WordCamp speakers need to get paid

Immediate action items for improving WordCamp diversity.

WordPress Conference

WordCamp US is coming in September, and we’re thrilled to be back in person for a wonderful event. That said, we know from the WordCamp Europe diversity debacle that attracting a more diverse team of speakers and organizers is critical to the continued growth and relevance of WordCamp events, as well as the success of the WordPress community as a whole.

Speaker applications were supposed to close this weekend, but WordCamp US has extended the deadline by a week, with the stated goal of “showcas[ing] our community’s variety and diversity.” In short, it sounds like the organizing team feels that there’s not enough diversity on the current speaker slate, and they want to spend more time (in this case, at least another week) encouraging folks to apply to speak.

This is so much better than what WordCamp Europe did when challenged on the lack of Black representation in their organizer group. I was really disappointed to see lots of vague promises and dismissive comments (for example, saying that racial diversity is less relevant in Europe than America [false] or that it is “so sad to see that no single Black person applied” [out of touch and borderline victim-blaming]) from prominent members of the European WordPress community in response to a valid concern.

WordCamp US is doing a great job of focusing on diversity in positive ways, and this extension is part of that effort. However, this is also evidence that a lot more needs to be done to diversify WordCamp, the WordPress community, and the employee base at WordPress companies. In today’s post, I’ll look at a few ideas that would really kick-start this process, so that next year, we have a more diverse group by default – no extensions needed.

WordCamp should immediately start paying organizers and speakers

The largest and most obvious barrier to attending and speaking at WordCamp is money. In order to offer a truly equal opportunity to everyone, the WordPress Foundation needs to set aside enough money to pay for the airfare and lodging of every speaker and organizer, period. Anything less than this privileges people who work for WordPress companies or people who have the disposable income for a random trip to San Diego. Right now, the speakers and organizers are doing unpaid labor, which isn’t fair and inherently skews the available pool toward people who are already in the “in group,” which is the opposite of what we want.

Paying for speakers’ lodging and airfare is a cost that could be recouped through sponsorships from Automattic and the other large companies that are bringing in millions of dollars in annual revenue while riding on the good name of the WordPress open-source community. It could be treated as a non-profit fundraiser, starting with WordCamp US and eventually extending to the other large events (perhaps the 10 largest would eventually pay speakers and organizers). Winstina Hughes promoted this idea recently, and I think rather than being a separate initiative, it should simply become how WordCamp works.

The community is simply too large to continue to rely on people paying the cost of travel to the conference. The speakers deliver huge value, and should get paid for it (or, in this case, have their travel reimbursed within a reasonable limit). This would immediately remove a huge barrier to the success of the conference and the diversity of the speaker slate.

Additionally, paying organizers who aren’t already sponsored by a major WordPress company would add a level of professionalism and seriousness that I think was lacking in the WordCamp Europe team’s response to their diversity challenges. In that case, many people commented that the organizers were “just volunteers,” and thus shouldn’t be held to a high standard (for example, achieving racial parity by having 2 percent Black or African representation – which doesn’t seem like a super-high standard to me!). I think we need to permanently remove this “just a volunteer” excuse for the future – it’s harmful to the event and provides an unreasonable excuse for people who aren’t taking the position as seriously as they should be. It’s also just super hard to be an organizer, as evidenced by the fact that there was a 2019 session called “Organizing a WordCamp While Staying Sane” – so people should get paid to do it! Nobody should be expected to spend hundreds of hours organizing a WordCamp out of the goodness of their heart. If organizers aren’t already getting paid for the work by their employer, they should be getting paid by the WordPress Foundation. Again, we can start with the biggest conferences and add more as time goes on.

When it comes down to it, diversity requires you to put your money where your mouth is. This is why we pay contributors to write for MasterWP and provide equal pay and profit-sharing to all our employees. It is good for everyone and it removes the barriers that often keep underrepresented groups out of tech.

WordCamp diversity is downstream from employee and community diversity

The people with the most money, time, attention and energy to participate in or organize a WordCamp are those who are employed by WordPress companies. It’s very common for a company to “sponsor” an employee to work full- or part-time on community organizing, and to pay the bill for travel to WordCamp. (We are doing this for our employees who are going to WordCamp US.)

If a company has a staff that’s less diverse than its surrounding community, that inevitably results in a less diverse group of potential paid organizers and speakers – so a lack of racial diversity at WordCamp is really a trickle-down result of a lack of racial diversity at major WordPress companies.

