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