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Gender imbalance not conferences' fault

Developer wants less blame, more positive action in web industry

Frontend developer Frances Berriman has written a hard-hitting response to the latest industry spat about a lack of diversity in web conference line-ups. In Conferences aren't the problem, Berriman argues that such events are "just showing the symptoms of a severe lack of diversity, generally, throughout the industry", and that more effort should instead be made to "get more [into the industry], in the first place" rather than expecting the "numbers of speakers of minority groups to go up suddenly overnight".

Speaking to .net, Berriman said she's getting bored with "various outbreaks of finger pointing at conferences", and thinks assigning such blame is unfair "considering there simply are, relatively speaking, very few women within our industry – particularly in development circles – who are also at the level to be able to provide a relevant, expert opinion and then also have the relevant speaking experience, or even the desire to speak at all".

Designer Andy Rutledge also took to the web with a starkly contrary viewpoint to recent arguments that sexism exists in the tech industry. He opined it was "disturbing to see influential individuals" arguing that panels should comprise a certain number of women or minorities, because "ideas like that assume that people are defined by their skin colour or gender rather than by their ideas" and "further assumes that women and 'minorities' cannot think and act competently on their own behalf, and that's a condescending, racist, and sexist idea."

Industry representation

However, with surveys such as one by A List Apart highlighting the gender imbalance in the web industry, shouldn't efforts be made to address this, through encouragement for women and minorities at school level and beyond? Rutledge doesn't think so: "I'd like to see people who choose to join the industry join the industry. That's a decision for each individual. It's none of mine or anyone else's business how many women or men join the industry." He added that while encouragement is "generally a good thing", if the gender and racial distribution of those who show up doesn't meet with someone's arbitrary quota preference, that "doesn't mean that something sinister is going on". He added: "Those who look at the results of free individual choices and see a problem simply because the number distribution doesn't mesh with their arbitrary notions have brought the problem themselves."

The notion of individual choice, though, is impacted on by societal trends and expectations, along with prominent figures, according to those in the industry. Designer Sarah Parmenter told .net in 2012 that she became involved with women-only panel Emerge on taking part in an 'inspirational women' day for a local school: "I was able to tell my story of how I became involved in the tech industry and why. I could tell it was a profession that none of the girls at the school had ever entertained the idea of being part of." Parmenter added that she "loved the feeling of opening some doors and showing them it's something girls/women can do and be successful at, despite the numbers still showing it's male dominated".

Berriman told .net she also believed the lack of diversity in the industry should be addressed, although this was a symptom of much deeper issues than conferences. In her words, "maybe it's time to start treating the lung cancer, instead of just the cough".

Encouraging diversity

We asked Berriman if developers should perhaps spend more time involved with local schools rather than aiming for the conference circuit, but she reckoned this wasn't an either/or scenario. Although she agreed it would be great if more developers would "encourage the next generation of potential web creators", her main concern was that "more developers from more walks of life speak and share their views, opinions and experiences".

The issue, as argued by some in the web industry, is that the status quo feeds itself – male-dominated conferences lead to an assumption of a male-dominated industry, stopping women from taking part more fully or at all. "If a group of people currently feel that they have no way or voice in the industry, then yes, we should be positively encouraging their participation," suggested Berriman, "and perhaps that means creating new platforms for more people to find those opportunities to share their expertise."

This potentially brings us back to the thorny issue of the kinds of quotas Rutledge railed against, but Berriman doesn't believe such things are happening in the industry anyway – and nor should they: "If it was widely believed positive discrimination was happening everywhere, as a given, it would cause us to eventually ask a lot of questions like 'is that person on stage because they are the very best person to explain this to me, or are they fulfilling a quota?', and no one wants to be the token member of a line-up. The only people we want to see on stage should be there on merit, even if that comes at the cost of not fulfilling a desired quota sometimes."

Nonetheless, Berriman told .net there's potentially room for some rebalancing in certain cases: "Something more akin to: I have two well placed, equally viable, experts, but one of these would help me to better represent a group of people I feel is under-represented – so let’s go with that one." She also said it would be helpful if more conferences were transparent with their selection processes, which would enable people to decide how well-curated a set of talks was based on facts rather than speculation.

Berriman follows-up her original post on her website, further clarifying her thoughts on the subject (i.e. that conferences aren't the only aspect of the industry to put pressure on, and that there are other ways to improve diversity, which will subsequently positively impact on conferences), along with providing the full transcript of the interview used in this article.

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