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Weblog Entry

Homogeneity?

February 24, 2007

Every 6 months or so the perceived lack of diversity in the world of web design comes up as an important discussion point. The most recent provocateur was Jason Kottke, who sat down and worked out the percentages of women speaking at recent and upcoming web conferences. And it’s not pretty.

Since I just spent a bunch of time running a conference during which us organizers most certainly had discussions along this vein, now seems to be an important time to jump in with a few thoughts. I’ve been a bit tied up with, hey, yet another conference, so I’m doing this after having read multiple viewpoints from elsewhere. To save some time, here’s a summary of some of the thoughts floating around out there.

I don’t think any one individual’s opinion really matters that much; it’s a divisive issue and everyone has a different take. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus behind cause or effect, fingers are being pointed, and the overall tone feels excessively negative.

Since Web Directions North was mentioned by name in Jason’s post, I’d like to start with a few stats about our conference in no particular order, followed by my personal take. (I’ve run this by my three fellow organizers to make sure I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouth, and though I’ll stop short of saying it’s the official Web Directions response, there’s certainly been strong agreement between us about this issue.)

  • With 24% female speakers, Web Directions North came out with one of the higher percentages compared to other web conferences on Jason’s survey.
  • That we managed 24% was a direct result of our being consciously proactive about choosing more diverse speakers. It didn’t happen by chance.
  • Our organizing team was 25% female.
  • Our volunteers were 44% female.
  • Our audience was somewhere between 35 and 40% female. (That’s a direct count of the registration list, but it’s approximate due to some ambiguous names.)
  • WDN was a Canadian conference; we had 19% Canadian speakers. (I personally think this was our biggest problem.)
  • Our speaker list featured few visible minorities, but those from (less visible) diverse backgrounds if you cast the net a little wider. I’m not going to call out specifics, but they’re there.

Compared to most others, yes, we did well. But we’re not above this problem. As an accurate representation of the industry in general, I think we could have done even better.

I believe that diversity begets diversity; if you fill a speaker roster with people of a fairly homogenous background, then your audience is going to reflect that. Placing a sea of similar faces at the front of a room delivers a very poor message, which is obviously never intended, but clearly implicit. If, however, you make efforts to mix it up and draw from a wider pool of experience, people from different backgrounds will feel more welcome. I think diversity for its own sake is a valuable end goal in itself. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a basic marketing consideration: it makes sense to go after a much larger potential audience, no?)

Now, we’re obviously seeing that it doesn’t play out that neatly in reality. So, why not? And what are we doing to fix that?

Here are some things you may not see that most certainly shape this debate. I sympathize with one of Eric Meyer’s points: as a conference organizer, you tend to be conservative. You need to ensure a speaker list that will fill seats. This isn’t “we want to maximize profit” filling of seats either, this is “holy crap we just signed a contract that would put us out multiple tens of thousands of dollars if we don’t hit certain numbers”. When you book larger venues, you make commitments and really put yourself on the line financially. Those who haven’t run conferences simply can’t understand what a nerve-wracking experience this is. In the end Web Directions North worked out fine on this count, but ask me some time over beer how much the entire month of December sucked for the four of us who ran it.

Now, on the flip side, I’m seeing arguments being made that the current speaker lineups probably just reflect the reality of our male-dominated industry anyway. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I travel around, I’ve been to a lot of different conferences the past few years. The industry is far more diverse than you get to see from the quiet side of a screen. (I briefly thought of starting a Flickr pool for photos of audiences taken from the stage — of which there are many — in order to highlight this. But while it would capture what the typical conference audience looks like at this moment in time, there’s also the potential that audiences are somewhat self-selecting based on who’s on stage, for the reasons I mentioned above.)

I’m also seeing it being argued that content is the most important point, and damn the consequences if the best content comes from a group of white males. Well, lately I’ve spent a lot of time not attending sessions at the conferences I go to. It’s the same people, the same experiences, the same content, and it’s getting old. Some of the most interesting presentations I’ve watched recently come from people providing fresh perspective, people who are “outsiders” coming in to our world to share their different takes. And I want more of it.

Okay, so as a conference organizer how can we reconcile all these views? That’s the trick. They seem somewhat in conflict with each other. I can’t speak for anyone else’s event, but I’ll tell you what we did for Web Directions North.

