Future of White Boys’ Clubs Redux #fowaspeak

White Boys (+1)

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 Halvorson: I LOVE DUDES by Judson CollierKristina 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 speakerseven 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.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

41 thoughts on “Future of White Boys’ Clubs Redux #fowaspeak”

  1. Well I’m glad you said it… because whenever one of us says it, we get told we’re either a) whining or b) not ‘fixing’ the issue ourselves.

    Now the question will be what the rest of the “white male speaker/organizer” community responds to this with? Indifference – Indignance – or Action?

  2. Don’t you think you’re trying to balance something that should balance itself? Forcing the issue has numerous negatives sides. Conference organizers getting female speakers just because of their gender for instance. Or conference visitors that question the real achievements of a woman on stage. You could end up with an exactly opposite result. I’m very much skeptical about that.

  3. @Robert, yeah, but it’s a chicken and egg problem, isn’t it? If female experts don’t feel like people will listen to them nor attend their talks, they won’t do them, right?

    Yet, if we, “white males”, start bitching about being “ambushed” just because the elephant in the room is pointed out, that doesn’t say much about our willingness to include women in the little circle of presenters.

    So, I agree, the issue needs to be forced, even if gently so. Also, this should not stop at only women being included. The other part here is the “white” part. Where are all the black or Indian or Asian speakers? Let’s take the problem on head-on.

  4. @Robert Gaal – In my experience, you may be worried about a problem that doesn’t exist. From what I’ve seen, the average female speaker at tech conferences is pretty awesome, and the average male speaker is boring and underprepared.

    Yeah, I’ve seen people on the IRC backchannel discussing the attractiveness of female speakers rather than the content of their talks, but really, those individuals need to STFU, and the rest of us need to tell them to STFU.

  5. There are the same issues at stake as positive discrimination in any other walk of life so I can see some heavy debate on this. The current situation is unhealthy. We need more women in the industry and we need more women as industry leaders. Ensuring women are well represented at conferences (or represented at all) is part of this.

  6. Thanks for speaking out. Like Robert and Stephen, I dont believe it is a good idea to force the community’s nature although I am a woman. Male/female ratio is not just the conferences issue but the industry’s itself. Mainly, 70% is male and worse, many of the 70% is truly old minded. You may not believe but, once I saw an industry veteran talking in public about being gifted and was born as a male, so that he has more brains for maths. This is ridiculous, but noising around doesn’t make it any better. If we want a change in diversity, minorities should stand up and fight for their place.

  7. Thanks for the insightful post, Chris. @Robert Gaal, I think we can all agree that intentional action undertaken by concerned parties is an integral part of “things balancing themselves out”, and that in the absence of such efforts the status quo tends to prevail.

    That said, if efforts to increase diversity are undertaken carelessly and without consideration for some of the pitfalls alluded to, there is certainly the possibility for negative and counterproductive effects.

    The idea that audience members might question the achievements of a panel member is a bit of a red herring, though, as this can happen in any situation and there is no reason to think that making more concerted efforts to increase the diversity of such events would water down the quality.

  8. Interesting. Determining who’s on stage isn’t democratic, right? There’s one person (or a committee) who decides these things. Maybe there just needs to be more female conference organizers?

    I wonder why the number of women enrolling in tech are waning.

  9. One of the biggest counter arguments to diversity that tends to appear is that “I want the best speakers, I don’t care if they are male or female, I want to be sure I get the best”. While I personally want value for money from any event, people forget about serendipity.

    If all we hear from are people of similar interests and backgrounds, it turns into an echo chamber rather than any sort of reality. Some conferences I have attended, it wasn’t the high-priced keynote speaker reciting the same presentation he’s done 100 times before that was the most interesting, it was the shy youngster that has a great idea, but no one was listening.

    Serendipity is very hard to create, but by simply shaking things-up you increase your chances of finding something new. New ideas from new, fresh, different people spark our own minds into thinking in different ways.

    If all you want is to be sure your money is well spent, then go to these monotone conferences. If you are willing to take a risk, see some interesting people and some not so interesting, then you will take away a lot more the event in the long run. Because, in the real world, not all your clients, co-workers, friends (or enemies) will be white males.

