06 Jan

Conferences aren’t the problem

We’ve barely started the new year, and already there’s been a spat about a conference and their lack of diversity. Rather unfortunately, they picked 22 white, young, men and only one woman (so far) to be on their invited experts panels at a developer conference. Hey, it happens, and pretty much no one would do that out of malice, and I really don’t think boycotts are helping anyone, nor is hoping the event implodes due to twitter bullies.

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.

I turned up some stats from A List Apart’s 2011 web survey and was unsurprised to find that of the respondents that identify as developers (the largest group of respondents by a significant amount), only 9.1% of them were women. For me, seeing a fair and representative distribution of the community at large is actually acceptable (YMMV), so I don’t intend to give conferences a hard time if they don’t wish to positively discriminate (such as this note I was happy to read from the PHP conf organisers, and I am also a fan of JSConf’s blind submission process) and get more than that 1 in 10 for dev conferences (and, overall, nearer 1/5 for topics beyond pure development, going by the same survey results).

The argument that having role-models is important is often cited, and that having larger-than-representative numbers as speakers could help that, and I see the point at a certain level – but no kid at school, before selecting their academic interest (should they have one), is watching web dev conference videos for fun and dreaming about becoming a badass specification author. Don’t kid yourselves, there are no actual rockstars or ninjas in our industry.

Role-models are helpful to those already starting out, or who have made the decision to be interested in tech and the web, giving the extra push to want to explore more and speak later, but they’re already in at that point, we just have to keep them sold, but there aren’t very many of them. Sure, have role-models, but remember that if it’s speaking about performance issues in Ruby, or some such fun, you’re already preaching to the converted.

We need to get more in, in the first place. Start ‘em early, reap the rewards in the future. I don’t expect to see the numbers of speakers of minority groups to go up suddenly overnight – this will take time, as most good things do.

Conferences are simply showing up the diversity problem in a particularly acute way – we will never fix it by pretending the industry is more evenly distributed than it actually is, and later blaming organisers for it. They’re working with unfair numbers. Hell, if any conference these days thinks they’ll slide by without some twitter fallout for “under representing”, they’re either brave or stupid. We’re developing a very sensitive (or egg-shell-treading) conference circle, I imagine, that is more than aware that it has a quota to meet and events that allow proposals are in particular trying very hard to accurately represent the state of affairs, and often attempting to go beyond that by reaching out to those they’d like to see speak or better represented. Good work, our industry. It doesn’t always work out, but the overall trend is what’s important.

I think at this point we should start asking questions as to why we feel the need to poke hard at conferences, why are we positively discriminating, and what should we really be fixing for lasting change. Why are our starting numbers so low?

You want to increase numbers? Go back to your universities and high schools and ask why they’re not encouraging more women into their classes and onwards to our profession. What are they doing to excite children to take maths, computer science, design, IT, etc. for long enough that they make it into the industry? How are they challenging stereotypes of what is an acceptable profession for any group of people, often defined by teachers and parents at the very earliest years?

If we’re talking about women at an age and experience level to be able to be an invited expert on a panel – we’re already too late to improve the numbers (this is not to say there are none, but there are going to be statistically fewer by some margin as it stands).

My mathematics lonely heart post: Seeking jovial, talented statistician to teach the ability to crunch grizzly numbers about diversity in the web industry to curmudgeonly developer. Apply within.

