Ryan Carson and his team have taken a bit of a beating recently and I think it’s great that they’re trying to respond with positive steps.

That said, there was a particular part of the article that really didn’t sit right with me and I think is representative of a whole load of misunderstanding in our industry:

“None of the ideas were submitted by women. This was a great opportunity for women in the industry to put themselves forward for a speaking slot. But unfortunately none materialised.”

There is more to embracing diversity than just making “opportunities” available and then blaming the minority when they don’t take advantage of those opportunities.

I’ve done a lot of diversity work & training, in both academic and corporate settings. One of the most powerful workshops I ever attended on the subject was also one of the most uncomfortably emotional I’ve ever experienced. We were asked to think about our past experiences and how we thought they impacted our present behaviour. As a young lesbian growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I’m sure you can comprehend that I didn’t have the easiest time of it. Let’s summarise it as fear- & hate-filled and violent. So how do I react when people assure me it’s OK to be gay here in the UK? I don’t believe them.

The reality is that if a dog is kept in a cage and beaten every time it tries to escape, eventually it stops trying to escape. Merely opening the door can bring up such painful memories that it almost hurts to THINK about escaping.

Now, before I get flamed, I am not saying that women are like dogs that have been beaten. But I AM saying that we, as humans, all learn from our experiences. And saying “well, you had your chance” without understanding why that chance might not have been seen as a real chance by the group you are trying to reach out to is short-sighted.

Whatever the characteristic that puts you in a minority (e.g. whether you be gay, disabled, female, black or a member of a minority religion), chances are pretty good you have faced negative experiences in the past because of what makes you different. You will have learnt survival behaviours — for instance, many gay people “pass” as straight, because it’s easier than dealing with the stress of people hating and abusing you. Many women in technology “fly under the radar”, just getting on with their work and trying not to stand out. It’s easier than being harangued for your presence, or attacked for your gender.

Embracing and valuing diversity is about more than just going “here’s a chance”. It’s also about building an inclusive environment. Encouraging more diversity in your audience as well as on your speaking roster. Helping those new to speaking (or even to the industry) to find relevant mentors and coaches. Making clear that diversity is valued — that different opinions and backgrounds and characteristics are a good thing.

I am not saying that conference organisers need to pander to the possible emotional insecurities of women in the IT industry. But what I am saying is that offering “opportunities” that really don’t translate as such to the group in question comes across as nothing more than tokenism.

Please Note: For more positive suggestions on how to improve things, please see my previous post.

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