When we came up with our speaker list, we tried to include some old faces and some new. We brought in some familiar names who may or may not have previously spoken in Canada, people we knew that our audience would be interested in hearing talk. We filled the roster with a core of proven speakers, that was our safe bet. But, as we considered our lineup, we kept asking ourselves, can we go further? Who can we bring in that might not be an obvious choice? Are we overlooking any equally good speaker choices, people who maybe we should be inviting instead that would bring a more diverse viewpoint? And if our first choices didn’t pan out (more common than you’d think), are we able to make our backup choices reflect the same goals?

We considered it from a lot of angles, and what’s clear is that no matter what mix you come up with, it’s never going to be entirely representative. Did we feature enough women? Did we feature enough ethnic diversity? Did we feature enough religious diversity? Did we feature enough diversity of sexual preference? Did we feature enough Canadians? And so the sub-categorizing goes.

You can slice it up any number of ways and come up with many groups we didn’t include. We’ll never win if we head down that path.

Instead, the question to be asking is, was there enough overall diversity in our conference? Is there enough overall diversity in the industry? And if not, what can we do to encourage more?

I think we made some good strides this year, and hopefully next year we can go further. Hopefully, if everyone running a conference keeps this issue in mind as they plan their events, the overall speaker pool in this industry will shift over time to a much more inclusive group drawing from much wider experience.

Does this threaten me as a speaker? Not at all; the flip side to encouraging this sort of attitude shift means I might start going to conferences I wouldn’t normally think of attending, and get introduced to people I might not otherwise meet. Not only would the speaker list in our particular corner of the industry diversify, presumably so too would other corners, which will crack open a much wider pool for those of us doing the rounds. That’s exciting!

In the end, the most important point to me is simply that the debate is happening at all. Awareness of a problem is the key first step to fixing it.

(You may also want to see my fellow WDN cohort John Allsopp’s take on this latest discussion, parts 1 and 2.)


February 25, 07h

At academic design conferences, women are often in the majority (and often seem to attend and present in groups).

It may simply be a case of different priorities. To oversimplify, men seem more interested in ‘how’, women in ‘why’, and if you started looking for speakers on a different type of topic ‘(why kids visit certain types of sites and what they do there’, rather than ‘how to design an accessible site for children’ to give a basic example) you’d get different results.

Think too about the team aspect of web design. Are most of your speakers the ‘do-ers’? What about the support team, the marketers, the client liaison people, the writers, the illustrators, the clients themselves. Are they being left out? Bet a lot of them are women.

Also the way in which speakers are found: if you rely on social networks you end up getting speakers who more and more reflect your own tastes and each others’. If you do what a lot of academic conferences do and send out a ‘call for papers’, and have a committee that reviews them blind, I bet you’d get a completely different response.

Conferences shouldn’t aim to make money, but to break even. If people don’t come because they don’t know who the speakers are, well more fool them. If they want to hear something different, learn something new, or hear a different perspective, then great. And marketing the conference is a really important part of that. Get one or two well known keynote speakers, but aim to have a lot of new people too - in fact, why not have a ‘new speaker’ policy, a sort of ‘affirmative action’? Again, I’ve known academic conferences that do this in the form of subsidised attendance, special seminar tracks, or awards for ‘best paper by a new researcher’. Learn from that.

A few other ‘top of head’ thoughts:

There’s been quite a lot of research done in to the odd representation of women in the design industry - at uni the gender split is slightly in favour of women (with almost 100% on fashion related courses, dipping to a minority on multimedia courses) and there are clear links between this and the way the industries are represented in the media and to girls at school.

Also, though the discussion is often taboo these days, there does seem to be a link between career breaks and perceived (if not actual) currency. Anyone taking time out to raise kids, for example, may feel (or be made to feel) left behind by the pace of change - a pace, incidentally, which is largely forced IMHO, and for the reason that it benefits the people who do it. (i.e. if you want to be seen as at the cutting edge, it’s in your interests to cut that edge. Consequently, a lot of people who devise new techniques for doing things do it to make a name, not because there’s a need for the new technique. Meanwhile, other people are either still trying to find a use for the old techniques, or to master the. I’d say 80-90% of the new ideas and techniques I’ve read about over the past five years have come to nought, and only resulted in a lot of people giving up because they can’t keep up! I’d go to a conference that was about trying to understand the web, audiences and design, rather than a pissing contest, and I suspect you’d get a lot more women there too…)

In graphic design, most awards are won by men, but then most entries are from men. I suggested to one of my students she might look to see if there’s a difference in gender representation between D&AD awards, which celebrate aesthetics, and the Advertising Effectiveness Awards, which celebrate results. I suspect there’s a big difference and that it might have something to do with a greater collegiality among women - less need to make a ‘name’ for themselves, more desire to work in a group.

