I wrote this post 2 weeks after WordCamp Greece and sat on it for another week. Why? Because I’m not the most communicative person. I lack the linguistic skills to properly convey some of my thoughts, especially when it comes to expressing myself in a language that is not my own. I know it will be easy to find a phrase, something there and twist it. I didn’t post this sooner because I was afraid I’ll get crussified for it. I hope this will not be the case and you will be able to see past any linguistic errors, I hope you’ll be able to see the meaning of what I want to say instead of just the words.
Before I go any further, I feel there are some things you should know about me. Having some background will will help you understand why I say some things and how I mean them.
I grew up in a house where my parents taught me that everyone is equal. All living things are equal… A tree has the same right to life as a dog and a human, and everything deserves our respect for what it is. All people are equal regardless of their religious beliefs, their genitals, social status, sexual preferences etc.
My mother taught me that one of the most irrational words is the word “equality”. Not because equality is irrational, quite the contrary. Equality should go without saying. It’s undeniable. The fact that we have a word for equality is irrational because there shouldn’t be a need for such a word.
Growing up I always tried to treat everyone the same, and I expected the same in return. And then I started watching Star Trek. Oh boy… a show about a futuristic society that pretty much mirrored my beliefs: all life-forms are equal.
23 years ago, at the age of 15 I started coding as a hobby. And then I found open-source. What a marvellous thing… In open-source everyone contributes and strives for the same thing. People from all over the world work for the same thing, improving their tools and from my point of view improving humanity. The concept was very Star-Treky and immediately won me over.
Nobody expected open-source to take off like it did, to me it was just a noble cause that everyone seemed to believe in. I didn’t know if the person I was talking to is a 60-year-old man living in China or a 14-year-old girl in New York. It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t. Why should it?
And then I found WordPress. It wasn’t much to look at back then, but it was ok. And it was open-source so I used it whenever I got the chance.
Over the years I worked on several platforms, I fell in love with Drupal for a few years because the code just felt more mature and well-written, and its core beliefs were similar to WordPress’s. Then WordPress won me over again.
I now consider myself an evangelist for web accessibility and sustainability. That is my passion and what drives me, and it is my way of trying to contribute to the “everyone is equal” thing that is engraved to my core beliefs. WordPress is just the vehicle I chose to pursuit and achieve my goals because I like what WordPress stands for and I believe what I do with WordPress can have a tremendous impact because of the platform’s penetration and popularity on the web.
But then something weird happened… I went to WordCamp Greece 2019 in Athens and I started talking to people like I always do. Developers, users, small businesses that build sites with WordPress and everyone else. That’s what WordCamps are for, right? Meeting people. Some of the people I talked to were part of the organizing team, others were just members of the Greek WordPress community.
I knew that there was a chance WordCamp Europe 2020 would be in Greece. Or at least I knew that there were talks about it, and there was a formal submission.
So I asked “Is there a chance WCEU 2020 will be in Greece”?
The answer was no. And that was fine.
What isn’t fine however is the why. Keep in mind that this is just something I was told and I don’t know if it’s actually true or false. I will treat this as a rumor and nothing more. I’m not going to name names, who said what etc, but in my opinion it’s a disturbing rumor, one that I fear is true.
The rumour is this: Greece is not hosting WCEU 2020 because in the local WordCamps so far, there is an imbalance regarding the male/female speakers ratio.
The spirit is admirable and the logic pretty clear.
An event like WCEU should be held in countries that don’t discriminate against sex, sexual orientation, skin color, disabilities etc.
I agree with the spirit, but not the implementation. It’s crude and can lead to a lot more issues than it’s trying to solve. If the above is indeed the reason, then it sets a dangerous precedent and can lead to a lot of less-than-desirable behaviours inside the community, please keep reading and I’ll explain exactly what I mean.
Firstly I don’t care whether WCEU 2020 is held in Greece, Portugal or Hell. I’ll go anyway, no matter where it is. The issue is not the country, the issue is the assumptions, the bias and the way the WordPress community treats people that are “different”. The fact that it considers them different in the first place is abhorable.
