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.

However….

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.

Scholarships

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.

Diversity

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.