Let's grow the Symfony community
I love working in IT. I love the challenges and I love the life it allows me live. One might argue it is a question of justice to enable everyone to enjoy this lifestyle equally if they choose IT as their path to happiness. But this angle sometimes makes people defensive, as in: "Wait a moment, I never did anything to stop anyone from choosing this career path! How is it my problem if people don’t succeed in IT?"
This is a common reflex and at least from talking to people within the Symfony community, many contributors think the community doesn’t show bias against women or people of non white ethnic backgrounds. Infact, I get the sense that people wished for a more diverse community. But we are left puzzled as to why our community practices, which are allowing a constant stream of new developers to gain sufficient trust and become part of the core team, is not producing a more diverse community.
There are of course many dimensions to look at on this topic. Let us briefly look for example at the topic of gender diversity. I choose this dimension mainly because the numbers are quite well documented, but I invite and support anyone to look at those other dimensions. In the proprietary software world almost one third are women compared to 2% to 10% in open source. In the United States 43% of math graduates are women, but only 18% of computer science graduates are women.
Looking at the same numbers about gender diversity in the Symfony community: we have zero women in the core team. Among the code and doc contributors I see Sarah making the top 100 list for code and docs and Andréia for doc from a quick skim among the "female looking" names (let me know if I overlooked someone). Every Symfony conference has a low rate of female participants and an even lower relative number of talk submissions and speakers. Our numbers are even lower than the low number of women in open source! It is quite clear our approach of “meritocratic” contributions is failing to provide diversity, but this isn’t really news. All the while, studies show that diverse groups are more efficient and innovative. So we are losing out both in quantity and quality!
Again I do not think that there is anyone actively working on keeping women or anyone else out of the Symfony community. Instead the root cause could be inaction: a combination of people being unaware of their unconscious bias, not knowing how to seek out diverse people and perspectives and a lack of inclusive community practices. Whatever we have done in the past seems to not be working. We are also not the only one to recognize this issue. The good news however is that it is possible to make significant steps forward if there is a sufficient commitment. We’ve already started taking steps towards that goal, but we need to take the next step.
We launched a DX initiative because we understood we were making it hard for people to join our community and we wanted to grow our user and developer base. We ended up fixing many things that might confuse less experienced developers and we added simpler layers or more opinionated defaults. Obviously, some of the DX work were things even experienced developers could appreciate, but much of the work didn’t make Symfony better for them specifically. But through the DX initiative, we managed to grow our community and this was a worthy enough reason and big enough benefit for all.
Now just to clarify, I am not saying that women need the DX initiative because they are not sufficiently experienced enough. But a recent Github survey showed that minorities value clear documentation in open source projects and that’s something our DX initiative tried to improve. By learning what minorities in tech need to be successful, we can improve our community and attract diverse contributors.
We need a concerted effort to help grow community and the diversity initiative aims to bring about exactly that. And yes, for the parts of the community that identify as male, this might lead to some things that feel like favoritism but are actually leveling the playing field (like giving additional visibility to contributions done by minorities) and some things which you even might find annoying (like using other words like "folks" or "everyone" in place of "guys" to address a mixed gender group). Change is uncomfortable, but I think we can all agree that a bigger community which is more welcoming is a worthy goal to achieve together! What is important noting however is that if we want to grow our community by becoming more diverse, then the biggest effort must come from the current majority to earn the trust so that new members in our community feel safe and welcome.
But how do we get there? We have done the obvious things like a code of conduct for Symfony conferences. We’ve launched the DX initiative and tried to get more diverse speakers, but little progress has been made towards diversity. The Symfony core team shares my concerns. I have therefore decided to hire a professional adviser, Sage Sharp from Otter Technology, with experience on the diversity topic especially within open source communities. So far I have funded the initiative out of my own pocket. Liip has stepped up so that we can continue to benefit from expert consulting by providing funding for monthly check points. This will also establish some degree of accountability that we continue to work on improving diversity. As previously announced a scholarship program was offered for SymfonyCon in Cluj with funding from SensioLabs. At SymfonyCon we highlighted the need to work on our diversity during the community sessions and followed up with an unconference session. But these are just the first of many steps we need to take.
In parallel a discussion has already been started to introduce a code of conduct for the entire Symfony community. Among the open questions is who should be the group of people handling reports on code of conduct violations and how to potentially grow this to cover the Symfony eco-system and not just Symfony core. There is now also an #diversity slack channel to help coordinate efforts since I hope that this blog post will help gather all the people interested in the topic. Maybe some of you have already started initiatives of your own or have experience about what worked or what didn’t work in other communities? Please contact me so that I can see about how to connect all the interested people. I will follow up this post with another one where I will outline various ideas that I have collected based on discussions I had with various people on this topic.
Finally, I know this topic makes many people uneasy, especially white males like myself. I certainly am much more worried I will say something stupid about diversity than about coding. Obviously many of us are programmers, a lot of us have spent most of our time in this industry with mostly white males. It is quite easy to become defensive, it is quite easy to feel like you’re getting your head ripped off, even when you do not have any ill intentions. And then all this talk about privilege, yet we obviously still have challenges in our lives to overcome. But do not let this stop you from moving out of your comfort zone, again if not for justice, then for the opportunity to help grow the community that is a key part of our professional lives.