Some disclosures/clarifications

  1. One of the panelists at Edge conf is my other half, Alex. He has had no say in this minor rant, and his participation has no affect on my opinion.
  2. I am talking pretty much solely of diversity of people in web tech, where most of us work. E.g. excluding science and eng: they’ve got their own history, issues and role models (however, where’s our version of the dreamy Prof. Brian Cox on TV, eh? Now there’s a keyboard-playing, rockstar, role-model).
  3. This is not a discussion about sexism amongst professional peers, which, sadly, is still a part of every day live throughout most industries for many people. This is about the fair representation of our community today and why those distributions are as they are, although we may wish to suggest that sexism/stereotyping at early age is a root cause of our industry’s lack of diverse numbers later. If you think diversity is not an issue, you need to crawl out from under your rock.
  4. For those that still don’t understand: I am NOT pro-positive discrimination. I appreciate why it happens and how it has helped and why it continues to be necessary in some scenarios, but I am asking the question: Would we rather not have it ever, and can we not find a way to fix the underlying diversity issues that perpetuate it’s need?
  5. I apologise for unfairly suggesting that conferences shouldn’t do their part – they absolutely should, and I think we’re doing better than ever before (see previous link to JSConf for a nice example). They have an excellent opportunity to show the best and most diverse representatives from our industry. They should always strive for that, and they do often achieve this and we should be confident in letting them know, pro-actively and with good manners, when they’re not representing our interests and experts.
  6. I am not anti-diversity. Seriously? Did you read this post?

There is now a follow-up to this article, available here

25 thoughts on “Conferences aren’t the problem

  1. I think, this has nothing to do with encouragement or diversity, it is just a reality of the field that we attract way more men then women. This is not a bad thing, neither is it a good thing, it is just a fact that has its roots in what we do. This work is not appealing to *most* women. Just like working in the fashion industry is not attractive to *most* men. There are most certainly exceptions in both fields, but the fact remains, the fields do not attract both genders in the same way. Because men and woman are different especially in their interests. There probably is a way to get a few more percent of women into the field with good work at universities and/or high schools, but that will not make _much_ difference. It will not suddenly mean that you have 70:30 or even higher rates in men:women, it means that we increased in a few percent and it will stop there. Maybe it could get to 15%, maybe even 20%, but i can not see it going beyond, personally.

    And do not get me wrong, as a fairly hobby-less 21 year old male that programs all day, i would LOVE more women in this field.

    I also think that conferences are not a problem, but adopting the JSConf-way certainly wont hurt. That was a really good way of doing it, although, i thought they made to big a fuzz about the whole women diversity thing. I attended it and it was a superb conference(as JSConfs tend to be) but the whole debate about women (like with conference not having enough of them, or the hackathon that got cancelled because on tiny joke etc.) is really annoying me. Again: i am all for women, but having it shoveled in your face every time something small “is not ok” really deadens my interest in the whole debate. I do not want to hear it anymore. It is so useless overreacting.

    That being said, i liked your article quite a bit, it described the actual problems very well and was not such overreacting crap as most of post around this topic were lately. Thanks.

  2. Sorry, but I despise articles like these, and I’m tired of endlessly disproving the nonsense spouted in them to no effect, like a constant game of whack-a-half-baked-idea. They always start with the implicit assumption that we have some sort of duty to cater specially for minorities in order to coax them into fields where they otherwise wouldn’t go, and that there’s something inherently positive about having diversity of race/gender in a field.

    I’ll start by challenging the second point: there is value in having diversity of opinions and ideas in a field, as this can help form to uncover faulty ideas that another mindset wouldn’t see, but assuming that because someone’s of a different gender or race that they’ll have a different mindset is just ignorance and prejudice. There is nothing convincing about the argument that being physically different to another person makes you of a different mindset, and that is indeed the premise of modern equality: that stupidity and ineptitude cannot be predicated on the way someone looks. In fact, if you work with female or non-white programmers then I’m willing to bet that they’re slightly geeky, from an educated background, and from some degree of limited wealth. Gee, what diversity. If you want to argue that diversity of mindset — irrespective of physicality — is something to aim for, then I’ll agree to some extent.

