Looks Like Diversity (or Does It?)

Over the past two years, some of my work has been focused on trying to increase diversity in the WordPress open source community. This has included trying to get meetup and WordCamp organizers to commit to more diverse organizing teams and speaker rolls, something that has been a bit hit or miss. In some cases, giving some advice about how to reach out to different communities has been enough for someone to go all in and come up with groups of people that don’t all look the same or have similar backgrounds/experiences, while in others it has felt like we were wasting our breath, and that unless it was mandatory, the organizers would just choose from the people who applied rather than doing the extra work to reach out for a more varied slate of presenters to represent the community. It is a bummer when the latter is the case, but there’s only so much we can do when there are relatively few people who get paid to work on this stuff (and they are all juggling way more wp hours than a normal 9-5 would take) and the rest are volunteers.

The thing is, what does it mean to have diverse speakers?

In terms of gender it’s pretty simple — don’t have only men, include women and people from elsewhere on the gender spectrum. At the very least, it should not be hard to find women speakers if you take the time to go looking for them, because there are women doing cool stuff with WordPress everywhere.  Many women who’ve gotten involved with the project have said that seeing a woman on stage at a WordCamp was the thing that made them feel like there was a space for them here. Mel Choyce’s post about women in the WordPress community and her first WC experience echoes what I’ve heard from many women.

Or is gender simple? As more and more people come out as trans, it’s important to make sure they feel welcome and included in the community (well, assuming they’re into WordPress and would like to be part of it), and visible representation is a part of that. But many people, while wanting to not worry about being treated poorly due to their trans status, don’t really want to talk about their trans status all the time, or include it in bios on speaker pages. And why should they? Do other bios say, “John is a man from Idaho?” No, They say, “John is a web developer from Idaho.” No gender reference at all! So if we have do have speakers who identify as trans, but their outward appearance reads as pretty straightforward male or female, how do potential trans attendees (or contributors) know there are people like them on stage, and that they themselves might have a place there someday?

Likewise, the question of invisibility around race/ethnicity/sexuality/etc gets blurry when the average attendee just can’t tell. I was at the Community Leadership Summit last year before OSCON and I was in an unconference session about diversity at open source conferences when one of the participants, a black man, asked if choosing diverse speakers mattered if no one know they were something other than generic WASPs. In his part of the country especially, it’s not uncommon for people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds to pass (unintentionally) as white. So, for example, if they had a gay Cuban man, a trans man, a dude with Asperger’s, and a light-skinned black man on the speaker list (along with other people), but the audience read all of them as generic white guys, what would that say about the diversity of the speaker roll (knowing that references to the various diverse statuses would appear nowhere in the bios or in the presentations themselves)? Instead of looking like people from varied experiences (which they were) it looked like they were more of the same old same old, and he was worried people would complain about lack of diversity, especially since they had set out to create a diverse speaker list. We didn’t come to any kind of satisfactory answer in that session, but I think he raised a valid question about the idea of checkboxes on a census form vs. the way someone is perceived by others, and what representation really means. It’s so hard to figure out!

Privacy is paramount in all things; if someone doesn’t want to put some aspect of their demographic profile in their biography — gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity/race, disability, age, whatever — then they shouldn’t, period. And no one should feel like they have to represent a whole demographic slice because they’re the only one on the lineup (or ever, but that’s a separate issue). This is even more true when the status in question has absolutely nothing to do with their topic. The expertise of someone speaking on “how to choose a theme” is in no way affected by almost ANY of those things (well, maybe disabilities, if they were looking at accessibility/usability). Sure, if you’re speaking at a conference about power dynamics in a multi-gendered world, your gender status makes a big impact on your relevance to the topic, but with WordPress stuff? It really doesn’t, except in the more general “WordPress is for everyone” sort of way. Trotting out speakers with diverse backgrounds — “Ooh, look, not only do we have a pretty even gender balance, but we have an African-American and a Latina, too!” — just to show how progressive you are is just exploitive and sucky.

But! (There’s always a but.)

