On Diversity Scholarships

I recently received the following question from Taco Verdonschot who has supported the DiversITy Matters initiative from the start:

To answer that I need a lot more characters than 140 characters, so, Taco, here is my response:

First of all, I applaud the conference for stepping up and:

  1. Offering scholarships to those who need it.
  2. Actively seeking to stimulate more diversity at their conference.


The fact that they bundle these scholarships with diversity is based on a false premise. Namely the premise that people from under-represented groups do not attend the conference because of financial reasons.

While this may be true for some, this will also be true for some people without a typically diverse background. So quite apart from the current scholarship being based on a false premise, it also implies the prejudice that people from under-represented groups in IT are poor.

A lot of people from diversity backgrounds, have had to fight prejudice all their lives. Creating a scholarship like this is adding insult to injury and – in my opinion – not a good thing.

I would advocate to any conference considering offering scholarships and wanting to stimulate diversity, to decouple the two.


Open the scholarships application process to anyone who wants to attend the conference and cannot do so because of financial reasons. Include intrinsic motivation to attend the conference as part of the application process and some form of demonstrating why they cannot  afford to without the scholarship.

If you like, you could stipulate that when there are several candidates which rise to the top of the pile and not enough scholarships to go around, that the diversity of the candidate will be taken into account. But only then. Not as a starting point of the selection process.


At the same time, conferences can take a number of measures to make their conference more diversity friendly and I would very much encourage every conference to do so.

What we’ve found based on our own experiences as well as by studying numerous research reports on the subject, is that the key to increasing diversity is creating an inclusive environment.

Take a page out of Spotify’s playbook and learn how they created a gender-diverse hackathon.

But don’t stop there. Let critical readers from diverse background read any and all communications materials you create for the conference: are they free of language bias ? are they welcoming to all ?

What’s more, consider your physical registration process. Registration is for most people their first point of real contact with the conference. Most conferences, I’ve been to hand out t-shirts at this point. So make sure everyone feels welcome by having both female-fit as well as male-fit t-shirts and don’t forget to have some xxx-small and xxxxxx-large shirts available as well.

Have a  code of conduct and don’t just use it as window-dressing. Appoint a dedicated person from the core-organization team as “guardian”. Make that person known during the opening of the conference, make sure all complaints are treated as confidential and that they are all addressed. Don’t be afraid to withdraw someone’s right to attend the conference if they cross the clearly laid out line.

And there is so much more, I could continue and end up with a book. That however was not the intention of this article, so I’ll leave it at this and I hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

Final note

Just to be clear: this article is not a naming and shaming of the one conference which inspired the question to be asked. I’d like to reiterate that I applaud the fact that they want to broaden the community attending their conference.

I’d gladly welcome the opportunity to support them in this with advice or by making myself available as a speaker on Diversity and I invite them to contact us if they are open to this.

On Diversity in Tech

Last month, the Dutch Girls in Tech group asked me to give a short talk about being a women in IT during their ‘European Code Week’ special meetup.

These are the notes on what I tried to convey during the meeting:

The other week yet another study came out about why women leave tech. Their ‎conclusion which I heartily agree with is “it’s the culture, not because math is hard”.‎

So what is it about the tech culture that drives women away and makes the barrier ‎for entry so high ?‎
Well the short of it is: we don’t fit in, we are the odd ones out.‎

We are too often not taken as seriously as our male counter-parts, sometimes just ‎ignored altogether, other times letched after and unfortunately we still get too ‎often thought of as part of the location, hr or other non-tech staff.‎

In short: We are not white males.‎

The best way to counter-act this, is of course to get more women into the industry, ‎but that’s a chicken-egg situation.‎
In the mean time, it’s up to us.‎

When I look around at techy user group meetings or conferences, generally the ‎women I see are either standing alone somewhere, making themselves as small ‎as possible or clinging to a male collegue they came in with, or trying to fit in, ‎dressing in the typical male tech uniform of jeans and a tech shirt and trying to ‎compete in a verbal “mine is bigger than yours” competition.‎
While I believe everyone has to do what’s right for them to feel comfortable or in ‎this case, possibly – less uncomfortable -, I’d also like to warn about ‎compromising yourself just to fit in.‎

We are women. Some of us are single, others in a relationship or married. Some ‎of us are mothers. Some of us are hetero-sexual, some are lesbian, some bi-‎sexual or transgender. Some of us are studying, some have just started a career, ‎others are well on their way. We come from different towns, different backgrounds, ‎different religions and maybe even different countries.‎
But we are all women. And there should be no need for any of us to hide that fact ‎just to ‘fit in’.‎

To be true to yourself and still ‘survive’ being part of the tech industry isn’t always ‎easy. As women we’ve been brought up to be on guard for our personal safety. ‎To be wary of large groups of men, to always be very aware of our surroundings ‎as danger may lurk in every corner. And we are right to be wary. One in every 2 to ‎‎3 women will encounter some form of sexual intimidation or assault during their ‎lifetime and some will encounter this more than once.‎

So it’s not strange at all that we as women feel discomfort when we join the tech ‎industry. It’s intimidating joining a tech company or going to a tech meeting and ‎being the only woman or one of only a handful of women there.‎

To illustrate what I mean by this for all the men here, let me recount a telling ‎example I encountered while the #yesallwomen movement was at it’s high at the ‎end of May this year.‎

‎”Imagine I have a 100 cocktail glasses here, I fill them all up with a nice little ‎cocktail and offer you one. Before you drink from it, though, I tell you that 98 of ‎them are absolutely safe to drink, however, two of them contain cyanide and will ‎kill you in seconds.‎
Would you still drink it ?”‎

All men I’ve told this example to, respond with a resounding “NO” and rightfully so. ‎But that is exactly the same dynamic women encounter every single day in the ‎tech industry.‎

Now just to be clear, this is not meant to discourage you from going into the tech ‎industry. I believe, that when we – both men and women – understand the dynamic ‎better, we will be better equipped to counter-act it.‎

So what can we all – both men and women – and yes, gentlemen, I very much ‎include you in this – *do* to change this dynamic and to lower the barrier of entry ‎for women ? Well, one thing I have personally found very effective is to actually ‎make all newcomers feel welcome. When you attend a tech meeting, don’t just ‎spend all your time during the drinks catching up with the people you already ‎know. Look around you, go up to someone who is new at the meeting and ‎welcome them. Introduce them to some more people and most importantly, treat ‎them as your peers, as fellow developers.‎

Another thing you can do – if all this meeting stuff sounds ‎really intimidating -, is: use the internet. The internet after all can be quite ‎anonymous if you want it to be. Choose a gender neutral nickname, study open ‎source code, contribute to it by reporting bugs, sending in pull requests, adding ‎unit tests, writing documentation or creating translations. I personally found this a ‎low-key way to learn an incredible amount about the technologies which ‎interested me while at the same time allowing you to build up your CV. Then, ‎once you know some people through online interaction, it will be a lot less ‎intimidating to dive into the community.‎

I sincerely believe that having more diversity – in the broadest sense of the word – ‎in the tech industry will improve the code we write, will improve the usability of ‎applications, will lessen the amount of bugs, will increase profitability and will also ‎improve the atmosphere in the work place.‎

So, thank you for being here and I hope to still see all of you at meetings like this ‎and more in-depth ones in five years time.‎

Accompanying slides