Conference Notes Gay Politics Talks

I'm the only gay in this village?

Right. I’m in a bit of a mood right now because Valleywag just called me the token gay at all-white-male conference Future of Web Apps. Apparently this was in response to Chris Messina’s post the other day on the future of white boy clubs which argued that white men should do something about the diversity of the tech community. There’s something deeply entertaining to me about fighting for inclusivity by suggesting that some people only got to speak because they were in a minority group. Smart move! Inclusive! Fuck you Valleywag! And while I generally applaud Chris’ post for being positive and saying that people should do something in a positive direction, I’m still a bit weirded out by his labelling of Tantek as ‘Turk’ compared to ‘white’ for the rest of us, and I still don’t actually see anything in his post which suggests actually solid actions to go forward with rather than just the positive sentiment, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

This whole thing is really beginning to piss me off, and it’s beginning to piss me off because lots of smart, good people are getting involved and fighting for some really weird things. Let me talk to you briefly about conference organising. I’ve had some conversations with people recently who organise conferences. They say that if you do a conference in visual design, web design, web standards and all that kind of stuff then audience and speakers are fifty-fifty men and women. The same holds true in the academic conferences. I have no idea about the various ethnicities of the people involved, nor of their sexualities. People comment on those things less frequently. But at least the gender thing is worth noting.

What’s more interesting is that the very same conference organisers, when they’re trying to do something around the geekier or more-business focused ends of the industry find that those ratios skew massively towards men. Note these are the same conference organisers! Their heavily prejudiced attitudes don’t seem to be causing endemic sexism or homophobic imbalances in the design and academic communities. So why on earth do they get lynched every time this debate comes up in the technology industry? It’s bullshit! The problem is elsewhere. Technology community, heal thyself!

I’ll give you another example – last year’s ETech committee was pretty much specifically chosen to open up to new communities. I was on the panel for the first (and I suspect last) time, as were Paula Le Dieu and Liz Goodman (among others). The conference team looked wide and far and tried to find a whole range of new people to talk at the conference, and clearly trying to open up the conference to previously excluded communities was a priority. And after all of that, with a real focus on uncovering hidden women and getting them to speak, we only managed (roughly) 15 female speakers to 95 male speakers. I think the ratio of men to women in the audience was even more imbalanced. Again, I don’t know the numbers of gay people or ethnic minorities off the top of my head. SXSW was much more balanced in the gender stakes, but again – it’s a very different subject area.

I really want to make this clear, the industry would probably be better able to provide products for a diverse group of users if it was itself more diverse. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and nor does shouting at the organisers of conferences. If you know people within the industry who should be talking or standing up, then you should encourage them to do so. If you’re observing brilliant people being passed over for venture money because of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality then for god’s sake there’s a real business opportunity there! And sure, if you genuinely don’t believe that conference organisers are doing their bit, then talk about it and pressure them. But let’s not just assume that a conference that evidences a giant skew towards straight white men is anything more than a reflection of the lamentable current state of our industry – a state that’s not going to be transformed by conference organisers alone. And while we’re at it, I’d really rather prefer it if people stopped arguing that anyone who is at a conference and isn’t a WASP is a token stab towards political correctness. The way this debate is being conducted at the moment is doing no one any good whatsoever.

9 replies on “I'm the only gay in this village?”

Hey Tom, much agreed. I hope you don’t think I was picking on the conference organizers in this case — they only afforded me the opportunity to bring up the matter — which is a topic that comes up quite often and that us straight white guys don’t pipe up much about.
So if anything, my points really are: diversity is a good thing, to be encouraged and pursued and never to be taken for granted (even where it is achieved) and that those in the dominant monocultures (especially in the traditional white male monoculture) should be willing to take a stand on behalf of diversity and those who are most underrepresented.
The calling out of Tantek as a Turk was an inside joke, based on his rather… obtuse remark here. 😉

I’ve no clue about sexual orientation distribution in conference attendees, but I thought I’d just mention that I was at RailsConf Europe this week and although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was certainly bemused by the fact that out of the ~300 people attending, it seemed that about 10 were women, one of whom was Kathy Sierra giving an excellent talk on “Creating Passionate Users”. One of her points was that visual cues engage users (I simplify enormously) and one example of many was a photo of a cute puppy, to which the audience pretty much uniformly responded with an “aaah how cute” noise.
In a later talk about the (seemingly obvious) perils of ignoring namespacing issues in a dynamic language like Ruby, a (male) speaker showed a slide of a cute puppy, and said something like “Are we all passionate now? Great, then let’s get on with it”. Which was quite amusing, but which also seemed to be something of a boys-club, programmer-macho poke at the ‘softer’ aspects of application development from the safety of a men’s locker room, i.e. a cabal of “real” coders bunched together around a talk on “real” development issues.
Point? Point is that while it seems that tech areas are generally more attractive to men than women (ooh, contentious), the men who complain about this fact do nothing to address the issue while they maintain these attitudes, and that I think this backs up your point that the issue is nothing to do with event organisation but simply reflects more generally exclusive attitudes and approaches.

It’s a pretty tight group. Not just white and male but West Coast, non European, little Indian or Chinese influence. In a future where content and communications is so important, perhaps the definitive element, I don’t think the old dotcom, Silicon Valley exclusivity is tenable. It may have been a creative force in the past but… doesn’t seem right going foeward.

Until I moved out to the Bay Area, I never worked on a web team with a woman. Granted, the places I worked were relatively small, in Kansas, and there were plenty of women in other jobs outside the geek squad. It wasn’t for lack of trying either – I don’t remember a woman ever applying for a programming or coding job.
But my current team out here is pretty small, and we still have three women, all geeks in their own right. So I wonder, are there more lady geeks out here because there’s more opportunity in the industry for everybody, or did they all move out here from Kansas because nobody would give them a job?

Sorry for you Tom, thats totally lame. I don’t know what Id do without your Carson Workshop presentation you gave a while back on link structure and the like, Ive listened to it about 5 times.
I think valleywag should be less concerned with crap like and more concerned about how much time you have spent playing WoW ;).

Oh, Tom. You *know* that you and I will now be arguing privately about this narrow point for *months* – until we both lose touch with our original positions and both end up arguing the same thing. Any time, matey. Bring it on.

I sort of blinked a bit when I read about this white-boys-club thing. Most of all because I think that finger-pointing of this type is symptomatic of a kind of subconscious racism; does anybody believe that the ethnic origin of the speakers was a determining factor in their selection? If not, then why the hell is it even an issue?

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