The Problem with a Slate of White, Male Speakers

On A List Apart, in the discussion to Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s article Universal Design IRL, Salvatore Formisano asked me to elaborate on my views that it is a failing on the conference organizer’s part if it puts forth an all white male lineup of speakers. This was made particularly appropriate and timely given that during this weekend the BritRuby conference in England was cancelled precisely because of such a failing. Much has been said about the BritRuby event, and I have a separate article in the works that addresses it specifically, but Salvatore’s comment provided lots of opportunity to elaborate and explain why these situations are a problem.

What follows is reposted from my comment at ALA with only minor stylistic edits. Salvatore’s parts are quoted to keep context in place as best as possible:

@Faruk Ates: you make some very good points which help making your position very clear. Yet there are a few reasons I’m still not 100% sold on these types of debates.

Whichever arguments is brought to the table, I can’t help but get this feeling of tokenization and quotas when it comes to issues like the Brit Ruby fiasco.

This is understandable, but try to reframe it in your mind; think of it all not as “quotas” (or tokenization) but as a passion for seeing diverse viewpoints fairly represented on a stage. Sure, some organizers may feel “obligated” to try and include diverse speakers, but others are disappointed (with themselves and the status quo) if they can’t produce enough diversity to suit their wishes.

the IT community is still predominantly male, that’s how it is for now. Is it really impossible that among X available speakers, all the most interesting candidates for the lineup were men?

No, this is entirely possible. With a small sample size from a male-dominated industry, getting all men is an easily replicable scenario. However: who says that all those guys actually are “the most interesting candidates”? Whose standard is that by? Because I can promise you that I won’t find an all-male (and all-white) lineup “most interesting” at all, as a conference attendee. Because I would argue that, no matter what they’re speaking about, I’d feel like I’m getting a homogeneous point of view presented to me.

Does a 100% white men lineup necessarily mean that the criteria for choosing the speakers lineup is flawed?

Yes, it means that the conference organizers’ perception of “best” is biased. Or that they were just really lazy, at best.

It doesn’t mean the speakers or the organizers themselves are flawed, but it does mean all of the following things:

  1. The system in which we all exist is flawed (tech is male dominated, but far too big an industry for that to be an acceptable balance, thus it is flawed);
  2. The process of selecting speakers did not take the flawed system into account, resulting in systemic biases in favor of the dominant demographic;
  3. Unconscious biases may have made the process of selecting speakers even worse.

Assuming my premise could be true, is your point that the organisers would’ve HAD to keep looking for women (or anything but white men) not with a tokenization attitude, but with the confidence that the diversity would have improved quality of the talks without any doubts?

Having diversity for diversity’s sake is no guarantee of quality. However, as I hope I’ve now sufficiently explained, looking simply for your own definition of “quality” and not putting in a conscious effort to also find diversity, does effectively mean that your quality will come from a very homogeneous point of view, and this has historically and statistically been proven to actually reduce quality. Study after study finds that greater diversity in a group’s membership improves the quality of their collective output.

I also often feel like all this stuff is not that different from being condescending towards women.

Not sure what to do with this. Why do you think it’s condescending? Working hard to ensure diversity is not like saying “here you go women, have some speaker spots too”; it’s saying “dear women: we really value your input as well, please share it with us.”

Let’s assume there are 20 slots available for speakers. You’ve filled 19, all men so far, and you have two candidates available for the last slot, a man and a woman.
The two professional profiles, however, reveal that the male candidate is likely to deliver a more relevant, more interesting talk to the crowd.
From your comment I’m guessing your position on this would be rejecting this construct all together, i.e. a similar situation would never verify itself and if someone does believe to have this kind of scenario in front of him, his reasoning is flawed because he’s been influenced by all sorts of factors to have a certain perspective and see things in a certain way.

I won’t reject that construct, or that scenario. It’s perfectly realistic. My point is that in order to get to such a scenario, you have already gone through a flawed process. Already you have failed to actively reach out to (enough) women, and failed to introduce a diversity of selection in your own process of qualification.

