The diversity division

After the Future of Web Apps 2006 conference in San Francisco, a post by Chris Messina lamenting the lack of women in the line-up prompted heated debate and high emotions.

The Future of Web Apps 2007 conference just wrapped up in London and Jason Kottke has reignited the debate. What’s changed since the last time? Not much.

Tempers are still getting frayed and the discourse is generally pretty unhelpful.

Let me say from the start that I do think there is a problem with having so many conferences with such unbalanced line-ups and I firmly believe that a lot of the responsibility lies with the organisers to change things. That said, I also understand just how hard it is to put on any kind of conference at all.

To the people accusing conference organisers of being some kind of cabalistic old boy’s network: you’re really not helping. You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

To the people organising conferences who throw up their hands and say “it’s not our job, we’re just reflecting the sad reality”: you’re being equally unhelpful.

So, all of you: try walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. That way, if you still don’t agree, you’ll be a mile away from the other person and you’ve made off with their shoes.

Eric came out with a provacative post that’s just aching to be quoted out of context:

So, here it is: as a conference organizer, I don’t care about diversity.

I admire and respect Eric but I think in this instance that he is wrong. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

Eric makes the very persuasive argument that to put on a successful conference, the line-up needs to be filled with well-known, established speakers. (This prompted the obvious question from a few people in the comments; just how does one become well-known or established? As Jen says, Eric, it is becoming a circle jerk.)

Success doesn’t just mean financial success, though I readily admit that the economics of organising a conference are fiendish. A successful conference is about more than just getting bums on seats.

Yes, if you fill a line-up with “A-listers” then you’ll sell all your tickets and the attendees will learn from the best and everyone will be happy… in the short term. In the long term, it’s unsustainable. It leads to a closed loop, a neverending cycle of the same names talking about the same subjects. Diversity isn’t just a means to an end (that end being a better conference), it is in and of itself, A Good Thing.

Conferences, especially well-established conferences (and I would put An Event Apart into that category) can and should take some chances. Yes, it’s risky. No, you can’t guarantee ticket sales. But it will be a better conference if the line-up has some wild cards.

I firmly believe that conferences shouldn’t simply be mirrors for the Web business, reflecting whatever is current and accepted. A good conference can act as a force on the industry. Conference organisers have a great opportunity here and I think it’s a shame to see it wasted.

Alright… enough talking about conference organisers as if they were some kind of separate caste of people. It’s time to point the finger at myself.

My company, Clearleft, organises the dConstruct conference in Brighton every year. It’s really Andy’s baby but he very kindly asks for my opinions in putting the conference together. I personally feel very strongly that this year’s dConstruct needs to change from last year’s homogenous line-up (I’m pretty sure Andy agrees).

Even if we sell every ticket, even if everybody blogs about having a great time, if the line-up consists of a bunch of white male speakers (“A-list” or otherwise), I will consider the conference a failure.

But what to do? The perceived wisdom is that there are simply far more kick-ass men speakers than women. I don’t believe that’s true. I think there are far more visible men in our industry, but with just a bit effort it’s entirely possible to find a wealth of women speakers who can truthfully be described as well and truly kick-ass.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to blog about this, but for months now, we at Clearleft have had a BaseCamp project set up with the specific intention of finding new blood for dConstruct. We’ve invited people from outside our circle of expertise and interests and asked them to suggest speakers. The idea is to deliberately introduce diversity, to stir things up a bit and ultimately, to put together the most kick-ass line-up of speakers we can.

Is this tokenism? Absolutely not. I fully concur with Eric when he says:

What’s important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability.

But I don’t believe that this attitude conflicts in any way with the desire to increase diversity. It’s entirely possible to put together a superb line-up of diverse speakers.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Web Directions North (or South for that matter), one of the best, most stimulating conferences I’ve ever attended. They didn’t make a big deal about the mixture of topics and presenters, they just put together the best line-up they could.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I know for a fact that it’s a lot of hard work. But it’s achievable; Web Directions is a testament to that.

I’m also going to have to agree to disagree with Tantek, another person I admire and respect greatly. He is of the opinion the kind of thing I’m suggesting would indeed fall under the category of tokenism:

Why is it that gender (and less often race, nay, skin-color, see below) are the only physical characteristics that lots of otherwise smart people appear to chime in support for diversity of?

Where are all the green-eyed folks? Where are all the folks with facial tattoos? Where are all the redheads? Where are the speakers with non-ear facial piercings?

Actually, I would agree with Tantek if I were talking about diversity of sexes, but I’m not. I’m talking about diversity of gender. There’s a difference. Sex means male or female. Gender means masculine or feminine.

