Matrix Diversity

The results of the election to the Governing Board of the Foundation have been announced. It’s always a good idea to immediately look at the names to see how white male Euro-centric the results were. And in this case, the results are pretty disastrous. It is a good sign that the announcement calls attention to this fact, explicitly mentioning the lack of female representation and the focus on Europe and North America. It is a good sign that at least one elected member echoed the sentiment immediately. But that doesn’t make it OK.

Here are some thoughts.

Who am I?


I can’t even vote. I deliberately chose a contribution level that wouldn’t give me a vote. I didn’t think I should vote, since I don’t really use Matrix. I lurk in a couple of online discussions, and sometimes use it instead of emailing things to myself. But none of my friends use it, so I don’t use it, so I don’t much care about what happens to Matrix.

I realise now that there’s some circular logic at play there.

I’m actually coming from a fairly anti-Matrix viewpoint. Looking back at my notes it seems I only heard of it in 2018, when Purism were planning to focus on that instead of libpurple. At that time, I couldn’t see the justification for a whole new protocol when we have XMPP. I’m still not completely convinced that the admittedly significant advantages justify starting from scratch.

However, P2P-Matrix and Third Room are exciting demonstrations of what can be achieved. In a world of limited resources I can see how those specific projects might need to be put on ice. But the potential is there. So I do care.

Why does the board matter?

The board matters because technology is racist and sexist, and because every new product, every world-changing idea, seems to end up reinforcing that tendency rather than helping to break it down.

By now we should all have gotten over techno-utopianism. Simply providing more tools to communicate does not automatically break down barriers. Communication can hurt, which means more communication can alienate as well as unite.

There are feedback loops perpetuating historical discrimination, and there are active malicious attempts to promote people’s own identity groups at the expense of others. The result is that white people and males are heavily over-represented among the people empowered to direct the development of technology. Consciously or unconsciously, technology is built to support their needs, not the needs of others. Because the bias is often unconscious, and because there are bad actors actively pushing against equality, it’s not enough to rely on the goodwill of the people selected by the system. You need to actively inject diverse perspectives throughout the organisation.

It’s hard to fight this just by choosing to hire the right staff. Technical staff need to be qualified, the qualifications are intangible, and the pool of candidates is small. You end up hiring the same old people.

The board is free of many of these constraints. It is also explicitly charged with defining the culture and mission of the organisation. It’s therefore a great place to start.


The first rule of gender is, there is more variation within genders than there is between genders. There is a much bigger difference between the best male piano player and the worst male piano player, than there is between the average male piano player and the average female piano player. Generalisations are always wrong.

That said, there are small statistical trends that can be pulled out of the noise. One of these is that whether by nature or by nurture, women are more communicative than men. They spend more time communicating, they tend to be better at it, and they are more likely to use communication to solve their problems.

Matrix is at core a platform for human communication. As such, it is bananas that the board is 90% male. 90% female would perhaps be understandable. There is no excuse for the results we are seeing.

The cause is obvious. The pool of board candidates is mostly engineers. And engineering culture is currently toxic, often explicitly celebrating lone hackers working “independently” (i.e., dependent on unrecognised people). This is even more a problem in open source development, where collaboration is often long-distance, and the right to just walk away from conflict and make a fork is considered centrally important.

To begin undoing this mess, Matrix should emphasise its mission as communication, not engineering.


Terminology is difficult here. “Race” isn’t a real thing. The announcement refers to “Europe and North America” as over-represented. But this is a euphemism. We all know that the problem is that white people are over-represented while Black people are under-represented. We also know that there are plenty of people from around Asia represented in technology, but Africans are horribly under-represented. That’s the problem we’re talking about here.

Autocratic Countries

Matrix is an end-to-end encrypted, open protocol. If theory pans out, and the project becomes popular, this should lead to it becoming the most secure protocol in the planet, thanks to many eyes making bugs shallow.

The board are from liberal democracies. This leads to two problems.

Firstly, some of the most important users of Matrix have a life-or-death need for security. For Matrix board members, mistakes are an “oops, live and learn” thing. It’s possible for Matrix board members to internalise the importance of not leaving users hung out to dry, but it’s more work for them than it would be for someone who grew up in an autocracy.

Secondly, Matrix board members are likely to be free speech absolutists. They are unlikely to appreciate the danger of having unrestricted communication among malicious actors who are untouchable by the law.

You will notice that these two problems are contradictory. That’s exactly why you need people who understand the psychology of living outside the safe, comfortable, liberal democratic bubble.


