Today the conversation (let’s use that term loosely…) on Twitter briefly revisited what Rachel referred to as the “Where are the Women”-permathread. The main question, as always, was around why numbers of female speakers remains low at most web & tech conferences. Rather than get into this particular issue again, I’m going to go off on a slightly different angle and talk about affirmative action.

Affirmative action (aka positive discrimination) is often suggested as the solution to diversity/representation problems. No female speakers? Just pick some names out of a hat! Completely white audience? Let’s give tickets away to anyone we can find with a dark face!

Sometimes, AA is truly the best/only course of action. In extreme situations, I’ve even been known to support it myself (although the interesting thing in the South African context is that it is actually favourable to the previously-disenfranchised majority, rather than a minority). The real problem with it for me though, is that it perpetuates discrimination. If the only reason that you chose a speaker is because she is female (and this is pretty obvious to people) then they are going to discount that speaker — after all, how talented or interesting can she be, given that she’s only up there talking because she has breasts?

As Tom Coates remarked in a post last year:

“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!”

Personally, I agree with incentives to promote diversity. I think organisations should be rewarded for actively trying to be fair — to pick the person truly best for the job, to build a diverse workforce that uses differences to its advantage. I’m all in favour of levelling the playing field and helping people to understand when they are discriminating unconsciously. But when you lower your standards to meet an arbitrary target, you insult the very group you are trying to attract.

Part of the reason that I feel so strongly about this is that I tick just about every diversity box you can imagine. I’m a gay, disabled, African woman working in technology. But if one of those descriptors is the primary reason you want me to work for you… Well, let’s just say your chances of success approach zero rapidly!