The Importance of Diverse, Inclusive Software Conferences

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Some hardworking developers in the UK decided to put together a 2013 Ruby software conference called BritRuby. Everyone in the community was thrilled. They announced their line-up of invited speakers—and every one of the fifteen presenters happened to be white and male.

When this was pointed out to them on Twitter with comments like the ones below, the organizers took umbrage and canceled the conference.

Nice speaker lineup for @BritRuby. Except for the 100% white guys part.

By what metric is @BritRuby "one of Europe’s… most diverse Ruby software conferences"? *Every* speaker is a white man.

As one expects from any controversial incident on the Internet, a great deal of response and discussion followed.

Elisabeth Hendrickson dug into what had transpired and found that merely bringing up the topic of diversity seemed to have made things take a vicious turn—even when nothing incendiary had actually been uttered.

Steve Klabnik took a look at some of what was said and at the narratives that people constructed to string these bits of conversation together into their stories of what happened.

Avdi Grimm took a thoughtful look at what the BritRuby organizers had done up to this point and what the right steps forward for the community might be.

Why is diversity important? By making a software conference inclusive and welcoming to everyone, you avoid perpetuating the mainstream stereotypes that only non-disabled, straight, white, neurotypical, cis males are good at technology. You're helping to grow the pool of people who see a career in the computer industry as a possibility.

People with a diversity of backgrounds present a diversity of ideas, and much of the point of attending a software conference is to be exposed to concepts you hadn't heard about before. Finally, research shows that more diverse teams meet with greater success, and that diversity is a key component to avoiding groupthink.

As a conference organizer, what can you do? Recruiting a diverse slate of speakers seems like a daunting task, but there are plenty of resources dedicated to helping you.

Reaching out to the community and encouraging submissions from people who would be great presenters but who might not see themselves as such goes a long way. So does selecting sessions based on what they'll add to the conference, rather than how well known the presenters are.

If you take steps to build in diversity from the very beginning, a distinctive conference that conveys a lot of fresh perspectives is within anyone's grasp.

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Rick Scott

Rick Scott is a Canadian philosopher-geek who's profoundly interested in how we can collaborate to make technology work better for everyone. Rick's an incorrigible idealist, an open source contributor, and a staunch believer in testing, universal access, and the hacker ethic. When he's not in front of a computer, you'll find Rick hiking, making cupcakes, or honing his viola technique.