    There is no formula to a good speaker line-up, you want the event to flow smoothly, for everyone to be engaged and entertained. It is easily to stick with the status quo, it is much, much harder to try something new and risk failure… but isn’t that what we are trying to do everyday with our web start-up culture? Why is this not reflected in our web-education as well?

  10. What David said.

    I don’t get it. What exactly needs to be compensated for? Maybe you should also invite Jewish speakers, because they are under-represented. Or maybe you should invite gay speakers, both male and female. Or maybe you should invite speakers that are mute. Just because, you know, they never get a chance to say what they think.

    I am exaggerating, obviously. What I am trying to say is this: the more you try to invite people of so-called “minority groups”, the more you are stigmatising them as a “minority group”. It’s as if you’re doing a female speaker a favour just because she’s female, which, in the end has little or nothing to do with her knowledge of a certain subject and her ability to speak in front of an audience. This way, you are reinstating yourself as superior to the other person, because you have the power to invite that poor gay/Asian/female/Protestant. Just invite who you think is fit for the job. No strings attached.

  11. I don’t want men to work harder to get women on stage, I want women to work harder to get themselves on stage.

    As a woman who is in this industry and attends (and sometimes speaks at) conferences, I’ve never felt any gender discrimination targeted at me, but I’ve certainly been frustrated by the lack of women who get involved. I believe if a woman is qualified, capable and motivated to speak at a conference, it’s no harder for her to get there than a man. I would be insulted if I was asked to speak at a conference to balance out the M-F ratio.

  12. Thanks for this post and explaining your position, Chris.

    The part that I take up the most objection to is this:
    “The saturation of men in technology leads to women become marginalized and invisible.”

    You could substitute many words for ‘men’ and ‘women’ in that sentence. For instance:
    “The saturation of computer science majors in technology leads to architects becoming marginalized and invisible.”

    Or to make my point futher:
    “The saturation of tall people in the NBA marginalizes the short guys.”

    I’m sure there are architects in technology and short players in the NBA. But the wonderful part about our industry is that the playing field is even more level. The internet is truly a meritocracy, where everyone and anyone can do something incredible. We want to hear from those people that do incredible things, regardless of race or gender.

    Let’s keep the focus on technology, which we all love, and let the rest happen organically.

  13. I disagree (strongly) with this approach, although I believe it was awfully brave of Kristina (and Ryan), and certainly well-intentioned. For the most part, I think women-in-tech (or virtually any other X-in-tech) is best served focusing on the tech. Or in the case of a speaker at ANY event: focusing on helping the paying attendees become better at whatever it is they’re trying to do. Yes, diversity matters and helps all… I just feel that this approach is not only NOT helpful, but counter-productive.

    More and more today, when women in tech stop focusing on “but we’re women” and focus on what they love and why they love it, everyone is better served and the right things happen.

    Kevin’s point is a good one, however — I have been horrified by the backchannel discussions at some events where people (men) didn’t know who I was and focused on the fact that I was a female. But about 10 minutes into the talk the backchannel topics shifted from “what the hell is this chick doing at OSCON?!” to whether they agreed/loved/hated the specific points I was making. As it should be.

    Again, this is not about “proving” anything… it is about simply staying true to the reasons we are all there and trusting that there are better places to effect the dynamics that have contributed to this imbalance. One look at things like SXSWi shows that women are not missing from the broader tech discussions, but FOWA is still viewed as a more dev-heavy event.

    I’m merely one woman in tech with one perspective and virtually no expertise in gender studies, etc. But I do have a great deal of experience in the tech world and as many of you know, I’ve been dragged through one of its darkest sides.

    After all this, I still believe women in tech are best served by staying true to what they love about tech, and helping others–men & women– improve.

  14. I applaud you and Kristina for speaking out about this. Increasing diversity where it’s not present is a difficult task, and made much more difficult when people aren’t cognizant of their own privilege. It’s even more difficult when people don’t value diversity itself; if that’s not seen as an intrinsic good it’s hard for many to accept that the lack of it is a problem to be addressed.

