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Changing face of FOSS4G North America 2015

March 24, 2015

There have been some excellent write-ups of FOSS4G North America 2015 so far. Thank you so much to Peter Batty, Christopher Harrod, Bryan McBride, and Randal Hale.

A few of the write-ups noted differences in the conference this year. I would like to add a bit. Deep gratitude to our organizing committee and program committee for the work they did, and for the feedback on this post.

One area we thought would increase the quality of the conference and our dialog there was to push for greater diversity in the conference. Technology events and especially open source technology events tend to be dominated by caucasian males. For instance, it is not unusual for a FOSS4G related event’s audience to be around 10% women.

A lot could be said about why this matters. Open communities are fuelled by ideas, energy, and contributions. Losing people’s participation needlessly really hurts. More importantly, women participating in an open community can be seen as an important health check. Strong participation could indicate that the community is reasonably welcoming to all. And no, the current lack of women participating is not because they aren’t interested in technology & engineering!

Explanations for why this happens are long and complex. To share a few quick thoughts, open source and open data communities experience strong forces to self-select. As more people with similar ideas get together, barriers can form against newcomers, particularly people with notable differences from the incumbent group. While the barrier often is not intentional, or even overt, it is definitely there. It’s also worse than just a barrier to getting started. It’s a constant drag to all participation. Sadly this frustrates and pushes good people away from the community.

How do you help? Well, first off, it is very hard to change a culture at all. It’s darned near impossible starting from a position of convincing people they’re wrong, bad, ignorant, etc. There are so many outstanding people in open groups doing what they feel is the right thing, and they are deeply passionate in that conviction. Convincing passionate people that they may be discouraging others often falls flat. Nevertheless, open communities can become toxic without even realizing it.

In the context of conferences, many other events have hosted panel discussions to talk about diversity. While I’m glad there’s something happening, I find these discussions by themselves to be a missed opportunity. Rather than inviting people to just talk about their sex, gender, race, etc. we felt something more could be accomplished.

Like most conference organizers, we wanted amazing speakers to talk about tackling important challenging problems. We also wanted to make sure a good proportion of speakers just happened to be women. We were willing to do hard work to make it so, and that’s what we did (I will write more on the specific actions we took in a later post).

The important thing was the results. 30% of the speakers at FOSS4G NA 2015 were women. To the best of my knowledge, this was at least double the next highest proportion of women participating in past FOSS4G events.

The women speaking talked about the impressive work they were doing, and the innovative solutions they developed to address challenging problems. The change in the audience mirrored the increased proportion of women speakers. For what it’s worth, the audience feedback on these talks was extremely positive.

We hope that next year even more amazing women share their experiences & knowledge by participating in the conference. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a good start.

  1. This is really great Andrew. Looking forward to your next post on how this was accomplished. Do you have any plans to try to increase the diversity of the conference for other underrepresented groups?

    • Thanks Kim! Yeah, I’ll post soon about the various things we did. And yes, absolutely, we’d like to work harder to reach out to other underrepresented groups as well.

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