D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 9:11 AM

I’m a conference organizer. I’m also the father to two daughters. Over the last 11 years that I’ve been in the IT industry, I’ve seen and heard the cries for more women representation. It’s not a secret that IT is a male dominated industry. Heck, most of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is male dominated! And for some reason, people have taken it upon themselves to make conference speaker rosters the key issue at the heart of this problem. This has caused event cancellations (in the case of Brit Ruby) and general nastiness for others (in the case of the Edge conference).

And its bullshit.

Conferences are a reflection of our industry. They reflect technology trends and interests in the session topics presented. They reflect the level of interest in professional development by how many attendees employers are willing to send. And they reflect the demographics of our industry, which includes a lack of women. But that’s not a fault of the conference. That’s a fault of the industry. It’s easy to attack conferences though. It’s easy to pick at the scab you see rather than dig out the cancer that you don’t.

So we get blog posts from Matt who calls out the organizers of Edge (note that in a buried post-post-postscript he basically says “My bad, these guys are cool”). This leads to more blog posts like this one from Aral, and this one from Martin, and others from those who pick up on the sentiment and fan the flames.

But if you think that getting more women to speak at conferences will help the women-in-tech movement you’re wrong. It won’t. And if anything, it will make conference organizers more skittish about ensuring that their events avoid the anti-diversity label while sacrificing on quality of content.

So what are the issues?

Grade School Computer Programs

My oldest daughter is just entering junior high, but I’m already thinking about high school for her. My old high school is close by, and I was curious about what they offered for computer science. To my utter horror, their entire computer program is based around teaching students how to create 3D games in Flash! I checked another high school in the area, and found that Information and Communication Technology equated to graphic design! Third time must be the charm, but unfortunately I found similar course descriptions at the third local high school.

You want more women in technology? You need to get them excited about technology at the grade school level! That’s not just women, that’s boys too! We are failing our children at the lowest levels, where their interest needs to be captured and opportunities need to be provided.

Gender Stereotypes

If you hate all male speaker rosters at conferences, you better get damn mad when the McDonald’s drive thru person asks if you want a “girl toy or boy toy” in your kids happy meal, or how girls and boys are portrayed on Disney shows, or toys marketed to kids that enforce gender stereotypes. If I think of all the shows my daughters watch, the movies they see, the books they read…*NONE* of them contain a strong female role-model that encourages STEM engagement. This is a challenge for us as parents, because the media can be such a powerful force in our children’s minds. We need to work extra hard to break these stereotypes at home.

HR at Your Workplace

You may think that conferences have a responsibility to fill slots with women, but have you asked your own workplace if they feel that way? Does your HR department ensure that they promote a diverse work environment that has a balance of gender, race, and sexuality? Do you know how many women have been hired in the last year compared to men, and do your C-levels (CIO, CEO, CTO, CFO, COO, etc.) make diversity a priority? If your organization doesn’t make diversity a key HR issue yet you throw stones at conference organizers, that sounds a little hypocritical to me.

So What’s The Solution?

Look, these are just a few issues that make up this complex problem of gender diversity in IT. I need to reiterate my point through all this – conferences reflect our industry, but they aren’t the root problem. Calling out a conference for having too many men on a speaking docket doesn’t do anything but screw over conference organizers and hurt the community.

You want to really address this problem?

Get involved with your local high schools and find out what their computer courses look like. Offer your time to mentor students who show interest in STEM areas. Start up an event or a camp – one local college teacher has been running a summer coding camp for girls over the last few years, and she sells out every time with a waiting list! Also get involved at the college level as well – all students can benefit from industry mentors.

Get involved at your workplace. Find out if there’s already a committee tasked with increasing diversity and if not see if you can start one. Discover what your employer’s thoughts are and educate your HR department on the importance of diversity in IT.

Speak at conferences and events! I had a young women tweet her displeasure at the lack of female representation at one of my conferences. I tweeted back that if she was interested in speaking she should send me her session abstract. At that conference, she spoke. Instead of being a hindrance, help the organizers – submit talks, get involved with local user groups, make a name for yourself in your local community; these are all things that colleagues of mine who are regular speakers have done. As an organizer, I don’t care if your male or female – if you or your proposed talk don’t measure up to a certain standard, I probably won’t pick you. And hey, if you really feel strongly why not start your own conference and invite whoever you want to speak?

Martin, who’s blog I linked to earlier, wrote this:

If my daughter grows up and wants to go into tech, and is still faced with events where organisers think it is OK to have 22 male speakers out of a possible 22 speakers, she’ll be entitled to turn around to me and ask why I didn’t make a fuss when I could.

To all those that echo his sentiment, let me be clear: if the number of women in tech hasn’t increased by the time our children are in the workforce, it has nothing to do with conference organizers and everything to do with our inability act on the real root causes. I’m all for making a fuss, but how about we make the right fuss.

Links

Brit Ruby was scheduled for 2013, but upon releasing its speaker list the organizers were challenged on Twitter by Josh Susser about the seeming lack of diversity in their speakers.

Laura Beck’s blog that details what happened (and her slant).

Brit Ruby organizers response on why the event was cancelled.

Edge is a web conference put on by Facebook, Google, and FT Labs in London. It caught the ire of numerous bloggers when their speaker list was released and it was all male. Note that they have since updated it with female presenters.

Matt’s blog post that started the whole discussion around Edge.

Aral’s blog in response (and support) of Matt’s.




Feedback

# re: Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

niche post,Diversity Conferences is a great problem of human being thank for your discuss.thank for your post 1/22/2013 11:07 AM | joyislam

# Vocal coach

Really nice to see your thoughts for education system. now a days nobody cares about culture in school.
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Thank You. 1/23/2013 6:52 AM | SInu

# re: Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

This is a great post!I've just taken a computer degree online and I am thinking to attend some computer programs in order to improve my knowledge. 1/25/2013 10:45 AM | Rania Sanz

# re: Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

This sounds like a great conference. I wish you good luck. 1/29/2013 4:11 PM | Elisa

# re: Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

You might find this read interesting: it's how etsy managed to end up with a great amount of talented women in their development staff. Great example for diversification. Really like their model, might adopt it or a version of it in my company at some point. 2/20/2013 9:51 PM | Justice

# re: Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

Er... And the link...
http://firstround.com/article/How-Etsy-Grew-their-Number-of-Female-Engineers-by-500-in-One-Year 2/20/2013 9:52 PM | Justice

# re: Diversity in Tech: Conferences are Not the Problem

Interessting though, I think the conference hosts in Germany could learn a lot from that. Thanks. 3/30/2013 7:10 AM | Tina

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