Unpaid work, sexism, and racism



Photo by Wayan Vota

You may have been wondering why I haven't been blogging for over a week. I've got the generic excuse of being busy, but truthfully it's because I've had a draft of this post staring back at me for most of that time. God knows I'm not normally one to shy away from controversy, but I also know how tough it is to talk about racism and sexism without generating more heat than light. After two more head-slapping examples of our problem appeared just in the last few days, I couldn't hold off any longer. I'm not a good person to talk about explicit discrimination in the tech industry, I'd turn to somebody like Kristina Chodorow, but I have been struck by one of the more subtle reasons we discourage a lot of potential engineers from joining the profession.

I don't get paid for most of the things I spend my time on. I do my blogging, open source coding, and speak at conferences for free, my books provide beer money, and I've only been able to pay myself a small salary for the last few months, after four years of working on startups. This isn't a plea for sympathy, I love doing what I do and see it all as a great investment in the future. I saved up money during my time at Apple precisely so I'd have the luxury of doing all these things.

I was thinking about this when I read Rebecca Murphey's post about the Fluent conference. Her complaints were mostly about things that seemed intrinsic to commercial conferences to me, but I was struck by her observation that the lack of expenses for speakers hits diversity.

I think it goes beyond conferences though (and I've actually found O'Reilly to be far better at paying contributors than most organizers, and they work very hard on discrimination problems). The media industry relies on unpaid internships as a gateway to journalism careers, which excludes a lot of people. Our tech community chooses its high-flyers from people who have enough money and confidence to spend significant amounts of time on unpaid work. Isn't this likely to exclude a lot of people too?

And yes, we do have a diversity problem. I'm not wringing my hands about this out of a vague concern for 'political correctness', I'm deeply frustrated that I have so much trouble hiring good engineers. I look around at careers that require similar skills, like actuaries, and they include a lot more women and minorities. I desperately need more good people on my team, and the statistics tell me that as a community we're failing to attract or keep a lot of the potential candidates.

We're a meritocracy. Writing, speaking, or coding for free helps talented people get noticed, and it's hard to picture our industry functioning without that process at its heart. We have to think hard about how we can preserve the aspects we need, but open up the system to people we're missing right now. Maybe that means setting up scholarships, having a norm that internships should all be paid, setting aside time for training as part of the job, or even doing a better job of reaching larval engineers earlier in education? Is part of it just talking about the career path more explicitly, so that people understand how crucial spending your weekends coding on open source, etc, can be for your career?

I don't know exactly what to do, but when I look around at yet another room packed with white guys in black t-shirts, I know we're screwing up.

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