Every company has the tools to diversify its hiring pipeline (for example, job boards like Underrepresented in Tech and Black Tech Pipeline), but instead, we see WordPress companies that seem to be intentionally narrowing their hiring pool and alienating newcomers with hiring practices that favor people who are already insiders in the relatively insular WordPress open-source world.

Likewise, despite the fact that open source is theoretically open to all, in practice there’s a significant opportunity cost to using your time to contribute to open-source WordPress rather than doing paid work. This means that the people who do open-source development as a hobby (and thus have an inside track to becoming community leaders) tend to skew toward what we often describe as privileged demographic groups. At my company, we have a lot of employees who earned their tech skills by hustling through bootcamps and night school while working full-time, non-tech jobs. They have the skills, but they often don’t have the means to devote their precious spare time to becoming unpaid contributors in a community that proudly declares that “decisions are made by those who show up.” (Oddly, this appears to be West Wing quote that has morphed into an open-source credo.)

As long as we struggle with diversity at our for-profit companies and in our open-source community, we will not have diverse representation at our conferences. Everyone knows, for example, that minor-league baseball players eventually make it to the majors, and state legislators eventually run for Congress. By the same token, plugin developers and open-source contributors eventually become speakers and organizers. If our talent pool isn’t diverse early on, there’s no reason we should expect to see diversity on the WordCamp stage.

The answer here is to adopt new and improved hiring practices and expand beyond traditional hiring pipelines, not just make marginal tweaks to the existing structure. Even the best and most well-meaning training sessions often have no effect on diversity and in some cases have a negative effect on diversity. Money talks – but many corporate diversity initiatives do everything but change the financial equation, and we end up with lots of Instagram posts and very little meaningful progress.

The things that work cost money: paying speakers, removing nonsensical hurdles from your job application process, removing irrelevant degree requirements, hiring from bootcamps and non-traditional pipelines. That’s why we see resistance to these ideas – because they require an actual investment instead of just a performative one.

WordCamp should stay partially virtual – it makes it more accessible to everyone

We are all thrilled to be back in person this year as Covid restrictions are relaxed. However, the past two years have shown us that remote work (and remote events) can really be a big win for diversity. For example, an October 2021 survey “concluded that Black workers are happier in their jobs, and have a more favorable view of their employer, when working remotely,” in part due to a lack of microaggressions that often occur in person. The same can be said of people who are pregnant or breastfeeding – and, frankly, many folks who are not part of an underrepresented group simply appreciate the flexibility and relaxation of working from home.

It’s a short hop from “remote work is better” to “remote conferences are better.” While there’s huge value to in-person camaraderie, requiring people to show up in San Diego for a long weekend remains a significant barrier, even in a future utopia where all else becomes equal. Some people might not have the extra cash to travel, some might feel uncomfortable at a big conference, some might be unable to travel due to pregnancy or breastfeeding or disability or lack of childcare… the list goes on, with infinite permutations on reasons it might be easier for someone to watch the conference or deliver a speech from home.

So, why not let a handful of people deliver speeches from home? If you can teleconference into the Emmys to accept an award, I see no reason why you couldn’t do a virtual 15- or 45-minute session as a WordCamp speaker. We have the technology to do a great job with a “hybrid” conference, and we should embrace that rather than forcing everyone to travel to California to be part of the WordCamp US experience.

Diversity requires action, investment and risk

The common thread through all these ideas is that diversity can’t be wished into existence, even by the most caring and empathetic organizing team. Diversity in tech is fundamentally a problem of financial empowerment, and you can’t change the financial equation without changing the way actual money is distributed. All these ideas seem difficult and cost money – which is exactly why they work. My team and I know this from our experience building one of the most diverse companies in the industry. Saying “we’d love a more diverse team” does almost nothing; building a transparent and equal system changes everything.

Right now, our community is stuck in a vicious cycle. Our pipelines aren’t diverse, so our conferences aren’t diverse, so our conferences have to extend their deadlines to get more diverse speakers, so everyone who’s not a white man gets the implicit message that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this conference is really struggling to appeal to a diverse audience. Nobody feels great about quotas or being tokenized, so it makes everyone less excited about applying to speak.

The only way to shake the community out of this vicious cycle – and instead build a virtuous cycle where people are thrilled to be a part of a diverse and empowered community – is to make real, meaningful, financial changes. Next year, let’s not get caught flat-footed again. Instead, let’s start spending real money today to make WordCamp a better place tomorrow.

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

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