Why conference diversity matters

Much misconception appeared again amidst the recent debates spurred on by Edge Conference’s overwhelmingly-white male lineup: the idea that conferences only cater to people already well established in our industry, that there are no barriers keeping people out of our industry, that calling for more diversity is a demand for quotas, that role models only matter to those already entering our field, and the idea that quotas are only a bad thing, no matter what. Each of these misconceptions deserves lengthy examination and debate; alas, we are not afforded that scope, so I will try to impress upon you as concisely as possible why conference diversity matters.

Frances Berriman’s post has many good thoughts, but some backwards conclusions. Notably:

“Conferences are not the problem, they are just showing the symptoms of a severe lack of diversity, generally, throughout the industry. We can cover up the warts all we like with bolstered numbers of minority groups on stage, but we should probably be working out how to tackle the actual issue of why so few of them enter the industry, as novices/newbies/entry-levels/graduates etc., in the first place who would later become the experts we seek out to speak.”

This actual issue starts at birth, when infants are dressed in blue or pink based on their gender. Our entire society is still heavily sexist, but in subtle and ‘innocent’ ways that many people don’t notice or consider as being sexist. If we wish to tackle the root of the problem, we have to address the sexist influences that our entire society imposes on all of us, but especially young children growing up through age 20. And though we should absolutely try to improve society, it’s too big a problem for us to tackle in the hopes of improving our industry situation in the short term.

Plus, society is not our industry’s biggest diversity problem. Much more pressing is the attrition rate of women, with 52% of women leaving our industry, citing “hostile, macho cultures” as a primary reason.

Our top priority should be to reduce the number of women leaving our industry because they feel unwelcome or are treated unfairly (if not worse than that). When your ship is sinking, you plug the hole before you tell the shipyard it needs to build better boats.

Of course, plugging that hole is not enough to fix the greater problem. Unfortunately, a lack of diversity is not a simple problem with a simple solution. It is a systematic, highly multi-faceted, incredibly complicated, and finely nuanced problem. We need to address every problematic area, including teaching young kids and college students that there is an exciting career in tech waiting for them regardless of their attributes—because society currently tells them otherwise.

But in addressing these myriad problems, conferences have an important responsibility, one that their organisers may not always realise: conferences are influential representatives of our industry, to both in– and outsiders.

Because they are carrying the burden of representing us all, conference organisers will get under fire when presenting a homogeneous group as their event’s line-up. We must hold them accountable for the responsibility they have taken up by organising, all the more so because we want to be seen as a welcoming industry.

Having a homogeneous line-up also risks people of other demographics being less interested in attending or submitting their own proposals, which can stunt their professional growth (thus completing the circle of this ‘symptom’ becoming a cause of the problem). It is a needless risk that conference organisers take far too often, especially since more effective and valuable techniques for finding speakers have long been published. None of these solutions involve ‘tokenism’.

People also mistake a call for diversity in the selection process as a mandate for quotas (ignoring that quotas have a reasonably positive track record, actually), which it isn’t. Others prop up the “it’s either quality or diversity; you can’t have both” fallacy, as if taking diversity into consideration somehow affects your ability to judge quality at the same time. (If it does, I suggest you don’t do the speaker selection.)

Reaching out actively to groups outside the beaten path when announcing your Call For Proposals, and performing a blind selection on proposals received are just two of many simple steps an organiser can take to increase diversity. Simple steps that will help your attendees feel more welcome, and your event more highly rated.

As for members of underrepresented groups: if you’re interested in speaking at events, but you’re not emailing any organisers about it, it’s a pretty safe bet that some white man out there is. And he’ll definitely get it if you don’t try at all.

We need to better address the problem of women feeling unwelcome, underrepresented and underpaid in our industry, to stem the tide of them leaving. Conferences play an important role in setting the tone of the culture in which this occurs, as well as providing all-too important role models for people to aspire to. It’s not a solution that will fix all of the problems our industry faces, but it is an important step along the way to get them fixed.

While I’ve written about this topic for .net (at length) before, Sara Wachter-Boetcher perhaps said it best in her article Universal Design IRL:

“If we want a web that works for everyone, then don’t we need a web profession that reflects just as much diversity?”

Conferences reflect us as an industry, so I’d like them to reflect us in a way that I can admire.

Photograph: Dustin Diaz, Flash Bullet

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