    Next, I’ll cover the issue of what amounts to special pleading for minorities. Honestly, how would you feel if you knew you were hired simply because of your race or gender? If you had to work alongside people who’ve got where they are because of hardwork, but you’ve simply coasted in as part of a drive to hire minorities? Who would want to work in such an environment? Furthermore, the tech industry is hard! You have to be willing to work 60+ hour weeks, and then do work in your free time to stay at the top of your game. What convincing reason is there to believe that a person hired for their race or gender, as opposed to their love of programming, will actually want to do this? When I’m involved in hiring programmers I pay no heed to anything other than how they perform on the technical test, and how passionate they are about programming. THIS is fairness in the industry, and it is this credo that almost all software houses follow for hiring. I cannot think of any compelling reason to suggest to my team, or any other team for that matter, that they start hiring based on any other criteria.

    Lastly, I’ll cover rolemodels, which I’ve not mentioned up until now. Preaching that we should — let’s face it — make you more employable on the basis that it’ll provide rolemodels for children is a particularly fashionable argument among the proponents of this drivel (who nearly always stand to gain financially from it, you may have noticed). Children pick bad rolemodels. It is irrelevant who we push forward as a rolemodel for kids, because they’ll stick pick the latest sports-star/singer/actor/badass. So, the only rolemodels would be rolemodels for adults, and I must ask why exactly an adult is looking up to a rolemodel at all? This seems ridiculously insecure, and worse still, why we’re arguing that an adult of x gender/race needs to look up to an adult of x gender/race? Adults should know to assess themselves by their own goals, and to ignore gender and race as much as possible. I fail to see the rolemodels argument in a very compelling light either.

    This is not an industry hostile to change; it changes yearly. It is, however, an industry hostile to special pleading for ineptitude.

  3. Pingback: On Diversity in Conferences - Broken Links

  4. While it’s true that conferences are mostly preaching to the choir as far as getting new computer science converts is concerned, I think you push the blame a little too much on the educators. A big aspect here is the culture of our field, not only in college, but in the working world as well. Young women are put off by what they see. And it’s not just false stereotypes——at a job workshop at my university, I asked a former IBM HR employee for advice on interviewing for a technical position. His main advice was to meet with any potential team to make sure that my future coworkers weren’t misogynist. “Some groups are like that, and you don’t want to be around those jokes all the time,” he warned me. Conferences taking a firm stand that they are reaching out to women and protecting them from harassment send a big message that professional computer science is also a welcoming place for women.

    But speaking of culture at the college level, we have ideas like those in the comment above. I have found that the same themes are the most common sentiment at my university. These feelings are very problematic for attracting more women to the field. If the dominant thought is that computer science is just something that women don’t really do, then most women will go with the flow and never really try it. If making an effort to talk about the lack of women in the field is overreacting, you can understand why women feel they aren’t wanted. I think the funniest thing though is the common line “Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s sooo hot when I meet girls who can code!”. So once we get into the field, we just become the objects of creepy lusting that doesn’t require leaving the computer lab?

  5. >implying we want/need forced diversity.

    This kind of cultural marxism disgusts me. It implies hard working young white males are somehow wrong for succeeding where other demographics are not interested.

    It really doesn’t matter what a person looks like as long as they get the job done. And no, there is no big conspiracy to keep non-white, non-males out of the industry.

  6. I think you’re right to want to try and encourage more women into the industry in the first place. However a lot of the articles I’ve read show many young women feel social pressure to withdraw from science and technology based careers between the ages of 15-16 because their peers (driven by society) see them as male professions. So while you’re right that the individuals themselves don’t look for female role models (mostly because they don’t know the industry yet), I do believe that a lack of female role models effects societies perception of an industry and this then feeds back into peoples carrear choices. This is why I think it’s great for people like Martha Lane Fox to appear in the honors list as it helps dispel the notion that the web is an entirely male dominated profession.

    You’re right in saying that the number of female developers is relatively low. I’ve always assumed it was about 20%, but maybe 10% is more realistic. I don’t want to focus on individual conferences as I’m not sure that’s especially helpful (and to be honest I’ve not been following the latest debate). However for a conference involving 25 speakers, you’d typically expect to see 2-4 female speakers if the line-up was representative of the overall demographic. If you end up having less female speakers that gives off two subtle and completely unintended message that their are less women in the industry than there actually are, or that it’s harder for women to advance to senior position in that industry. This message can effect the way an industry perceives itself, and eventually the way others perceive it.