Africans deserve a special place of recognition. No region is more systematically sidelined in the international system. Africans are under-represented in all decision-making areas, especially in technology. Africa’s population is growing, and these people will be the earliest and hardest-hit victims of climate change. The needs of Africans should always be put first.

Many African countries are autocratic. Their people should be given communication channels to each other, to their country’s diaspora elsewhere, and to the rest of the world. There are any number of commercial providers of instant messaging, but few of them can see any financial motivation to cater to Africans. Of all regions, Africa is the place with the greatest potential for Matrix to begin to change the world.

It is important that the Matrix board explicitly give Africa a special priority.


China is of extraordinary importance to the 21st Century. They are no longer the most populous nation on earth, but their technological importance is unmatched. Specifically in the field of instant messaging, China is home to WeChat, an incredibly important piece of software that is far too often overlooked by westerners. Matrix should be obsessing over WeChat, copying its features and emulating its community-building.

China is also an autocracy, and an excellent example of the dual problems that poses. The fact that Matrix is encrypted should pose no challenge to the protocol being officially adopted in China. After all, you can always automatically add an “administrator” to every chat. But of course, at the same time, Matrix is an enabler to subversive communication channels, especially P2P-Matrix.

I do not know how Matrix as an organisation should position itself with respect to China. What I can say is, deciding on that role without some representation from the country that is a fifth of the world’s population, would be to invite ridicule.



The first thing to do, is to keep pushing the topic from the main Matrix blog. I would like to see a breakdown of both nominees and winners, in each category, by gender, and by continent. Both of those should be self-reported, but optionally so. Gender should be “male”, “female”, and “other”. That level of analysis should be available quickly, before the board even meets.

Next I’d like to see a longlist of potential solutions. Anything. This should start some discussions, both within the board and also within the wider community.

And then, of course, there should be a plan of action agreed by the board itself. This should be geared towards the board replacing themselves with a more representative group. Of course it’s understandable if this takes time to agree. But there should be visible movement in time for the next round of elections.


Serving on the board should be a paid position. It’s not a full-time job. In fact you can get away with 3 hours per year. So you don’t need to pay board members a lot to compensate them for their time. But you should pay them something.

If you pay them nothing, then only rich people with free time will be able to participate. That’s one source of the bias towards white males.

Paying money signals that the position is important, and that it matters. People who have faced discrimination in the past will be looking at these board positions and suspect yet another case of window-dressing, that when they actually raise their voices they will be ignored, or ejected. Putting up some cash doesn’t prove that the board is more than that, but it helps.

In fact, accepting payment should be compulsory. Otherwise taking the money could lead to stigma. Board membership is a commitment and a responsibility. This should be a “taking the king’s shilling” deal.


There are separate constituencies for Silver, Gold, and Platinum members. These nominate representatives of their organisations. As such organisations get to choose who they nominate, as opposed to individuals who can only nominate themselves.

Those organisations could be given a status reward when they nominate someone of an under-represented group who then is elected. Silver members would get the benefits of Gold membership, Gold of Platinum (this would not include their status in elections). I doubt that this provides huge benefits to these organsiations, but it provides them and the board itself a chance to signal that they are taking diversity seriously. That could be enough to influence the choice of candidates.


There is no reason why a candidate for the board should even have heard of Matrix before. Reach out and invite people to participate. There are prominent black and female people on the Fediverse, which implies they are already open to the idea of decentralised networks, and capable of building a community. Those are the people you need on the board, and they are not all coders.


It’s not enough to nominate candidates, you need to get them elected. This works best with organised effort. Get a bunch of individual voters to make a public pact, that they will collaborate on choosing a candidate, and then all of them will vote for that common candidate. If we made a “female board member” pact, and then chose a female candidate to represent us, then that would concentrate votes and maximise the chance of success. This is exactly how parties formed historically.

I’m sure many people would consider this distasteful, or cheating, or something. That’s partly because technologists have traditionally considered themselves above, beyond, and outside politics. This is another element of toxicity, and is more-or-less explicitly anti-democratic. Getting your hands dirty in the political system is how you show your commitment to community. That’s the kind of people needed on the board.


Last, and least, the style and tone of Matrix and its communications should be constantly reviewed. Male-coded language should be replaced by female-coded language. This is only going to have a subtle, long-term effect. And it will require deep changes in culture, fighting back against feedback loops. Which means in practice, this is unlikely to actually work. You gotta do it anyway.

To an extent this will also mean reinforcing the very stereotypes we want to break down. Tough.

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