  15. David: We’re doing what we can. 🙂

    I feel a little spoiled in the tech scene in Portland, OR. I go to tech user group meetings that are entirely women (Code-n-splode), or where we are 25-50% of the participants. Many of the tech events are organized by women, but I think men are pretty fairly represented as organizers as well.

    My goal for free/open source software (other than world domination) is ~50% women being involved. “Involved” means lots of things, and it certainly means getting a few more ladies up on stage. I think IgnitePortland is a great example of gender balance in speakers. HickTech is another great example. Not meaning to leave anyone else awesome out of my list here, just pointing a couple out off the top of my head.

    My buddies at http://opensourcebridge.org/ and I are working on achieving greater diversity in attendance as well as speakers. We’ll report back to you how we did after the conference.


  16. Oh, and just by looking at the attitudes of the comments broken down by gender lines, you’re right. Obviously this is something that needs to be talked about.

  17. Hey, it’s time to do this again, eh? After all the hullaballoo last go round, I have a simpler suggestion. Curate a panel or curate a conference.

    Really. Talk someone into letting you slate the list or start your own event. Model the behavior you want to see. Explain your thinking. Be prepared that it’s harder than you think. Gender are race are but two of the factors you’ll need to balance. (For instance, when I drafted Leslie Chicoine into the discussion about portable social networks I was thinking we need 1) designers and 2) people who have implemented this stuff.) But you *can* make an awesome speaker line up that is full of vitamins & minerals. Look at the job they did with Etech this year. Or the Start Conference. Or Do It With Drupal.

  18. The lineup for the conference should focus on bringing the best people of each field to share experiences and tell their stories. Period.

    If FOWA is not being successful on this goal, that should be the target of our criticism IMHO, not the lack of persons from one group or another.

  19. The most important thing to do is make sure that you have a diverse and interesting group of speakers when you make up your initial list of potential speakers. After that, it’s impossible to control this list very well.

    The reason is that people cancel, say no, or ask to speak on a different subject. It’s *very* hard to control the final list of speakers unless you only have 1-3 speakers. Any more, it’s hard to know what the final list is going to be like.

    I think the best way to tackle this problem is to let people submit ideas for speaking and select a few new folks every time. They should *not* be chosen based on their color, race, gender, or any other non-talent reason – solely on their idea and speaking ability (someone can be a genius and a really crap speaker – so they shouldn’t go on stage).

    Like we said on stage in Miami, please tweet ideas and suggestions and tag them with #fowaspeak – we’re listening!


  20. Harvard Universities Project Implicit [1] has demonstrated that even he most open minded of us have many implicit prejudices, that are very difficult to consciously address. Interestingly, these “implicit associations” (including stereotyping based on a person’s gender, race, sexual orientation and so on), may be changed through unconscious actions – by way of example, there’s suggestion that watching highly successful african american athletes on television might reduce someone’s unconscious prejudice against african americans [2].

    It’s surely uncontroversial that gender and race stereotypes play a significant role in just about every aspect of even the most liberal western democracies. As a simple example, by any measure, women are paid less *for exactly the same roles* as men. So, in the context of this, let’s take a look at some of the conversation the Chris’s post has elicited.

    What’s interesting about many of the responses display what’s termed “black and white” or binary thinking about this issue – which makes the issues much easier to “address” – and much more of a simple emotional debate, with easy pronouncements, rather than being seen as an ongoing cultural dialog that has been happening for centuries in a great many fields. We’ll also see that many of the responses display these implicit associations about gender and ethnicity.

    Now, I’ve a lot of respect for those discussing it here, even those I don’t agree with, so please the following is meant respectfully, even if for the purposes of brevity it doesn’t come across as such – I’ll do my best.

    For example Fabricio posits

    “The lineup for the conference should focus on bringing the best people of each field to share experiences and tell their stories. Period.”