I fully agree that a speaker’s sex makes about as much difference as their eye-colour or hairstyle but a speaker’s gender can and does affect their outlook and experience. As someone who has a (primarily) masculine gender, I know that I can learn a lot more from being in a mixed masculine/feminine environment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad my band isn’t an all-male affair.

I’m not just arguing semantics here. I’m trying to point out why I think Tantek’s argument is reducto ad absurdum. Gender isn’t like eye-colour. Introducing more gender diversity into a conference is productive in the same way as introducing someone with a background in product design or some other non-Web field that can offer a new perspective on our industry (this isn’t just an off-hand comparison).

I hope I’ve made my point clear. Let me reiterate that I can see both sides of this debate but I do come down firmly on the side of increasing diversity. I just hope that I can work towards this goal in a constructive way.

Frankly, I find Jason Kottke’s reductionist statistical approach to be counter-productive. It’s not just about numbers, Jason. I’m also not so sure that Anil’s abrasive style is particularly constructive but his clever riposte to the Future of Web Apps line-up is illuminating.

I do feel bad for Ryan. He always seems to bear the brunt of the blame even though plenty of other conferences are equally lacking in diversity.

However… I do take issue with Ryan’s attempt to wash his hands by pointing out just how many of the speaker slots were bought by sponsors. I’m sorry, but selling time slots to the highest bidder is no way to put a conference together. I’m well aware of the economic realities of putting on a conference and I know that selling slots to sponsors is established practice in certain circles but it won’t cut it with the geek crowd.

Again, Web Directions North managed to get this just right by allowing companies to sponsor speakers. So the speakers were all chosen for their expertise, knowledge and perhaps even diversity, and then Adobe or Microsoft were given the opportunity to introduce the speakers. It sure beats product pitches.

I want to finish with an observation on this whole issue of gender diversity at Web conferences.

This debate isn’t going to go away. It looks like it’s going to flare up every few months. Clearly, plenty of bloggers—who are also probably the target audience for a lot of these conferences—really care about this issue and want to see some changes. Yet every time the issue is raised, conference organisers fall back on the argument that they need to fill the auditorium and that the best way of doing that is to give people the same “A-list” speakers that have always worked in the past. In other words, give the people what they want.

Well, we want diversity.

It’s kind of like the whole brouhaha with Adobe and their crappy new icons. The majority of Adobe’s potential customers disliked the icons and wrote good, well-reasoned blog posts explaining why. As Aral so excellently noted, Adobe deliberately chose to ignore this wealth of valuable feedback. I see conferences falling into the same trap. The very fact that this debate is taking place (and continues to take place ever more frequently) should be sending a message that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

It reminds me of the old joke. A guy walks into a shop and asks for some product or other. The shopkeeper says, “We don’t stock that. There’s no demand for it.” The shopkeeper then adds, “It’s funny: you’re the tenth person to ask for that today.”

Have you published a response to this? :


Well, you can put the word out for me. Happy to fly worldwide to nice conferences and talk about baking cakes and making pretty photo albums ;-)

Anyway, I agree with your post in part. Gender differences account for a lot of problem-solving and creative differences. So both genders are always an ideal thing.

Perhaps though the majority audience, white milddleclass males, like to see other successful white middleclass males? They talk their language, have their interests, share their opinions on most things? In the Western world it is still largely white middleclass males that are the homogenous norm, especially in the IT/Web industry. I’m guessing the line-ups at the conferences only reflect this fact.

I think, as with many other industries, people say ‘sure we’d love to see other speakers, sure we’d love to see women on the speaker’s podium’ - but no one knows who to approach and the women themselves (and I’ve been in this position) feel like they are the token efforts. ‘Hey, you, you’ve got girl bits - know anything about (insert conference topic here).

I suppose the question is - are there really women with specific expertise and a desire to present at a conference being overlooked in favour of their male counterparts or just a general feeling that these conferences have the same old, same old?

I mean, it’s not often I go to craft shows and see male designers - the ones that are usually more notable for being male than good - but there doesn’t seem to be the same outcry of ‘we really need some guys speaking’. If a bunch of women come together to share an interest and knowledge, it’s empowering. If a bunch of intelligent guys come together to share an interest they seem to break out in a rash at the idea of being seen as chauvinistic.

If no-one is being excluded than you can’t force them to be included either.

"Conferences, especially well-established conferences (and I would put An Event Apart into that category) can and should take some chances."

I agree about well-established conferences, but I don’t yet put AEA in that category. I want it to get there so we can take more chances (besides unwisely posting, I mean). But I really don’t feel like it’s there yet. Call me crazy, paranoid, timid, whatever, but it’ll take another few shows for me to feel that it’s well-established.