My own research in to a related area has found that the image that the various design disciplines project through the media and their own interaction with the public and students reinforces many of the problems. The statistics for non-white, non-middle class people of any gender working in the media and design industries are shocking, but largely the fault of the industries themselves.

I suspect that, if you connected with an interested academic (through the MeCCSA organisation in the UK, for example, you’d be able to tap in to funds to look in to this issue in a lot more detail.

Meri says:
February 25, 07h

I applaud your and your fellow WDN organisers’ dedication to diversity. However, I think I also agree in part with what Eric has said – personally, I think it’s very dangerous to always pick the “diverse” speakers as the risky candidates.

Unless you ensure that the women (or gay folks or ethnic minorities) that you put on stage are every bit as captivating as the usual all-white, all-male crowd, then you risk perpetuating the stereotypes and the discrimination.

That said, I think you guys get it spot on! From the reviews I’ve read of WDN, some of the most captivating and entertaining speakers were NOT the usual suspects.

Meri says:
February 25, 08h

Ended up crystallizing my own thoughts into a separate blog post:
http://blog.meriwilliams.com/2007/02/25/conference-diversity-the-permathread-returns/

February 25, 09h

> “I’m also seeing it being argued that content is the most important point, and damn the consequences if the best content comes from a group of white males. Well, lately I’ve spent a lot of time not attending sessions at the conferences I go to. It’s the same people, the same experiences, the same content, and it’s getting old.”

Content is, I think, the only important point. I think it’s easy to conflate diversity of speakers’ characteristics (e.g. gender, race, hair colour) with diversity of speakers’ content (e.g. opinions, subjects, perspectives).

If we assume that content at a conference is poor *because* the speakers are white males, we’re surely wrong. I think we’d all love great, diverse content, and I’m delighted you’re looking to provide that. I just can’t imagine that a speakers’ characteristics are that helpful in deciding whether their content will be any good.

Dave S. says:
February 25, 10h

@Meri - “Unless you ensure that the women (or gay folks or ethnic minorities) that you put on stage are every bit as captivating as the usual all-white, all-male crowd, then you risk perpetuating the stereotypes and the discrimination.”

& Paul - “Content is, I think, the only important point. I think it’s easy to conflate diversity of speakers’ characteristics (e.g. gender, race, hair colour) with diversity of speakers’ content (e.g. opinions, subjects, perspectives).”

It goes somewhat unstated in my post, but of course we’re not going to put boring people on stage just to mix it up. We’d better have a good reason to put them on there on their own merits. It’s kind of what I was getting at with this line: “Are we overlooking any equally good speaker choices, people who maybe we should be inviting instead that would bring a more diverse viewpoint?”

Ms. Jen says:
February 25, 11h

Quoting Dave from the post, “Well, lately I’ve spent a lot of time not attending sessions at the conferences I go to. It’s the same people, the same experiences, the same content, and it’s getting old. Some of the most interesting presentations I’ve watched recently come from people providing fresh perspective, people who are “outsiders” coming in to our world to share their different takes. And I want more of it.”

Preach it, brother. Thanks.

;o)

7
Sean Foushee says:
February 25, 13h

When I go to a conference the age, color, gender or nationality of a speaker doesn’t even come close to registering in my thought processes. I really could care less about the makeup of a panel, percentages or the grand sacred cow of diversity, I only want to learn and listen to the best on the topic being discussed (or someone darn close to the best if their speaking fee fits the bill). Honestly I’m surprised this is even a hot topic right now (BTW John Gruber has a commentary on this subject at Daring Fireball - http://daringfireball.net/2007/02/web_nerd_gender_diversity ), it just seems farcical to use criteria other than one’s expertise and respect in their field when determining a list speakers, and the complaints I’ve read on this topic seem to come from individuals who believe there is some grand scheme afoot to keep ‘minorities’ from web conference and technology podiums. For such a forward thinking (and dare I say progressive) group of individuals thats an appalling opinion to espouse.

Content is the key and not color, ethnicity, nationality, age or gender.

February 25, 15h

The truth of the matter is that having equal opportunity doesn’t translate into numerical equality. What equal opportunity means is that the process of selection of speakers is utterly devoid of bias based on demographics. What statistical measurements such a process then leads to is something else entirely. People here are working all backwards. They think that in order for a selection process to be ‘neutral’ the statistics need to be 1/1. That’s putting the cart before the horse, and it’s exactly through this flawed thinking that social engineering starts creeping it’s ugly head into view. It’s pure wrong-headed thinking, and the sad thing is that the good intention of the people pointing out the statistics is to ensure fairness - but in putting pressure to skew the numbers to a more equal balance, they’re actually promoting discrimination.

