A follow-up to “Conferences aren’t the problem”

Writing a follow-up seems necessary at this point, because my last post garnered more attention than I had anticipated, and the comments on it were much more, well, ridiculous than I think I can give justice to (thanks, hacker news!).

I thought I’d take the time to clarify a few points and respond generally.

The first thing I’d like to say is how shocked I was at two things:

  1. Respondents simply didn’t appear to have read the post before commenting – infuriating, many are programmers being dicks (as if we needed more evidence of sexism and racism etc.).
  2. Respondents appear to still believe we live in a meritocracy, free from discrimination with complete equal opportunity.

Unfortunately, point two is bogus. Discrimination is a problem. I, personally, don’t give a monkey’s how many women or whoever are in our industry, as long as everyone who wanted to be here could and had free opportunity to do so, but sadly that is not the case and as such our community is not representative of all those that could be here if discrimination, from stereotyping roles to outright sexism/racism/agism/*ism, was not present. As such, we have a duty to address the problems that disable people’s opportunities.

Comments from people who aren’t living under rocks mostly took issue with the idea that I was letting conferences off the hook. That was my own poor writing skills, and I added a note to the end of the last post to clarify slightly. In short: Conferences can make changes that have the potential to improve diversity in our circles, but it’s not the only place we can and should be putting pressure. And, in fact, if we can work on other ways to improve diversity we can help conferences achieve a more diverse voice.

Finally, .NET magazine asked my opinion on a couple of questions, and I responded. The article in it’s completeness, unfortunately, created a platform for a ridiculous parody site that I believe not only denies the issues at hand but conflates and confuses matters even more. I apologise for that fact, as I was not aware of it before publish. Update: .NET have removed the link to the parody site I refer to, due to it’s offensive nature.

My full responses for .NET are below, as I think they explain some more detail on my overall thoughts on diversity, but before that – if you can just take one thing away from this know that I believe: Equal opportunity matters more than anything else and we don’t have it, which has resulted in a lack of diversity. We can fix that.

Q&A with Craig Grannell of .NET

Craig: Why did you feel the need to write the piece?

As I intimated at the start of the article, there have been various outbreaks of finger pointing at conferences over the last few months about lack of diversity, and I guess I was just getting bored of it.

I felt that conferences were being blamed somehow for creating a lack of diversity within our industry, which appeared to me as unfair considering that there simply are, relatively speaking, very few women within our industry (particularly in development circles) who are also at the level to be able to provide a relevant, expert opinion and then also have the relevant speaking experience (or even the desire to speak at all).

I simply wanted to add a differing view to the discussion that perhaps we should see the lack of diversity in conference line-ups as symptoms of much deeper issues, and as well as demanding the conferences fairly represent our interests and experts, we should also start looking at other ways to create and encourage diversity and develop a better representation of the world at large. That maybe it’s time to start treating the lung cancer, instead of just the cough?

Craig: Do you think positive discrimination would in the long run do more harm than good to non-white men. If conferences started doing quotas, would that negatively impact on women in the industry, say?

It’s difficult to say – I think if it was widely believed that positive discrimination was happening everywhere, as a given, it would cause us to eventually ask a lot of questions like “is that person on stage because they are the very best person to explain this to me, or are they fulfilling a quota?” (particularly if a talk goes badly, which can happen from time to time for a variety of reasons). No body wants to be the token member of a line-up (I certainly don’t, and would turn down any opportunity that I thought that was the case). After everything is said and done, the only people we want to see on stage, regardless of what group they may represent, should be there on merit, and have the ability to give a good talk, inspire and educate, even if that comes at the cost of not fulfilling a desired quota sometimes.

As it stands, I don’t think we’re seeing positive discrimination in that obviously negative guise, rather it’s something more akin to “I have two well placed, equally viable, experts, but one of these would help me to better represent a group of people I feel is underrepresented – so lets go with that one!”, which seems quite reasonable to me. I think it’s also really helpful when conferences make it very clear how they selected their speakers. Was it blind proposals? Did you hand select? How many submissions did you get? The more we understand about the process of finding speakers, the more we can make our own mind up about how well curated a set of talks is as audience members.

Long term, I think we should be aiming to not have to even consider whether one person should be chosen over another to help fulfil quotas or present more people of one type of group. Ideally, we’d like to be selecting from a pool of people that are *already* better representing the wealth and diversity of opinion in the world as a whole, so that it simply becomes a discussion of “which of these talks will have the most value?”.

Craig: Should more developers rather than sharing with peers get involved with local schools, to encourage more girls to become designers and developers in the industry?

I don’t think it’s an either/or scenario. More developers from more walks of life should be speaking and sharing their views, opinions and experiences. Yes, please, more of that. It would also be great if more developers wanted to go back to school, as one example, and encourage the next generation of potential web creators. We have a lot of resources, expertise and generally really nice people in our community and we could put our collective abilities together to make some really lasting changes. We’re already seeing such efforts popping up, such as various coding for kids movements.

Craig: Is there also a need to encourage more women in the industry to share their experiences and insight more often?

Again, more experiences shared is better no matter who you are or where you came from. If a group of people currently feel that they have no way or voice in the industry, then yes, we should be positively encouraging their participation, and perhaps that means creating new platforms for more people to find those opportunities to share their expertise

3 thoughts on “A follow-up to “Conferences aren’t the problem”

  1. It’s absolutely right for conference organizers to be held accountable when they have a clear lack of diversity in their lineup. That they should be absolved of any blame is one of the foundational reasons why the EdgeConf controversy happened while BritRuby was still fresh in everyone’s memory.

    In your previous post, you stated that BritRuby was cancelled because of twitter bullies, and linked to the organizer’s statement. Why embrace his statement so easily? Because here are all 250 words tweeted about the BritRuby controversy before the organizer crumpled and cancelled the event:

    https://gist.github.com/4112922

    That’s not bullying, that’s holding a community leader accountable. Giving a pass to event organizers who clearly ignored diversity is counter-productive and downright harmful. Conference organizers appoint themselves community leaders for their target audience. Community members should rightfully call out leaders who they believe are failing the community.

    It’s easy to give sympathy to the event organizers. They’re such nice people, it’s such hard work, and their heart is in the right place! But that point of view is exactly why cases like BritRuby and EdgeConf keep happening.

  2. @Luigi – You may have found the discourse between the organisers and complainants acceptable. I didn’t. That’s just the way opinion goes. But as I more clearly stated in this post, and the previous one, I do agree that conference organisers have a responsibility and that members of the community should feel able to point the times out when they have not represented them fairly. And, again, if you had read my posts completely, you’d see that I was offering other reasons for why poor representation may happen, so it’s not “exactly why cases like BritRuby and EdgeConf keep happening”.

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