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

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

Computer engineer Barbie

Barbie has her 125th career – computer engineer! There’s been a few comments around about how Mattel are pandering to further stereotypes – sticking her in a pair of pink glasses is enough to insinuate that she’s now “intellectual”. I don’t think that’s all that bad. The glasses thing, sure, I’m a bit biased, but I don’t see anything wrong with putting Barbie in a pair of specs for her computer engineering job. It’s not an entirely false correlation. Many people who work on computers need glasses because they stare into the pixel void for 12 hours a day. So what? I think it’s kind of cute – and why not portray a computer engineer as cutesy? The fact is, that’s the only wearable “accessory” they felt she needed to portray her new job. That’s right, isn’t it? What more do you want? Computer engineers should look however they like – there’s no uniform. The bluetooth headset is a bit daft, but small details.

Rachel Andrew blogged today about a very sad incident yesterday, where herself and her fellow female speakers were mocked by audience members of Boag World’s live podcast event. Essentially, viewers in the backchannel decided to concentrate on their physical attributes rather than their well educated views, with suggestions that they were far too good-looking and well presented to be there for their abilities alone.

Rachel has rightfully pointed out that such behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated, but she also writes about how women in technology shouldn’t be encouraged to dress down or become more tom-boyish just to feel accepted or to avoid attention.

Barbie has a whole host of more fundamental reasons why she’s probably a poor role-model for little girls (her figure is the obvious one), but I don’t think having her careers be varied and non-traditional is one of them. I’m actually into the idea of a Barbie that helps to say that it’s okay to be as girly-a-girl as you want to be and work in traditionally male dominated industries. And hey, I think glasses look cool.

Della – Dell netbooks for women?

I recently opted to replace my first generation Asus EEE 701. It’s very convenient and mostly functional, but I decided I wasn’t finding it the best thing in the world for really Getting Stuff Done™ outside of sending a few emails.

I chose to get one of the new Samsung NC20s. I highly recommend it – it’s really on the netbook/laptop border, but the larger screen size and resolution is worth that little bit extra weight (and at just under £400, it’s a bargain too).

When I was selecting my new ultra-portable, the kind of things I had in mind were battery life, weight and form-factor (for carting it around to events), the specification (can I code and run photoshop?) and reviews of it’s performance. The one thing I wasn’t particularly interested in was whether it went with my handbag or shoes.

So why exactly have Dell opted to create their new “Della” site, which appears to be about specifically that one aspect?

The site is clearly aimed at women since it features lots of glossy photos of groups of ladies chatting over coffee and standing in fields staring thoughtfully off into the distance (or on the beach – because sand and cooling fans go so well), but it appears to assume that they’re not interested in the specifications or technical features of the laptop – merely how pretty they look and how they’ll help you lose weight or some other inane Heat magazine-esque topic. I’d call this patronising at best.

Perhaps they could be making a bigger deal of their “nipple” cursor controller and getting a few more blokes buying their mini range, just to be fair?

Oh, and my NC20 is an always classic little black number.

Update: Sounds like Dell have had a turn-around on the marketing campaign, pulling the name “Della” just days after it’s launch (although a sneaky look at the website’s mark-up still shows the della references throughout).

Web Design Survey 2007 – Maybe not so hard-done by?

I haven’t even started looking through this properly yet, but Patrick just brought to my attention the results of the A List Apart Web Design Survey 2007 and it’s a great read so far.

Being the unwilling complainer and non-supporter of discrimination (either the negative or the positive types), I’m always especially interested in those bits of data referring to us ladies, and these are some items that have caught my eye so far:

  • Women perceive a high level of gender bias in the industry than men do (but only 22.3%).
  • The number of people (male & female) who think there is definitely not a gender bias in total is a huge 63.8% (only 1.7% think there definitely is one). It’s important to note the tone of this was to “ask specifically if the respondent feels that his or her career has been impacted by bias, not whether the respondent perceives there to be discrimination in the field”.
  • Women have around the same or higher salaries than men in the industry (highest in the $20,000 – $79,999 salary range).
  • “In general, female respondents who work full time do not seem to make less than male respondents who also work full time, and in fact may earn a bit more. This pattern can be seen in Fig. 3.5., “Salary range by gender,” in Section Three.”.
  • “A greater percentage of women than men believe they lack a needed back-end development skill (Fig. 10.3).” (28.8%).

Of course, as with all polls – is this data representative? What percentage of people working in the web industry read things like ALA? It’s a shame census aren’t more detailed like this.

I’m not sure exactly what to say yet, but it certainly supports some thoughts I have on the matter of women in web development. I think there’s always been a lot of talk about discrimination specifically within our industry (dare I even mention the matter of female speakers at conferences, or the lack thereof?) but with very little data and evidence to back up various arguments. I’d like to see some well formed discussions come from research like this and I hope to do just that as soon as I’ve digested the information and done a little more background work.