Diversity at conferences won’t solve anyone’s problem

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.

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