IETF Hosts Diversity Debate

By: Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Date: November 1, 2013

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The highlight of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Administrative Plenary in Berlin was a report by the Diversity Design Team on its ongoing efforts to make the standards body more inclusive.

IETF Chair Jari Arkko said that although the Berlin meeting attracted attendees from 63 countries, there was still room to improve.

“I think we could be more diverse in terms of vendors and operators and in gender diversity,” he said. “We don’t reach all the ends of the world, and it is very important to understand all the kinds of conditions where the Internet operates.”

Arkko said cultural differences are an issue for the IETF, in particular the direct manner in which contributors comment online and at meetings about the work of others. Some view the IETF’s technical discussions as being too aggressive, which prevents them from participating in the group.

“We have to compete for talent. We can’t exclude anyone,” Arkko said. “We have to be a global, inclusive organization.”

Kathleen Moriarty, one of the leaders of the IETF’s Diversity Design Team, said increasing the IETF’s inclusivity is important.

“It’s very important to attract and maintain new talent in the IETF,” she said. “A diverse organization is better at adapting to external changes. Diverse and inclusive teams can perform better.”

Moriarty said the team is developing initiatives aimed at increasing inclusivity and addressing the group’s aggressive culture.

“The word aggressive came up many times,” Moriarty said. “It’s absolutely essential to have good technical debates… but there are ways to be heard without being too aggressive.”

Moriarty said the IETF needs to boost participation by network operators, representatives of small companies, and academia. To do this the group is considering various ways of fostering collaboration, engaging and attracting newcomers, and expanding the IETF community.

“We would like to reduce the number of situations that are perceived as hostile by members of specific groups,” Moriarty said. “One option is a code of conduct. Another is communication guidance materials, and the reduction of culture-specific references. There also was a recommendation of an ombudsperson.”

Audience members expressed support for the IETF’s diversity effort.

“Diversity leads to better results. As engineers that should really appeal to us,” said Thomas Narten, a long-time IETF participant and IBM engineer. “It isn’t necessarily what you say, but how you say it. That’s one of the things we should work on.”