    On the other hand, if conferences have slightly more women on stage than the demographics would indicate, this has the potential to make people feel that the industry is slightly more open to women or that it’s not quite as hard as you’d imagine for women to gain a position of influence or authority in the sector. You’re right that it’s unlikely that any one individual would be swayed by seeing more women on stage, but I do think it has the ability to make subtle changes about the way people perceive the industry.

    Having a desire to see more female speakers doesn’t necessarily equate to “positive discrimination”, so that seems relatively heavy handed language to use against people generally trying to do the right thing (I know you’re not using this language yourself, but it is being bandied around). I know quite a few conference organisers and am yet to see any of them sacrifice a better speaker for a less experienced one purely for the sake of diversity. So unless this starts to happen and conference quality starts to suffer, we should avoid the Daily Mail style cries of “positive discrimination”.

    Personally I think it’s reasonable to expect the people who reprisent the tech community to be conscious of these issues when organising a conference and try to put on an event that is high quality, diverse and representative. I know this can be hard and isn’t always possible. So we shouldn’t lambast people who are trying to make things better. However I do think that conference organisers have the power, and hence the responsibility, to nudge perceptions in one direction or another. Not doing so shows ignorance of the issues, denial of your individual responsibilities or acceptance of the status quo.

  7. Diversity? Laughable!
    We do not need diversity. If somebody is interested, wants to learn, knows how to-do something, he or she will do it. Diversity is idiotic at best.

    -k0nsl

  8. I replied to the original article about the lack of diversity and women involved in conferences. I am involved with a couple of large conferences and the biggest problem for me is submissions. If you are a woman and don’t submit a talk, guess what? Even if you do submit a talk, the last thing I look at is the name (we don’t record demographic information), I read your abstract. If you have a good abstract, there is a high degree of probability that you will have a chance to speak.

    There are some really great women speakers out there. It seems like I see them all the time at technical conferences. The problem is that it seems to be the same gals. Perhaps, it because we are in the same social/technical circles. That is irrelevant though.

    I think that we have a problem (especially in the US) around Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. The youth of all stripes, and flavors are not interested. Women/Girls are fairing worse. They were already not as many interested in these subjects, and with the general decline it has worsened still. We need to fix that social issue if we expect things to change downstream.

    I love diversity, and all of the great things it brings. Forced diversity causes a greater injustice to all involved. Someone already commented, how would you feel if you were hired only because you were a black female. Martin Luther King is famously quoted: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. ” Forced diversity does not achieve his dream. I think the content of their character and quality of their mind should be the lead factors in the decision. It is a bonus if they are female, and black.

    I would like to see more female speakers, but I am not going to pick people to meet some artificial quota, or ratio. People come to conferences to learn and share; often at a personal cost to them. It is not fair to them to have a 70/30 panel of folks who are not qualified to speak, but meet a quota.

    At the JavaOne conference I had the great privilege of doing a talk with another speaker from Ukraine. She was a great choice to have do a talk with me. It was our first talk on Java certification together. Her experience and knowledge were impressive to say the least. Her perspective was invaluable. She is great because of who she is, and nothing else.

    I think the time for forced quotas should be at an end. Let’s focus on the root causes like lack of interest by women in our field, and cultivating the pool of talent for speaking in our communities. This applies equally to men and women.

    Here is something to ponder… why are we not wondering why there are not very many native American speakers, or speakers from Mongolia? Why is it always focused on men vs. women. This is just an easier fight to have, than to work on real solutions which are harder.

  9. While I agree that we can’t address the gender imbalance in tech without starting way, way earlier, I do also believe that, in 2013, conferences that post an all-white, all-male lineup come across as a bit tone deaf. Events like JSConf EU have shown that you can get some pretty amazing speakers and some diversity to boot, and I don’t think we should think of it as diversity for diversity’s sake.

