Sidestepping the Debate About Quotas

Lately we’ve been having a discussion within the Seattle WordPress Meetup about how to be more inclusive, and welcome people who are traditionally under-represented or discouraged from participating in tech communities. During the discussion, Mark Root-Wiley linked to an article by Courtney Stanton where she describes how she was able to get women to represent half of the speakers at her tech conference, something that many conference organizers say is nearly impossible.

The interesting thing is that she didn’t set any quotas for what the makeup of the speaker lineup would be; instead, she was very intentional about encouraging women to submit proposals to speak. Then, she chose the speakers in a blind comparison, based solely on the merits of the proposal. The results were that about 50% of the proposals came from women, and 50% of the speakers chosen were women.

I think this is a great idea, because it completely avoids two potential problems with setting a quota:

  1. Some people will claim a speaker has less credibility if they weren’t chosen based on their technical qualifications alone.
  2. The speakers themselves may feel like they’re being implicitly told that they weren’t able to achieve what they have based only on their qualifications.

I don’t have any interest in debating the merits of those two viewpoints, but no matter how you feel about them, they remain common objections when organizations try to become more intentional about diversity. The great thing about Courtney’s approach is that it avoids those issues altogether, and offers a way to achieve the desired results without getting bogged down in a debate about quotas.

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