An excerpt from a blog post in the WCEU 2019 site:
Often at tech events, we see an imbalance in the representation of speakers. It is extremely important to the WCEU Organising Team that we deliver an event with a balanced and diverse range of speakers that better reflects the WordPress community and our society.*
The stage at WordCamp Europe is a space to explore ideas, share knowledge and inspire your audience. We would like to reach out to even more people and encourage them to apply to speak or host workshops at WCEU. Help us to remove society’s barriers and improve representation of groups that are often marginalised by suggesting speakers you think should be in the spotlight.*
Would you like to speak at WCEU? Do you identify with an underrepresented group? We want you to participate.*
That’s a noble cause and I can get behind it 100%. But think about it it some more… Really dig in and think about it, go beneath the surface and consider all the implications.
The fact that we’re striving to make the speakers representation more “balanced” means that we want to have an equal representation of all groups, right? I’ll simplify things a bit just to get the point across, but the goal is to have as many speakers with reproductive organs A as with reproductive organs B. The goal is to have as many people from sexual orientation A as from B. As many from ethnic group A as from ethnic group C. If not equal portions, then at least a sample representative of the whole community and society. The goal is to be inclusive and balanced.
I have no idea how speakers are actually chosen, I don’t know the actual numbers for speaker submissions, sessions numbers etc. These are hypothetical numbers in a hypothetical scenario to highlight the danger of this concept. In reality I’m sure the numbers are completely different but it doesn’t really matter what the numbers are, the point is still the same no matter how you do the math.
Let’s assume that we have an event and there are 20 sessions. For those 20 sessions, we get 200 submissions from people who want to speak.
We have decided that we want to have all “groups” equally represented, so first we start by separating our speaker submissions into groups.
We got 75 submissions from people with reproductive organs A, and 125 submissions from people with reproductive organs B. 10 submissions from people with color skin A, 5 from people with color skin B and the rest are all from color skin C. It also happens that 2 of our submissions were from people with a physical disability.
So what do we do?
Well for starters we want 50% reproductive organs A and 50% reproductive organs B ‘cause we’re fair, right? So out of the 75 people with reproductive organs A we choose 10 to represent the 50% of our 20 available speakers.
If some of them happen to be on the color-skin-A/B groups that we consider under-represented then they have bigger chances of being chosen. If one of then also happens to be one of the submissions with a physical disability then their chances are again higher.
Now that we’re done with reproductive organs A, let’s move on to reproductive organs B and repeat the process.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
I’m sure that’s not what happens, but if the rumor I mentioned above is true, then that’s where we’re headed.
If WordCamp organizers are told that the speakers they have chosen are not “balanced”, then next time they’ll try to make the speaker selection more balanced. Which means that if I am a dark-skinned woman in tech and I’m colorblind, I’m a fucking unicorn. It doesn’t matter if I want to speak about the importance of selecting accessible colors on the web because you know… I’m colorblind. If you pick the wrong colors I can’t tell links from surrounding text. It doesn’t matter if I want to speak about providing support for clients onsite. It really doesn’t matter what I want to speak about because I’ll get picked to speak no matter what. It doesn’t matter if there are 10 other talks more interesting than mine, I’ll get picked. Unless of course the other speaker is a prominent figure in the WordPress community - in which case they will be chosen before me because that’s just the way things are.
And therein lies the problem: We are told that sex, skin colour and other external factors are more important than the actual value of the talk.
And it turn that devalues those people as well. If I were the unicorn I mentioned above, do you honestly think I would feel “empowered” knowing that the people picking speakers took all these factors under consideration? Would you feel empowered?
On the other hand you know what would really empower me? If submissions were anonymous, sexless, colorless and I got picked. Then I’d know that I earned it. I would know that I’m speaking about something that is really interesting, something that will help others. I did not get picked because my name is Matt/Joast/Mark/Whatever. I did not get picked because of WP politics. I did not get picked because I’m a woman. I did not get picked because my skin color is different than yours. I did not get picked because I’m missing a leg or an eye. I got picked because you see me as a human who has something interesting to say and you feel that it will benefit the community. I got picked because I fucking earned it. I’d wear that as a badge of honor. But this? What we have now? Nope… No thanks.
It’s a slippery slope. I hope that’s not where the WordPress community is headed…
I hope the WordCamp submission process is less biased in the future. I hope WordCamp organizers can see everyone as a human. As an equal, completely unbiased. I hope in the future I get to see more interesting talks, I hope that WordCamps actually educate me instead of being a party where we all get together, talk in the hallways and try to make the numbers look like we’re “inclusive”. I hope WordCamps become a shining example of how things should be done. Not an example of how to make it look like we’re doing a good job in the community.