Tuesday, 16 April 2013

How positive discrimination works...

...and how it doesn't


I've been reading this account by Rae Hoffman about her feelings on "quotas" in tech conferences. I find myself generally agreeing with her, it's absolutely right that no-one should be put into a position purely because of a particular box they tick. It undermines them and the wider community, it undermines trust.

However I don't agree with the polarisation of the debate that this article helps to contribute to. How we select who speaks at conferences, and how we select who joins our teams at our work, isn't about either complete meritocracy or blind equality, with nothing in between. If you're taking either of those approaches you are Doing It Wrong™



Let's talk positive discrimination again

It's important that people don't misrepresent what positive discrimination is, so I want you to imagine a scenario...

Scene: Hiring a new team of 6 developers

You are tasked with hiring this new team, and you decide that you will ask all applicants to mark down their gender, their race, age, religion and sexuality so that you can choose a socially representative team from the applications you receive. You do this with little account to the ability of the people applying, or their experience.

This is not positive discrimination, this is just stupid

Now take a different approach, you do pretty much the same thing, but you decide to analyse each CV and application to decide who comes in to interview. Maybe you're a "right on" kind of person and you have no internal bias. That's AMAZING. it's also unlikely. Seeing a foreign looking name instantaneously makes us naturally consider whether language is going to be an issue, maybe even culture. Seeing a woman on the list of a certain age will put in our heads thoughts about whether the company will be disrupted by maternity.

These kinds of thoughts are natural, but they are also prejudicial, and they have no place in the selection of people for their ability to do a job. But we must accept we don't control these biases. They come from our upbringing, our culture, our wider society. For example, the idea that there are just more men that are able to speak well at conferences than women comes from our interpretation of society that is largely based on the fact that most speakers are men. It's almost self-fulfilling.

This is just discrimination, it's wrong, and you may not even realise you're doing it

But there is a third way. You ask everyone to submit an application form, you ask for it to be submitted online and you make sure as much personally identifiable information is left off. No name, no location, no age nor gender, etc.

What you do is then assess their abilities, without the danger of prejudices sub-consciously pre-filtering perfectly good candidates.

You then get them in to interview, and you don't do this alone but with multiple people. Before the interview you take the job description and turn it in to a scorecard of where people rank against the tasks you expect them to do, and add to it the personal specification to score the traits you look for in their personality. You don't talk to each other as interviewers about who you think is best, you just score the people being interviewed.

These scores are collected and then given to an independent person who can total up who the "winners" are. This ensures that no personal bias causes some last minute changes to the rankings. Now...this is where the positive discrimination takes place.

Where there are 6 clear candidates that are better than the rest, you employ those 6 people regardless of who they are. You have a process that you are proud of, it's transparent, it's fair, it's independent where it needs to be.

But what if you had 10 candidates all in the same region of scores? And what if of those 10 candidates two were women? For arguments sake let's say that one woman was the top ranked candidate, the other the 8th, but all ranks are within a percentage point of each other on scores.

This is where you cannot sit there and argue that what we need here is to follow who is "best", these people are essentially all as good as each other. What you do want is a representative and diverse workplace (diversity, after all, is shown to encourage greater creativity and breadth of expertise). So you put both women into the team. A "better" man hasn't lost their spot to someone lesser than them, and she isn't being placed there just because she is a woman either. She earned her place, she was in the top grouping.

This is positive discrimination, choosing to be diverse when all else is equal

Hopefully you can see the parallels with planning conferences. If you literally only have 10 good looking talks submitted for 10 slots, and only one of them is a woman...what can you do? Nothing, and you don't need to. Make sure your process is transparent and readily accessible by your schedule/speaker listing and the community will do your fire fighting for you.

But if you have 20 good talks for 10 slots, why shouldn't you choose diversity as a positive reason to include one person over another? In doing so you give a greater chance to new and aspiring speakers to get experience. It's all well and good for Rae to say:

Are you a woman in the tech space? Want recognition as a powerhouse? Want to speak on conference panels? THEN GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT.

...but the reality is that the platform has to be available, and the problem for new women speakers is the same for all speakers...you have to be naturally good, and maybe know a few friendly and high profile advocates, to break through into the scene easily. While our culture doesn't change to naturally perceive women as being as important in this space as men, it will be hard to make the change even if we think we're being fair.

The watershed has passed, enough of a noise has been made about this. The idea that if people stop complaining about the lack of diverse line-ups that we will stop the very notion, that critics of such complaints have put into the public consciousness and no-one else, that women in diverse line-ups may only be there because a quota is being filled...well that idea is a flawed one. Unfortunately those who have decided to paint positive discrimination as something other than what it is, and to argue for meritocracy as the response to quotas, have opened pandora's box.

In an ideal world all submissions, outside of keynote speeches that are naturally a good and necessary idea for making conferences commercially viable, would be anonymous. The content would be assessed along with the principle or theme for the conference and a choice will be made on who to include, if there are more people than they need taking in a number of those that would help to make the line up more diverse and socially representative.

I don't believe conference organisers tend to have the time or ability, especially in larger conferences, to double check that everyone can do the task of standing on stage and delivering a talk (let me know if I'm wrong here!) but if they do then they still have a list of backup speakers chosen without bias that they can enquire to step up to the plate if that person isn't working out.

This is the only way forward now, we can't put feelings back about quotas, nor can we ignore the reality that our improvement as a community in how we accept and encourage different types of people into our fold won't go as fast as if we don't act to push things forward. All we need to ensure is that people trust it is happening in a fair manner, and this is the element that is missing, the element that means this subject keeps coming up time and time again.

Quite frankly, this kind of response is just not good enough:

Inexcusable is pretty strong. I don’t feel need to defend this [lineup], but am happy with our process.