Seems everyone is talking about gender balance in conference speaker line-ups again. I won’t re-link to all the various discussions (my next daily del.icio.us post will contain a bunch of links and quotes), but as a woman working in the technology industry, I’m going to weigh in on a few things.

  1. There is a distinct and definite business case for diversity. A lot has been said on this topic out in the world, but I’ll summarise as “Differences lead to different thoughts and viewpoints. The more different viewpoints you can get looking at a problem, the better your chance of solving it. Also, if you want to understand and appeal to all different types of people (you know, customers and consumers?) then reflecting them internally might be a good idea too.” Obviously this is more workplace diversity, but there are obvious parallels in the conference arena.
  2. Responsibility for diversity doesn’t lie in just one camp. Conference organisers (and employers and companies and governments and so on…) need to think about diversity and actively consider speakers who don’t fit their traditional selection criteria. Equally, those who want to see speaker lists more reflective of the diverse reality of our world should try to put themselves forward. Victim mentality on either side of this debate benefits no one.
  3. Positive discrimination is a dangerous place to play. It SHOULD be about keeping your standards high AND considering a wider pool of candidates than you otherwise would. Don’t lower your standards to benefit minorities — you’ll just reinforce the original discrimination. Equally, consider whether your “standards” are automatically discriminatory to some groups. E.g. if “is good with the senior execs” == “plays golf with us all on Sundays”, that MIGHT just be a little unfair…

Things I Would Like To See

So how can we improve the world? There are some developments I would like to see:

  1. Conference organisers making a clear statement of intent regarding diversity. Many companies have started to do this (in addition to other efforts) and it DOES make a difference. People are more likely to admire and aspire to be included in your conference (either as an attendee or as a speaker) if you are clear that you see value in diversity. If you don’t see the value — well, you have bigger problems.
  2. Already successful speakers mentoring those who would like to develop into the speakers of the future. The world of conference speaking can be rather opaque to those not already inducted. If you’re already a successful speaker, pick someone whom you think is promising and help them along — whether it be with contacts, simple advice or recommendations as to how to improve their speaking style, for instance.
  3. Attendees being encouraged to help improve the diversity of the audience. At my first South By “Where are the Women” panel, there was a (male) manager going “My entire team is female — why don’t they ever ask to come to these conferences?”. The response from the room: “Why don’t you ask them??”. Diversity is a great thing — it can be encouraged by anyone at any level in an organisation. Let’s encourage conference attendees to think of someone different to themselves who would also benefit from the content and then try to convince them to come along. Obviously this is easier at free/cheap conferences (such as BarCamp or SXSWi), but for those attending the more expensive conferences with work backing it might be an option too.

You never know, we might just change the world.