17 Dec

Improving Diversity and Community in the Brisbane Tech Family

As the end of another year approaches, it’s always a time for reflection on the last 12 months.  Family, and community, is a vital part of civilisation. Familial bonds are what has made the human race so pervasive and successful. In every extended family there are a variety of diverse members with mix of gender and age.  Yet in the global technology community (and STEM to a broader extent) this diversity is lacking, both in gender, and race.

Many in the industry will disregard this to a “pipeline problem”, a lack of interested candidates from an early age.  And, whilst I agree that this is a major aspect of the problem, I don’t believe it’s the only one, and there’s another one which may be simpler to improve.

The Hidden Truth

I believe there are far more women who start careers in IT, but who drop out between high-school and entering the workforce. I’ve been in the software development industry for over 20 years and many of the teams I’ve seen in that time have been predominantly white and male. The industry conferences, meetup groups and other mass gatherings of technologists trend towards 75% male attendance as well. One of the problems with this is that when women, and other minorities, enter these environments, they are in such small numbers that they feel alone and isolated.  For many women in this space, they tire of constantly needing to work harder for recognition, or the death of a thousand cuts from inappropriate or unwelcome behaviour from their colleagues, and they leave the industry. Other women simply don’t return following parental leave.

Hope for the future?

However, in the last couple of years in Brisbane I have been privileged to meet, and work with, some amazing people who are taking action to try and stop this slow departure of women from IT, and to encourage new interest in this important industry.

If you’re running a business, technology is likely your key to success and if you want your team to be competitive, diverse and inclusive you need to include diverse team members. If you previously thought that the lack of diversity in tech is purely a “pipeline problem” and in the too-hard basket then I urge you to consider the following suggestions for supporting more women to stay in tech. This year I mentored at two NodeGirls (MusesJs) events, both were sold out with around 100 women in attendance.  With this amount of interest in tech, I don’t think see the pipeline problem.

An action-plan for progress

The following are some ideas I’ve observed this year from the Brisbane tech community.  Most of the ideas are not my own, simply a summary of things I think are going to make a positive change to the tech community. 

Increase Visibility

As I stated above, when I look back over the various teams I’ve been in, most are homogeneous.  As a result, people become wired to think that is the norm.  In order to reprogram our societal norms, we must form diverse teams and then make them visible. 

A number of regular initiatives are going on in Brisbane at the moment to help raise the visibility of our great female talent around the community.  Sammy Herbert did a great job of this by including a callout to #BrisbaneTechQueens in her presentation at the DDD developer conference in December 2018.

Create Supportive Communities

When I mentored at a NodeGirls in 2017 I was blown away by how inclusive and supportive the community was.  There was a very different feel to this event compared to other tech events, and I liked it.  The organisers of NodeGirls (now Muses Code Js) are very deliberate in their actions to create a safe and supportive community, and they strive to create enduring connections between participants.  This allows the participants to keep each other motivated and supported on their journey into JavaScript (and Tech in general).  

Vanessa Love is a great advocate for creating powerful communities and connections.  She is always on the look-out for new women to connect with, and this year she launched her product Emvious which is a secure community for women in STEM.  

Measurement of Community Diversity

Larene Le Gassick, co-organiser of CTO school and women who code, is a fan of data-driven decision making and she has been capturing diversity metrics on the number of male and female presenters at technology-focussed meetups.  By measuring these sorts of statistics it gives the community something to work towards, and earlier this year Larene put the challenge to the community to reach a 50/50 split for presenters by Ada Lovelace Day 2019.

What can you do in your company or community to ensure that minority groups are well represented public forums?

Mentoring

The technology community is large and can be overwhelming for any new member.  This is doubly hard when you’re a minority in the community.  I mentioned above the importance of raising visibility of women in the tech industry, but for first-time speakers it’s a daunting experience.

Recently Vanessa Love put together a workshop for Women Who Code for first-time speakers Speaker Training for the Intimidated.  She shared numerous valuable practical tips, paired up experienced presenters with first-timers and helped them find speaking opportunities where they could take a less-scary step onto the stage.

What can you or your company do to mentor and support your up-and-coming tech women?

Options for Continuity of Work

There are numerous published reports that show a huge departure of women from STEM careers in their mid to late thirties.  One report I read attributed this to changes in life priorities around starting families.  However, Sarah Taraporewalla from Thoughtworks recently shared her story of returning to a technical career after parental leave.  In her case she didn’t want to give up on her technical career and she worked with her employer to ensure that there was a flexible path to enable to her return to work.  

If you’re an employer, make it easy for women to return to the workplace following parental leave and equally importantly, ensure that employees are aware of this possibility early in their careers. 

Something else I took away from Sarah’s talk is that it can make all the difference how your team treats you as a part-time or remote worker.  Sarah related a story of how she found it challenging to re-integrate with her team on certain projects when she wasn’t there certain days.  Her insight was that you need to find a way that works with your team to keep up to date with the daily activities, even when you’re not there.  For her, keeping an eye on Slack even on her home-days helped.

If you’re a colleague of a part-time worker, try to be mindful of the challenges they’re facing and put in the effort to make them feel welcome and included in the team regardless of the hours they’re in the office.

Sponsorship

To young women (and men for that matter) entering the tech industry, it can be a daunting place.  Look for opportunities to not only connect these people with mentors in the industry but also look for ways to introduce them to a broad range of experiences and possibilities in a technology career.  One example is by being available to attend events like conferences, meetups and hackathons with new members of the community to make the experience less daunting and valuable.

This is a great one that anyone can do – you don’t need to be a manager or an employer to make a young person comfortable at a meetup.

What can you do to help make our tech family more supportive and inclusive?