Eric says:
February 25, 18h

Dave,

As someone who works for a living and invests time organizing events, I’m sorry you have to spend your time defending yourself from someone who does neither.
http://www.metafilter.com/49401/End-of-an-error


The web is great equalizer, and I’ve been saying it ever since I jumped on board over ten years ago. True, I’ve followed Zeldman.com, simplebits.com, stopdesign.com and mezzoblue.com over the years and I’ve seen you guys grow from simple blogs and designers to published experts in your field.

Meyer put it best “You’re talking about the creation of barriers, when I’m talking about refusing to erect them.” http://www.dashes.com/anil/2007/02/23/the_old_boys_cl#comment-143787

Krasi says:
February 26, 01h

Well, it’s up to the people who organize the event(the conference) which speakers will attend. So, if there is an interesting subject, who cares what is the gender, the color, etc. of the presenter? I think that if there is a diversity problem, it is up to the organizers to solve / avoid it. If you have, for example, 0% women in the candidate speakers list, this is not organizers’ fault. You can’t just pick someone only for the reason that he/she will make the diversity bigger for a particular event.
The audience is there because of the content.

February 26, 11h

“Well, lately I’ve spent a lot of time not attending sessions at the conferences I go to.”

This is exactly why, after attending for the last 4 years, I am not going to SXSW this year. A few sessions into it last year my coworker asked me, “what do you get out of this?” All I could think of was that it’s justification that I’m doing it right, and that’s not enough to get me to come back.

It occurs to me from time to time that I might have some interesting things to say to others, in a conference-type situation. Things that might help them do their jobs better. I’ve even been told that I’m a pretty good public speaker.

But of course, I’m a 30-something white male so my hopes of making a speaker panel at this point are pretty low ;)

February 26, 11h

I was pretty pumped that there was even a conference like this going on in Canada. I heard about it too late to attend, but I certainly plan on getting the next one.

As been mentioned before, content is king for me, not the make up of the speakers.

February 27, 15h

In 1992 I was part of a university task force which said that the Internet of the time excluded women and non-whites, and that needed to change. While the Internet as a whole has improved in 15 years, software and web development still have some work to do.

14
Andy James says:
February 28, 02h

This is simply a logical fact that forces itself. Lack of females’ numbers in such industry isn’t something that someone has to be blamed of. Why can’t we just accept the facts? Males and females are not alike physically, psychologically, or in thinking and interests. In the old days men and the society were blamed for not giving females the chance. Now after giving them equally chances- if not more in some cases-, and after seeing ourselves the same results, and figure out that ” Giving chances is not the issue”, do we have to force them over more efficient, qualified males, or apply reverse discrimination practices to solve physiological issues of some complex persons and satisfy their denial? Would we do that on the cost of what? Industry’s quality, or on the cost of worthier, more entitled to, and more deserving males? Can’t we just recognize the truth and accept it as it is?

February 28, 15h

Oh dear, Andy, you’ve not been keeping up have you? The lack of women in the design and web industries is not because they don’t want to, it’s because they aren’t allowed to.
Anecdotal evidence says it, hard research says it.

Over 50% of design students on courses I’ve taught on are female, (and disproportionately better in terms of learning and grades) yet that proportion does not exist in the industry, and it’s not because they (women) decide they don’t want to work there (although if they thought they’d be working with people with your enlightened attitude I wouldn’t blame them).

Take a look at the statistics offered in the UK by the sector skills council, Skillset - http://www.skillset.org.uk - and you’ll see it’s a shocking figure.

Then look at this story about research published today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6402933.stm

Discrimination exists and I suspect that people who say, oh what was it now, ‘do we have to force them over more efficient, qualified males, or apply reverse discrimination practices to solve physiological issues of some complex persons and satisfy their denial? Would we do that on the cost of what? Industry’s quality, or on the cost of worthier, more entitled to, and more deserving males?’ are to blame. Still, I suppose it’s true that no woman could be as articulate as you… I’ll give you that one.

But the issue here is not one of making sure women speakers are booked over and above male speakers who may be better, it’s that it would appear at first glance that women speakers are either being glossed over (discrimination) or not putting themselves forwards (which may be symptomatic of wider problems, or just the fact that speaking at conferences is not a big thing for women). But without researching it properly, we’ll never know.

