is the case, but that is definitely not the case in the WordPress community. I lead a team of roughly 120 people, and I think I would have no problem finding 18 speakers with more diversity than the current WCEU line-up who all would deliver a stellar talk on WooCommerce and WordPress related topics. Many of them have given tutorials and talks within our teams.
But even the scarcity argument is flawed in smaller communities, as it assumes that speakers need to be experts to give a talk on a certain topic. Especially when it comes to web development, I don’t think it matters what your level of expertise is to share a valuable perspective. I’m an educator by training (M.Sc., Ghent University), and have taught university professors on how to teach better; they were subject experts, but I think in most cases someone with less expertise could’ve done a better job at teaching their classes.
“Blind” selection process
Kurt mentioned that for some WordCamps, the selection is “blind” in that the selectors only see a title and a description. I want to add a caveat that it’s a bit ironic to use the word “blind” in a context of diversity, as I’m not confident how people with a visual impairment would feel about that.
Michelle rightly adds that having a more unbiased selection really doesn’t need to exclude a diverse line-up. I would even argue that looking purely at title and description will include some bias as well. For example, this would favour the people who have a stronger mastery of English.
A speaker line-up isn’t purely about the content of the submissions, the format of your conference matters as well. Part of that format is the diversity you have. If you do not have a diverse line-up, without saying this explicitly, you are still saying: our community looks to white, able-bodied men for leadership and guidance.
Representation of applicants
Katie asked how the balance of selected speakers compared to those who applied. If anything, this shows a very common problem: people who’ve experienced privilege their whole lives feel much more comfortable (and even sometimes entitled) to apply as a speaker.
For example, this Harvard study confirms that women are much less likely to self-promote than men, even if more qualified. Let’s be honest, public speaking is a form of self-promotion, even if its goal is to help your peers.
If making sure that your speaker selection represents your application submissions pool, then you’re focused on the wrong type of representation. That implies that, as an organiser, you can’t just shrug if the majority of your applications are white men.
Why does it matter?
There are many, many books, articles, posts, etc. on the topic of representation. It’s difficult for me to relate to a need for representation because I’m represented everywhere. What I hear from friends who don’t have this experience (next to reading those books), is how incredibly encouraging it is to see someone lead who looks like you.
Our goal is not for WordPress conferences to represent our current community, but for it to represent what our community should look like: a diverse hub of people working together. I’d argue that we do better than several other software solutions, but also that we’re definitely not there yet.
I’m still grateful that for WordCamp Cape Town, lead organiser Jonathan was conscious of the need for diversity during the last few editions. He set a target beforehand, and it resulted in us needing to actively find people to get that target. It was more work for us, but I think the conference was better for it. The quality wasn’t worse than previous editions. Moreover, I heard from several attendees how much they had appreciated someone “like them” speaking.
What can we do?
I’m part of a historically privileged group, or rather a bunch of historically privileged groups: white, male, straight, able-bodied. While the whole intent here is to reduce the power that lies with these groups, we can still use the power that is there to help make a change.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Listen to those in the other groups. My gut feeling is to always start acting, and I think one of the most powerful things we can do is make sure that the agency lies with those people from the other groups. I mentioned something similar in this post on witnessing inappropriate behaviour, and while the situation is different, the point of agency still stands. As a professional, this also means surrounding yourself by people who aren’t all like you.
- Ask for diversity. If you get selected as a speaker, or you’re part of the organisers or sponsors, you can ask the lead organisers to ensure that there’s a diverse representation. My experience within the WordPress community so far is that the majority of people are very open to this type of feedback. (I unfortunately have seen a few situations where this wasn’t the case.)
- Speak up. If you’re noticing that flagging your concerns to the organisers did not have an impact, then I think it’s worth having a public discussion about this. Hold the organisers accountable!
- Retract your speaker spot or sponsorship. When you’ve tried the above, and you still notice that the speaker line up is not diverse, one of the most powerful things you can do as a speaker is retracting your submission. If the spots are limited, then your clearing one of those spots has a direct impact on the diversity aspect. A bigger impact would likely be via the money: as a sponsor, you have a lot of power over a conference. While I would not want sponsors who dictate the specific speaker line-up (and demand a quid pro quo for a specific speaker if they sponsor), I think that sponsors can definitely make their sponsorship conditional on the content being diverse enough. At the smallest level, as an individual, you can also choose not to attend the conference.
- Book a session with Michelle. The biggest irony in this whole discussion is that Michelle is herself an expert in diversity. She and her partner offer sessions for people, organisations and companies who’d like to get better as this. She’s probably one of the people that should be bookmarked in the WordPress community as one to listen to (see the first bullet point). You can find her at Underrepresented in Tech.