Conference diversity: the forgotten group

OK, so we once again have a discussion on diversity in conference line-ups. This time the cause is the cancellation of the British Ruby conference because of perceived bias in favour of white men. See also John Allsopp’s excellent overview.

Now I don’t have strong opinions one way or the other, but I still want to make one point.

There’s one group that’s consistently forgotten in diversity discussions, and that is non-native-English-speaking speakers. Strictly speaking, increased diversity in line-ups would also mean asking more people who don’t speak English from birth on but have learned it later in life. It’s just as much an accident of birth as sex or race.

I spoke at a lot of conferences, and at roughly half of them I was the only non-native speaker. I have occasionally received stupid feedback about the fact that I speak with an accent, and I occasionally make mistakes in my English. (Fortunately, most of them are funny and easily accepted.) I know a few other non-native speakers have the same problem.

Now I am not noted for my shyness when it comes to public speaking, and I shrug off these comments, blaming them on the stupidity of the commenter. Nonetheless, anti-language comments may scare off new, uncertain speakers who have brilliant knowledge to share but are speaking in English for the first time. Anti-language comments might conceivably cause them to retreat to their own language zone, which decreases diversity as well as the actual level of content of global conferences.

Do we treat such stupid remarks the same as sexist or racist remarks? Do we add something against discrimination of non-native speakers to the diversity pledges or however they’re called? I don’t think that making fun of non-native speakers (“linguism?”) is nearly as serious as sexism or racism, so putting it on an equal footing would be an overreaction. Still, a quick note here or there might be warranted.

So all in all the slight bias against non-native speakers is not that much of a problem and easily solved, but I would still appreciate at least mentioning it the next time the diversity discussion comes along. There’s more to diversity than gender and race.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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