    In orchestral music, the long standing belief into the 1960s, ’70s and in some cases beyond were that men simply made better concert musicians. But when the major orchestras of the world started blind auditions, the rate of women in those orchestras shot up almost overnight. The orchestras claimed they were choosing “the best people”, but they weren’t. Ironically, Chris is essentially arguing that a high preponderance of white male speakers is good prima facie evidence that you simply aren’t getting the best speakers. Unless your belief is that white males are better speakers!
    There’s a strong example of these implicit assumptions about gender and ethnicity in here – assuming any effort to increase diversity will diminish the quality of the conference presenters.

    With respect to Brian O, I don’t think the only response to the problem is start your own conference – this is like arguing that if a large company is polluting, for instance, then what you should do is start a non polluting company to compete with them. It’s an approach for sure, but I can’t see how calling folks out for things they could improve is irrelevant. Pretty much every country in the world has anti discrimination laws. Probably events like these fall outside the penumbra of those laws, but their purport is clear – your responsibility as an employer is to not discriminate, and if 90% of your workforce, for instance is male and white, you’d have some ‘splaining to do.

    Kathy writes

    “Again, this is not about “proving” anything… it is about simply staying true to the reasons we are all there and trusting that there are better places to effect the dynamics that have contributed to this imbalance”

    I see a similar compartmentalization to Brian’s in Kathy’s reasoning here – why can’t we aim to achieve meta goals, such as better representation of minorities, women and so on, in addition to “the reasons why we are there” (and clearly there are many who would put issues like the one being discussed as part of their reason for being there).
    Where would these “better places” be? Surely the web teaches us that change starts at the edge and the bottom?

    Luke says

    “That said, if efforts to increase diversity are undertaken carelessly and without consideration for some of the pitfalls alluded to, there is certainly the possibility for negative and counterproductive effects”

    Is there much evidence that these negative and counterproductive effects are occurring? This concern seems to display once again this implicit association of anyone other than white males opening the possibility that somehow quality will fall. Take it from me as someone who puts on several conferences a year and watches probably hundreds of presentations, many white males suck 😉 In fact, if you are going to do any one thing, you ensure you get no company shills speaking at your events (and those folks have a VERY high chance of being white males). There’s some discrimination we are definitely into 😉

    Jordan says

    “The saturation of tall people in the NBA marginalizes the short guys.”

    I think in soccer this is called an own goal 😉 For NFL folks that’s like a safety, but worse 😉
    You equate short with women (and minorities) and tall with men, and in the context of basketball – where being tall is in effect an intrinsic “talent”. The logic of your analogy is that inviting women and minorities to speak at conferences is effectively inviting less talented people to speak at a conference. I think we can see the problem of implicit association write large here.

    Rachel says

    “I believe if a woman is qualified, capable and motivated to speak at a conference, it’s no harder for her to get there than a man”

    I guess Chris’s point is that this simply doesn’t appear to be backed up by the numbers.

    Unfortunately, every time this conversation comes up, I find myself having to say (where it really ought to be a given) that of course women or minorities should not be given a speaking role simply because they are a woman or member of a minority. It’s just that its a false dichotomy.

    My personal ethical decision is that I happen to be in some sort of position to do something, even if minor, to address something I see as less than ideal in our society – that women, and minorities are very often under represented, and much less visible than folks like me – white middle class men.

    We have conscious goals of ensuring that we address these sorts of issues (for example, looking for non stereotypical presenters – e.g. women talking about engineering and hard core developer stuff, not simply the low hanging fruit of talking about more traditional “female” topic areas) – we don’t make a song and dance, it’s just what we do cause we think its the right thing to do. We don’t have a number – like 30% or 40% or whatever of the speaker list that should be non white male – we just go on feeling – does the balance look right? And of course the balance will look different here in Australia, where we don’t have large latino and african american populations, but we do have many from a SE Asian background.

    Why do we do this? Aboveall, because it is our personal ethical decision. But if you are looking for practical positives

    1. when a keynote speaker stops mid sentence and says “wow – there’s so many women here” – this happened not once but twice at WDN this year
    2. when up to 50% of our audience is women, as it often is – surely that translates into a bigger overall audience than we otherwise would have

    So, how do we go about this? It’s really not rocket science, it’s very doable, and frankly, other than a bit of extra effort, I don’t see any downsides at all.

