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February 24, 2007

Diversity redux redux

I've no more to add about what I think about diversity and responsiiblity in our industry. I've written several things in the light of a number of discussions which have emerged over the last 24 hours. I'm not going to publish them. They would not be beneficial.

People are quite entitled to their opinions, but I am very dissapointed in some of the things I have been reading. Particularly some opf the comments on blog posts I've been reading.

All I can do, quite literally is to sit here an shake my head. And despair a little.

Then move onto something positive - continuing to plan our conferences, which will continue to have a strong repesentation of women, not through quotas. not because its politically correct, not by "social engineering", not by diminishing the quality of our content, but by making it a priority, and doing the little extra work it takes.

But now I've started, I'll go on the record as saying, it simply isn't good enough any more to discriminate against woman (I'll repeat that, so everyone is clear) discriminate against women in our industry, or anywhere.

40%+ of our attendees are women. If we aren't getting at least significantly close to this number in terms speakers, then frankly, I happen to think that is discriminatory.

I've put it that strongly because others seem to want to stir the pot.

Consider it stirred.

This is a very non trivial issues.

It's important, in the way that equity for green eyed people is less so, because its a real life issue that affects more than 50% of the people on the planet. If we can't even get that right, worrying about equity for people with facial tattoos, non-ear facial piercings, or other categories is a complete and utter non starter.

This is about the kind of thing people have gone to jail for, and worse - the right to be treated equally and fairly, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or other characteristics.

Many battles have been won, over the last half century or so.

Maybe being able to sit at the front of a bus seemed pretty trivial 47 years ago. Compared with all the other issues people of color in the US faced in the early 1960s. Simialrly, maybe being able to sit in a restaurant and order a burger seemed not that important 40 odd years ago.

Maybe the fact that my mother had to leave her professional job when she got married seemed just how it was, though how many intelligent, talented, dedicated women lost a huge part of their life, and their professions (in this case health care) very experienced dedicated members because of that?

Maybe the fact that women are still, the western world over, paid on average considerably less than their male counterparts seems like something its too hard to know what to do anything about.

But to me these are not things to be glib about. They are not things to turn away from. They are not thngs to hope will be fixed one day so they are no longer issues. They are things that needed changing, and in many cases still need changing.

And changes happen because people work to make them happen. People take a few risks, they work a bit harder, they take their leadership positions as privilieges, to use to make things a little bit better, rather than shrugging off those responsibilities.

Here is something which inspires me. It's from a jewish sage 2000 years ago (no a different one).

  • If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?
  • If I am only for myself, what am l?
  • If not now, when?


February 24, 2007 | Permalink


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"continuing to plan our conferences, which will continue to have a strong repesentation of women, not through quotas. not because its politically correct, not by "social engineering", not by diminishing the quality of our content, but by making it a priority"

"40%+ of our attendees are women. If we aren't getting at least significantly close to this number in terms speakers, then frankly, I happen to think that is discriminatory."

These are fairly contradictory.

Treating people equally means treating them the same without regard to any characteristic that is irrelevant to the task at hand. Gender, in this case, would be entirely irrelevant to the topic of your conference. Creative experience and impact on the market would not.

So, to think clearly about this, you should ask yourself a question: are 40+% of proposals/requests to speak from women.

If so, then treating men and women equally would tend to result in 40+% of speakers being women in your example IF:
a. Women's topics are distributed across the conference topics the same as men
b. the quality of their work/proposal is, on average, the same as men's.

You are using language to cloud your thinking. Discrimination is making a choice. Unfair discrimination is making a choice based on factors that are irrelevant to the job at hand, in the type of case you are discussing.

Discrimination exists as a fact because conference organizers have to make a choice. The question is whether unfair discrimination exists. The hidden assumption behind your rant is that my two conditions above hold true. If they do and there still are significantly lower numbers of women speaking, then unfair discrimination could be occuring. If not, then the problem might not be unfair discrimination by conference organizers but elsewhere.

You must define a problem properly if you want to fix it and you don't appear to have thought it through clearly enough beyond men are unfair discriminators because there are fewer women speakers.

Posted by: Alan | Feb 25, 2007 2:25:41 AM

The time and energy that you and Maxine took to create a really well balanced line-up of speakers for the Web Directions conferences is appreciated. Keep up the good work as it would seem you are leading the way! I also liked the way you included diverse folk to introduce speakers and in that way enabled some of the next generation of speakers some experience up-font. It must be hard to locate skilled people who also have an ability to speak to a large audience - yikes daunting!

Posted by: rosemary | Feb 26, 2007 2:14:06 AM


We can talk, argue, reason all we like. Discrimination is an outcome, not a process. It is what happens, not why. Diminishing discrimination requires understanding the processses by which it iccurs, and addressing these, in the ways we can personally.

But, if right now we can't see that a dramatic under representation of women as very public, identifiable leaders in an industry where they are well represented amounts to discrimination, we have no hope of addressing the issue.

I was so forthright, to the point of possible offending friends and colleagues because frankly, few if any people seemed to be seeing the core issue with any clarity. We seemed to dance rhetorically aroun the issue, without identifying it for what it is - a bloght on our industry.

As to what we might do about it? Each of us probably feel that there is a lot wrong with the world, and are daunted by its magnitude. It may be the malnourishment of hundreds of millions, it may be the impact we are having on the climate, or sexism, or racism, or any number of things that seem far too big for us as individuals to deal with. Many years ago I read something that I've found very practical and useful ever since. In essence we should address the problems we feel are important in the ways we can. We should find our own personal ways of effecting change. The slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally" is one manifestation of this.

