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The case for not [just] giving away free tickets to women

This article is the somewhat modified talk I just gave at the SaaS E[quality] pop up unconference in Toronto, Canada. It has been edited for brevity, but it also reflects the feedback I received from fellow diversity and inclusion champions that attended. In its design, it was meant to be provocative as this was the premise I needed to come from. That said, in the process of researching and writing it, I have heard many positive stories about the impact that free access to conferences has had on women and other minorities who have availed of free tickets and otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend. As you read this, put one crucial word before “giving away free tickets” – “just”

I don’t believe in giving away free tickets to women at conferences. Or disadvantaged groups of any kind. My feeling is it does not help the long-term improvement of diversity. It hinders it.

That said, I do want to state that it does help individuals. In preparation for this talk, I posted the question of whether free tickets help or not on Ada’s List, an excellent community for insightful conversation and support on diversity and tech. I wanted to see if the arguments that I am about to put forth to you rang true with others. You see I am a woman and very stereotypically tend to question myself.

I wanted to hear about their experience. I got a dozen responses, and to an extent, each reiterated the same idea – free tickets had given each a chance to attend conferences that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. Many of them had upskilled as a result and changed their career. I was so happy to learn that.

My argument isn’t that free tickets are front, right and centre unhelpful. What I believe is that they do not serve the purpose with which they were given away in the first place – making tech more diverse on the whole. That’s because in their nature they are deepening the bigger problems that are preventing us from having a more inclusive industry. Here is why.

Free tickets turn women and other minorities into tokens

Even when given in the thousands, it’s still one giant act of tokenism. Putting bums on seats for the sake of appearance. And when done on a massive scale, it’s sexist — kind of like offering free entry to women in bars. Scoring a free seat at a conference only due to gender or another differentiating trait diminishes us. It doesn’t in any way counteract the reason why we were unfairly represented in the first place. Or give any better explanation to straight white men why it’s so essential for us to be there. How it impacts their businesses and the entire tech industry.

With free tickets in the mix, everyone is assumed to be there to be a bum on a seat rather than deserving, which some women have worked hard to earn.

Free tickets do not build our confidence. On the contrary, serving as a token diminishes the confidence of skills and belonging in the industry.

Putting us all in one room also doesn’t address the subtlety of an unfortunate reality – women tend to turn against each other. It’s been proven that to fit, women who have experienced discrimination early in their career, refuse to help other women and often would align with the boys to fit in. By distancing themselves from instances of sexism, they show loyalty. They become like the boys.

When given free tickets to conferences ultimately built for men with their language, appearance, hustling and alpha energy, we submit to this behaviour even more. And thus fitting in. Unless the tickets come with a conference built diversely, allowing a full license to be oneself, shy and loud, emotional and empathetic, there will never be inclusivity, regardless of how many women are brought in. When you are not taken seriously because you are on a free ticket, we do not have inclusivity.

Free tickets increase the bias against women and other minorities

Bluntly, giving free tickets away creates an obvious division, you vs us. However, that activity emphasises a difference, which should not have mattered in the first place. This way it divides us even more rather than unite us.

The problem is that free tickets are a form of forced equality, which has been proven not to work. On the contrary. That is due to a very simple psychological fact. Forcing equality on those seasoned to privilege creates oppression — majority groups that have been unfairly advantaged for too long see any attempt to reduce this as an all-out attack. They turn against it. What this means is that artificially built preference for disadvantaged groups, like free tickets or quotas, is damaging.

An obvious question here is – why should we adapt to the ingrained psychology of the privileged? Isn’t it time we forced some uncomfortable new ways to the fore?

A question that is undoubtedly fair. However, in my very personal opinion, to get to the more significant fairness, we need to swallow this one. And accept the current reality.

I will give you a sobering story. Web Summit famously gives away thousands of free tickets to women. It even put them on stage at this year’s closing remarks. However, what they also did this year was run a poll, which asked attendees to say in their own words if they could automate one thing in the household what would it be. Unsurprisingly the overwhelming winner was cleaning, followed by ironing. What, however, was prominent among the answers, was shocking – wife. Yes, the conference attendees that had been exposed to thousands of women and were meant to be less misogynist as a result, unabashedly voiced something very sexist, naturally aided by anonymity.

Artificially created diversity doesn’t work.

Shallow unsystematic tactics to bring diversity make us lazy

Which brings me to my last point, which in my opinion is the most problematic. Even if you don’t agree with my previous points, this alone is reason enough to think twice about free tickets. Giving free tickets is easy and effortless. Too easy and effortless. It creates a false sense of success and distracts us from focusing our attention on the longer term solutions that require effort.

How do I know this? It happened to us too.

At this year’s SaaStock we gave free tickets to female SaaS founders and executives. Zendesk, our global diversity and inclusion partner funded them. Busy organising a giant conference and without a dedicated person responsible for diversity, we made a somewhat minimal effort. Yet we felt good we had done something.