    We tend to work backwards from the subject areas we want covered at a conference to speakers who can present well in those areas – which gives us far more scope than starting with one of the “usual suspects” you’ll see at a great many events, and going from there. No disrespect to you guys, and we’ve got more than our fair share of those folks speak at our events, because there usually a very good reason lots of people ask them to speak.
    We also look for other places in which women and other under represented groups in the industry can take steps toward the daunting prospect of their first full scale presentation – by having them chair sessions, for instance, or encouraging them to participate in something like Ignite events, where you can take smaller steps.

    Does our quality suffer? Not based on the feedback we get. Our audiences are bigger than they’d otherwise be, and I’d like to think that the overall social experience for all involved is improved by having a more diverse mix of people.

    I guess the bottom line is that there are folks doing this, its not an abstract discussion, and its frankly not that hard. It takes a concern to do it right, and a bit of extra effort, but to my mind, and in our experience, it’s a no brainer.

    [1] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
    [2] http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/category/implicit-associations/

  21. I was there, didn’t feel ambushed at all. I think the issue is truly worthy of discussion. After all if we don’t open it up to public discussion no one will think about it.

  22. Shorter FactoryJoe: Women are a minority in my industry but that should never be evident in speaker rosters.

  23. It’s not about women or men. It’s about people. If you don’t model the behavior, there’s no model for it. If people aren’t represented, there’s no idea of it. We’re talking here about women and men: what about race?

    Paul Dourish mentioned to me that when he chaired Ubicomp 2006, half of the program committee was women. The result? Many more of the papers were also by women and the conference program was more varied. I wasn’t able to pull up the ubicomp.org 2006 site today but suggest googling it and looking at the cache.

    We’ve been keeping lists for years of women you might invite to your next technology or design conference. Jen Bekman keeps the high-powered List of Women Speakers for Your Conference. Anne Galloway and Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino updated Anne’s list (I made some additions too): http://designswarm.com/blog/2009/01/07/something-worth-blogging-about/

  24. Howdy.

    Chris, thanks for the post. Lots of great discussion happening here, which is fine. But ultimately, sparking this tired debate wasn’t my intention.

    We brought this conversation to the stage at FOWA because – as Chris, Ryan and I agreed – talking about it in blogs, forums and listservs simply isn’t working. We were interested in giving individuals who care about diversity onstage a quick, easy way to:

    Help Carsonified quickly and easily gather ideas for new, diverse speakers
    Provide a few easy tips and tools for people who are interested in speaking at conferences but don’t know how to get started
    Give their smart friends some encouragement to speak

    And, you know, whatever. It was fine. Those ten minutes really pissed some people off, but really excited and invigorated others. (Frankly, I myself would have preferred to have been back at the pool, or at least hiding in the bathroom.)

    But. The end result is that Ryan has publicly stated that he values diversity in programming and that he wants to make it a priority moving forward. And, thanks to a hashtag, he has a big ol’ list of women and minority speakers for consideration at future Carsonified conferences.

    (So that this list is actually useable and valuable to the Carsonified team, I’m personally working with a few volunteers to ensure it includes each potential speaker’s contact information, professional background, and, if applicable, previous speaking experience.)

    Folks. I know you’re sick of talking about this. Me, too. But I think it’s important for newcomers to this discussion – of which there are many, every time – to understand why diversity in conference programming is a challenge, both for the organizers and for potential speakers. So, for you old-timers, thanks for your patience while some of us get up to speed.

    In general, if you’ve read the arguments for diversity onstage and you still don’t think the topic deserves attention or action, that’s cool. I can respect your position and still disagree with it.

    If you do think it’s worthy of action (beyond working hard at what you love and hoping the situation corrects itself), then there are things you can *do* that are ultimately way more effective than just talking about it.