In my case, I can address what I consider an important issue of gender inequality in my profession/industry by actively making sure that women are not underrepresented. Nothing in this is to say that I am willing to diminish my expectations of a speaker or expert when hiring them. In fact, if you look over all the things I've aid on the issue, and the outcomes of our conferences, the podcasts, slideshows, audience responses, I think the evidence bears this out pretty well.


Posted by: John Allsopp | Feb 26, 2007 9:15:14 AM


thanks for the positive comments. Yes, we definitely try to get people up on stage in front of several hundred people, possibly for the first time as chairs, moderators, introducers and the like, and to get people speaking at our events possibly for the first time (last year we had several people whohad never really spoken in this capacity before, mostly but not exclusively women) because it is daunting, but like most things, practice and experience are as important as anything.

This year we'll get you up as an introducer!


Posted by: John Allsopp | Feb 26, 2007 9:26:45 AM

As a punter when I go to a conference I want to be informed, inspired and made to think. If a speaker does that, they have done there job and I don't care about gender, ethnic background or the number of facial piercings.

That said, I applaud your actions in trying to get a speaker line up that is representative of the diversity in our industry. And if that requires a little positive discrimination to encourage talented people from under represented sections of our industry, by getting them to introduce, moderate, chair etc so they get the experience, exposure, confidence, profile etc so they are able to take the next step, I am all for it.

A speaker line up that reflects the diversity of our industry is good for the industry both internal and external perspective.

And once you get an equitable gender and ethnic balance and need to balance facial piercings I am available ;-)

Posted by: Nick Cowie | Feb 26, 2007 1:34:43 PM

I support your principles, but not your typing.

Honestly John, you're normally a bit slapdash with spelling, typing and punctuation, but when you're het up over an issue it's like you're typing with mittens on!

Seriously though: why not link to the blog posts you're talking about? If they've made you so mad, why not link to them and address them directly? And/or respond to them in context. As it is, I just have to guess at what they said.

Posted by: John | Feb 26, 2007 3:16:47 PM

Thank you John, this is the blog entry I have been waiting for since this little can of worms was opened (again).

I have been reading the responses and the responses to the responses and my neck is sore from head shaking and my teeth are ground down to stumps.
I am sick of reading the statistics and justifications and statistics used as justifications.

Some of the comments left the same bad taste in my mouth I get when I read excuses as to why accessibility is a "burden". Market forces, blah, blah, blah...

I have more respect for those who see a problem (whether anyone else agrees or not) and then say: "well, I am going to do something about it". I think Maxine, you and the other fine people who have helped organize the conferences I have been to over the years have been part of the solution.

I thought you might be interested in a few observations I have made at WE04 - 05 and WD06. This is just a vibe thing from the audience (and from within the audience) -- no statistics. ;-)

I remember a kind of odd reaction at WE04 (from some) to Maxine being an organizer. It was if it was freakish that a woman could be taking a lead in the industry. It wasn't a negative reaction just muted surprise.

At WE05, again, there was that odd, subtle reaction (from some) to having a woman be the first keynote speaker. I think Molly herself may have commented on it.

WD06 it was gone. Well, as far as I could tell. Maybe the audience makeup had changed, maybe it had just grown up -- or maybe it had just been educated.

Posted by: Gavin Jacobi | Feb 27, 2007 1:22:26 PM


thanks for the comments. We've definitely come a long way since 2004 (not just in this regard either).

My feeling is we are doing the right thing, and that it matters - and I am glad that others do too.


Posted by: John Allsopp | Feb 27, 2007 2:26:19 PM

The fostering and encouraging of new blood in any industry can be hard. But with an industry that savers hiding away in the back room and a culture of quiet achievers, what you have done with Web Directions (especially in Australia) is a miracle.

But still we need to connect, communicate with the disconnected. Still I'm running into people in web industry that are disconnected from the mainstream of information, be it mailing list, blogsphere, forums, user groups etc. Yes they exist. These isolated people can be the key to increasing the audience, increasing the diversity, as well as helping the web industry in general. Out of these folk we may find the next batch of possible speakers as well as the usual mainstream

The real shame is to look at the web related conference (not the barcamps/ webjams) on in Sydney in March. Look at the percentage of women speakers.

WebDU 2% (1/34)
SearchSummit 12% (5/39)

Okay its only two conferences, but you see my point.

Locally this is disgusting. Personally I'm sick of going to conferences where the usual blokes trot out onto the stage. I'm sick of the audience being 95% men. Clearly there needs to be some chats down the pub over this issue. As Web Directions is leading the pack (again).

Posted by: Gary Barber | Feb 28, 2007 12:25:22 AM

"Clearly there needs to be some chats down the pub over this issue."

I hope you were being ironic!

That sentence may come across as an example of the "boys club" language that got so many people upset.


Posted by: Gavin Jacobi | Mar 1, 2007 10:56:58 AM

@gavin - it was ironic...

However sometimes to break the "Boys club" you have to have discussions on their grounds, if it's at the pub, so be it. As long as at the end of the day it starts to change the attitude of the event organisers it does not matter how or when, its the outcome that is important.

Posted by: Gary Barber | Mar 1, 2007 1:47:38 PM

Its getting better for diversity supporters. a new book highlights some of the things you are talking about and has statistics to support it. its on amazon.com diversity science research series.

Posted by: juan212 | Apr 14, 2007 6:17:22 AM

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

Posted by: Rosie | May 10, 2007 4:03:11 AM