Pause Fest 2016: focusing solely on gender diversity in tech is not enough

Pause Fest 2016: focusing solely on gender diversity in tech is not enough

Despite many female attendees, Melbourne tech conference shows Australia’s digital industry still needs to take women seriously as co-workers and audience

Now in its sixth year, Melbourne tech conference Pause Fest brought together people from Australia’s digital industries to discuss the future in design, business and technology. Part of its proud remit was to focus on gender diversity within these industries. Given a recent study has shown women are considered better coders if they hide their gender, the digital industries have plenty of work to do in creating a gender-inclusive environment.

Here’s what I learned:
Diversity = survival

Angela Ferguson, managing director of software company Thoughtworks Asia Pacific, made the case that companies should actively chase diversity for two reasons: it’s just the right damn thing to do and it will also lead to a more exciting and inventive organisation.

Ferguson cited Jerry Hirshberg’s model of creative abrasion (where constructive conflict and difference can produce better results) as the main benefit for a diverse workplace. “Find out who you don’t have and hire them,” she said.

Thoughtworks actively chases diversity, and the international agency – or “collective”, according to Ferguson – places strict quotas on all its global offices. The Australian branch has about 46% non-male workers, Ferguson said.

Yet she said quotas alone don’t bring diversity; it has to be part of broader organisational change. “If you just have intent, you won’t reach your goal; if you just have a quota, you won’t reach it,” she said.

“We are the new scarcity,” said Ferguson, referring to the industry’s chronic skill shortages before expanding her argument that diversity actually builds a more robust organisation able to adapt to the future. “If you look for the same people where you always find them, then you’re just going to find more of the same people.”

Even though gender diversity is a huge issue within digital industries, it’s often believed that addressing that is all that’s needed. Yet there are other forms of diversity sorely missing from the industry – including representing those from various cultural and racial backgrounds and abilities, as well as the cross-overs between the groups.

Self-led organisation based on intersectional needs can often lead to greater diversity, like Indigenous engineers helping each other in the workplace to develop their skills so they can feel more confident and engaged. It’s a given, according to Ferguson, “they share experiences no one else has – of course they need to band together as they develop and expand”.

One of the best examples of this are chapters of Black Girls Code, who are challenging America’s digital industries. In Australia, Career Trackers help to guide and mentor Indigenous developers from school and university into the digital workforce.

Despite the best of intentions – and we all know what an excellent paving solution they are for that road to hell – it seemed pretty obvious that diversity wasn’t on the minds of many people either programming, presenting or participating at Pause Fest 2016.

Greater gender diversity was the festival’s focus, but there were still more men up on stage talking than women (roughly 60 men, 40 women). This figure could be boosted if we included how many women were moderators of panel discussions or brought on stage to introduce speakers. Racial diversity was almost nonexistent with a mainly white roster of speakers.

Another issue of diversity was the festival’s (and participants’) obsession with jargon. While communities do develop their own shorthand, an overreliance on jargon can exclude newer or linguistically diverse people. One presenter referred to building boats, finding unicorns in his presentation, and the word “disruption” was uttered more than an anxious consultant mid-pitch. The only disruption to be seen was to his presentation, 30 minutes of photos and movie stills that showed no ideas but a profusion of buzzwords and catchphrases.

Diversity was also hard to find when it came to basic tenets of accessibility or usability. The festival’s animated logo caused a blurring visual that would fail the most rudimentary accessibility standards. All this without even auditing the site which also showed a failure to grasp basic usability principles.

Wake up and smell the feminism

The high-energy crescendo to the festival wasn’t when someone played a really cool video, but when Alice Kimberley from Vice Media gave a powerful call to arms to take women seriously as both co-workers and an audience worthy of consideration.

“While [global] culture has moved ahead, Australia has remained behind,” the strategic planner warned and she pointed the finger squarely at the industry for not jumping with the times, perhaps an indication the industry wasn’t paying attention to what women do and discuss online.

Kimberley pointed to the launch of Broadly, Vice’s female-centred offering, as a place that does pay attention to women – not as a niche demographic but a large and diverse group with complex needs.
Women represent

While there were times Pause Fest’s mission to celebrate gender diversity had a serious case of the wobbles, there was one area where women were equally represented – on the floor. Each session showed a strong female presence.

Many of these women are making things happen by networking with one another, building apps and trading information. With popular women-led sessions by Envato celebrating (often female) community managers as the new CEOs, it’s more than apparent there are many women in the industry trying to make substantive change that men so often refuse to acknowledge.

No conference can be perfect, despite their aims, and diversity is laden with complexity. However, with resource scarcity looming and employees jumping more quickly between jobs, there has never been a more critical time to grasp what diversity truly means and how it can help.