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.

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The Future of White Boy clubs

White Boys (+1)

As a white boy who attended yesterday and today’s Future of Web Apps summit, I feel compelled to speak up about a disturbing element of an otherwise well-produced event.

In fact, when I got this fortune the other night, it made me realize how important it was to speak out:

You have remarkable power which you are not using.

Clearly the issue that I’m presenting is a familiar one — one of the perennials that comes around with the regularity of seasons. In the relatively short time that I’ve lived out in San Francisco and become immersed in the Valley culture, I can recall this topic presenting itself at least once a quarter. At least.

And the reason is simple: the issue of diversity in culture is intractable and unsolvable. It needs constant work and attention; it’s a matter of mindfulness and inclusivity, because regardless of how diverse you become (or think you are), you can always do better. No, really.

We can and must choose to make diversity a top priority, one that’s up there with attracting quality talent and quality attendees; it will not simply happen on its own and truly, it’s everyone’s responsibility.

But it’s not that simple, as much as I wish it were.

I talked to Ryan Carson and Lisa about this — about why there was so little diversity (especially gender diversity) at FoWA. Apparently they did try to recruit some women speakers, but the two that came to mind didn’t respond in time; so the Carson crew got tied up organizing everything else and the matter fell by the wayside. Once they had their final speaker line up, it was too late.

Perhaps if the issue had been raised far enough in advance, something could have been done (take for example the upcoming 45:2 AJAX Experience conference — all but 3 are white — apparently their trademark “No Fluff, Just Stuff” refers to minorities). This is what Elisa Camahort of BlogHer, says:

The solution is for event organizers to care about diversity in their own planning stage, not after they’ve already spent the time securing and then announcing dozens and dozens of speakers.

Totally.

And so then I talked to Matt yesterday and he pointed out that, well, maybe, the speakers represent the make-up of the community.

Which of course is a logical argument to make. And a complete cop out (sorry Matt).

There’s something important here that needs to be impressed upon us white boys by a white boy — one who happens to find himself uncomfortably in the white boy club (just coz you’re born into it doesn’t mean that you’re not responsible for being part of the change that needs to happen). It goes back to that fortune I got and to the point I made at 20×2 at SXSW last year: as it stands, we, as white men (of course I include myself in that), have a tremendous amount of privilege and power — power that many of us don’t know we have, power that many of us choose to ignore, power that some of us disclaim or shrug off. The utter reality is that whether you want it or not, you have the power and the potential to be part of the ongoing solution.

Now let me suggest an elevation of the topic, because there’s really something practical and motivating about this power that we have. First of all, it’s not something shameful and it’s not something that we ought feel bad about; admitting and owning our historically exclusionary behavior will not emasculate us. On the contrary, to my thinking, taking responsibility and doing something shows a degree of chivalry that can reveal where true insecurity lies.

But it’s not about chivalry. Because the act of diversifying should be done because of merit, not in spite of it. In fact, there are three concrete benefits to be gained from proactive inclusivity:

  • For one thing, FoWA would have been more representative, more interesting and more engaging (and better attended) had their been wider diversity. If Drupal is any indication, monocultures produce monotonous culture (think Art with a big A). And the very last thing that I, personally, want to see in the real future of web apps is a lack of diversity.The greater the diversity in the folks who are participating, creating and discussing the future of web apps will bring result in more diverse ideas, approaches, beliefs and experiences to be built into the tools of tomorrow, leading to an environment a whole lot more exciting than the alternative.
  • Instead of having to duck for cover whenever you’re exposed as a hapless ignorant fool, there’s a whole lot less guilt and worry in doing the right thing (imagine that!). You can actually feel proud of yourself for making diversity a priority (which will improve your event anyway — and likely increase the demographics of those interested in attending).So wow, doing the right thing feels good and is economically beneficial?! No way!
  • Lastly, by giving away and spreading out our power, it actually improves our position in culture while increases the visibility of our peers. I’ve long believed that in a networked world, by giving everything away, you gain more. It’s kind of the principle upon which P2P networks work.So this power that we white men have? It’s only power if we actually give it away and spread out our privilege as much as possible. In whatever form it might take, this potential power means nothing unless we actually use it — so by working to fix the problem, we’re actually proving what kind of man we are.

So let me be bold: the future of the white boy club is in inclusivity one-upmanship. Not just because it benefits everybody, but because it benefits us. We simply can’t stay hidden in our isolated little geek enclaves and plead ignorance or expect things to get better by themselves; there’s too much at stake, too much to gain and too many interesting voices out in that great bazaar that we’re missing out on that we must do more to encourage, support and welcome them where in the past we have failed.

It won’t be easy, but dammit, nothing worthwhile ever is.

And, as a first step, I’ve set up the page to collect ideas, thoughts, examples and techniques to improve BarCamp — because, frankly, we must be most critical of those things closest to us that we have proven power to change.