I attend a lot of tech conferences. I once attended at least 14 events over the course of twelve months. Large events at professional conference centers. Small events at local churches. Events that required driving. Events that required passing through customs.
Every event is unique. Every organizing team is unique. Every attendee is unique.
Still, there is very much a lack of diversity at these events.
The php[architect] team is, in my opinion, one of the best event groups on the planet. They put together several excellent events each year and I'm proud to have been a part of several. This is in no way a critique of that team; just an observation of something I witnessed at an event.
The first day of php[tek] 2015 featured a summit on open source. It was a promising event, bringing the leaders of several different open source projects together on stage to answer questions about their tools, their passion, and the future of open source as a whole. In short, this was a fantastic way to help highlight the "giving back" we know and love in the PHP community.
The only problem with the summit ... was filling the stage with nine white men and suggesting it was a fair representation of "the open source community."
Two Reasons Diversity Matters
Diversity matters for more reasons than I can enumerate. There are, however, at least three key reasons the tech community needs to focus on it:
Representation is Empowering
There's a certain amount of pride you experience when you see yourself succeed. That same pride extends to when you see someone like you succeed. Seeing someone you can identify with take the stage, lead a project, or showcase a magazine is profoundly empowering.
Growing up as a white man, it was easy for me to find examples and role models to whom I could look up. They were everywhere. Politicians. Athletes. Entrepreneurs. Astronauts. As a kid, I heard frequently that I could be anything I wanted to be as an adult and I saw a huge amount of evidence to that statement.
Your Perspective is Limited
I once wrote an essay about the importance of diversity in a college setting: Diversity is in the Discourse. I had intended it to be a fun play on the phrase "the devil is in the details," but that wasn't really the point.
My point was that diversity becomes the most valuable when it's personally experienced. You and I each have our limited perceptions of the world around us; we can only see the world through one set of eyes. It's when we share our perspective with others - more importantly, when we listen to and appreciate others' perspectives - that we truly grow and build a fuller sense of the world.
I went to a predominantly white high school. I was in marching band. My favorite event was the annual Festival of Bands we'd travel to around Halloween. It was a great event, and we even had t-shirts printed to commemorate the event. Plain white t-shirts emblazoned with a giant "FOB."
Much later, when my circle of friends began to grow that I wore my shirt to an unrelated event. One of my newer friends immediately yelled at me for "being such a blatant, unabashed racist." I discovered then that "fob" was also short for things like "fresh off the boat" and was a slur that had been used repeatedly after his family moved into the area.
I love WordPress. The product is fantastic and the community around it even more so.
I love WordCamps. It's refreshing to meet up with other WordPress users and talk about the different ways we're all using our favorite platform. Some use it as a blog. Some as a corporate landing site. At least one used it as a fantasy football coordination tool. The skies are the limits.
In my career, I've established enough credibility that people will reach out to me as an expert on various topics. The latest request, though, caught me off guard. I was asked to participate as a featured expert on the future of WordPress and how it relates to diversity.
I am a huge proponent of encouraging diversity in our community. I will gladly talk to anyone one-on-one about the different things we can do to encourage the participation of people belonging to under-represented demographics. But I am perhaps the last person you want to highlight as a "featured expert" on the topic.
Don't Ask Me
This isn't the first time I've been asked to participate in such an event. It won't be the last, either. But the fact remains, hearing a white man talk about diversity is a zero-sum game. As much as I care about the topic, it makes more sense to have someone more directly affected by the promotion of diversity in technology speak.
Asking a white man to talk about racial diversity or female empowerment or equality in the workforce is fundamentally misguided. We need to have a more diverse community in IT, but the way to get there is to empower those with diverse life experiences and raise them up as role models.
It's empowering to see yourself on stage speaking at an event. Make an effort to cultivate a wide representation of races, religions, orientations, and genders among your speakers.
It's powerful to hear from a broad spectrum of perspectives when making a decision, building a product, or nurturing an idea. If everyone involved in a conversation looks the same, thinks the same, and votes unanimously for an idea without debate you probably need to look outside your circle for a few more voices.
I see enough of myself on TV. I see enough of myself in politics. I see enough of myself in tech. I long for the day when I can look around in the tech community and see a reflection not of myself, but of the diversity of the world around me.