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Earlier this year, we launched our WordCamp travel sponsorship program in response to efforts by the WordCamp US organizers to attract a more diverse pool of speaker applicants. In collaboration with Winstina Hughes’ Support Inclusion in Tech initiative, we had the pleasure of paying for travel expenses for seven organizers, speakers and volunteers who attended this year’s WordCamp US.
The tl;dr – if you attended WordCamp US this year, you probably watched a speech or otherwise interacted with someone on a MasterWP WordCamp travel sponsorship who might not otherwise have been able to attend.
In total, we spent $10,000 on travel expenses for the sponsored participants (our limit was $1,500 per person, and everyone ended up pretty close to that number). This included paying for airfare, hotel, and transport to/from the airport, as well as a few other incidentals that were needed for accessibility and comfort during the trip.
In this post, I’ll talk about how we plan to improve the program for next year, and how others can get involved. But first, here are some direct quotes from sponsored participants about how the program affected them:
“Returned home last night. Catching up today. THANK YOU VERY MUCH is not enough words for one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Thank you again. I’m still in Cloud 210!!”
“I will start with saying, I am still deeply thankful for this opportunity. I’ve had ideas of wanting to attend a WordCamp and meetup so this being my first WC AND presenting, priceless experience. Again, thank you. I will remain a broken record for the appreciation. Thanks!”
“I would like to start off by thanking you for such an awesome program you are running. This sponsorship will help so many attend a WordCamp. It will be tough to swing the trip without your help. San Diego is not a cheap city and with the cost of transportation constantly on the rise, it has made things tough for me financially.”
In addition to the seven participants whose travel we reimbursed, we had 5-10 other people who reached out to us but ended up not being accepted as speakers. Combine this with the fact that GoDaddy, Yoast and InMotion also announced that they were open to sponsoring travelers – and the fact that we only announced the program a few days before speaker applications closed – and I think it’s safe to assume there were dozens of people (out of ~650 attendees) for whom travel costs to San Diego were a significant burden that was not covered by their employers. (I discussed this disparity in my recent post on the ‘Self-Employment Penalty,’ where employees of large companies are able to attend big events more easily than self-employed people.)
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Why pay for travel?
Let’s dig in a bit more to the reasoning behind our travel program. As I mentioned, lots of big companies pay for employee travel to conferences. (For example, in addition to the non-employees we sponsored, we also sent 13 employees and spent about $20,000 on their travel expenses.) The folks at Women in WP noticed this year that the cohort of employees whose travel is being paid for by their companies seems to skew significantly male, while self-employed people and freelancers are less disproportionately male. I would also suspect (based on industry statistics) that the group of people employed by tech companies that pay for their travel skews toward white men. Likewise, we know that wealth in general (i.e. having an extra $1,500 to take a trip to San Diego) skews white in the United States – for example, the median net worth of a white family is around $170,000, while for a Black family it is around $20,000 – an alarming disparity driven by decades of job and housing discrimination and centuries of violence. A similar disparity exists for people with disabilities, who are paid about 66 cents on the dollar compared to equivalent workers without a disability.
OK, but what does this have to do with WordPress? (People literally send me snarky e-mails asking me to stop talking about gender and race in our tech newsletter all the time.) It is relevant because the organizers of WordCamp explicitly asked for a more diverse speaker slate. This has happened at WordCamp US 2022 and WordCamp Asia 2023 – in both cases the organizers made a public comment about wanting more diversity at their events. The organizers of WordCamp Europe 2022 published a blog post about diversity at their event after it was noted that the event had no Black organizers. There is also a Diverse Speaker Training effort within the official Make WordPress community. In short, this is a known issue that event organizers want to improve.
Put your money where your mouth is
Unfortunately, you can’t just wish a diverse speaker slate into existence. You have to identify the root of the reason that fewer non-white people and fewer people who do not identify as men are signing up to speak at or attend your event. So far, unfortunately, the “statements” put out by WordCamp organizers have been just that – words that are backed up by minimal money, action or change. (In part, this is due to the unfortunate design of the WordPress Foundation and its subsidiary WordPress Community Support corporation, which refuses to pay people and thus limits their ability to spend time or resources on this issue.)
If you want a more diverse group of participants at your event, you need to address at least one of the core issues stopping people from applying:
- It is expensive to attend the event due to travel costs, and many people do not have $1,500+ in disposable income for a trip to San Diego or Washington, D.C. (next year’s WordCamp US location).
- It is not clear from the Call for Speakers announcement that you can receive a travel stipend. (In the past, it was literally a secret, where some people asked for companies to pay behind the scenes – but there was no public info about this opportunity.)
- The employees of tech companies, who are the most likely to be aware of the event and to have the desired qualifications to speak at the event, skew more white and more male than the general population.
These issues are all part of a vicious cycle, and each one feeds the other two. The goal of the travel sponsorship is to intervene in a way that directly reduces the first two issues. We also know that WordCamps are excellent networking events and often lead to meeting people who directly or indirectly connect you with a future job – so by helping more people attend, we also indirectly address the third issue by providing people with career-growth opportunities they might not otherwise have been able to afford.
And this, I think, is where I find myself at odds with some of the other leaders in WordPress (and tech in general). My conversations with leaders at several major companies lead me to believe that many well-meaning, friendly and progressive people simply do not understand that some people cannot afford to participate in the career-growth opportunity of attending a major WordCamp – a similar dynamic to the unfairness of unpaid internships.
These company leaders have challenged me on whether there are statistics to prove travel costs are a barrier. They have suggested that maybe we just need to ask people more (often phrased vaguely as be more welcoming) without actually making any financial changes. They make bizarre statements about the value of volunteering, without realizing this is a synonym for “being able to afford to go to career-growth events using your disposable income.” These leaders are publicly saying how they wish they could create a more diverse event – while simultaneously not doing the actual things that would accomplish this goal. I think the core issue is that they care about optics but not outcomes – or to put it more cynically, the outcome they desire is that they look good, not that they actually help people. (I know they would be heartbroken to hear me say this about them, because they are very nice people, but I encourage them to turn that heartbreak into tangible action.) Since diversity is fundamentally an economic issue, improving it requires economic change. The travel sponsorship is a small economic change that has already made a big impact. Imagine what would happen if every company matched what MasterWP did this year.
If your company would like to participate in next year’s travel sponsorships, I can help you simplify the application and billing process by working together. Hit me up at [email protected], DM me on Twitter or find me on the Make WordPress Slack @robhowarddc.
We’re already getting started for 2023!
We’re planning another round of travel sponsorships for WordCamp US 2023, so please start spreading the word now so that everyone is aware long before the speaker and organizer application deadlines. I’ll be releasing more details as we get closer to the event (which is August 23-25 in National Harbor, just outside of Washington, D.C.), but if you’d like to put yourself on the waitlist for a travel stipend now, you can do so by filling out this form (also embedded below).