    Someone tweeted at me the other day that he was “reading over @rmurphey legendary Baseline post. Amazing how many people reference how ‘he’ messed up. Oh Rebecca, how do you put up with it?”

    A lineup that includes female speakers serves to remind everyone, male and female alike, that we’re out there, and I think that’s important too. A diversity-free lineup, on the other hand, helps perpetuate a notion that the 9% number you cited is even closer to zero.

  10. The effectiveness of role models, and the claim that “most women just don’t like tech”, were both analyzed ten years ago in Margolis and Fisher’s landmark “Unlocking the Clubhouse” (http://www.amazon.com/Unlocking-Clubhouse-Computing-Jane-Margolis/dp/0262632691/). It’s brief (less than 200 pages), readable, and based on data rather than anecdote. Most importantly, the authors (both then at Carnegie-Mellon) showed that when the pervasive “boy’s club” atmosphere of tech was tackled head-on, female participation grew from approximately 12-15% to over 35% in just a few years. If commenters on this issue who believe there isn’t bias have better data to back up their claims, could they please cite it?

  11. Good post. Never knew about blind submissions, will pass that on to some people angsting over how to get better representations at their (non geek) conferences.

    I don’t code. I do have experience of attending conferences and seeing the same old white males speaking. It’s boring.
    Above commenters have mentioned woman and men are no different. As far as I can see, the future of the web, ux, design and font is being decided by an almost entirely male group. The userbase of the web/software apps you’re designing for are no longer predominantly male. They’re 50/50, same as offline. So if we’ve got mostly testosterone fuelled design, predictably the web/software apps will perhaps have a sway in colour? Or font? Or layout? Or logic? Who knows. Can anyone link to any research on this? Do we even know? (Disclaimer: I am not saying this is so, but do we definitely know it is not?)

    Secondly, someone alluded to the hours expected of developers. Another interesting way men differ from women is their reproductive capabilities, pretty much ensuring 9 months out of their career. Once a mother returns to work, some do not like the idea of never seeing their children. Funny, no idea why.

    Therefore, it is not the difference that becomes an inhibitor to entry, but the culture and expectation. If you think young girls don’t google future careers, and fall over comments like the ones under this blog and decide life will be far simpler working in a more female friendly, mother friendly industry, you’re wrong.

    If I were 13 and choosing GCSCE’s and I tripped over some of the comments even a simply discussion like this generated, do you know what I’d think? I’ll have to work with someone who thinks like that about women one day, and they’ll be in the majority, and I’ll be alone. No way. Not even for that salary. Sod that, I’ll go be a lawyer or a GP. Much less hassle. And that’s shameful.

  12. Andy Budd wrote:

    “However for a conference involving 25 speakers, you’d typically expect to see 2-4 female speakers if the line-up was representative of the overall demographic.”

    My intuition was that this was high, so I did some stats. If there are no other biases, then we should expect the number of speakers to follow a Poisson distribution; for a 25-speaker conference, if 9.1% of potential speakers are women, we’d expect 2-4 women about 60% of the time – and no women at all only 9% of the time.

    That this result surprised me probably says something about the distorting effect that the observed status quo can have on one’s assumptions.

    http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=poisson+distribution+p%3D0.091+n%3D25

    It’s impossible to say conclusively whether any one conference is biased, but the expected distribution might be a useful indicator to conference organisers – at least, it might serve to indicate that there are hidden biases in the selection process.

  13. In my workplace, I want people focused on work and product outcomes, not social engineering. Women are not a privlidged class that deserve special breaks. Working shippable code is what matters, and it just takes a lot of hard work. Anyone can do that work – all you need is a laptop and an internet connection. I’m dying for more good coders, and really don’t care if you’re man, woman, gay, brown etc. So to the social engineers, I say stop whining and start coding.

