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Archive: 23 February 2007

Diverse It Gets

This post is probably going to get me burnt to a tiny, mewling crisp, but that’s okay.  I can take it.

I also want to make it very clear that what I write here reflects my personal views.  It does not in any fashion represent the official policy of An Event Apart LLC or its associated conferences.  However, it’s obviously the case that, as a co-founder of the company and an organizer of said conferences, my views influence what happens there.  Just don’t think for an instant that I speak for Jeffrey in this, nor that I am declaring official company policy.  This one’s all me.

So, here it is:  as a conference organizer, I don’t care about diversity.

All right.  Take a minute to reduce the boil in your blood to a bare simmer, and bear with me.  I’m going to explain what I mean, and illustrate as best I can.  I hope that by the end, you’ll better understand my point of view, even if you don’t agree with it.

Yesterday, Jason Kottke posted the percentage of female speakers at recent and upcoming web conferences.  I note he didn’t include the one-day Event Aparts from last year, where our speaker lists ranged from 0% female (most of them) to 25% female (Austin) to 40% female (Seattle), but that’s okay.  Maybe he was only considering “bigger” conferences.  Early on, he wrote:

Each time this issue is raised, you see conference organizers publicly declare that they tried, that diversity is a very important issue, and that they are going to address it the next time around.

Well, I’m hereby bucking that trend.  In my personal view, diversity is not of itself important, and I don’t feel that I have anything to address next time around.  What’s important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability.  That’s it.  That’s always been the alpha and omega of my thinking, and it will continue to be so the next time, and time after that, and the time after that.

You’ll note that nowhere in that list do you find gender, race, creed, or any other such parameter.  Those things are completely unimportant to me when organizing a conference.  (Or, really, when I’m doing almost anything.)  Hopefully, you’ll also note that I have not said that speakers should always be white males.  If that’s what you think not caring about diversity means, then sorry, you’re wrong.  At least you’re wrong in my case.  I can’t speak for others.

I will admit that we’ve seen a little bit of pushback on this issue.  The gender imbalance of the upcoming Boston show was pointed out to us by one of the speakers, and I’m sure someone’s eventually going to ask us where the women are in Seattle.

I’ll slightly sidetrack to address Seattle, since it illustrates one aspect of how speaker lists are decided.  With Web Directions North just concluded in Vancouver, we made a tactical decision to try not to repeat any speakers from WDN at our Seattle show.  Retaliation?  Nope; simple marketing.  If our Seattle speaker list looked like even a partial re-run of WDN, then where’s the incentive to go to AEA?  Unfortunately, that left us fairly high and dry with regard to many of the best-known names in our field, including the best-known women.  Nothing against the WDN crew: we’re all friends here; they had the earlier show; and nobody held a gun to our heads and forced us to go to Seattle in June.  That’s just how things turned out.

So that left us four women down in terms of who we could consider inviting to Seattle.  You might say: well, that’s fine, but what about getting other women on stage?

Okay, who?

Before you answer, remember that An Event Apart is a web development best practices conference.  Our brand promises to bring you the biggest names in the field of standards-oriented design and closely related fields, and to have those people talk about what they see next, to push the envelope just a little further out, to show the audience old things in new ways, and so on.  Therefore, it relies on populating the stage with widely known and respected people, on having speakers who are instantly recognizable as relevant to what the attendees do and what they want to learn.

So someone might suggest that we invite, say, Natalie Jeremijenko.  I’d immediately sit bolt upright with interest: I love her stuff.  She’s the kind of artist-engineer-hacker I would want to be if I were to choose that sort of career path.  Her ideas and projects completely fascinate me.  I would love to see her present on what she’s doing and thinking and seeing in the world, and to have the chance to meet her in person and express my deep and abiding admiration.

But then the conference organizer in me would slump back.  She’s not well known in the web design/development field, and she doesn’t really work in that field anyway.  As brilliant and talented and amazing and wonderful and female as she is, she doesn’t belong on our stage.  Other stages, absolutely!  (If MAKE: ever does a conference, they’d be idiots not to invite her.)  But not ours.

Call that decision a manifestation of old-boy clubbiness if you want, but it isn’t.  It’s the natural result of defining a brand and sticking to it.  Should Slipknot be the opening act for a Tim McGraw/Faith Hill tour?  Should Rick Santorum be the opening keynote at the Democratic National Convention?  Should I be a speaker at the Blog Business Summit?  Should men be on stage at BlogHer?

No.

Look at the authors of the best-selling books in the field.  Look at the folks behind the most widely followed web sites.  Look at the names that come up whenever someone asks who are the most respected and influential people in web design and development.  How many are female?

A few.  Not many.  (And most of them spoke in Vancouver.)  So is the gender imbalance in the eye of the organizers, or is it in the very fabric of the industry?

Allow me to illustrate by way of digression.  A couple of years back, I was asked to do a book project that I couldn’t take on.  So I posted here, asking people what recognized names in the industry they’d recommend to write such a book.  I got over one hundred responses before I closed the comments.  Know how many women’s names I got?  Six out of fifty-six; that’s about 10.7%.  Two of those women landed in the top ten, and the rest got a mention or two.  (Anne van Kesteren doesn’t count, since he’s male; he’s also Dutch.)

Still, we might take that list and assume that of the most respected names in the CSS field, 11% are women.  You might conclude, then, that any CSS-centric conference (which AEA is not, but bear with me) should never have less than 11% female speakers.  Fine.  So that also means that no CSS-centric conference should have less than 89% male speakers, right?

Hey, how come the room got so suddenly quiet?  And why all the pitchforks?

For me, when it comes to planning an A-list conference, I look for A-list speakers, by which I mean speakers who will be regarded as A-list by our audience—the same audience that came up with a list of 56 people, 10.7% of which were female and 89.3% of which were male.

For that matter, it’s very important that our speakers be good public speakers.  Bobby or Bobbi Speaker could be the very top name in their area of expertise, but if they’re a train wreck on stage, then no thanks.  In our internal discussions, we’ve rejected some names because they are known to be poor speakers.  (They were all men, as if that matters.)  We’ve also pursued some speakers who we know are simply fantastic on stage.  (From both sexes, as if that matters.)

So, like I said before, when I’m thinking about a speaker list, I care about expertise, speaking skills, stature, appropriateness, and marketability.  I’m just not interested in a person’s plumbing.  I care about what they know, how they’re perceived in the industry, how well they fit the conference’s brand, and how well they do on stage.

Now, here’s where you get to show me my blind spots:  let me know who has been overlooked by conferences in general, female or otherwise, and why they shouldn’t be overlooked any more.  As an organizer, I’m interested for the usual business and brand reasons; personally, I want to know because I always want to learn new things and hear from new voices.  I’ll absolutely give consideration to any name you mention for AEA speakership—but everyone will be considered using the same set of criteria, and their plumbing isn’t part of that set.

Addendum 24 Feb 07: my poor use of language created a massive ambiguity which has left many with the wrong impression.  I used “diversity” to mean mostly “gender diversity”, as it was used in the piece to which I was responding.  I did not say, nor did I mean to leave the impression I was saying, that I am uninterested in conceptual diversity, diversity of thought.  It seems that I did leave that impression, and for misleading others, I very much apologize.  (That the misleading was unintentional is beside the point.)

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