Diversity in the Brisbane Tech Scene

This post is a mix between a talk I gave at BrisJS and some musings I’ve had since.

I was recently asked to speak at Fronteers Conference, which was my first time outside of Asia/Pacific. I’ve been a participant in the Brisbane tech scene in Brisbane for years now, so I was really struck by the wonderful and diverse scene in The Netherlands.

The entire conference was organised by wonderful people, responsibilities distributed amongst the community, with sideshows run by passionate people during the week of the event. It was an amazing team putting on an awesome festival of frontend development that everyone could get into. I have so much respect.

I was flying back via Canada, and on my last day I was in Vancouver. It stopped raining so I was walking kinda aimlessly around town taking in the sights when I stumbled across the Davie Street rainbow crosswalk.

The Davie Street rainbow crosswalk in Vancouver

This stirred up a whole bunch of emotions that I’d been avoiding while I was away.

The Australian Government’s divisive postal survey was in full swing, my friends were all somewhere between angry and depressed, idiots were spraypainting swastikas on people’s houses and there was so much regressive shit going down and I realised; I don’t want to go back to that.

As a white dude in Australia I’ve lived a pretty privileged life, but as a gay man this whole thing affected me much more than I’d care to admit. I wanted to run away to a place where everything’s better.

I continued walking, down the hill to the beach, along the river. Vancouver is a beautiful place, but all the while I was angrily fighting back tears and making plans to move someplace better. Someplace people paint rainbow crosswalks and actually care about their fellow person.

When I calmed down and took a wider view, I came to a realisation. Instead of running away, don’t I kinda have a responsibility to help the community fix what’s wrong? I love Brisbane, and maybe someday it could be a place that people choose to live, rather than moving away at the first opportunity.

Diversity in Tech in Toowong

At BrisJS, the elephant in the room is our diversity issue. We’ve known this is a problem for some time, and until recently we’d only ever had two women speak to the crowd. Ever.

You might say that’s just the industry, but that’s a cop out. We speakers are a self selecting bunch, who are cool to stand up and command everyone’s attention for twenty minutes at a time even if we don’t really know what the hell we’re doing.

I’m not any more qualified to talk than you, or anyone else. I just speak because I can, I enjoy it, and I learn a lot while doing it. There’s nothing stopping you from doing the same.

But if you look back at all of our talk history, at our lineup over the past few months, it’s a very male picture. And while our speakers are all awesome and it’s no reflection on them, it’s tough for women to see something like this and feel welcome to contribute.

We’ve had feedback that coming to BrisJS can be super intimidating, let alone standing up to speak in front of a bunch of guys. We’ve had feedback it’s not safe to travel to our venue at night. People are choosing not to come to our meetups.

And that’s not something that I want. And I know that’s not something that the community wants. But if you look at it from an outsiders perspective, look at our industry as a whole and all the crappy things women have to put up with from pay disparity to casual sexism to full blown harassment, and it must be exhausting. You can see why folks might prefer to stay home rather than join in community events like these.

My postal survey hell lasted three months, but for other people this is a full-time problem.

Let’s fix this

What can we do about it? It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. There’s no quick fix for improving gender diversity in tech, but we can try.

One key point that needs to be made is that it’s everyone’s problem and we can’t dump it on women and minorities to solve. These people are dealing with enough, without our ham fisted attempts to placate them.

Long term we kinda have to change our culture to make things better and more equal for everyone. We’ve all done stupid shit in the past, but we can also make things better now.

  1. Recognise the behaviours that make others feel less able to contribute
  2. Call out your colleague for making idiot jokes at others’ expense
  3. Stop to listen to what others are saying rather than talking all the time
  4. And finally; respect, encourage and support women and minorities to do their thing

These points are some pretty simple, and while it might be a learning process to change our behaviour, the benefit to everyone’s wellbeing is enormous.

What’s happening now

We drafted a code of conduct for BrisJS events a while back now, and put in place the infrastructure to act on it. This is a baby step, but it’s an important one that I think more event organizers should be aware of. The Geek Feminism wiki has some primo resources for setting these up, so there’s no excuse for an event not to have one.

I’ve also started a new networking event for LGBT and Allies in Tech partly because I realised I don’t know many of my peers in the industry, but also because I want to signal boost LGBT folks in the tech community. We’ll be running drinks events every month and everyone’s welcome to swing by.

Paul Verbeek-Mast introduced me to the Global Diversity CFP Day a few months back, so I’m putting on a workshop in February to give underrepresented folks the skills to apply and speak at conferences. I’ve been chatting to people from various groups and there’s a lot of enthusiasm so it’s got me thinking that if this goes well we should run more regular workshops throughout the year.

And today I helped mentor for the first time at the NodeGirls Brisbane event. I held off last time because I (incorrectly) felt it wasn’t my place, but it turned out to be such an incredible and supportive day. Everyone was wonderful and I had some great conversations with other mentors about diversity and the state of the tech community in Brisbane.

Going forward I’m very keen to talk to people who share the same goals and want to do positive things for our community. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but days like today make me feel confident we can make things better.