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How Welcoming are WordCamps to Women?

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This month it's International Women's Day, a worldwide event designed to raise the under-representation of women in many walks of life and encourage us all to open up more opportunities to women and girls.

I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look at gender diversity at WordCamps, and compare these with other tech events. The WordPress community has got a good story to tell on gender and WordCamps, thanks to the hard work of people in the community to ensure that all feel welcome and included at WordCamps.

Why is Gender Representation at WordCamps Important?

WordCamps are where the WordPress community comes together in significant numbers to meet other WordPress users and developers, to learn about developments in WordPress, and to pick up new skills.

The WordPress community is incredibly welcoming and open (especially when compared with some other tech communities in my unfortunate experience!). The low barrier to entry (WordPress is free; WordCamps deliberately price their tickets low) and the fact that it's an open source project encourages people with little or no experience to come along, get involved, meet people and have a go.

As a community, we want to welcome more and more people to WordPress use and development, and we want all of them to receive the support they need to make the most effective use of WordPress. That's not just about ability level, but about increasing representation from groups that are underrepresented in the tech industry too, such as women.

If a WordCamp has a healthy proportion of women speaking at it, then that will tell the women attending that this is a community they can feel part of, and that they too can aspire to speak at WordCamps and WordPress meetups and pass on their knowledge.

How Gender Diverse are WordCamps?

The good news is that WordCamps are more gender diverse than most tech events; the bad news is that this isn't the case everywhere.

Attendees

At any WordCamp you will meet people with a diverse range of backgrounds and skills: from complete newcomers to WordPress (and indeed to web design or development), to seasoned professionals, and everyone in between. It's one of the things that makes our community so great: there's a lack of snobbishness about how much you know and (most times) a genuine desire to welcome newcomers and help them get up to speed. 

Personally I learn a lot about my work and the way I approach WordPress projects (and writing about WordPress) from the newcomers: getting a fresh perspective can help you see what's easy and what's not so easy about WordPress, and people who haven't been using WordPress for years are more likely to ask the awkward questions that make us sit up and take notice.

So WordCamps are very diverse in terms of experience and abilities; they're also more diverse than most tech conferences when it comes to gender. In my experience, about 25-40% of the people at WordCamps are women, while at more developer-focused conferences, it's rare to see more than 15% women.

Lara Littlefield says that she finds WordCamps to be welcoming to women:

WordCamps are safe spaces where I really feel like I can connect with women in technology and engineering just like me.

So WordCamps are welcoming to women as attendees: so far so good.

Speakers

There's an ongoing debate about what gender diversity at WordCamps looks like, and the consensus is that the speaker population should represent the attendee population. I agree that for events like WordCamps that have plenty of women attending, this is a good rule of thumb.

My experience of attending WordCamps in the UK is that the proportion of women speakers has (on average) grown over the years:

  • At WordCamp Manchester in 2010, there were no women speakers.
  • At WordCamp Portsmouth in 2011, there was one (me).
  • At WordCamp Edinburgh in 2012, there were six women and 20 men (23% women).
  • At WordCamp Lancaster in 2014, there were five women and 18 men (21%).
  • At WordCamp Bournemouth in 2014, there were four women and 14 men (22%).
  • At WordCamp Birmingham in 2015, there were nine women and 19 men (32%).

From this you can see a big jump between 2011 and 2012, followed by a trend of just over 20% for a few years, and then a jump to over 30% in 2015. For the 2015 event, we had a more gender balanced organising team and made conscious efforts to make the event as diverse as possible (not only in terms of gender), something I'll come back to later in this article.

WordCamp Birmingham UK 2015 website
WordCamp Birmingham 2015 had 32% women speakers.

However, for events where women are underrepresented amongst attendees, I think the proportion of women speaking should actually be higher as that will encourage more women to attend the conference in future years. Which can only be good for the community, and the conference organisers too. So if a WordPress event has 10% women attending and ten speakers, there should be more than one woman speaker, as that will have a longer term effect.

This also applies to WordCamps in parts of the world where women's participation is sadly still very low. Jen Mylo looked at the proportion of women speakers at WordCamps in 2012 and 2013, and found that there was a big divide between different parts of the world:

Asian WCs had the lowest % of women by a significant margin, and developing nations with small communities tended toward all-male rosters. Developed nations such as the US, Canada, Austaralia, and those in Europe ran the gamut.

WordPress is an international community, and it's great that there are people committed to improving these figures worldwide and supporting WordCamp organisers in Asia to increase the percentage of women speakers.

What's Being Done?

Getting more women on platforms at WordCamps doesn't happen on its own. There are plenty of people in the community who have made efforts to bring this about, and WordCamp Central has guidelines and policies specifically aimed at ensuring WordCamp organisers don't discriminate.

WordCamp Guidelines / Code of Conduct

The WordCamp planning site provides a list of criteria organisers must adhere to as representatives of WordPress, which includes:

No discrimination on the basis of economic or social status, race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, age, or disability. They shouldn’t engage in discriminatory practices, and you shouldn’t discriminate against anyone.