  14. I agree that we need to have more focus on education, but that cannot be our only focus. We cannot shift our attention away from the direct lack of diversity of conferences. We cannot allow this trend to continue and I am very glad to see people speak out against it.

    Fixing the problem for younger people and attempting to curve the stereotype threat is certainly a very proper concern. As a university teacher, I know first hand the effects of such influences. However, Taubee study shows 20% of our CS degrees do go to women, and yet you report only 10% of the whole responded in the survey for web developers. That means that education is not the only concern, as somewhere we lost half of the university educated women before they got to one of the most popular sections of programming. That’s a problem.

    Therefore, we must continue looking at both. If we fix the education side, but they enter a field where we are apt to placate this lack of diversity, they will enter a hostile field and may turn away. It’ll be too late to fix the next link in the pipeline. Conferences are not /the/ problem, true, but they are /a/ problem. There are, by their nature, very visible. We cannot just let this go.

    For the record, most of these comments about the “true reasons women aren’t here” are absolute garbage and indicative of the fight that still needs to happen /within/ our community that can happen through conscious action from conference leaders picking good talks and having a diverse panel.

  15. I think there’s a risk of this debate becoming very stale very soon, if it isn’t already. The original post is pretty much correct – if the content of the debate about diversity within the tech community is restricted to a debate about how many female speakers you have at your conference, then it’s a waste of time (I mean this in the most literal sense: if we have a diversity problem then the inordinate amount of time spent debating conference lineups cannot be the most efficient way of solving it, and if we don’t have a diversity problem then matters are even worse).

    Why not step back a bit and ask the basic questions: what is diversity, why do we need it, how can the basic objections (outlined pretty neatly in comment 2) be overcome? If they can’t be overcome, why not?

    I’ve said before that I think that this debate is lacking in empathy. It’s really a debate about ethics – how we should, individually and collectively, behave – and there are a great many different ethical traditions and philosophies. If you want to make a better world and engage a large number of people in helping you then you will need to appeal to a broad range of ethical perspectives, and the narrow focus on a) a particular symptom of the problem (lack of speaker diversity) and a particular method of solving it (quotas or something similar) is unlikely to engage broad support. It’s a good subject to have a fight about, if having fights is what you want to do, but even if you win, you’ll lose a good many potential allies in doing it that way.

    Let’s say that there is a diversity problem and it does need to be addressed. Different people will understand this idea in different ways – some will think about their colleagues and their behaviour, some will think about conferences and “rockstar” developers, some will think about education, or recruitment, or the way the community presents itself to potential future members. Some will see a solution in establishing simple, universal ethical rules to guide us, and others will see everything as contingent, requiring targeted responses to highly specific problems. Some will believe that it’s necessary to harm the interests of some in order to benefit others, whilst others will regard this as intolerable. Some think that fairness is about treating individuals equally and according to rules, others think that fairness cannot be assessed without considering the aggregate outcome. Holders of these different opinions will, however, be reasonable people, and it would not be fair to dismiss them as unreconstructed mysoginists or ideological feminazis (or whatever the relevant patronising term happens to be).

    I think posts like this are a good start if they help to broaden the debate, return it to fundamentals and away from emotionally-charged specifics. “Hard cases make bad law”, as the saying goes, and debating the rights and wrongs of conference organisation is unlikely to be the best way to establish good ideas about how to improve the community in the whole.

