Fixing the web industry's diversity problem with Rawk the Web

Denise Jacobs on how she's fighting to change the face of the web, one speaker at a time.

In 2005, I was teaching on a web design and development programme in Seattle when I heard about a conference called WebVisions, and that Molly Holzschlag – whose books I'd used in my classes – would be speaking there. I'd never attended a conference before, so I jumped at the opportunity to go.

That decision changed my life. As I watched Molly on stage, it hit me: she and I teach the exact same thing – except she talks for only one hour (not for 12 weeks), gets to travel all over the world, and doesn't have to grade papers! In an instant, it became crystal clear: I wanted to become a speaker. I wanted to be like Molly.

Despite that moment of clarity, it took me five years to turn this desire into a reality. Upon finishing my book The CSS Detective Guide at the beginning of 2010, I finally found the confidence to pursue speaking in earnest.

I went all-in. By the end of the year, I'd spoken at 16 events in the US and even in London. I was living the dream. But I quickly noticed that within the web conference circuit, something was awry.

Houston, we have a problem

Also in 2010, I was invited by Min Jung Kim to be part of the 'How to Rawk SXSW' panel. She assembled a truly diverse group of panelists: Ben Huh, Annie Lin, Jeremy Keith and me. It was a great session, but there was something that vexed me. I realised that at SXSW and most other conferences, a panel like this was the exception and not the rule. At one event after another, over the course of that year, I would be one of a handful of women and/or people of colour – not only as speakers, but in attendance in general – and in all but one case, the only black female speaker.

That there isn't enough diversity in the tech industry is well-known. For years now there has been an oft-stated plea for change in the web conference circuit. In the 2007 article 'Beyond the A-List', Nick Finck lamented: 'I go to [conferences] and what do I see? The same handful of speakers giving darn near the same talk ... Nothing new, few new faces, fewer new ideas.'

Diverse speakers need to 'rawk' more than just one conference

The causes of this diversity deficiency have deep-rooted origins which I decline to unravel here. But I will say this: I don't believe it stems from malicious intent. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to be a nexus between conference organisers and speaker hopefuls, and I believe I've determined the disconnect: visibility. Diverse aspiring speakers do exist, but they may not be making themselves widely known. Event organisers bend over backwards to put together a varied speaker line-up, but still have trouble locating talent.

This is lamentable, as the very people who are most needed, wanted and sought-after are missing out on the opportunity to not only share their expertise, but to build visibility, reach and authority. And attendees miss out on being exposed to a broader range of perspectives that will enrich them both professionally and personally.

Right after the How to Rawk SXSW panel, it became clear to me: diverse speakers need to 'rawk' more than just one conference. So that we can be heard, we need to be seen. We need to Rawk the Web.

Rawk the Web: what, why and how

Rawk the Web is an ideology that when put into practice precipitates change. More than that, Rawk the Web is a philosophy, a way of operating in the world, and something I envision becoming a global initiative. The core tenet is to amplify the visibility of women and people of colour to give tech a more inclusive and diverse face. The focus is on these things:

  • Increasing the pool of visible, under-represented tech experts by giving them the resources, tools and support needed to become successful speakers
  • Providing them with a mechanism to interface with conference organisers
  • Encouraging diverse youth to pursue tech-related fields by providing strong role models

What are the projected outcomes? The pool of candidates will become bigger, will make itself more known, and it will become far easier for conference organisers to invite these people to speak, creating even better events. With more diverse conference line-ups, the tech industry will begin to better reflect the world from which it came: multi-gendered, multi-racial and multi-faceted. And finally, the next generation of diverse youth, seeing itself reflected in the faces of the tech industry, may be more inclined to become a part of it.

Shifting the imbalance is bigger than any one group. It's going to take everyone working in concert to create the change we want to see. Whether you're part of those under-represented groups or not, there are plenty of ways for you to begin to tip the scales.

The first is to amp up awareness. At the Future of Web Design in London in 2010, at one point I found myself in conversation with five of the fewer than 20 attendees of colour at the 700-plus attendee event. The Belgian friend I attended with later admitted he was uncomfortable being the only white person in the group. 'I know you did, ' I said to him. 'Welcome to my world.'

At the next tech event you go to, look around. Be aware of any blindness you may have had towards the lack of diversity at events you've attended and see what feelings come up. Does it seem normal? Does it seem off? Why? And what can you do to start challenging your own sense of what is 'normal'?

The second thing you can do is to be supportive. If you know of anyone who is part of these under-represented groups, and who is interested in speaking and has valuable content to share, suggest them to event organisers. Volunteer yourself as an accountability partner to help them send talk proposals in, offer to mentor them, and make introductions with conference organisers on their behalf. Help bolster their self-confidence.

Finally, be proactive. There are a growing number of programmes that encourage women and people of colour to code. Direct anyone you think would benefit to check these programmes out, or consider sharing your expertise as a volunteer instructor.

Other groups are also working to change the face of tech. Ladies in Tech celebrates female speakers, Chicago Camps runs Speaker Camps for honing presentation skills, and there's also Tech by Superwomen and Black Tech Week. You can support these organisations and many others. Find the ones that resonate with you.

Diverse speakers: you can give presentations to underrepresented students at local schools, from elementary to college level, about your work in the tech industry and the range of jobs for students who like computers. This encourages future change in the number of diverse students in computer– and design-related programs.

Be the change to make change

While it's important for a community to work towards a common cause, it still boils down to each of us as individuals making a difference. Think about it: you're reading this article right now because I saw Molly Holzschlag speak at a conference in 2005. Through her example of speaking and writing about tech, I saw the possibility that I could be doing the same. I saw myself in her, and she was key to me changing the entire course of my life for the better. Whose life are you going to change? How are you going to Rawk The Web?

Words: Denise Jacobs

Denise is the founder and chief creativity evangelist of creativity and innovation collective The Creative Dose. This article originally appeared in issue 267 of net magazine.

Liked this? Read these!