There's also a clear code of conduct, which all WordCamps have to adopt. Again, this makes it very clear that any form of discrimination is unacceptable:

Refrain from demeaning, discriminatory or harassing behavior and speech....Harassment includes: offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability; inappropriate use of nudity and/or sexual images in public spaces (including presentation slides); deliberate intimidation, stalking or following; harassing photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

People who breach this code of conduct will be asked to stop; and if they don't they can be expelled from the WordCamp.

WordCamp code of conduct
The WordCamp Code of Conduct prohibits discrimination or harassment.

The Speaker Application Process

One of the biggest barriers to diversity at tech events (and in many other spheres, such as recruitment) is having an application process that isn't open and inclusive.

Just as employers who hire staff by approaching existing staff members' contacts and friends will struggle with diversity (and breach discrimination legislation in many countries), a conference that relies on the organisers inviting speakers will be less diverse than one that invites potential speakers to apply.

This doesn't just apply to diversity in terms of underrepresented groups: it also makes the voices at your event more diverse, welcoming new ideas, fresh faces and varied opinions. It avoids conference goers having to see the same old faces at every event they attend and gives more inexperienced speakers valuable opportunities to develop their skills and gain an audience.

WordCamps have a far more open speaker application process than most tech events. Instead of inviting speakers (although I suspect that some speakers are invited by organisers), they open up applications to everyone in the community.

If you've got something you want to speak about at a WordCamp, you just apply. You don't need anyone to tap you on the shoulder, you don't need anyone to refer you or nominate you, and you don't need to know the organisers. WordCamps welcome people who haven't spoken before as long as they've got something interesting to say. And the inclusion of lightning talks at many WordCamps means that if you're less experienced or lacking in confidence, you can just volunteer for a 10 minute talk.

This means that the speaker lineup for WordCamps tends to be more diverse than those tech events where speakers are invited. Why don't all tech events do it this way?

Encouraging Women to Apply

But there's a drawback. Although the application process doesn't discriminate, many organisers have found that women don't apply in the same numbers as men. As Jen Myo says in a blog post about diversity and WordCampos:

Speaker applications come mostly from the people who are already comfortable in the knowledge that there’s a place for people like them on the speaker roll.

Some local groups have put in place initiatives encouraging women to apply to speak at their local WordCamp, and to help them overcome any fears that they might not be qualified. For example, the Vancouver WordPress meetup group responded to the fact that women didn't apply to speak at its 2013 WordCamp by launching workshops aimed at women. This had a real impact:

  • In 2013, WordCamp Vancouver had four women and 24 men speaking (14% women).
  • In 2014, they had seven women and 11 men (38%)
  • In 2015, they had nine women and 13 men (40%)
WordCamp Vancouver 2015 site
WordCamp Vancouver 2015 had 40% women speakers after making efforts to encourage women to apply.

This shows that there are women out there who can speak at your WordCamp, if you just encourage them.

Organising Team Composition

Another factor in diversity at WordCamps can be the diversity of the organising team.

I've already looked at the figures for women's representation among speakers at WordCamps in the UK. The 2010 and 2011 WordCamps had either no women or just one woman speaking, while the WordCamps from 2012 to 2014 had approximately 20%. In 2015 there was a big increase to 32%.

At the 2015 WordCamp (which I was involved in), we had a more gender balanced organising team than at the earlier events: those WordCamps between 2010 and 2014 had no more than one or two women each time on an organising team of six to eight, while Birmingham 2015 had an organising team of three women and four men. We made conscious efforts in 2015 to encourage speakers from a more diverse range of backgrounds, both in terms of underrepresented groups and level of experience of soaking at WordCamps. Hopefully at our next WordCamp we'll rival Vancouver!

Concerns for the Future

The representation of women at WordCamps has been rising and is high when compared to a lot of other tech industry events, which is great news.

But this doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels.

I have some concerns about trends in the WordPress world and what they'll mean for diversity. For example, the REST API is currently a very hot topic at WordCamps and other WordPress events, and it's making the focus of events shift slightly towards developers and away from users.

At the Day of REST event covering the REST API in London earlier this year, there was only one woman on a lineup of eight speakers - just 12.5%. The audience was overwhelmingly male, but as I've already argued, having more women speaking at an event which is male dominated this year can encourage more women to attend next year.

There's also a tendency to be complacent once a community reaches a certain threshold, and those WordCamps that have 30% or more women speakers might be tempted to think they don't need to continue with their efforts on gender diversity. I believe those WordCamps that have successfully attracted more women speakers need to expand their efforts to encourage more LGBT and ethnic minority speakers, but not lose sight of the fact that this shouldn't come at the cost of reducing the number of women. After all, there are plenty of women out there who are in other underrepresented groups.

We also need to spread the good work that's been done in North America and Europe to parts of the world that are newer to the WordCamp scene, spreading good practice to WordCamp organising teams in Asia and Latin America.

Conclusion

I love WordCamps. I've always found them a welcoming, friendly place to hang out, full of great people who are happy to share their wisdom and help strengthen the WordPress community.

Part of the reason I love WordCamps is that, as a woman, I feel more welcome at them than at many other tech events, which are often male dominated. But this hasn't happened by accident. The way WordCamps are organised, the speaker application process, and the concerted efforts of organisers and of WordCamp Central have brought this about. It's important that that work continues and is spread to those parts of the WordPress community where events aren't quite so diverse.

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