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Summary:

Britain’s tech community is fretting again over the dominance of young white men on the conference circuit. But events veteran Mel Kirk says that forcing diversity ignores the deep skews in the industry itself.

mel kirk

Every time the argument over the lack of diversity at tech conferences rears its head again, I yelp with exasperation. I used to organize the Future of Web Apps conference, including the speaker line up, I’ve spoken at many events and — the last time I checked — I was female. So this stuff matters to me. Yet there’s a side to the argument that rarely gets heard.

Of course, if you’re faced with a plethora of potential speakers all with equal skill sets and experience, organizers have a responsibility to represent equally and fairly.

However, the tech industry still has a heavy skew towards white men, and ensuring that you’ve got a decent mix of genders, ethnicities and ages will soon mean that you’re box ticking rather than finding the truest talent representation. Personally, I want to absorb as much information as possible from those that inspire me, something which is not based on what they look like or whether I can relate to them on a personal basis.

It goes without saying that conferences are businesses: they need to sell tickets and make money. Without revenue they wouldn’t exist, and the industry would be a worse place for it. I’m personally grateful for anything that allows me to meet like-minded individuals, regardless of race and gender, that help provide the glue to keep our community together.

Bill Gates at WSJ Eco:nomics conferenceThe need to sell tickets also has an impact on the lineup; while it’s great to hear from new talent and the lessons that they’re learning along the way, the reality is that it’s the “superstar” names that will often help sell conference tickets, and that’s what leads to the reappearance of the same names on the circuit. Many of them are young white men. But they’re also, by and large, talented.

I can’t help but think it’s about time that we put race, gender and age aside and instead focused on talent. I believe that if you’re truly good at what you do and you want it enough, you’ll be noticed. Naive? Maybe. However, I do believe that if you belong to an industry minority, and if you’re truly amazing at what you do, it is in fact easier to get yourself noticed.

Of course, I would encourage every conference organizer to actively look to diversify their lineup. I’d encourage them to provide opportunities for a mixture of people to speak, gain experience and in turn become great speakers. I’d also encourage a greater range of individuals to start their own companies, become awesome at what they do and in turn shift the skew.

I just think that it’s important that we don’t end up with a situation where speakers are being put on stage simply because of the way that they look or which toilet they use. For those that complain that they’re unfairly discriminated against, when was the last time you submitted a speaker application? It’s up to all of us to try and rectify the situation: the industry won’t be radically changed by conference organizers alone, we each have a responsibility.

Mel Kirk is the managing director of The Physical Network, the UK’s largest network of influential 14-28 year olds promoting festivals and brands.

  1. Well said Mel. I think this is also why free conferences and meetups like Brighton SEO offer such a wide variety of talent that seems to break through the “white male” barrier and avoid the trap of only booking established names.

    I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeing some of the established names at the more expensive conferences – as you say it’s a known factor they can deliver awesome talks so if they are the best people then they should get the slots – but I think if you want a diverse line-up and to see new talent then you’ll often find more at smaller conferences.

    If people prove themselves on the small circuit then they should get invited to speak at bigger talks. Regardless of age, race, gender etc. If they don’t then that certainly would link to a far bigger issue.

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  2. “I just think that it’s important that we don’t end up with a situation where speakers are being put on stage simply because of the way that they look or which toilet they use.”

    But that is a bit of a straw-man argument isn’t it. Nobody I know is calling for a set of quotas or to promote bad speakers at the expense of good ones. What people are saying is “Hey, if you’ve managed to put together a line-up of all white male speakers, that kind of reinforces the idea that only white men can be a success in tech”.

    As for “For those that complain that they’re unfairly discriminated against, when was the last time you submitted a speaker application?”, it is really disheartening to see a successful female role model in our industry essentially just have said “You don’t get on because you are lazy”.

    For an alternative view of how conferences could be run, look at “Solving the Pipeline Problem” by Sarah Milstein and Eric Ries – http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2012/11/solving-pipeline-problem.html

    Relly Annett-Baker has also written about some ways conference organisers can improve the appeal of speaking at them for potential female speakers – http://rel.ly/2012/09/conference-organisers-a-point-for-your-consideration/

    As I say, I don’t think people are clamouring to make conferences less attractive, less viable propositions by forcing people to book bad speakers. What we are saying is that collectively as an industry we might strive a bit harder to reflect the fact that we aren’t all white men.

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    1. Thanks for the interesting links. Well, the Milstein/Reis one was interesting – good to have a careful, neutral process for recruiting speakers, and a clear caution against bias of any type. If their methods can be replicated elsewhere with similar success they offer a way toward not just the superficial diversity of race and gender, but a diversity of ideas.

      The Annett-Baker piece just furthered stereotype, though – seemed to ask for special treatment instead of equal opportunity.

      After reading the Milstein/Reis piece I wondered how you can charge the author here with telling women who don’t apply to speak that they’re lazy. Milstein herself might have replied to you that many people don’t apply either because they don’t expect to be picked, or because they weren’t even invited to apply in the first place.

      Finally, the charge that conference organizers are reinforcing prejudice does imply some sort of

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      1. You think that providing people with information about the conference logistics is special treatment? Or is it something else in Annett-Baker’s article? I’m confused.

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      2. “The Annett-Baker piece just furthered stereotype, though – seemed to ask for special treatment instead of equal opportunity.”

        You appear to have furthered the stereotype here of “I’m so worried about women being possibly treated equally that I’ve missed the point.”

        There isn’t anything in Relly’s article that wouldn’t make *anybody* of *any* gender feel more safe about travelling to an unfamiliar place to talk. She isn’t asking for special treatment. She is asking for a list of helpful information.

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  3. Citing your gender as some kind of proof that you can’t hold discriminatory ideas is the same kind of “box ticking” that you seem to fear happening at conferences. The notion that diversity is of no benefit beyond having boxes check is demonstrably false. The insinuation that quotas are a popular method for speaker selection is misleading. And the assertion that group x just needs to submit more talks is short-sighted in that it ignores all the factors that discourage participation before getting to that point.

    It also assumes the only speakers anyone wants to see are ones just like themselves. If I want to hear talks from a proportional number of black programmers, or trans ones, for example, that’s something I can’t do because I’m not representative of every kind of person. And even if all I want is to see more people exactly like myself, I’m likely to be intimidated as hell at the thought of being the only one on the speaker list, if my talk is even accepted. And once I do work up the nerve to pitch a great talk, it’s more likely that someone will ask me whose girlfriend I am, which would undermine my confidence, before I even got a chance to give my talk.

    Being determined not to let that stuff slow me down too much doesn’t make it okay for me to ignore that those are problems for other people, people who have great ideas that we’re all missing out. And rather than assuming “diverse people” (non-white-males) need to prove that they’re as good as white dudes, the starting attitude should new that if we’re attracting a homogeneous population of programmers or designers our whatever, that we are cheating ourselves out of the ideas and skills of the people we’re excluding.

    Individual people may need to prove themselves, and that is okay, but when we’re discussing population trends rather than individual stories, the idea of earning the right to be a speaker stops making sense in the same way.

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