Diversity at Technology Conferences and Metrics vs. Quotas

Another discussion about diversity at technology conferences is making its way around various technology communities. This is a huge and important topic and I’m glad that people are talking about it. Given the enormity of the topic, it’s not one that I’m prepared to tackle in a blog post. Besides, I feel that most of what I could add to the discussion has already been said by others.

However, I do want to share some thoughts on one narrow aspect of the discussion. There has been much hand wringing about diversity quotas at conferences. In reality, I don’t think anyone with any credibility on the topic of diversity is advocating for quotas. My theory is that many people are conflating metrics (and associated goals) with quotas.

A commonly used mantra in research and other disciplines requiring critical and analytical thinking is, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Assuming that one believes that diversity is a worthy goal, how do you know whether or not you have achieved this goal? Diversity itself cannot be truly measured. We are all different from each other in an immeasurable number of ways.

While diversity can never truly be measured, there are indicators of diversity that can be measured. Some of the indicators of diversity are gender, race, culture, and sexual orientation (to name a few). These indicators can be measured and evaluated in order to quantitatively infer whether or not the goal of diversity is being achieved. I believe that most advocates of diversity (including myself) are encouraging conference organizers to have a goal of diversity and establish metrics to gauge their progress towards this goal—not enforce quotas.