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September 17, 2006

Diversity in the web professions

Chris Messina started a very big conversation with his post yesterday about the "Future of Web Apps Summit" just held in San Francisco.

Very bluntly titled "The Future of White Boy clubs", Chris ponders the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in web conferences, and by extension the industry more generally, and how it might be addressed. I've weighed in there with a long comment, because it is an important issue which Maxine and I have paid a lot of attention to and taken very seriously for some time.

This year, Web Directions features 40% women presenters, and this year and last, women have been the keynote speakers. Women who can play these roles are in our industry, though they do tend to take some seeking out. Organisers do need to, as Chris and others say, make diversity an important focus, as we have.

I am somewhat surprised that it is we at the fringes, not those at the center, be it the US, or UK, who are making this such a priority. SxSW has definitely made gender and ethnic diversity a very strong issue, but the list of others who have done so is short.

Some argue that the lack of diversity of speakers simply reflects the make up of our industry, but that's definitely not my experience - where a quick glance at our attendee list for Web Directions suggests upwards of 40% are women.

Right now, a lot of the focus on why this is so is on the shortcoming of conference organisers, in not making diversity among speakers a priority. Now, I don't think that's entirely unfair, but it's also easy, and to an extent glib. You know, if you've not tried putting together a conference, it might seem easy from the outside - email a few people to speak, who wouldn't say no?, rent a venue, and the rest takes care of itself. I pointed out in my comment on Chris's post that putting on conferences is a huge financial risk, and as such, we organisers tend to play it safe. Well known speakers do really help get a good turnout to a conference, and a majority of the really well known speakers and writers in our profession are men.
That's not, again, as I pointed out in that post, an excuse, rather an explanation. And I think it is important for people to understand why decisions are made as they are, even if the reasoning and subsequent decision making is flawed, or otherwise problematic.

A great conference is a show, and a great speaker is a performer - they thrill, they entertain, they hold a crowd of hundreds attention for an hour. Very few people, men or women, can do it - not without the inclination, and a lot of hard work.
Speaking is a skill, one which needs to be developed and honed. So there is a responsibility too, of those who wish to speak at conference, to develop those skills, to hone them, to get themselves seen and heard by conference organisers, and others. One of the criteria I have as a conference organiser is I want to know that the speaker is a good communicator, that they can entertain, can educate, can inspire - for their sake, for the audience's sake, and for my sake. Speaking to a crowd of 400 plus is really hard, and not to be taken on lightly. I've spent years building up to be halfway confident or competent at it. So I travel to conferences, and listen to a great many podcasts, in an ongoing effort to hear new and exciting speakers. We do make an effort, albeit surely imperfect.

And you as an audience have a responsibility too. If you think it's not acceptable, then communicate that to the organisers. Chris went to the conference, then criticised it afterwards. But in reality, isn't his attendance an endorsement of the situation? Clearly the circumstance wasn't bad enough to actually change his behavior, although it may well have changed the behavior of others. Who else criticised the organisers? Or the organisers of other recent conferences which also featured few if any women?

And on the other hand, reward those who promote diversity - note it, encourage it, promote their conference. This sounds self serving, sure, but I actually can't recall too much praise for our lineup comprising a far higher percentage of women than just about any other I recall in our industry. It's not why we do it, but you know, that recognition wouldn't hurt either.

Change is very hard work. Each step is effort, and needs to be followed up by more. Blaming someone in particular for a situation is usually pretty easy, particularly when that someone is someone else. In my comment to Chris's post, I pointed out our earlier shortcomings with our first conference, where women were woefully and shamefully under represented. That's something we recognized, and something we set out to rectify.

Talk is necessary. But after the words are spoken, the actions which are taken both define us, and change circumstances. Talk alone does not do that.

So what are you going to do to increase diversity in our professions?

September 17, 2006 | Permalink

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Recently Chris Messina posted The Future of White Boy clubs, prompted by the all white male line-up at the "Future of Web Apps Summit" in San Francisco, There’s something important here that needs to be impressed upon us white boys... [Read More]

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Comments

Hey well you got two-for-one deal with me then - you not only got a female but a half chinese one too, so you got more diversity bang for your buck.

Posted by: Chezza | Sep 18, 2006 11:49:37 AM

Ahhh Chezza,

you are my trump card!

j

Posted by: John Allsopp | Sep 19, 2006 7:36:56 AM

Interesting thing is that people noticed the m/f mix at WD06 - unprompted. A few people were looking around the room and someone happened to make a joke about geek boys or something. Which led to the observation 'but hey this looks almost 50/50... this is awesome, die stereotypes die!'

To an extent, I like the fact that people *don't* make a big fuss of the relatively high number of female speakers. I genuinely think a lot of people simply didn't think of it - it was a group of web professionals and gender wasn't the defining factor.

But that goes back to my fundamental thoughts about equity - one step is to attain equality/equity; the next is for it to become so commonplace it's not commented on. Same for people with disabilities - I dream of the day such differences simply don't rate a mention.

Posted by: Ben Buchanan | Oct 6, 2006 10:45:16 AM

Maybe Ben is right, maybe the web industry is such (being a young industry with out stereotypes) it doesn't see gender as an issue. I would be really interesting to see what the real gender breakdown was across the industry by position type is and if it followed the traditional model. I hope it doesn't. I would loath to see the traditional IT for blokes coming into play. Okay you are going to get male and female dominated web shops. But the web industry seems more rounded, especially in Perth.

But if the conference mix of people was anything to go by then maybe things are changing across Australia / New Zealand.

As for disabilities. interestingly I discovered after the conference several people I didn't know previously that I ran into had major disabilities. Maybe I'm just not that observant, but I didn't even consider them having a disability at all.

Dreams can come true.

Posted by: Tuna | Oct 9, 2006 7:38:11 PM

It's amazing how many different jobs there are in the web profession. From IT phone tech to sexy web design all the ways up highly skilled software creator it's a big field.

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