In September of 2006, I wrote a piece called The Future of White Boy Clubs taking to task Ryan Carson for putting together a speaker lineup for his Future of Web Apps conference made up entirely of white men (for the record, Tantek resents being lumped in as “white”; he’s says he’s Turkish).
As a white male speaker, I wanted to make a point that not just lamented the dearth of female speakers, but also asserted a broader point about the value of diversity to tech conferences.
Two and half years later and the future of the web was yet again being presented from the perspective of a bunch of white guys — and were it not for
a last minute substitution, Kristina Halvorson wouldn’t have made it on stage as the sole female voice.
Kristina felt compelled to say something and so she did, sharing the last 10 of her 25 speaking minutes with Ryan Carson and me, confronting this perennial elephant in the room and calling for specific action.
Without context, some members of the audience felt ambushed.
But Kristina hadn’t planned to bring this up on stage; she wanted to talk about copy! Had progress been made over the last two years, she wouldn’t have had to. But she felt strongly — and after receiving encouragement from Kevin Marks, Daniel Burka and me — she decided to raise the issue because, frankly, no one else had plans to.
She didn’t merely want to complain and didn’t wish to inspire guilt in the predominantly white male audience (what’s there to feel guilty about anyway?). Her point was to frame the issue in a way that helped people recognize the symptoms of the problem, identify where responsibility lies (answer: with all of us) and provide constructive means to address them.
Let’s be real: I doubt it’s lost on anyone that the tech industry and its requisite events lack women. We know this. And we all suffer as a result (for the perspective and experiences they bring, among other things). Lately it’s getting worse: depending on the study you read, there are more females online than males, and yet enrollment by that demographic in computer science is on the wane. Events that purport to be about the “future of web” and yet fail to present speakers that represent the web’s actual diversity serve only to perpetuate this trend.
Turns out, white men also don’t have the monopoly on the best speakers — even in the tech industry — yet their ilk continue to make up a highly disproportionate number of the folks who end up on stage. And that means that good content and good ideas and important perspectives aren’t making it into the mix that should be, and as a result, audiences are getting short-changed.
The question is no longer “where are all the women?” — it’s why the hell aren’t white men making sure that women are up on stage telling their story and sharing the insights that they uniquely can provide!
Why should it only be women who raise their voices on this issue? This isn’t just “their” problem. This is all of our problem, and each of us has something to do about it, or knows someone who should be given an audience but has yet to be discovered.
As a conference organizer, Ryan pointed out that he’s not omniscient. As a fellow conference organizer, I can tell you that you aren’t going to achieve diversity just by talking about it. You have to work at it. To use a lame analogy: if you want food at your event, you’ve got to actually place the order, not just “talk about it”.
Similarly, with female speakers and attendees, you’ve got to work at it, and you’ve got to think about their needs and what will get them come to you (remember, it’s the audience that’s missing out here).
Now, to be fair, I know that Ryan and his team reached out to women. I know that some were too busy; others unavailable; some accepted only to later cancel. Yet still, only two of eight workshops were run by women (with Kristina doing double duty as the only female speaker). It wasn’t for complete lack of effort that more women weren’t on stage or in the audience; it was also the lack of visibility of — and outreach to — women operating on the cutting edges of technology, business, and the web.
This is what our on-stage discussion sought to address by soliciting recommendations from members of the audience tagged with #fowaspeak. By bringing the negative spaces in the conference agenda to the fore — calling attention to the incidental omission of women presenters — we acknowledged that that lack wasn’t necessarily the realization of intent but something more insidious.
It isn’t that women need “help” from white men; this isn’t about capability. To the contrary, the saturation of men in technology leads to women become marginalized and invisible. They are there, and they are present, but somehow we don’t miss them when they’re not up on stage standing next to us. And that’s something that absolutely must change.
Turning the spotlight to deserving women who work just as hard (if not harder) than men does not diminish them, nor should it minimize their accomplishments. An intelligent audience should be able to discern who on stage is meritorious and who is not.
That there are fewer women in the industry means first that conference organizers need work harder to find them and second that audiences need to become vigilant about their absences on conference schedules. It is something that all of us must internalize as our own struggle and then take ongoing, explicit actions to address.
As far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest opportunities to seize the future of web apps is to cement the necessity of diversity in our processes and in our thinking, not for the sake of diversity alone (deserving though it is) but because the technology that we produce is better for it, being more robust, more versatile and flexible, and ultimately, more humane.
The future of web apps — and the conferences that tell their stories — should not be gender-neutral or gender-blind — but gender-balanced. Today, as it was two years ago, we suffer from a severe imbalance. It is my hope that, in raising the specter of consequences of the lack of women in technology, we begin to make as much progress in stitching diversity into the fabric of our society as we are making in producing source code.