The Cost of Diversity

The big question I got in response to a recent blog post of mine is “how could diversity possibly have a cost?” here’s my attempt to answer it in clearer terms…

Change always has a price

There’s no getting around this. It’s near impossible to change something solely for the better. In the end the change may be a net positive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t costs, and that for some people affected the change is a net loss.

Ignorance has a cost

It’s not that I don’t think change isn’t needed, it’s that most people I see talking loudly about women in OS are blindly ignorant or apathetic to the cost of their proposals. Because they are blind, their ideas and solutions have no plan for minimizing the cost while maximizing the benefit. Working simply towards the goal of more women can lead to alienating another group that is dear to my heart.

Many people respond that people engage in sexism even when they think they aren’t, and that this sexism by ignorance is just as damaging. This is basically the flipside of that argument. Enlightenment doesn’t work one way, or it’s not really enlightened.

So what’s the bill?

Like the U.N. club in my high school, the cost of “diversity” without concern for preserving what’s already good about something will no doubt mean that you lose it. There are things about OS that make it better than other projects, and not just in the basic principles of open vs. proprietary.

Some of you probably want a concrete example right now, so here’s one: right now, because of the demands of OS projects, you really have to love it to stick with it. Yes, in some ways that’s bad, and those ways should be changed, but one of the best things about OS is that you get to work with people who love what they’re doing as much as you do. With the wrong tactics and the wrong incentives we might get more diversity, but not because those people love it, too.

6 Responses to “The Cost of Diversity”

  • Lukas Blakk

    I really don’t think anyone – like for example these loud talking folks – is saying that people should do something they don’t love to do. I’m not sure why you’re on that angle here.

    It’s hard to tell from this post what the cost of diversity. What is the cost of you being allowed to vote? Women got the right to vote in Canada in the late 1900’s. What is the cost since then? I would say that there hasn’t really been a cost so much as an adjustment by men to become used to women having a say in political decisions. All of us who love to vote can now do so.

    It’s not a winner take all game, this concept of encouraging more women to come into places where they previously have felt unwelcomed or experienced sexism. It will cause change, and necessitate a balancing act on the part of the folks who were there first but it doesn’t mean a loss for anyone and what we might gain is priceless.

  • dria

    Your example isn’t very concrete, and it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. First, I doubt anyone is saying we need to force anyone into open source projects against their will. We don’t have the power to do that even if we wanted to, unlike the teachers who forced people to participate in UN Club. Open source participants are entirely self-selecting, which is one reason why open source communities are so powerful. Everyone here wants to be here, and making it easier to participate isn’t going to change that.

    Second, while it does require a certain tenacity to get involved with and succeed within open source projects, that doesn’t mean the people who manage to do so love it more, it just means they’re more tenacious. We have some pretty tenacious haters, too. 🙂

    Making it easier (on whatever axes of measurement you like) for more people to get involved and make meaningful contributions isn’t going to dilute the community. A lot of people care deeply about projects and want to participate but don’t for a variety of reasons, and the initial struggle required to get involved is one of those. I believe what you’re claiming strengthens an open source community is actually a deep flaw and profound weakness.

    I can think of no downside to making it easier/possible/more welcoming for more people to participate and share their skills, time, and experience. This is how it works. This is what we do. Managing and living within a larger and more diverse community carries its own complications, of course, but I think those are problems we very much want to have.

  • Lucy

    I’m pretty sure I made this clear, but I’ll reiterate it again. My point isn’t that I think we should avoid diversity, or that it will cause problems. My point is that we need to be careful to make the right choices.

    It’s been very frustrating reading some of the feedback because several responders are basically saying “well we won’t do it badly, and so it won’t go badly.” Well it could go badly. As I said, with the wrong incentives you will attract people who are in it for the wrong reasons. Maybe you wouldn’t advocate using those methods, then that’s great, that doesn’ t mean that others wouldn’t.

    Let’s assume for a minute that there is a real reason that men are more adept at OS than women, and so the natural split will look something like 75/25. If we blindly advocate for 50/50 then the changes that would have to be made to achieve this would be damaging.

    What I’m advocating for is an enlightened approach that doesn’t marginalize one group in favor of another. One that makes goals based on real data and that doesn’t just cut a blind swath in the name of progress.

  • dria

    Maybe I’m missing context. Who’s campaigning for blindly forging ahead without any thought of the potential impact? What ill-thought-out incentives are being suggested? Also, what real data are you referring to?

    I guess I’m just not sure what you’re suggesting be done (advocating for an “enlightened approach” is pretty vague). Or are you just saying, “be careful, change is tricky?”

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  • S.P.Zeidler

    some of the proposed solutions for the lack of women in Open Source was “well if they don’t want to work for free and we see a need to add them, just employ women to work on Open Source”, which of course gets you the danger of adding “meh, it’s just a job” people to a crowd of dedicated volunteers.
    Also it would either be unfair because a part of the people would get paid while others would be expected to continue working for free, or it would end up with all the ick work that noone wants to do being shoved off on the employees, which also would not exactly encourage more women to join on their own initiative.