Open Thinkering


Tag: diversity

Paying for participation

Hands on a tree trunk

I participated in a community call yesterday where someone suggested that we explore either internships or stipends to ensure more diverse attendance and representation. Some other people were concerned about this, for several reasons.

First, the kind of work involved (open source, open standards, open recognition) has a history of volunteers turning up to these kinds of calls. There’s intrinsic motivation involved, and it can actually be of reputational benefit to turn up to them.

Second, there was some unease about paying people for participation, as opposed for achieving an outcome. Those who were uneasy said that they would be happier if the money involved was tied to people reaching a goal.

Third, there was a bit of confusion as to whether only new people would be eligible for the money, and how much it would be, and whether it would be grant-funded.

In short, it was a bit of a confusing situation. This post is my way of thinking through how paying people for participation, while feeling a bit ‘odd’, is actually anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and an extremely progressive, socially just thing to do.

In order to better understand the concerns raised during the community call and why paying people for participation can be viewed as anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and progressive, let’s break down the situation further.

  1. Intrinsic motivation and reputational benefit — while it’s true that many people in the open source, open standards, and open recognition communities are intrinsically motivated to participate and contribute, this argument ignores the fact that not everyone has the same resources or access to opportunities. People from underrepresented backgrounds may not have the time, financial resources, or networks to engage in these activities on a volunteer basis. Providing financial support through internships or stipends ensures that a more diverse range of people can participate, which benefits the community as a whole.
  2. Paying for participation vs. achieving an outcome — the concern that paying people for participation rather than outcomes might lead to lower-quality contributions is understandable. However, it is important to recognise that the primary goal of providing financial support in this context is to promote diversity and inclusion. By offering internships or stipends, we can enable individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in the community without the pressure of meeting specific deliverables or outcomes. This approach not only fosters a more inclusive environment but also acknowledges that the value of diverse perspectives and experiences goes beyond measurable outcomes. Encouraging participation and ensuring that all voices are heard should be considered as an essential contribution in itself.
  3. Eligibility, amount, and funding — the confusion surrounding eligibility criteria, the amount of financial support, and funding sources can be resolved through transparent communication and clearly defined guidelines. Instead of viewing eligibility criteria as a potential barrier, we should frame it in a way that empowers and encourages individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate. By emphasizing the goal of promoting diversity and inclusion, we can create a welcoming atmosphere that motivates underrepresented individuals to engage with the community. Establishing clear guidelines for the amount of financial support and funding sources will further ensure that the initiative is effective in achieving its intended objectives.

I’m happy that it’s become more acceptable to describe oneself as anti-capitalist. Thankfully, these days people are less likely to think that you want to go back to a system of bartering 🙄 In a capitalist society, resources and opportunities tend to be concentrated among those who already have them. So, by providing financial support to underrepresented individuals, we challenge the existing power dynamics and create a more inclusive environment valuing diverse perspectives and experiences.

The elephant in the room here, though, is systemic racism. This often manifests itself in the form of unequal access to resources and opportunities. That means by proactively investing in individuals from under-represented and under-privileged backgrounds, we address these systemic barriers and work towards a more equitable community.

Supporting diversity and inclusion is not only morally right but also actually essential for innovation and progress. A diverse group of contributors can bring fresh ideas, experiences, and perspectives that can help the community grow and evolve in new and exciting directions. As straight, middle-aged, white guy it’s taken me too long to realise this, if I’m painfully honest.

So, by way of conclusion to thoughts that were provoked yesterday, although paying people for participation may seem unconventional, it can be an effective way to promote diversity and inclusion. The exact details of how we do that are for either the next post, or the next community call…

Image by Shane Rounce

Approaching the many-headed hydra

Hercules and the hydra

One of the benefits of of studying Philosophy (aka ‘the history of ideas’) is developing the ability to consider things in the abstract. That is to say pointing to something as symptomatic of a larger/bigger truth. You might point to a potholed road, for example, and use it as an example of local councils being underfunded. Or you might point to the lack of diversity within a company and use it as an example of a structural problem with the tech sector. In neither case are you attacking the worker who has come to fix the pothole, or the company that is trying to do better in its hiring practices.