    If you’re a conference attendee:

    Actively encourage smart women and minorities in your professional community to seek out speaking opportunities
    If you know someone locally who would kick ass on the national stage, and that someone is up for it, don’t hesitate to send their name to a conference organizer (via email, Twitter, blog post comment, whatever)
    If you see an awesome woman or minority speaker at a conference, and you know another conference where they might be a good fit, walk up and suggest it to them
    In conference feedback forms, be consistent about telling the organizers you value diversity, and either a) congratulate them for achieving it, or b) challenge them to work harder for it

    If you’re a conference programmer:

    Don’t think about diversity after you’ve started making your list of desired speakers … think about it FIRST, on par with “who will people pay to see?”
    Use social media to ask attendees for ideas – this is almost too easy, but it obviously works
    Seek out women- and minority-focused listservs where you can announce calls for proposals
    Be brave about taking a chance on newbies when and where it’s appropriate

    If you’re a potential speaker who’s still on the fence or doesn’t know how to get started, find me on Twitter @halvorson for ideas. There are dozens of things you can do to pursue opportunities on both local and national stages. And if you’re a smart, compelling speaker with ideas about how to make the web a better place, after your first gig or two, the opportunities will begin to find you.

    And now, I’d like to talk about content strategy. No. Seriously.

  25. John: I’m only being slightly glib. After another Carson conference 2 years ago we had *exactly* the same conversation. Same points. Same heat. The larger questions of getting more types of people involved with Web design & development get elided, and we really haven’t even made much headway figuring out good ways to improve representation when it comes to the educational component.

    So, it’s a weary, wary suggestion to tend your own garden, in order to at least effect some sort of change. Suggest people when you can, encourage people to submit ideas, try to influence organizers, roll your own panels, etc.

    As you say clearly, it’s a personal, ethical decision.

    There’s an entire economic component to the discussion, too. Who’s a ‘draw’ to a paying crowd, who actually gets paid to speak, who gets travel subsidized, etc. For me, one of the most positive things we can do is start getting different types of people to show up to the events in the first place. If that means comping passes to people who don’t typically come or can’t afford it, maybe that’s an investment in the future of our industry we should make. All of these things highlight for me why Barcamps & other pick-up basketball game type of events have such a good vibe: the barriers for everyone involved are different, and so you get a different type of dynamic.

  26. And there *has* been a FOWA show with a diverse speaker roster. I curated a two day business track at FOWA London in 2007 that about 60% ‘white boys’ (in Messina parlance). I even invited UX types. And Dick Costolo. It was crazy go nuts. I think it was also the first big show Robert Kalin did. And he was awkward and underprepared and absolutely mesmerizing.

  27. Marginalia: eight of the 14 students in the graduate Interaction Design program at CMU are female, .

  28. I have never had to wait in line for the women’s bathroom at the “dev-heavy” tech conferences/courses I’ve been to, because there are are so few women in the audience. And when I see a woman on stage at a dev-heavy tech conference, I notice her. I wish she didn’t jump out at me like that, but she does, because she’s often the only woman speaker. I’m pretty sure she must jump out at everybody else too.

    I wish there were representative diversity not just on the dev-heavy tech conference stage but across the board in that industry. I’m sure there are some companies/programs where women are well- or even over-represented, but I’m talking about on average. I don’t think anybody can disagree that overall, the numbers of women in dev-heavy tech are woefully low.

    So what to do? Obviously letting things run their natural course has not resulted in representative diversity! Just as has been the case in countless other math/science/tech forums, this is clearly not a place that is attracting and/or retaining women, for one reason or another.

    I think it would help if the industry were pro-active about implementing logistical, cultural changes to make hi-tech dev a more feasible, more attractive place for women to work. I have been consistently impressed with stories I’ve heard about Deloitte and Touche’s “Women’s Initiative,” for example (http://is.gd/lmMl). While I would not personally want to go into consulting for various reasons, one of my brightest women friends chose to work for Deloitte precisely because of their initiative, which customizes work around women’s needs and works with women so that they are not forced to choose between career and family, for example.

    More kick-a** women developers should mean more of them on stage, right? I know this is coming at it from a different perspective, but just my 2 cents…

  29. Our existence of our business magazine, thenextwomen.com was a direct result of my conversation with the guys on thenextweb.com of the lack of female speakers.