In our defence, we also initiated the #TakingStockPledge, which we opened the conference with and Zendesk talked about at a designated booth but there is a huge amount of work to be done in terms of fulfilling each of the six points made on it. We will be seeing this through in 2019.

Free tickets were the most prominent effort we put in to facilitate more women and people of other intersectional minorities to be present in 2018. 

In tech and SaaS more specifically, we love quick fixes and tactical solutions. And as a result, something as thorny and difficult to solve as diversity and equality doesn’t improve much. Free tickets is an activity that takes time and energy away from us for the far more critical activities. Such as taking the time to think strategically before jumping to solutions. Asking a big Why, as to why we are doing this and sitting uncomfortably with the question before we come up with any answers.

We tend to fall for false positives. We seek the sense of having achieved something, of securing a warm and fuzzy closure. However, what are essentially frat parties with a few more women thrown in the mix is a false sense of achieving something. False or not, it feels genuine, trust me. Falling for that we get lazy. “I have done my bit, no need to do anything else.” The problem is that lazy, superficial stuff brings in bare minimum diversity.

Why does all of this matter to me?

I am a fully fledged member of the minimum diversity tribe. Which means in ways I am more privileged than not. It has taken me a while to figure that out.

A white, college-educated, middle-class woman who could be literally from any part of Western Europe, I fit the stereotype perfectly – I am the Head of Content and as of recently also lead our diversity and inclusion initiatives. No one is going to question my belonging in this part of the tech world. By not realising what this grants me, I have failed those less privileged than me. And I hate that.

An attendee this year told me that our conference is too straight. I looked at him in disbelief. Not because I disagreed but because I had failed to acknowledge that. I am queer. How did I not realise how straight SaaStock feels? What part of my sensory apparatus did I need to close off, to disregard something, which was so apparent to someone else? How did I fail to see something that potentially really affects me? Perhaps, I too had tried hard to fit in and disregard some of my different traits.

It’s not the first time I have failed to see what in hindsight are obvious things. It has taken the help of a colleague calling out some of the language we use and how problematic it can be — things like ninjas, nerds and always being pumped. A lot has been said about this when it comes to hiring, but the same goes for marketing language.

It got me thinking how else were we failing different people by being blinded from giving free tickets and not acknowledging our own privilege. Women who are breastfeeding, people with chronic conditions or those who are on the spectrum of autism and for whom the constant visual and audio stimulation we provide at the conference could be a little too much at times. All of our after-hours fun activities are alcohol infused.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure these out. And they are not difficult to solve, yet they carry the ability to provide much more feeling of inclusion to people. But we needed to step away from the obviousness of free tickets to start figuring them out. I still do not have answers, but at least I have begun to ask tougher questions.

We need to figure this one out when it comes to events because they connect us in ways no online communication can. That connection is essential for building empathy. Only by getting to know each other in our full breadth will we stand a chance of accepting one another and working together to develop better products that serve more parts of society justly.

Do underprivileged people who cannot afford that chance for connection deserve to be in the room? Absolutely. Should we give them that opportunity? Undoubtedly. Women founders get less funding, so the playing field isn’t even or fair. But free tickets disposed at random aren’t the solution. Merit, rather than a loosely-held diversity agenda, needs to be in the heart of this.

To create a system for change, we conference organisers need help. It cannot be all on us. We need companies to do their homework in how they treat women and people of underprivileged backgrounds. They need to work across the organisation to foster inclusion in the most effective way.

One thing you can do

Offer mentoring. It’s one thing that can both help those that have been underserved all the while shifting the mindset of those that have been overserved. Here is how.

There is a great example that stems from Google. Famously to get a promotion there, one needs to self-nominate. Guess how many white men do it and how much anyone else does. Google decided to address this by getting senior women to sit on workshops and talk to other women in the company about when and how to self-nominate. It served as permission to be bold, creating a healthy expectation from women that they should do it. The results showed a significant change in the ratio.

A Harvard Business Review study found a similar impact. They found that mentoring programs make company echelons significantly more diverse – up to 24% so. However what they found as they looked more in-depth in the cause for these numbers is fascinating. Mentorship doesn’t just affect the mentee; it also impacts the mentor.

What they found is that by engaging managers at mentoring voluntarily, it chipped away their bias. Remember what I was saying about forcing equality and how ineffective it is. This is the antidote.

In teaching their proteges the ropes and sponsoring them for necessary training and assignments, the mentors come to believe that their proteges merit these opportunities. “Anyone I sponsor is deserving.”

That sort of concerted long-term effort to both support women and other intersectional minorities across the board and work directly with the bias by building empathy is how we will begin to have more inclusive spaces.

The next time when you send someone to a conference or are going yourself, think about the makeup of who is going. Invite women or other minorities to join. You will have a far more insightful time as they will open your eyes to see the experience in a completely different way. We will make sure we will create the space where they feel welcome, safe and comfortable.  

Pictures by Diversity Factor