In my post above I suggested a form of ‘positive discrimination’ which is actually more properly a form of encouragement, which is to have a track for new presenters and women. This works, as I said, in academia. It doesn’t mean men lose spaces, it’s about creating more spaces on top of theirs.

Another way to address it might be to have a conference panel on women in the industry. Where are they? What do they earn? Why, given the ‘remote working’ potential of the medium, do women still have to take a career break to have kids? These are all valid questions, and the sort that are certainly being asked in Britain at the moment if not elsewhere.

Incidentally, it does strike me as interesting that compared with other design sectors, web design is badly served in the serious journal area. We’ve got lots of magazines, sure, but they rarely go beyond ‘how to optimise your search engine ranking’ articles. I mean the hard-core journals you find in university libraries and corporate staff rooms.

If conferences are getting stale, the answer may be to establish a biannual, refereed journal to stimulate serious research and dissemination. That might encourage people to contribute in a less ‘public’ way, and also lead to good annual or biennial conferences.

16
Johan says:
March 01, 04h

How about geographic diversity vs english native speakers?

Thorsten says:
March 04, 14h

Maybe ten years ago, I was at a presentation of a new software and I was counting the women in the audience. Between two or three thousand mans I found only two women. Times have changed and diversity of gender in it, especially webdesign, is a great improvement.
By organizing a conference you should take care that your audience is satisfied. Diversity of gender by speakers will help, because it reflects the diversity in your audience, but not if you loose quality.

March 05, 14h

The Conference audience shots from the stage is a good idea.

Community Next (www.communitynext.com) conference on online social networks has some girls sprinkled in the audience - me and my girlfriends sat in the first row!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/devdev/408455298/

Speakers are interesting for a plethora of reasons, and gender is one of them. The two women speakers on the Community Next speaker list were Tara Hunt (Citizen Agency founder) and Heather Luttrell (indieclick/3Jane) and both were amazing speakers who really made everyone in the audience sit up and listen. If we could have had more than two women speakers with their individual voices and perspectives (not that men are homogenous, but TWENTY-EIGHT men and two women speakers….. the men were beginning to sound like drones)

~ang*e

Angie Chang
Women 2.0 Coordinator
www.women2.org

19
nicole says:
March 07, 10h

Dave, that was probably the most thoughtful, balanced look at the conference gender diversity issue that I’ve read. I applaud your efforts in making the Web Directions North conference more diverse.

To all the people who say that women don’t want to speak at conferences, women don’t want to go into web design, choosing an unknown women speaker will be bad for the conference, I have this example from another field. The NFL, National Football League (American football, not what the rest of the world calls football), had a majority of African-American players, but all white coaches. African-Americans were obviously interested in football (they were the majority of players, afterall); did they just not want to be coaches? Or was there some other, not necessarily delibrate, discrimination going on? To remedy this, the NFL told the teams that they have to interview at least one African-American for the head coach job every time they were hiring. The teams were not forced to hire them, just interview them. Slowly, more African-American coaches were hired, and in this year’s Superbowl both teams were headed by African-American coaches.

Like the NFL, the web design/tech industry has to reach out to those who are not part of the white boys network, and work hard at getting women and minorities to participate and give them a chance to prove themselves.

March 31, 10h

Cheers to you for being candid about your affirmative action. It’s nothing to be ashamed of – consciously making an effort to combat one’s own biases, and the biases of those around you, is something to be proud of and I’m happy that you admitted it.

I’d like to share a little example of what I think is absolutely appropriate affirmative action.

An art school I am familiar with requires their applicants to submit a “home test” consisting of several challenges. One of them is fairly simple: a full-figure self portrait. Some applicants get abstract with this, but most use it as a chance to show off their raw drawing chops. The admissions committee, however, uses it to determine the race, gender, cultural, and socioeconomic background of the applicant in order to select a diverse freshman class. There were no quotas, no checklists: In the same way you were looking for “overall diversity” in your lineup, so were these admissions decision makers looking for a “good mix” of people for the freshman class. When you’re talking about a hundred people, or even a couple of hundreds, such a process is perfectly practical.

Wealthy white kids have a huge advantage in high school art education over their inner-city and rural poor counterparts. Many rich schools have computer labs, life drawing classes, and foundries – many poor schools literally have no art classes or facilities whatsoever. If the admissions committee based their policy on the quality of the portfolio alone, I have no doubt that the class would be almost entirely students of privilige.