  16. I agree with the usage of the Poisson distribution in a comment above. We can reason a little more if we use a Bernoulli explicitly. You’ve linked to the gist argument where I did the same thing for BritRuby.

    https://gist.github.com/4106776#comment-605425

    Given: 9% women, 22 speakers:

    P(0 women) = 12.5
    P(1 woman) = 27.3
    P(2 women) = 28.3
    P(3 women) = 18.7
    P(4 women) = 8.7
    P(5 women) = 3.1

    That can be misleading because although we expect 2 women, we also reason this:

    P(>0 women) = 87.5
    P(>1 woman) = 60.2
    P(>2 women) = 31.9
    P(>3 women) = 13.2
    P(>4 women) = 4.5

    It is also very likely to have more than 1 woman. Actually the probability of having more than 2 women is higher than having exactly 1. The lineup given by this conference is significantly opposed to the likely outcome, even using your pessimistic 9%. Since Taubee shows 20% of CS degrees go to women, and this statistic has no bias, but the web survey does have a bias, let’s reason that 15% is a better number:

    P(0 women) = 2.8
    P(1 woman) = 10.8
    P(2 women) = 20.1
    P(3 women) = 23.7
    P(4 women) = 19.8
    P(5 women) = 12.6

    And

    P(>0 women) = 97.2
    P(>1 woman) = 86.4
    P(>2 women) = 66.3
    P(>3 women) = 42.6
    P(>4 women) = 22.8
    P(>5 women) = 10.2

    It is still about as likely to have greater than 5 women (over represent) than to have only 1 out of 22.

    Here is some code to help understand the result and why it is valid:

    https://gist.github.com/4114968

  17. As a woman whose career has moved from the IT industry to science, both with increasing focus on computing and development, I find this post overall lacking in depth and thoughtfulness.

    After all the developments regarding women in tech of the last few years, “it just happens” isn’t good enough. I believe the Edge organisers in that they harbour no misogynistic feelings, but there is not the problem: a selection process that produces a roster of all-white male 20 and 30-somethings is broken. (I have no doubt whatsoever that most of the organisers, in 25 years of time, will find this obvious, but we work with what we work right now, unfortunately.)

    I’ve been myself to small and large conferences, tech and science, in the UK and in the US, and it’s a banality to say that I’m sensitive to the way women are welcomed in the conferences and represented in the panels and talks. As someone with a slightly unusual path (but don’t most of us have our very own paths?), I’ve often worried about whether I really have a place somewhere. A culture that proudly struts how it’s dominated by white, young, affluent guys is a turn-off.

    But beyond anecdata, which ultimately count nothing, before simply shifting the entire problem on the education system, it would only be honest to read what’s available. Greg Wilson posted a ling to “Unlocking the Clubhouse”. Google will find a lot of very very recent posts from the 2012 diversity spats about selection processes (including at least one I am aware of with blind selection… but much sophisticated ways to invite talks) that have radically increased women numbers at conferences. And for the links at the bottom of the Three Chords blog alone (http://www.threechords.org/blog/diversity-in-tech-still-an-issue-2013/) I’m grateful I’ve found this post — anyone who wants to play down the problem at least should make the effort of making a honest attempt to understand the pro-diversity side.

  18. Wow, this is quite a discussion. Both here and across the Web – there’s a lot going on right now. I’ll toss in my point of view:

    We are a community. Geeks, developers, techies… however you think of us. We learn from each other; we ask each other for help; we rally the entire community when we see our world threatened; we think not just about “What can I build or accomplish?” but “What can we ALL create?”

    (At least, I do. And it’s phenomenal what we all can create. Worldwide communication. Repositories of all knowledge. Mind-bogglingly-vast stores of data. And isn’t this just the beginning?)

    That social layer can be a big factor in how we work. We’re stronger as a group, and we’re global. Round-the-clock. Being in tech isn’t usually a 9-to-5 endeavour, it can be part of how we think and who we choose to spend our time with.

    Like all social groups, we run the risk of having “in” people – and outsiders or wannabes, those who are excluded, those who decide (or are told) that we’re not the right group for them. Those who leave and take their contributions to the bigger picture with them.

    We may be an unusual community, since we don’t see each other face-to-face very often. We largely interact on Twitter, on blogs, on IRC. So when we do get together (as at conferences, for example), we’re all getting new information about who we are, what we look like, how we sound… what it means to be “us”. As we’ve seen in this discussion, this info can bring us closer together or pull us apart.

