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Zoe Gadon-Thompson: Adding family inclusion to the tech meetup scene

  • Software student Zoe Gadon-Thompson explains how meetup organisers can become more family-inclusive and move past the pizza and beer culture. 

    Meetups are awesome. Organisers and leaders in Belfast have pioneered a close-knit community where people have access to much-needed support and encouragement. It’s great to be able to hang out with people with similar interests so you can share ideas and get advice. It gives aspiring and seasoned developers, designers, testers, and managers the opportunity to develop vital career skills in a relaxed, casual setting.

    You know what else is awesome? Getting kicked, cleaning food off walls, wiping butts, and telling people to get stuff out of their mouth. No, I don’t mean a weekend in Magaluf -- I’m talking about being a parent.

    Parents make up a huge portion of the tech workforce and are eager to socialise and learn too, but there’s a significant barrier to entry that you wouldn’t think about unless you’re a parent. Meetups are generally directly after typical working hours, when the parents have to be at home. They’re most likely looking after their kids and probably struggling to catch up on a bit of work while a toddler pokes their eyes and puts biscuits in the laptop CD tray.

    It is totally unreasonable to expect every single meetup organiser to consider the parents. But it’s equally unreasonable that none do.

    A million(ish) years ago there was an expression: It takes a village to raise a child. This doesn’t mean that parents need help with nappy changes or homework but rather that they can’t constantly be isolated from their village. They need the support of a community too.

    I spent some time researching statistics for parents working in the IT sector, and what I found was distressing. There’s a study called the Modern Families Index, published by Working Families that took place in 2017 with 2570 parents, and it manages to confirm with facts and statistics that balancing work and life is damn hard. Shocker, right?

    A big issue is flexible working: Over half of parents in the Working Families study said their current role doesn’t allow for flexible working, and out of that, 75% of parents say flexible working is to accommodate childcare arrangements. 19% of women and 37% of men work flexible hours so they can maintain their hobbies and interests. Meetups and conferences probably fall into that category, so there should be a demand to make meetups more accessible for families. 72% of parents in the study said they do extra work from home at night. Only a third of parents are able to leave work every day on time, whilst the rest find they are working late at least a couple of times a week. This would result in them missing out on spending time with their kids or having to sacrifice their work to maintain the responsibility of having a family.

    The industry is going to thrive most when there is community involvement from everyone. There needs to be representation from all the people who contribute in industry, and unsurprisingly, a lot of those people are going to be parents. As fewer and fewer people who share parental responsibilities attend tech events, there is going to be less input as to how they can be included.

    There isn’t a lot that can be done to change an entire culture’s attitude to working parents, but steps can be made to ensure parents get some of the pizza.

    A couple of examples of local event organisers who were able to accomplish this are NI Developer Conference and Women Techmakers Summit. They both had free childcare available to conference attendees during their 2018 events, which received amazing feedback. Parents were able to go to talks, learn new tech, and socialise, all while knowing their kid was safe and nearby. This is obviously extremely expensive, but a huge step forward in making big events easier for parents to attend.  This isn’t likely to happen for a small meetup group due to budget and practicality, but it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation.

    NIDC had the potential capacity for 20 children in the crèche facilities. A representative said, "given that almost a dozen kids were registered for the crèche, we believe a significant number of attendees would not be able to take part in the conference without provided childcare".

    For a meetup that has 30-60 attendees, this doesn’t scale well. I can’t imagine any meetup that will benefit from paying for a crèche. So what can be done? It’s not a change that will happen overnight, and this advice is not one-size-fits-all. It will not work for every meetup. Some organisers will be happy with their current culture, and that’s fine. Make change where you see change is/as possible.

    Start small

    Add a sentence on your event page to tell parents that kids are welcome.

    Obviously they need to be supervised and can’t drink beer. Even if you’ve never implied kids are unwelcome, support and encouragement is what parents need to hear.

    Run events at good times

    This is hard since there aren’t enough hours in the day. But if you’re doing a hackathon, or a full-day workshop, you aren’t as likely to get parents at it. Do a mini-event during the time slot that easily accommodates anyone who can’t commit to the full thing.

    Any meetup held on a weekday is generally a late evening event, but grumpy toddlers need their bedtime. This isn’t something that can be worked around, but parents can maybe stay for a bit, chat a little, and maybe see one or two talks before they have to go.

    Stream/record your tech talks

    This will benefit everyone -- the speaker themselves, the attendees, and the (probably) dozens of people who wanted to attend but genuinely couldn’t. You don’t need a big-budget AV set up; someone’s phone or laptop will work fine.

    Create a kids’ play area

    If parents do bring kids, make it fun for them. Even if no-one shows up with kids, what’s the harm? Be that awesome meetup that people know is child-friendly. It’s not a bad reputation to have. I’ve brought my toddler places where people have said, “Yes, feel free to bring her!”, and she just ended up throwing rocks at people and running away from me, laughing. This was not the organisers fault: How is someone with no young kids supposed to know how to cater for them?

    Make it known they are welcome, and create an atmosphere that welcomes parents instead of making them feel isolated.

    Make it safe

    Lastly, it’s worth considering the legal implications of this, but it’s not really overly complicated. If your meetup is in a bar, minors can’t legally be there after a certain time. If you’re in an event space or an office it’s fine as long as alcohol isn’t being sold. There are a couple of good rules to implement to protect everyone involved, such as under 18s must be accompanied by a parent or guardian at all times, and do not be alone with a minor for any period of time. But that’s pretty self-explanatory, and parents bringing kids will generally not want to treat a meetup like the drop-off section in IKEA.

    There’s a huge emphasis in the tech industry on the community, inclusiveness, and opportunities for networking and learning for all. The question I believe we should ask is this: What about the people who are also trying to raise little humans? Their priority may not be socialising, but if they’re missing out, the community is missing out on their voice. Maybe it’s time to start changing the ‘pizza and beer’ culture to include everyone.

    About the author

    Tina Lauro Pollock is the editing eye at Sync NI and looks after its clients. She has a particular interest in the gaming sector, big data, women in tech and business, and start-ups. To connect with Tina, feel free to seek her out on Twitter, find her on LinkedIn, or schedule a chat by sending her an email.

    Got a news-related tip you’d like to see covered on Sync NI? Email the editorial team for our consideration.

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