The biggest misconception about affirmative action is that it puts less qualified individuals ahead because of their gender or the color of their skin. If an affirmative action program results in lesser individuals getting ahead, it is poorly designed. This misconception is based on the misguided notion that we can score every person on a linear scale and simply pick off the top of the list. Human beings just don’t work that way.
In a rich, multidimensional reality, we must consider not only the attributes of the individuals, but also the makeup of the community we are trying to build. Setting a goal of more women, blacks, gays, etc. is pointless. That’s a stupid goal. Setting quotas is mechanical and more likely alienate others instead of bringing them in.
The point is to take a look at your community and ask yourself what would make it more open and accepting? Who are the people at the margin trying to join? Why don’t they feel comfortable and welcomed? This is not an academic, theoretical exercise. You actually have to ask and listen.
In geek culture at present time, that’s often women. When men hang out together, especially at a conference where alcohol is served, they create (without intention or malice) an environment that can be unwelcoming to women. This is something we’ve been hearing from many people trying to be part of our community.
Affirmative action is not about getting less qualified women to speak at a conference at the expense of more qualified men. That would be wrong and unsustainable. It is about finding the best female talent and showcasing it so that other women feel motivated and welcomed. So that everyone will benefit from a diverse range of opinions. When hiring a new engineer or curating a conference, the goal is to enrich the team or experience, not just to add a few skill sets.
I resent members of an outsider group (be it women, blacks, gays, etc.) use their own personal success story as a way of dismissing the real adversity others in their group still face. The fact that I have been very fortunate in my life as a gay man to never experience intolerance aimed at me does not, even for a second, diminish the real and painful challenges facing many gay men today. Drawing a conclusion that just because I found a welcoming home within my community means that it is no longer an issue for others is egotistical and hurtful. I wouldn’t even assume that the geek subculture I belong to is completely beyond bias, given that I don’t know more than a handful of other openly gay men within that subculture.
If you have been successful, you have a responsibility to help those who are still looking from the outside in. If you are a woman or a minority, just showing up can accomplish plenty. If you are gay, vegan, Mormon, etc., talk about it so that others will know and appreciate the unique perspective you bring in from that experience. You don’t need to perform an interpretive dance on stage or put it on a t-shirt. Just mention it in conversation, on Twitter, or in a blog post. Letting others know that they are not alone is an immensely powerful gesture.
The measurement of diversity isn’t in numbers. It is in the perception of those trying to join as to how welcoming a community is.