    We started the concept of female internet heroes and compiled a list of women founding, investing or leading in the internet indusry, just to make women more visible, for their own benefit and the benefit of the community. More women speakers will attract more women in the audience.
    Positive discrimination, whether it is on the board of companies or as judge in a panel, or as a speaker on conferences, will bring about more quantity of women, buying tickets in the audience, submitting their startups for a competition, and according to many studies, also more quality, as diverse teams are more innovative than all male or all female teams.

    Personally, I am involved in a lot of initiatives, like the jury of the Dutch Accenture Innovation Awards, and the UK Board of Astia.org and our own The NextWomen events to stimulate female led companies to go ahead, come forward, present your self, pitch your company, and get funding.
    Leadership issues of women themselves play a big role in why women do not submit speaker proposals, ask to be in the jury and wait to get properly funded etc. So we profile them, push them and show that the are plenty of women in the internet industry worth inviting.

  30. Thank you for this post.

    In my career, I have been been privileged to work with some of the best and brightest talents who are thoughtful, articulate, intelligent and from diverse backgrounds. Its time the public face of our industry reflected who we really are.

    For anyone interested there is a list of female speakers here: http://danimalik.com/speakers/

    Thanks Chris for bringing this topic up.

  31. That was brave of Kristina. It sucks to be in that position on so many levels. Speaking up exposes you to further accusations of being tokenized and having to defend your qualifications or right to be there. And there is extra backlash for pointing out lack of diversity. I really admire her for saying it right in the moment and right out on stage.

  32. Thanks to Chris for presenting this issue fairly and articulately. It’s not that women are the minority in tech, it’s that we’re the minority in certain influential and/or visible cliques. The most frustrating response I’ve gotten is from men who say that if I see a problem, I should work harder to make sure the organizers know about me and other women speakers. Sorry but it’s YOUR conference that threatens to suck, YOU need to be the one to fix it. When I look at your web sites and see a mostly white male speaker lineup I don’t even see the point of attending. (I’m talking to you BlogWorld, Internet Summit, etc.)

    It’s not actually that hard to find a vaguely representative group of speakers if you are already immersed in a broad community. And the Internet makes it pretty easy to find and join such communities. (Start with Women Who Tech, Blog Her, She’s Geeky, and so on – and that’s just for women. There are similar affinity groups of people of color and other folks you don’t hear from enough. We’re not hiding!)

    Oh and if I have to add myself to yet another list of women tech speakers…

  33. I have a bit more to add. One, I agree with Marc Canter. 😎

    Two, to Brian’s point about how to act to help the situation, I have specific advice. Extend your reading awareness to women and people of color who are talking about tech and making great tools. If your feeds are 90% white men, your information landscape is seriously flawed. Extend your network in a serious way. If you are aware of a conference, and are writing up your own proposal to speak at it, then think through the people you know and go tell some women and people of color – *whose work and thoughts and capabilities you now may actually be aware of* – about the call for proposals, what you know about the conference, who will be there whose work would be relevant, offer to read through their draft proposal or talk over IM with them about the conference. In short offer real community, not tokenization.

    It is partly the informal register that this needs to happen. Go to that conference but bring more people with you. You can’t do that if you don’t even know they’re there. I just recently heard someone refer to a black woman writing web apps in a particular city as a “unicorn” as if she were impossibly rare and my head exploded because I had *just* been to a conference with about 100 black women web and social media folks from that very city. I am not blaming only individual ignorance here. It is a systemic and pervasive problem too. But, when I go speak at conferences it is often because someone did specific outreach to pull me into a network – beyond sending a single call for proposals email to a women-only mailing list. So I’m trying to recommend what worked for me.

    Point three is to recommend more of a collective approach. Go look at what organizations have come to be that are women or people or color. Go look at the speaker list for Blogging While Brown just for example. And invite several people, talk to that event’s organizers, offer some sponsorship, offer a partnership or joint event. SXSWi has done this very well with success, as many people have pointed out.

