The mind is like a parachute. If it doesn't open, you're meat.

(Gender)Diversity...oh my!

15 Sep 2013

Diversity is a huge subject and doesn’t just cover gender or racial colour differentiations. European events tend to be extremely diverse on a different level than the current diversity discussion. We are fond of saying that you can drive a hundred miles in Europe and you will cross 6 countries.

We don’t actually have an accurate count of the languages spoken at EuRuKo or the countries of origin for the delegates (but in my 5yr old son’s school the count stands at 28).

We know that there were participants from every inhabited continent on this planet (-1 if you count Antarctica in that set) and from a questionnaire that only about a quarter of the delegates filled-in we have a listing of 24 different countries. Having invited people from countries that are missing from that list (Japan, Brasil and France come to mind) we can guarantee that it’s not complete.

This post is explicitly concentrated on the issue of gender diversity and the goals the EuRuKo committee had set about it. It’s also my own personal view on the subject with the benefit of a couple of months of distance to the conference.

EuRuKo ended up with an all male lineup. So typically we actually failed on one of the goals set from the beginning.

Personally, I’m stumped about what more we could have done. Let’s go through the list once more:

We went out and invited female speakers. They declined, each for their own very good reasons (sorry guys, but except for Matz, you were all “second choice material” ;) ). In hindsight I am really happy they couldn’t come and end up as a lonesome diversity token.

We set a code of conduct, designed to keep racuous, young, white males in check (aaaand I’m done stereotyping).

Then we came up with a CfP process with a blind selection phase aiming to encourage submissions by everyone. And we went completely nuts trying to promote it. Devchix, RailsGirls, every ruby group list we could find, you name it, it got an email (or more) from us. I’m surprised that we didn’t get blacklisted as major geek spammers.

There were 91 talk proposals and all kinds of metrics that tell you that the whole process stimulated interest and created discussions and participation from the community. And when we pulled back the curtains just one - a single one! - was submitted by a woman!

Dammit ladies, you didn’t even give us a chance! Submit a couple of talks, let the community show it’s bias…or not.

In the aftermath of the CfP there were a lot of discussions about the reasons for the lack of female participation.

In one of those @ashedryden summarized for me the following points:

  • have they accepted women speakers before?
  • are they interested in having women speakers?
  • how involved are they (conference itself and its organizers) with groups that support women in technology?
  • do I know people that are attending, speaking, or organizing?
  • can I afford to go if the conference doesn’t cover anything for speakers?
  • will it be a safe place for me to present?
  • will the venue and location be a safe place for me to travel alone?

The answer to every one of those points (except for 2 were it’s a crystal clear yes) is complicated by the nature of EuRuKo and how it is organized.

Let’s say that the organizers were an unknown quantity and Greece’s miniscule Ruby community is busy drumming up support for the community in general within a framework of complete abandonement from any official source.

Cost was also a factor. Not for the conference per se, which probably is the cheapest conference of that caliber that you will ever attend, but because Athens is on the ass end of flight connections and a tourist destination at the end of June, which makes getting there…expensive.

There was an effort to enable at least the speakers to save money. Some things (like the Google female scientists EMEA grant) did not pan out, others (like offering sponsor deals for companies that payed their employee travelling expenses) worked really well.

The one thing we failed to address explicitly, because of our own bias, was safety. We live, work and move around in Athens and by any measure or metric Athens is way safer than any big US city and safer than many big European cities. And I mean that in the walk-alone-on-the-street-in-the-middle-of-the-night sense. But safer does not mean safe.

We had a doctor on standby and there was security personel in the venue, but these are general measures meant for everyone.

Greece in general and Athens in particular has made the news in very sensational ways the last few years. Our venue selection was explicitly influenced by the wish to avoid having our delegates move in the “demonstration” zone of Athens and thus risk - there is no reason to hide it - having to treat tear-gas victims. That would have put a huge damper on the whole conference!

Still any reasonably well informed and intelligent person (which overlaps quite a bit with our target audience) has been inundated in the past couple of years by dark and ugly news from the “birthplace of Democracy” and to work against that bias was difficult from the beginning. Maybe targeting it specifically would have put female participants more at ease, maybe it would have scared more people away. Either way it was the one thing we did not address in public.

At the end we had less than 10% female participation at the event, a point Kiev should improve on in 2014.

Still, there’s about 400 more people with fresh EuRuKo Athens experience in the community and I bet they will all tell you that you should have been there and that you shouldn’t miss the next one.

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