Diversity is important to tech, right?
We want the makeup of our company to reflect the vast range of people who use Twitter. Doing so will help us build a product to better serve people around the world. — Twitter
Intel is committed to setting the industry standard for a diverse and inclusive workplace culture. — Intel
At Facebook, we value the impact that every individual can have. We are dedicated to creating an environment where people can be their authentic selves and share their own diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and ideas. — Facebook
Most of these companies have backed their words with money — funds that are earmarked for improving diversity. And they do back some good things, like events specifically meant for the demographics those companies are trying to add to their own workforces.
But the money that most tech companies have set aside for diversity isn’t going towards the infrastructure necessary to truly create a sustainably inclusive tech industry.
I’ve been an organizer with the local PyLadies group for a few years now, and we have no shortage of companies that want to buy us pizza so that they can tell our members about job opportunities. When someone talks about offering childcare at broader meetups, everyone agrees that the idea is sound, but no one wants to pay for it. The same is true for tech conferences. As co-chair of Open Source Bridge this year, I hoped to find a sponsor specifically for childcare — a simple change that would make it easier for attendees with families. The business case seems pretty obvious: no matter their gender, senior programmers routinely have families. If those programmers work remotely, are single parents, or split care with another parent, finding childcare can be difficult. Weekend conferences, in particular, can be hard because a parent might have to leave their children with someone overnight.
Providing childcare means that parents are more likely to attend conferences or other events and therefore have a better chance of interacting with a recruiter for a given company. That sort of infrastructure dramatically improves the number of people able to attend.
Adding infrastructure like childcare services to the technology industry’s norms is a prerequisite for making the industry more diverse. Recruiters have to be able to find diverse candidates if they’re going to connect them with employers. That means funding the infrastructure that gets those diverse candidates into the room.
So why is it so hard to get sponsors for things that make diverse conference attendance easier, even for relatively inexpensive additions like providing ASL interpreters?
I offered myself up as a walking billboard in our crowdfunding campaign in order to cover our childcare costs at Open Source Bridge. I asked numerous sponsors if they would be interested in being our childcare sponsor. The lack of enthusiasm compared to our standard sponsorship levels and even compared to sponsoring diversity scholarships was obvious. (Surprise: Even guaranteeing that a company get their logo on one of the most visible people at a given conference isn’t enough to get money for childcare. We managed to cover the cost of childcare, but it was a near thing.)
Apparently the name on the label is very important to sponsors: specifically labeling a sponsorship level as a diversity opportunity gets potential backers excited because they like having their names associated with the word ‘diversity.’
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for diversity scholarships. They play an important role in making conferences more accessible. But each scholarship only helps one person. The right infrastructure will make tech events, along with the rest of the industry, more accessible to a much larger number. I may be hung up on childcare, but by offering childcare at no additional costs makes a world of difference for people who can afford a ticket to a conference but can’t afford the $100+ cost of a babysitter for a single day . For instance, think about developers whose employers will pay for their ticket and travel but won’t cover any other costs. And when you consider that multiple attendees will face that sort of expense, eliminating the cost of childcare means multiple attendees will find a conference financially accessible.
From a strict business perspective, this is ridiculous. And it’s easy enough to fix, provided tech companies truly want the diversity they keep talking about.
It’s time for tech companies to put their money where their mouths are.
In terms of conference sponsorships, that means funding real accessibility. The bullet points below are my personal wish list for conferences I run, but every conference needs different things:
- An accessible venue
- On-site, free childcare
- Transcription and ASL interpretation
- Multiple food options, including at snack times (vegan, halal, etc.)
- Swag other than t-shirts
(Liz Abinante has a more exhaustive list here.)
There are plenty of other opportunities to develop better infrastructure in the tech industry in general, too:
- Scholarship funds (not just individual scholarships) for code schools
- Dry (alcohol-free) parties and other events
- Childcare for meetups and other networking events
Dry events, in particular, would be a welcome addition. There is no doubt that the tech industry has a drinking problem. Even casual meetups often focus as much around a keg as they do around a technical talk. That excludes so many people: folks who have alcohol intolerances, folks who are pregnant, folks who need to drive home, and — perhaps the elephant in the room—folks who struggle with sobriety. An estimated one in 12 people have problems with alcohol abuse; they’re at every meetup, happy hour, conference, or other tech event we go to and have to face the choice of fitting in or taking care of themselves. And yet, many of these events don’t even have an alternative to drinking (asking for water can be difficult). We need not only alternative beverages, but alternative types of events that don’t rely on booze.
Because this sort of infrastructure doesn’t yet exist, many people are shut out of the tech industry. If you can’t go to the next networking happy hour for tech companies in your town — whether you can’t get a sitter, you can’t drink, or for some other reason — your chances of getting a job in the tech industry go way down.
A few people make it in anyhow, by paying what amounts to a tax on being more diverse than the next programmer over: finding a way to pay for whatever tools necessary to cover the cost of fitting in is the only way past those problems. In an ideal world, tech companies should give giant signing bonuses to candidates who improve their diversity numbers, if only to cover those candidates’ costs of getting into the industry in the first place.
The wage gap makes me think that sort of bonus will never happen, so pay for the infrastructure your company needs to recruit these people.
Want an easy way to start putting your money into the infrastructure the tech industry really needs? Cut a check to an organization today. Even $25 makes a difference, so if you benefit from that aforementioned wage gap, consider putting money in personally as well as through a company.