  34. Thanks for pushing this conversation to continue; I really appreciate it!

    I’ve shared the experience of showing up at an event, workshop, conference, etc. and finding myself the only female on the panel/at the front. It obviously doesn’t help, either, that I’m usually the or one of the youngest, too.

    It’s been my experience, though, that when those situations happen, the audience becomes pretty aware of it and that awareness manifests in questions, conversations, and topics that mean I have no time or very little time to actually talk my work, thoughts, ideas, NetSquared or anything else – other than how did I get into this line of work? How is it being a woman in technology? What other women in tech do I know that I could connect people to? And so forth.

    I’m always happy to answer those questions, but I *was* asked to speak on something other than my gender + sector. I could probably make a pretty great slide deck about it; but I’m usually more confident with my standard nptech stuff 🙂

    So, that is all to say that, I think people are ready for this conversation and are just still at the stage where it’s, “say what you see,” and not move into action. I feel like with groups such as Women Who Tech and the corresponding annual telesummit, The Next Woman, and so forth that there are ways of connecting with women in the field if you are a conference organizer or a “white man” among many.

    Guess I don’t have any answers, but, am happy the conversation can move to a higher platform. Thanks!

  35. Liz, I would appreciate an acknowledgement that the elite of the Web read sites via newsreader, which reduces all sites to interchangeable bare HTML rendered in that newsreader. Not all, maybe even not many, personal blogs have the owner’s name in the RSS title; some of those names are ambiguous (Chris? Pat?); even names that are unambiguous as to sex say nothing about race, etc. The long-term Web elite even forgets where the hell they ever heard of half the blogs in their subscription lists. Maybe I’m not elite, but I am as long-term as is humany possible to be and I couldn’t tell you where easily a quarter of my 1,600 subscriptions came from.

    So if I were running a conference and I had to practise American-style affirmative action, what data do I really have at my ready disposal?

    This is distinct from what people here are calling “outreach.”

    Now, I would state a preference for a combination of interesting and novel topic and demonstrable onstage chops. Then maybe you can “positively discriminate.”

  36. Joe,

    “a preference for a combination of interesting and novel topic and demonstrable onstage chops. Then maybe you can “positively discriminate.””

    That’s a close approximation of our strategy – working backwards from content we think is relevant and interesting to our audience, then identifying possible presenters. The criteria we use for that include

    1. real domain experience and expertise
    2. the ability to hold an audience

    these two are threshold requirements

    After this come various objective and subjective criteria – which includes diversity

    it is very doable – but as mentioned previously, requires quite a bit more work than simply going with the most obvious candidates.

  37. I’ll second what Rachel said way above. Having been both a speaker and a conference organizer, my observation is that, especially when you’re talking about a management-level audience, it’s much easier to find opportunities as a female speaker than to find qualified women to speak.

    That gender imbalance in technology leadership is even more striking when you start looking at the small subset of knowledgeable, experienced leaders who also do public speaking. There’s just a very small pool of female candidates.

    When I ran tech conferences, my organization actively sought women and other minorities as much as time and resources allowed. Still, the net-net was generally one or two additional women and/or minority speakers in our lineup—still not representative of our attendee population, and perhaps not even noticeable. In fact, our failure probably appeared worse than it was, because we drew a disproportionately female attendance in relation to our total member base.

    I dunno… Maybe women aren’t as ego-driven to speak. Maybe they’d rather focus on their core professional responsibilities than be distracted by speaking engagements. Maybe their employers implicitly, culturally, or explicitly discourage them from speaking. Or maybe women jut prefer to lead from within the audience through commentary and questions, rather than leading through presentation. I’ve seen evidence of all of these factors. Whatever the reason, though, it amounts to a supply-side problem even for diversity-minded organizers.

    Bottom line: Pushing the issue from the demand side won’t work: the business costs of finding those needles in the haystack are too high. If we want more women presenters at tech events—and I agree it would be beneficial—we need more (and more qualified) women to promote themselves as speakers.

  38. Web technologies so far remain the prerogative of men. Perhaps in the near future the situation will change.

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