Given what we know about the sociological mechanics behind people applying to speak at events, it’s pretty basic stuff to know that speaker applications come mostly from the people who are already comfortable in the knowledege that there’s a place for people like them on the speaker roll, in whatever sense they define “people like them” in the moment. That means that to find the hidden gems — or frankly, not really hidden, just not on our personal radar — who don’t have that level of confidence already and/or aren’t so ridiculously overexposed at conferences (usually minorities), we have to work harder to find them, encourage them, help them if needed, and commit to not just looking at applications that came in over the transom.

So when someone says something like, “I can’t help it if 90% of our applications were from white dudes, we said in the post that we encouraged women and minorites to apply to speak!” it makes me purse my lips and remind myself to take a few deep breaths while I remember that part of diversity is having different beliefs and backgrounds, and that many people haven’t read all those studies (or any of those articles summarizing studies), and that other people may have but just really think diversity is not important and/or not their job. Side note: It’s at  those times I briefly think to hell with diversity, the world would be more peaceful if everyone thought the same thing (wouldn’t even matter what we all thought as long as it was the same). 

In preparing to select speakers for an upcoming conference, I have had these thoughts in the back of my mind a lot lately. We weren’t even doing speaker applications in this case, it was all by invitation, but we did take recommendations from some colleagues with good instincts and connections. Perhaps not shockingly, many of the recommendations happened to be upper middle-class white people. Not because of any explicit bias, but for a lot of the same reasons (I think) that have to do with why people from other backgrounds are less represented in our contributor communities as well, tied to cultural norms around being more exposed to and/or drawn to people like yourself, income/time availability, social connections to help publicize their sites/blogs, and let’s not forget the big one — they call it a majority because there’s just plain more of them.

So we’ve been doing some work over the past couple of weeks looking specifically for bloggers from underrepresented groups. Here’s what I’ve observed so far.

  • There are so many people blogging out there! When there are so many blogs, it is really overwhelming to go looking for new talent, as you have to wade through a lot of junk to find it. There is a reason there are whole organizations and conferences with staffs of people whose sole job is to read blogs and discover new talent.
  • There is some great content housed by really ugly sites. Like, really ugly. So ugly you look at it and think, “This person has no taste.” You know what, though? A lot of published writers probably have crappy taste. It’s not like their publishers let them design their book covers. And look back at your first website. Was it really the bastion of good taste and advanced design you sport now (if you do)?
  • There are a lot of talented bloggers that are on Blogger or Squarespace (and others, but those two came up the most often when I viewed source). I kind of want to have a team that just finds great bloggers — not famous people, or super-high-traffic sites, just good bloggers — and helps them switch onto WordPress. I also want there to be some really nice documentation that explains what WordPress has that those others don’t, with an easy step-by-step guide for making the switch.
  • Blogging is about having something to say. Looking at upper middle-class white people vs people from low-income backgrounds or less academically-inclined lives, the spelling and grammar is in some cases a big differentiator. It’s easy (because we’ve been trained this way) to look at the one with all the perfect sentences and say, “This person is the better writer.” But that person might not have the better story, or be the better storyteller. Let’s face it, the one thing blogging exposes vs. professional publishing is the writer’s spelling and grammar. Anyone who gets published by a magazine or book publisher has an editor that fixes all the errors. Having worked at a publishing house, I can confidently say that some brilliant authors are terrible spellers/grammarians. But we as readers don’t judge them based on spelling or grammar, since we never see it. So suspending judgment a little bit in that area, as hard as it is for me (because I really love good spelling and grammar), might lead to finding some great stories and storytellers on blogs.

Diversity, yep, we’re all different. Except we’re more the same than different, so it’s dumb to feel threatened by diversity. See: The Sneetches. Promoting and exposing people of different backgrounds doesn’t mean less opportunity for the folks in the majority demos. It just means they’ll have to work a little harder to rise to the top, which seems about right. And if the mission is democratizing publishing, then it seems like equalizing the opportunity for exposure and promotion goes hand in hand with that.

How diverse will your next conference be?