What I’ve noticed often happens in these situations is that there is an undue focus on the specifics of the situation. This leads to the wider issue either being dismissed or ignored. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate tactic or not. For example, someone might reply that the reason this particular road is potholed is because there are people driving inappropriately on it, and anyway there are more important things for councils to be spending their money on at the moment. Or someone might reply that this particular company might not look ‘diverse’ but, hey, there is more to diversity than skin colour, and anyway everyone knows there’s a problem with the tech jobs ‘pipeline’, right?

As a result, nothing happens. No change is made. Everything continues as normal except with an added soundtrack of sound and fury.

To be perfectly honest, I’m dancing around the issue a bit here by using ‘someone’ when I want to say ‘white middle-aged men’. I fit squarely into this category, yet I’m a bit apprehensive about publishing this post because of the anger — and it is usually anger — that is generated when people like me are challenged. Here’s an example.

I’m genuinely curious as to what’s going on here. Prior to therapy, I was definitely the kind of person who wanted to give my opinions on everything. It didn’t particularly matter whether I had expertise or not because who wouldn’t want to hear what I think? I still have to stop myself from doing this, and earlier in the week deleted a long response to someone’s forum question after reading it back and realising I wasn’t adding anything. (Maybe this blog post isn’t either.)

Perhaps the problem is the way we bring up boys and men in our society? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that white middle aged men (me included!) often feel ‘attacked’ when others ask quite reasonable questions about representation and diversity. I did a lot of thinking about this after the Moodle ‘manel’ tweetstorm towards the end of 2019. There was no intention for that to be an all-white middle-aged male panel at a global event, but that’s how it turned out. We should be more cognisant of these kinds of things so they don’t come as a surprise to us. One way of saying this, I suppose, is that we should “check our privilege”.

I suppose, in practice, all I’m asking of people is for people like me to think twice before wading into a discussion with our cool ideas. If there’s already 100+ responses from those who look like us, perhaps think of other ways of contributing? Or perhaps encourage others to contribute? I don’t have any answers, but I’m pretty keen to help find ways that add some diversity to our methods of problem-solving. Goodness knows that the same ways of thinking that led to the many-headed hydra of problems facing our world aren’t going to get us out of it.

Image: CC0 Rijksmuseum

The New Nepotism

Nepotism in action
Nepotism in action

Nepotism is a word which is ordinarily used pejoratively. That is to say, nobody wants to be accused of it.

nepotism, n. unfair preferment of or favouritism shown to friends, protégés, or others within a person’s sphere of influence.

The old version of nepotism was guilty of saying, “You’re my friend from the tennis club so I’m going to give you this unrelated opportunity”.

People were given jobs independent of aptitude or talent. It was all about connections and relationships within a very small network. It’s the reason sinecures were so common until the mid-20th century.

Nowadays we like to think we live in a meritocracy. Despite the modern origin of the word being satirical, we equate being meritocractic with ‘fairness’. We’re probably correct in that assumption.

However, the hiring practices this has led to are sub-optimal. I’m not sure there’s a single person who would design the system we’ve got if they were doing so from scratch.

Yes, it’s illegal in many jurisdictions to even ask on an application form about someone’s age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. This is a step forward for equality. Great! The really sad thing is that it often leads to bland mass of undifferentiated application instead of truly embracing diversity.

As a result, for better or worse, people have found ways to bypass stifiling recruitment practices. The New Nepotism says, “You’re my friend / former colleague from a previous project/organisation. We successfully created something awesome together, so I’m going to give you this related opportunity.”

I’m guilty of having received opportunities through New Nepotism. I’m also guilty of giving them. My point with this post is to say that we’ve got a twin-track system where one track is the direct result of the other. We look for colour and diversity through relationships that we’ve already established because CVs and application forms are so limp and lifeless.

Perhaps we could move beyond New Nepotism through a system like Open Badges? No two human beings are truly alike, so why should their credentials? As soon as we have a system that truly captures the value of people’s experiences, then we can hire based on talent and experience rather than who you’ve already happened to work with and know.

Image CC BY-NC Andy B