I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion.
--Kurt Hahn

The recent polemic regarding a speaker being expelled without giving clear facts from a JavaScript conference inspired me to write some more general thoughts on inclusivity and diversity in tech.

UWC day

UWC day in Duino, 2015

A truly diverse group of people is necessarily an inclusive group, but inclusivity can exist without any diversity, or it can even be hostile to true diversity.

Focusing on inclusivity may lead to homogeneous groups, or siloed groups and other non-optimal, non-diversified groups in spite of the good intentions of their members. Here's how that can happen.

We value the participation of each member of the Javascript [sic] community
-- Conference organizers in their CoC

We will also be removing [one of] our keynote speakers list to help make the conference a comfortable environment for all.
-- The same conference organizers publicly uninviting a keynote speaker

The first thought is that we need to make our events, companies and society in general a place where all kinds can co-exist, feel safe and be respected. I am not arguing against that: I totally agree with it.

Unfortunately, at the present time, it is quite common that such groups do not have that much actual diversity to start with. What's worse, in many cases this situation does not seem to change significantly no matter how "inclusive" they try to be, especially if they confuse being "inclusive" (open to all) with being "comfortable" (easy for all).

This happens because inclusivity alone is not a sufficient condition for diversity. It is not a goal that will make our society better by itself. Adequate inclusivity is certainly necessary but some forms of it apparently do not work well, or can in fact be a problem for diversity.

Let me be clear, diversity and inclusivity are hugely important values to me and I am extremely passionate about this. Not only celebrating diversity is hugely important, but it is what makes life worth living. It's what makes curiosity a useful skill. It's what makes real life better than living in a jail cell. The more variety of people are included in the conversation, the better.

On the other hand, it is self evident that the nature of diversity is essentially conflict. Diversity is confronting your ideas, culture and your version of "common sense" with other people's ideas, culture and their version of "common sense". This is notoriously difficult, challenging and often uncomfortable. If you ever experienced cultural shock, you know what I mean. If you have never had such a fortune, go backpack for a bit :-)

Inclusive diversity, therefore is a form of well-regulated, respectful, but challenging conflict.

This means that, yes, we definitively need "rules of engagement", codes of conduct, and similar agreements in order to make these conflicts constructive and as easy as possible. But not to prevent them.

Some attempts at inclusivity become ineffective practices. Two examples I've noticed.

  • Inclusivity rules that are written to make participation as easy as possible for everyone. In other words: "least common denominator" discussions, conflict avoidance and lack of a true confrontation of ideas, and no actual, expressed diversity. This makes for better numbers, but creates minority silos that do not talk to each other. I do not consider these groups truly diverse. They are collections of homogeneous subgroups -- better than single homogeneous groups, but still not places where I'd be happy to talk with everyone. In fact I'd be probably expected to stay with other people similar to me and not raise my voice too much. Bland and boring, and at worst a means of cultural assimilation.

  • Inclusivity rules that only protect categories and enforce Western (especially US) standards and values. Since these rules hugely privilege Western sensitivities over others, they introduce a huge pro-West bias in the diversity that follows (lack of cultural diversity). If you work for a world-wide site like I do, this is an especially tough challenge. How do we build a site that "works" in Africa, India, East Asia, when most of our developers are either European or from the US?

So, "comfortable" inclusivity alone might hurt diversity. What can we do to make this better? Friend, I am so glad you asked.

There is ample work, most often in the international education or diplomatic sectors, done by people that have been working on diversity for about a century, and know these problems inside out. For example the works of Kurt Hahn have huge value and helped thousands and thousands of people become better world citizens and diversity advocates.

Kurt Hahn

Kurt Hahn believed that education was the key to a better world. He insisted on a method of education which rested on ten values. I have adapted them to my developer world and a "good working environment", you can also adapt it to a conference with "attendees" and "event" in place of "employee" and "working environment". They cover diversity and inclusiveness but also other values. The ten points work with each other, it's pretty important to mention all of them.

Ten good working environment principles

  1. The Primacy of Self Discovery

    In a good work environment, employees undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. A manager's primary task is to help employees overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.

  2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas

    A good work environment fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.

  3. The Responsibility of Work

    Work is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone works both individually and as part of a group. Every aspect of a good working environment encourages everyone to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective work.

  4. Empathy and Caring

    Work is produced best in communities where employees' ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Working groups are small in good environments, with a person looking after the progress and acting as an advocate for each employee. More experienced employees mentor younger ones, and all feel physically and emotionally safe.

  5. Success and Failure

    All employees need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges, but it is also important for employees to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.

  6. Collaboration and Competition

    Individual development and group development are integrated so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Employees are encouraged to compete not against each other but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.

  7. Diversity and Inclusion

    Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others. In a good working environment, employees investigate and value their different histories and talents as well as those of other communities and cultures. Teams and groups are heterogeneous.

  8. The Natural World

    A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and causes and effect. Employees learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.

  9. Solitude and Reflection

    Employees need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need time to exchange their reflections with others.

  10. Service and Compassion

    We are crew, not passengers. Employees are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of a good working environment's primary functions is to prepare employees with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service to others.

Many companies, events, conferences and attendees could and would be better off if they tried to stick to these ten principles.

I am proud that at Stack Overflow we are very close to implementing these values. OK, we still suck at #8 for sure (one of our founders is an "indoor enthusiast", go figure)... Did I mention we are hiring?


A software engineer & Stack Overflow alumnus in London. I write about software development, coding, architecture and team leadership. I also speak at conferences worldwide.

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