The Phony Balance Benchmark

There’s a palpable tension in my shoulders as I tap this out — I know already that this post will create cringe-worthy responses and name calling and all the rest. But on we plod.

A friend called out to me a peculiar feature of a conference Program Committee they were serving on: that it was part of the PC’s role to keep a look out for strong minority/female speakers and encourage them to submit to the open CFP.

Soooooooo much has been written on these points, but in my (biased) view Frances covers it well:

Discrimination is a problem. I, personally, don’t give a monkey’s how many women or whoever are in our industry, as long as everyone who wanted to be here could and had free opportunity to do so, but sadly that is not the case and as such our community is not representative of all those that could be here if discrimination, from stereotyping roles to outright sexism/racism/agism/*ism, was not present. As such, we have a duty to address the problems that disable people’s opportunities.

I found myself reflecting on the PC’s I’ve served on over the years and the many styles they’ve embodied. There’s a particular style to the O’Reilly-run conferences that is distinctive, largely for the scale involved. OSCON is hundreds of talks across dozens of rooms. Velocity EU isn’t that much smaller. The level of curation that each PC applies is also hugely variable: Steve Souders is incredibly hands-on and detail oriented whereas I have no idea who actually heads up the OSCON PC any more. It doesn’t seem to functionally matter. But in both cases, despite the huge differences in style and approach, the box into which ORA puts the PCs creates the illusion of responsibility for a balance which, as Frances accurately notes, isn’t a particularly local concern.

The pressure itself is unmistakeable. The overt urges to over-select for some trait, the conversations that happening among PC members or in comments in the review tools…as long as it’s not anonymized feedback against anonymized submissions (my favorite kind), the cultural need to be seen to be “doing something” at a point far, far removed from any actual leverage is nearly overwhelming. And the risks to “doing something” are enormous. Nobody at a tech conference wants to be a token of anything other than sparkling technical achievement.

The risks to conference organizers run counter, however: we’ve seen over and over again that the angry mob demonstrates little faculty with math. And that mob can sink a conference. The mob’s leaders don’t appear to acknowledge that some populations are structurally under-represented in computing (conflating it with generic “STEM” representation levels, even after correction), or that being the case, that bludgeoning PCs and organizers into over-representation may present as many pitfalls as positives.

What to do?

The conclusion that smacked me upside the head today is that conference organizers must nip this in the bud: demonstrate action at the root cause to diffuse the tension that would otherwise bubble into inappropriate selection pressure and math-challenged “advocacy”. The solution is the same in both cases: credibly commit to donating a % of revenue (not profit) to efforts that teach more girls and other under-represented minorities how to be engineers.

We can’t retroactively fix the selection pressures that got us to the current terrible state. But we can clear the path for the next generation, and we can set a better example of being decent humans each other while our overly-white, overly-male generation of engineers recedes into anecdote. Conferences that commit, audit-ably and credibly to doing this, along with setting codes of conduct and taking their responsibilities seriously in other regards, are doing the only things that can be truly argued to be in the best good for our discipline. We must work to create the conditions of equal opportunity in our field, not merely affect the outward appearance of a discipline that has it.

It’s time to de-fang the phony arguments about “balance”, re-direct our focus to the areas that can have more effect, and judge the results by the wellbeing of our peers and those who seek to join those ranks.

Update: I elided any discussion of effectiveness of the organizations which I’m suggesting conferences should be supporting. That was intentional. There’s quite a lot of variability in effectiveness and, in most cases, not even much measurement. The process of bringing interested youngsters into CS is fraught with hurdles, and the right mental model is a “sales funnel” in which we lose potential conversions at many steps. Equal opportunity must be present at each step in the funnel for it to be truly achieved. I’d hope that conferences and others supporting the cause of equality in technology take a data-driven view to how to best deploy their support. But the failures of most charitable organizations to characterize their results is a long digression for another time.

Source: Alex Russell

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