Diversity in Bristech

By Nic Hemley, Bristech Founder

Thursday 26th September 2019

We can all agree that technology companies of all flavours, whether product, consultancy or event-based, have issues of diversity. 

It is inescapable in an industry in which the problem is systemic when compared to other industries. As of 2017, women hold just 24% of computer science jobs and occupy roughly 11% of executive positions in America’s tech hub Silicon Valley (2017). Although the medium-term trend shows numbers of women increasing in IT professional roles, the numbers of men working in these roles are increasing at a faster rate, so the proportion of the IT professional workforce who are women is still only 16.2% in 2018, (14.3% in 2014).

Bristech mirrors these disproportions in a most public way.  We work hard to create a welcoming space for women speakers at our monthly meetup events, but our conference offers separate challenges on two different fronts due to diversity (or perceived diversity!) of our a) audience and b) speakers.

In 2018 we had two women speakers at the conference and one non-binary speaker; 2019 has same number of women speakers despite our actions towards greater gender diversity. This year we do also have a woman chairperson, workshop facilitator and two panellists, giving fairer representation (but in a more general context).

However there is also a broader point to be made: diversity is not just about gender. Although it is perhaps the most obvious and most instantly identifiable, there are other aspects to consider which is collectively described as intersectionality. For example, this year we are hosting Sveta, who is presenting on “Accessibility Through a Deaf Lens”.  Her personal experience with deafness is adding a further dimension to the event.

Diversity has context and specifics

So diversity has both context (think: a systemic industry issue) and specifics (i.e. how the dynamics play out for a specific organisation/process).

What I now understand (but didn’t before) is that diversity requires systems thinking in order to understand it and engage more fully. In other words, it is possible to expend a lot of effort for no outcome (“low leverage”  in systems thinking language) or instead expend less work for maximum outcome (“high leverage”). What’s more, this is compounded by the fact that Bristech conference is largely a solo effort from myself (and my time can be a scarce resource!). Far from being a “woe is me” tale, it means I need to engage smarter, not harder.

In short, I want to improve diversity through expending effort ideally on actions of maximum impact. 

What I got wrong in 2019 

I would be the first to admit that I have much to learn! We expended a lot of energy on low-leverage actions that did not directly translate into a desired outcome i.e. a more diverse set of speakers. The diversity of the audience is another matter entirely, as noted before.

For the lack of gender diversity in the 2019 line-up, I am sorry.  From a gender perspective, I recognise that two women speakers (of eighteen) is not good enough.  In addition, being aware that you’re part of the problem isn’t enough - specific behaviours and actions are needed, as our community noted on Twitter (!) To my mind, systems thinking can shape thinking to avoid the trap of a “blame game” and instead focuses on personal/group agency within a process that is currently delivering the wrong outcome.

Low leverage / High leverage

So what are the low-leverage actions that yielded no outcome? And what the high-leverage actions that would yield an excellent outcome?

To answer these questions it is important to understand the nature of the Bristech conference. It is not an event whereby the speakership is chosen through cherry-picking a few excellent (and diverse) speakers. That would be an obvious solution, however, our process of speaker selection is more complicated than that.

We follow a process for the speaker selection called a CFP (Call for Proposals, or Call for Papers) which is effectively an open request for people to submit talks from which a limited selection is made by specific criteria (i.e. topic relevance to our audience, evidence for quality speaker delivery and proven topic experience). This effectively leads to a “funnel problem” since it is not possible to select people if they don’t submit to the CFP! In addition, within the narrow sub-sector of software engineering, gender diversity is a more acute problem than in UX/Design or Cyber (anecdotally, I don't have concrete figures).

This can be mitigated to some degree by some initial “seed” speakers which can be announced early, but the whole point of Bristech is that it is an open call for speakers. The selection panel must also be diverse and so this year we engaged with Katie Russell (Head of Data Science, Ovo Energy), Sam Williams (Chief Engineer, BJSS) and Chris Smith (Bristech) as the selection panel.

The core of the diversity problem is in fact a process problem. 

Seen through this lens, diversity is not a “thing”, it is an outcome of a process that respects diversity. This is where systems thinking comes in, since if we see the wider system dynamics in play, we can get a better handle on how the dynamics lead to less (or more) desirable outcomes.

We believed that engaging with local diverse communities would directly lead to more diverse speakers in the CFP funnel. While that has certainly lead to good relationships with various local organisations, it has arguably had little impact on our CFP. We’ve spoken individually with at least ten potential women speakers on calls and Video Conference to explore if they would be willing to submit - but none actually submitted a talk. Something else must therefore be required alongside this ground-work effort.

The conclusion to draw from this effort is that reaching out to people for a meeting or call to discuss the possibility of a talk submission is time intensive and of low leverage. It doesn’t necessarily make it any more likely that a talk will actually be submitted.

We need to concentrate upstream of the CFP.

By offering free and accessible webinars and workshops to prospective speakers on public speaking, we support high-leverage direct encouragement and support for those who may not otherwise submit. This approach is already proven from a diversity of topic perspective, since we run monthly meetup events on a wide-range of different subjects.

By offering advice, support, out-reach, and guidance to people about the content and delivery of a great talk, we can transparently map it through to our selection process. If people can understand the whys and wherefores of how we select talks, then the process can be more openly understood.

My reasoning is now that a more formalised series of workshops (that begins well before the CFP even opens) could therefore become a breeding ground for tech speakers of all backgrounds.

This is my fundamental response.

Bristech is now partnering with Global Diversity CFP Day (an initiative by Peter Aitken of ScotlandJS) and will be offering a series of workshops, both online and offline, before and during the CFP for Bristech 2020 to ensure that everyone who wants to get a chance to submit has the knowledge, tools, and support to do so.

Our first CFP diversity day workshop will be held on Saturday 18th January 2020, facilitated by public speaking specialists and involving speakers past and present, as well as members of the CFP selection panel. This will be followed by a series of webinars and workshops by experienced practitioners to help people of all backgrounds on their public speaking journeys.

Our focus will not only be on gender. It’s not our role to dictate what diverse looks like since there are many types of diversity: race, age, class, gender, sexuality, disability, neurological, and more. Instead, our focus will be on intersectionality.

The exhortations of our Twitter commentators to “try harder” are only half the story.  We need to try harder & smarter. Only by understanding the context of our industry and also the specifics of our own talk selection processes can we make progress on this most important, and as yet elusive, of goals.

Please do join us in making the tech space in Bristol more welcoming and more diverse.

If you would like to talk to us about getting involved in the workshops, or on getting more involved as a diversity ambassador for Bristech, please do get in touch.

About Nic Hemley

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Nic is a founder, technologist and concerned human. Concerned as disconnection seems rife in our society and the basis for many social and ecological ills. After working in the technology space for 15 years as a software developer, he founded Bristech meetup (2013) as a vibrant space for passionate individuals to share their experience and knowledge. The conference (2015) built further on this vision. Nic is motivated by the desire to explore ideas and approaches; he loves words, books, podcasts and the human spirit. He also finds it a bit strange describing himself in third-person.