If you as a conference organizer are in such a position, all the steps you’ve taken so far have had an element of mistake to them. You’ve ignored or missed every opportunity to introduce diversity into the mix. I don’t attribute this to malice, and neither does almost anyone else. This is virtually never an intentional scenario for conference organizers to find themselves in. They also don’t necessarily want such a scenario, either. The problem lies in them not knowing, or not caring enough, how to avoid it. Plenty of resources exist online to avoid such a scenario, so every time it does happen, it is a failing on the organizers’ part.

The shift that needs to happen when it comes to IT and technical professions should begin from how we educate our children. This is an emblematic, remarkable example of what I mean: Goldieblox

Goldieblox is a great example of how we can start to address the systemic sexism that permeates our society for the generations to come. It is but one step of many thousands we need to take, however, if we wish to establish a more meritocratic, equal and fair industry anytime soon.

Down here [in Naples, Italy], anything that’s IT related is considered to be a male profession, to the point that women who show any kind of interest on the field are often discouraged by friends (female friends!) or simply seen as weirdos. IT universities are literally “womenless”.

That’s something that will need to be addressed with some major cultural reform, which won’t come easily, knowing Italy and its cultural views on women. (not saying you share those views; I’m sure you know what I mean)

But do I think that a men only speakers line up is undeniable proof of discrimination? Sorry folks, I just can’t see it.

This will perhaps be the most informative part, then: there is an important difference between systemic discrimination and active discrimination.

The latter is something that is done consciously, and by individuals. It is when people say or do things that is harmful, that suppresses or diminishes groups.

Systemic discrimination, on the other hand, happens through no one person’s fault. It is not something anyone individually should be blamed for, because it is a result of a system that doesn’t actively police itself well enough. It is the result of a culture that gets created through inaction, rather than action. It is when you take a group of 20 individual men, ask them if they’re sexist, they all say no and genuinely feel that way, but then when you put all 20 together in one room, the culture that emerges feels openly hostile to certain women, and they will not feel welcome to enter it.

This is not because all those 20 men are “secretly sexist” or anything like that. Quite likely, not a single one of them is. It’s because they were not consciously trying to make sure women would also feel welcome in the group, and at face value, they are now a group of men that some women will simply not feel like they are welcome in.

This phenomenon also explains the level of butthurt expressed by some men when dealing with this topic: they get offended and have a hard time believing that people could think of them as not welcoming to women. “Of course I’m welcoming to women!” they decry. But the reality is, when a large group of people is very homogeneous, it simply does not appear to be inclusive to people on the outside. This is a shallow, superficial thing, but that’s the problem: if your group appears to be unwelcome, then it is inevitable that some people will not even bother to try and find out if you really are.

And that’s the great loss here: those people cannot be blamed for their caution, but we all miss out on their input and their voice, because they won’t attend. History explains and justifies their caution; that’s why conference and event organizers carry so much responsibility in choosing their lineup: they set the tone for how their event is perceived on the outside.

If you’re a white man, you will probably have no superficial problem seeing other white men as speakers. But if you’re any other demographic in any way at all, seeing white men over and over and over again will start to wear you down and make you wonder if this community is really as inclusive as it claims to be. And, even worse, it’ll justifiably make some people wonder if this community actually values other people’s points of view as much as those of the white men.

If you wish to claim you value everyone’s points of view equally regardless of race or gender or what-have-you, you need to actively work on representing a diversity of views if you’re organizing an event with people speaking to an audience. Because if you don’t, you’re sending an implicit (and probably unconscious) message that you think white men have the most valuable points of view. And while that’s probably not true, it reveals your biases as well as your lack of effort, still making you look pretty bad.

In closing, to address the BritRuby case specifically: when faced with a situation like BritRuby’s, which is very close to the hypothetical 19-out-of-20 men scenario from above, the way you react to and handle this kind of criticism is far more important than whatever failing took place that caused it.

Garann Means mentioned the case of LXJS in her blog post on BritRuby which was a fantastic way for a conference organizer to react to criticism of all white male speaker lineups (not even addressed to them specifically). BritRuby, with their canceling of the event and the blaming of those who expressed their opinions for it, falls squarely in the Worst Possible Way To Handle It-category. BritRuby’s organizers could have reacted very differently, and then none of this would have been a big deal, and the event would still be planned. The loss of the event and its hypothetical value to the community is, in my view, overwhelmingly their own fault.

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