Where are all the Women?


The old debate has started again, Jason Kottke has fired another shot across the conference organiser’s bow. Pointing out that most conferences are not looking for an equal gender distribution (best as SXSWi – 28% women, hats of to WDN as well). A point to note on this its very US based. What about the rest of the world Jason? And Eric Meyer has come back swinging as an organiser of A Event Apart, pointing out that gender doesn’t matter. Or does it?

Personally I tend to agree with Eric. I have attended events where the there where speakers that frankly where a disaster on stage, leaders of their field, but they where not public speakers. When I questioned why they where selected, the conference organiser honestly stated it was due to gender alone and they seemed to know what they where talking about. Moral of the story, a technical expert does not equal a good speaker. Sometimes it does, other times it’s a disaster.

Does Gender matter?

Is it important if the speaker is a man, woman, black, white, red haired, catholic, Hindu or blind? Should it matter (as Tantek points out).

No! not at all. Do I consider it at all? No!

I’ve never organised a conference speaker list. However I have been involved in pervious lives in almost all other aspects. But I have attended a few. And I can tell you that if you de genderified and removed the pictures from the speaker bios, that I wouldn’t (not that I do anyway) consider the speaker list by gender at all. But by their reputation, what they are speaking on, and their depth of experience on the subject.

I’m there for the content, and content alone, I want the knowledge, I want it presented so I can understand it. I don’t care what you are (the speaker), and in this young industry, do I care who you are? Maybe, but if you are good at what you do, knowledgeable, and present well, you have my three ticks of approval.

Then we come to the ethnic debate, the false notion that Internet industry is dominated by white males (Chris Messina). Come on where are you people looking, in countries that the major population is white (Europe, US, Australia) . Statistically then the dominate group will be white males for technical conferences, okay it’s not good gender wise, but ethnically, please! Bet you get different figures for conferences in India, China, Singapore, Latin America, and Japan.

The real world

Lets face it the web industry is unique, it’s young, it’s technical, it’s creative. It blends left and right side brain people into the same room. However you are going to get sub industry topic specific conferences, these are going to appeal to slice of the industry. Some of these slices are going to be dominated by various socially diverse groups.

Interestingly in the real world there are conferences dominated by women, as the related industry is dominated by women. There are conferences with an equal mix of professionals, and I note these professions are usually very old professions, medicine, accounting etc. And yes conference organisers do try and equal out the gender in balance, do they succeed? No not often.

The Future

What can we do to address the gender / ethnic imbalance. Lets consider this, where is the problem.

Is the problem in education. At university level, maybe. At high school level, well we have a different problem (education contacts tell me) there in getting boys into science or any technical subject as they are now being dominated by girls. We seem to have dumbed down our males. But that’s a separate issue. Is the Web Industry still seen as part of computer science and the Information Technology Industry. I hope not. I don’t want to be lumbered with the IT crowd. Should the Web Industry be promoting education via the marketing sector not the IT industry.

Is it a promotional problem. Is it a case of we can’t find the talented female speakers. Dori Smith points out that although the resources and lists of talented women are available, people are still not using them. Can’t speak for the US, but Australia has a major percentage of very talented web people over a wide ranging basis of cultural, gender and ethnic backgrounds.

Whatever the problem, what we don’t want to do is reverse discriminate. Take the people based on talent, knowledge and speaking performance. It’s about the information the content not the package, not the design.

How do we fix this? Or do we bother at all?

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  1. Great post Gary – and I think you mention a lot of the complex issues.
    On the lists of speakers, yes there are out there – but as I commented on Ms Beakman’s site, not many of those were relevant to us. We have asked lots of women to participate (admittedly proportionately less than men, but hey, look at the industry).
    Hopefully as a result of this debate, which is in some places misinformed and vitriolic, one good thing is that we will uncover people from all walks of like who are doing great things out there.

  2. Gary – insightful and interesting post! As one of the few female asian-american speakers on the global circuit these days I do find most often I am the solo female (or I get to hang out with Molly) in the room. A few years ago I started working with a subset of WIT (Women in Technology) to gather female women in the technology world and speak in front of high-school girls to help inspire them to get into the technology industry. We did this for three years and I wanted to extend this into a national experience in high-schools everywhere. It was a wonderful experience.

    At one point we started looking at percentages of women graduating in electrical engineering and technology fields and talking to women in these areas and it was LOW in comparison to their male counterparts. So we have to start by looking at the % overall – not only from an industry perspective, but from an educational and vocational background. There just aint as many women professing to be in the technology sector! As I migrate out of the tech field and into mainstream speaking and different industries (research, old fashioned print design, fashion design, filmaking, etc.) there is a more diverse spread of speakers and females overall. So in the technology field, this needs to be considered from the start.

    So – I think it is a question that needs to be looked at from various sides. There are many more factors to consider … this is a great discussion and topic for more pondering.

  3. @Lisa – The interesting thing is the introduction of the makemeaspeaker wiki since I posted this. It’s interesting that the percentage of women putting there hand up is still lower than it should be. I really am considering that the message is not getting to the people we need to communicate with, they are just not plugged into the usual geek communication network.

    @Kelly – Thanks for the comment. There has been a massive “get girls into tech and science” in Western Australia (over the last decade) to the point where they are now having to balance it a bit as boys are not taking up tech or science but the traditional blue collar career paths because they are intimidated by girls in the classroom. A new twist. I still think the problem is there however as the number of women and tertiary institutions has not increased in the tech area that much. That said a lot of the women (over 25 years old) I know in the web industry in Australia are self taught. And seem to slip of the radar.

Comments are now closed, move along, nothing to see here.