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Understanding what is wrong with meritocracy (part two)

Wow, quite a long time since I last wrote a blog post, which clearly hinted towards at least a part two one day. I recently started blogging elsewhere (more on that below) and kinda forgot about my old blog. Lately I have been getting spam on it though, which reminded me of this old post. So here comes part two. I should add that it didn't really take me 5 years to mature my thoughts on this topic, it just ended up that I communicated those thoughts in other places.

That being said, one of the first learnings as I dove into this topic was that that step one was listening and learning. Basically I started expanding my twitter timeline to include more people specifically tweeting about the issues of diversity and inclusion. But also simply following more people with marginalized communities talking about tech.

I paid attention to the dynamics in discussions. But one of the most clear ways I finally realized and fully accepted that meritocracy is a myth came with this github study that showed that while acceptance rates of PRs from women were well below those of men, the acceptance rate of PRs from women that hid their gender even slightly outpaced those of men.

Due to this reality and the constant pins and needles on top of deliberate harassment, where keeping people from marginalized communities away and pushing those that made it out. We keep hearing about some pipeline problem but the real issue is that people from marginalized communities just see no point in staying. But obviously this is not the root cause. Just going from my personal experience at Liip, I can name more female developers that left IT than male, despite us having way more male developers. The good news here, better diversity is entirely possible in tech if we actually work hard on inclusion. This is why people say "diversity is useless without inclusivity".

So with those realizations, I came across a tweet in the spring of 2017 by Erin pointing out the issues with an all white men speaker line up for a SymfonyLive event in the US. I first started rattling off excuses (note sure if just in my head or also in tweets), but eventually this finally gave me the kick I needed to become active. So I started reading more blog posts on the topic. Thanks to Liip's education budget for all its employees, I ended up hiring Sage Sharp to help me figure out the next steps Symfony should be taken and what pitfalls to avoid that could cause further harm.

I was very happy to find that the Symfony core team was very receptive to this topic. Later that year we formally launched the diversity initiative. More importantly the community, aside from a few voices, was supportive as well and willing to learn and welcome change. We focused on several topics, like improving the language in our docs and on the website. We worked on guides for how to give and receive feedback in issues and PRs but more importantly we also worked on making those a lived reality. Quickly contributors started approaching the diversity initiative for support when they encountered situations where they felt overwhelmed. This helped deescalate a lot of situations but also helped train many contributors.

We also implemented a diversity scholarship to allow people from marginalized communities, that could otherwise not attend, to come and join us at SymfonyCon. One of the biggest successes was the adoption of a code of conduct, which lays the groundwork for safety as we hope to grow our diversity. More importantly, we worked in defining reporting processes and get the CARE (Code of Conduct Active Response Ensurers) trained by Sage Sharp so that they are prepared properly to enforce the code of conduct and sure reporters are properly protected and supported. Overall from the feedback I have seen we have made significant strides in improving our communication and openness. You can read more about this on the Symfony blog.

That being said, all of this hasn't fixed our demographic issues within the Symfony community. There are still only men on the core team. While there are more visible figures within the Symfony community with a diverse background, we are still miles away from even just reaching the demographic representation of the proprietary software world, let alone the world in general. This is a long long path. What I do hope is that we do a better job at retaining people with diverse backgrounds within our community, which hopefully will also lead to more and more people with diverse backgrounds seeing us as a worthy community to invest their time. Potentially one important next step is trying to better understand the evolution of the demographics so that we can better assess if we are going into the right direction.

In parallel I joined a startup called Witty Works last summer as co-founder that aims to improve diversity in the tech industry. Essentially the assumption is that since diversity is good for business, then there must be business for fostering diversity. Our focus is especially on dealing with unconscious bias and how to help companies address this head on, heavily involved by Iris Bohnet's Book "What Works". Part of the strategy is to structure key processes to reduce bias and when possible automate this as much as possible so that we can bring the price to a point where mass adoption is possible.

Our initial focus on the product side is the job ad. We built a tool called the Diversifier that analyzes job ads in real time and suggests improvements along with explanations. This is based on research that shows that language and other aspects of job ads deter applicants from marginalized communities. Our customers see a roughly 40% increase in applications from women. We hope to continuously build out more tools to cover the full application process and hopefully also more aspects of work life to foster diversity and inclusion. In the meantime we cover these topics via our consulting services.

So what am I trying to communicate with this blog post? Back in 2015 I finally started to realize that I needed to educate myself on this topic and over the course of time I started to understand how I could become active in the open source and also in the professional world. I believe that as we see more and more people, especially white men who still hold on to so much power, choose to educate themselves we have an opportunity to improve things. It is however still a long long path, all the more reasons to act now. The good news is, the more people join, the easier it gets!


Re: Understanding what is wrong with meritocracy (part two)

But what's the counterpart. What is good about it?

I think parts of it aren't bad. If you prove to have lots of knowledge or abilities or extreme talent about a subject, why not be a leader in that field?
Better than a leader that is there because there's a nice face attached to the body, or because the person has powerful friends.

Meritocracy has nothing to do with gender, just with a person out of a group of people.

It can be bad if handled badly, but hey, that's with every "system" there is.

Re: Understanding what is wrong with meritocracy (part two)

I have not really seen a proposal for an alternative per-se. However if you read https://postmeritocracy.org/ .. they make the point to shift our perception of what are important skills that qualify for leadership (ie. not just technical skills) and what qualifies as relevant feedback (ie. work on hearing diverse voices even if your community is not yet diverse) and to take responsibility how code is used (ie. to stop supporting technical methods of oppression).