For WordCamp, the challenge of diversifying tech takes center stage

The case for an all-underrepresented WordCamp organizing team.

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The WordPress community is no stranger to the challenge of diversifying a traditionally white and male tech industry. We’re excited for the upcoming release of WordPress 6.4, which will be run by the second All Women and Non-Binary Release Squad. And we’re working hard to make WordCamp US 2023 the most diverse conference yet, partnering with six other major WordPress companies to provide travel grants to speakers from underrepresented groups.

But it’s still often an uphill battle against people who seem to have an entrenched interest with the status quo – or at least, a discomfort with change.

You may know Michelle Frechette from her work at Post Status and StellarWP, or as the person recognized by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg as the hardest-working woman in WordPress.

Michelle co-founded the Underrepresented in Tech platform and has written incisive commentary about misogyny in WordPress and the lack of accessible hotel facilities at WordCamp US 2022.

Michelle and I also volunteer together at CertifyWP, and she’s a tireless advocate for expanding opportunities for everyone in WordPress and the tech industry.

Diversity at conferences is on Michelle’s mind in part because of the recent Cloudfest conference, where one of the few women speakers called out the lack of diversity on stage. And because WordCamp Europe – the most-attended WordPress community conference – is in the process of releasing its speaker list.

After reviewing the first 20 speaker announcements (there were about 60 in total last year), Michelle tweeted:

You’d think, after the commitment to diversity that WordCamp Europe promised last year (after it was noted that they had no Black organizers), there’d be a chorus of agreement with Michelle from the WCEU team.

Instead, the response was more along the lines of: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

WordCamp Europe global lead Sjoerd Blom replied, “Please stop being prejudiced and wait until ALL speakers have been announced. Thanks.”

WordCamp Europe organizer Estela Rueda responded, “It is just a coincidence that they came out that way. We are aware but it feels pretty awful being called out when we are still working on releasing the speakers names.” She added, “I would never allow having a WordCamp that is mostly male. The way announcements came through is unfortunate but there is more that will please you.”

Since those statements, 10 more speakers have been announced, bringing us to roughly half the total (again, there were 60 speakers and panelists last year, not including the keynote with Matt Mullenweg). Three more women were included in those 10 new speaker announcements, which brings the count to 8 women and 22 men. That’s about 26.6% women, similar to the number Michelle quoted and similar to the percentage of women on stage at last year’s event.

The speaker slate appears to be about 87% white so far. (England and Wales are about 82% white, whereas the United States is about 57% white.)

The Content Team, which selects the speakers, appears to be about 72% men and 72% white.

Since we’re now approximately halfway through, the gender ratio of the remaining speaker announcements would need to completely flip – from 75% men to 25% men – to achieve the organizer’s stated goal of not having an event where the people on stage are “mostly men.”

That’s certainly possible – we’ll see how it shakes out.

Update, May 17: Forty-five speakers have now been announced, of which 15 are women. That brings the ratio to 33.3%, and if there are 60 total speakers (similar to last year), all of the remaining speakers would need to be women to achieve gender parity (i.e. “not mostly men” on stage).

In the meantime, I think it’s worth revisiting some of the conversations we had on MasterWP last year about similar issues.

First, the organizers of these events have immense power. If a less powerful person (such as an attendee) publicly expresses concern about the organizer’s behavior, that doesn’t change the power balance. I see a lot of organizers frame themselves as the victims when asked to do more work to diversify their events, and I think this is an abdication of responsibility. Obviously, the people who care about diversity are empathetic to the feelings of others – but the organizers seem to prey on that empathy by framing themselves as victims when, in fact, they have nearly all the power.

Second, the “volunteer” culture of WordPress is a plague on making real improvements to events. In this week’s discourse, as also happened last year, many people chimed in to say that the organizers are “just volunteers,” and thus shouldn’t be pushed for diversity or held to the same standards you might hold someone to if they were being paid. I know the idea of volunteer-run events made sense 15 years ago, but now it just gives people an escape hatch when they create less-inclusive events. The WordPress Foundation needs to start paying organizers and speakers so that people have the funds they need to do a good job, and so that they have more accountability if they make mistakes that affect others. In the absence of that desperately needed leadership from the foundation, we’re thrilled to have been able to fill some of the gap – along with our many company grant partners – with our travel grant program.

WordPress should extend the concept of the All-Women and Non-Binary Release Squad to its major events. A WordCamp US 2024 that is entirely organized by members of underrepresented groups would be a huge step toward building a team of experienced organizers who can properly understand and empathize with the unique challenges that keep many people away from these events. It would show that WordPress is serious about a more diverse future, and show that the organization isn’t just lazily propping up the same rude tech bros who’ve been in charge for a decade.

This idea would certainly fire up the angry squad of bros – they’d probably call it unfair and call its supporters lots of names. The same thing happens with each All Women and Non-Binary Release Squad. But what I propose is that the community go all-in on diversity – even to the extent that it might deter some of our current “leaders” who would prefer to stick with the status quo. If they leave, it makes space for new community members who’ll help our software and businesses grow and thrive. If we continue to give most of the power to the “old guard” of dudes who wring their hands in public about diversity initiatives being unfair, we’re effectively permanently closing the door to designers, developers and future leaders from underrepresented groups.

Nobody wants to hang out in a space where they’re told to “just wait” or “be patient” on the topic of diversity. If WordPress wants to be a vibrant community when its 30th birthday rolls around, then we need serious and rapid change.

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Rob is the CEO of HDC and the Publisher of MasterWP.

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