# Posted by Eric Meyer on Saturday, February 24th, 2007 at 6:04pm

Thank you, Jeremy for a well-reasoned approach, particularly the last 3 paragraphs.

"Funny: you’re the tenth person to ask for that today."

Even though the "web" is back up and there is a wonderful bubbling of ideas, there is a conservatism running about that is a shame. We might not want to return to the untrammeled spending of 1999, but how about the some of the dreaming.

Thanks to Clearleft and d.Construct for being willing to think big.


# Posted by Ms. Jen on Saturday, February 24th, 2007 at 6:51pm

Jeremy, this is a great post — and I think you’ve summed up a lot of sentiments very well. I also disagree with Eric and Tantek rather strongly, and you’ve captured much of my feedback very clearly.

Personally I’ve made it a high priority of mine (as someone who organizes events but is also someone with a great deal of privilege in the industry) to educate myself about this issue from all sides. I still have much to learn, to experience and to do, and would encourage others, especially those who chide conference organizers, to get involved in putting on events and see what the challenges are first hand.

It’s rather trite of Kottke to say that conference organizers aren’t listening; it presumes malice or misogyny on the part of organizers, which in our industry is typically far from the truth.

At the same time, one must examine the environment and conditions we find ourselves in such that conferences that do attract a high female attendance (read BlogHer) are designed specifically to cater to women. Surely it’s not an either-or proposition. Surely there’re lessons to be had there since it’s become clear that boys left to their own devices and taking only to each other lack the insight to make events that really inspire, support and include people unlike themselves.

Lastly, I would encourage you, to the degree that you are able, to make your conference preparation work open and transparent; it would be extremely useful to be able to see how much effort you put into diversity and what returns you’ll be bringing to the actual event. For example, how much of money, time, attention, and/or support do you need to expend to improve diversity (however you define it) by 5%, 10%, 15%? Do you set a goal up front as to the amount of diversity you wish to have? Or judge by some other metric? Essentially, what is your definition of success for achieving and maintaining diversity at your conference and what are you doing (tactically, not just anecdotally) to achieve it?

Yay! Nicely written Jeremy. I can concur that there was a well rounded line-up of speakers for the Web Directions South conference in Sydney 2006. John Allsopp and Maxine Sherrin did a great job to assemble such an inspiring line-up of speakers from both genders. In addition a diverse range of folk were involved by way of introducing speakers and taking-on small up-front roles. A good way to groom potential speakers! I think having both genders represented makes any conference more "accessible" or approachable.

# Posted by Rosemary on Sunday, February 25th, 2007 at 3:00pm

It’s good that this issue is on the radar, but it’s bad that people are so quick to flame up over it. Over-sensitivity makes it impossible to hold really honest discussions.

Equity is not something you set in a config file. It’s a complex situation that requires effort and strength from all involved parties - no one group can solve the problem on their own.

Talking stat wise in the UK, there was a peak of 19% of women in the IT workforce in 1999. This has recently dropped down to 16%.

I’ve obviously spent too long reading all the references you have pointed to in this blog post. What I did notice was a strong emphasis on percentage of women speakers at some of the conferences. The highest being 46% (I think). If we compare this to the UK stats it is actually quite high?

Obviously, on the other end there were the conferences with no female speakers.

I believe it’s quite a complex issue, women have different mountains to climb. Of course, we all have different stories, for some it’s not a current issue, for others it may be something that will effect them in the future, or has already had a profound effect from the past.

What I have noticed is lots of people talking about it, but what are people going to do to try to change it?

New people need to be encouraged to participate, regardless of their ‘gender’. Surely you need to get these people attending the events (as visitors) before they know what they are letting themselves in for (as speakers)?

Another context is, let’s say there is this person who is keen to get out there, how does s/he know what conference organisers are looking for? Is there a maintained list of conferences somewhere?

To make a point of this, looking at the dconstruct site, it defaults to the last conference details, but I have found nothing relating to how speakers can come forward. Only a simple contact form.

I could go on for donkey-ears about this.

All my life I’ve been discriminated against by Anglo Saxons and now it’s PC to group me with them as a White Male and continue to discriminate against me.

# Posted by paul on Monday, February 26th, 2007 at 2:05pm

As far as rant posts go, I’d say that one was A+, and your last paragraph sums up the entire problem greatly. This kind of an issue is out there, and I think no-one would disagree that diversity is a good thing, but it is almost never a primary concern of the organizers… there are just so many details that are considered a priori.

If the quality of the speakers is what is important, then we should assume a good diversity in the end, but somehow that doesn’t happen. Perhaps hand picking speakers is what is creating this problem, due to the overly male populated A list group.