    If we casually drive away a lot of the “us”es, by implying that they’re not able/welcome to contribute (because they’re women, disabled, ethnic minorities, or anything else that makes them different)… What a loss. A smaller workforce, a smaller set of skills, a smaller range of viewpoints from which to attack the problems that matter. We have less of a chance to make the world better.

    Sadly, this does happen. These recent discussions seem to highlight it happening, and some of us women (in this case) have felt it happen to us. But ideally, shouldn’t we care more about the quality of someone’s code or the originality of their problem-solving than about their physiology?

    So that’s why I think this is all worth discussing, and why I’m with Frances’s conclusions here. Thus far, I’m seeing two main areas we can affect:

    1. Increase the numbers of those who want to contribute, who have the skills and the creativity to help. This is an education issue, a childhood learning issue, a don’t-say-“Tech-is-not-for-girls” issue.

    2. Find a way to be welcoming to everyone who wants to (and can) help. At conferences, online… I think we’ll accomplish more by valuing new views and backgrounds, rather than shunning them.

    If we’re going to make the world a better place, I think we need all the help we can get.

  19. I completely agree with the post and a few of the comments… You ask “I think at this point we should start asking questions as to why we feel the need to poke hard at conferences…?”, which I think is an important question.

    There are at least a few of reasons why I think they’re (still) a good place to prod (and when appropriate, praise):

    – They’re publicly visible

    Much of the industry happens behind closed doors. Recruitment in particular is opaque with some people explicitly looking for ‘people like us’. Conferences are much more visible. ‘Recruitment’ of speakers is something which can be seen and debated (as can the conference equivalent of ‘office behaviour’). If conferences simply reflect our offices and the public forum allows discussion, then that’s good in itself (though perhaps not tremendously fair to the conference organisers).

    – They are run by ‘leaders’

    Like it or not, if you’re putting on a conference, you’re asserting a leadership role in the industry. Leaders lead. Getting leaders talking, thinking and doing things about diversity seems like a good idea. They’ll likely take that back into other parts of life (the office, or their ‘real life’ community)

    – They are sponsored by big names

    Getting sponsors to think about diversity again should be a positive influence. Getting the people in companies to think about why they’re sending someone, and perhaps not always sending the person who’ll ‘fit’ best, or the most confident person, or the most experienced can be a good thing. That kind of thinking can be good for a conference, and good internally in an organisation sharing the opportunities around.

    – Presenting can have a positive impact on careers

    Or so I hear. One of the ways of having a more diverse senior population in the industry is to have a more diverse set of speakers/panelists at conferences. And once you have a more diverse leadership…

  20. Suggesting that private interests be cajoled into supporting increased diversity mirrors the runaway affirmative action and white male apologism of today’s culture. How is it that social conditions are such that anyone can expect systematic handouts for minorities? I was attracted to software because being in this industry had no barriers but my own ability to work hard and learn. I’m either skilled or unskilled…there are no silly degree programs or licensing systems required. No barriers, only freedom. It’s every developer’s responsibility to respond to this nonsense without feeling the need to be politically correct or appease anyone. Else, we’ll end up with the same sad state of affairs that we’ve seen spread across so many industries and institutions – entitlement, red tape, and ineptness.

    One more thing, if you say something on either side of an argument, don’t be afraid to put your real name behind it.

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  22. You talk about reaching out to young women and encouraging them to choose technical subjects. Of course that’s good, but it is not enough. More pernicious is the “Leaky Pipeline”, what happens once women have joined the industry and causes so many to give up, stay stuck in junior roles or change course into management and non-technical roles.

    I have learned to be suspicious of organisations which make a noise about encouraging more girls to study IT, something outside their immediate influence for which they cannot be held responsible. They do a lot of hand-wringing about the small number of female applicants, but keep quiet about what proportion of their female intake they hang on to, and what is being done to support them.

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