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.

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!

For the first time in my life, I’ve decided to make New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not really sure why I haven’t done so in the past — possibly because the new year was usually heralded (for me) by standing in the cold (or rain or snow) in some club doorway, waiting for drunken idiots to be, well, idiotic and making me punch them or kick them out of whatever venue I was protecting that night.

Nevertheless, this year, I will do this resolutions thang. I’m not going to blog the specifics — to be honest they’re pretty boring and I imagine have a significant overlap with the rest of the world’s resolutions. What I WILL do though is blog a couple of cool tools that I think are going to be very useful as New Year’s resolution enablers.

The first is Tadalist just for making a simple list of the resolutions, because it’ll be SO DAMN SATISFYING to tick them off once you’ve achieved them.

The second is Joe’s Goals, which I think is going to be useful for the most problematic aspect of resolutions of any time of year — tracking and recovering from the inevitable lapse. Ben very nicely describes typical “resolution behaviour” — you resolve to do something, have at it energetically for a fortnight, begin to lapse and before you know it, you’re back at resolution time making the same resolution and trying hard to block out that you did EXACTLY THIS LAST YEAR AND FAILED.

Joe’s Goals helps you document your resolutions AND track your behaviour — so you can realise where you’re doing well (typically where you’ve managed to install the routine required) and where you’re doing badly. Hell, sometimes resolutions just aren’t going to get kept — but I think that actively tracking will help you identify that you’re really not trying and either redouble your efforts or make an ACTIVE decision to ditch the resolution or to change it. Less guilt, either way 😉

PS: For a more humorous and hopeless take on this New Year’s resolutions business, you should take a look at today’s indexed.

Via Ping, I just discovered Kiva which seems an absolutely FANTASTIC idea to me. It’s an enabling site, allowing anyone in the world to provide small loans to specific entrepreneurs — the long tail of banking.

There are two reasons that I think this is fantastic: Firstly, it’s a LOAN. The entrepreneurs pay the money back, although obviously there is some risk that if their venture fails you won’t get your cash back. However, you can part-fund a loan and so it’s pretty easy to balance your risk by offering small loans to a number of people. Secondly, it’s NOT charity. Many people in developing countries are doing OK for themselves — they don’t need charity, but can benefit hugely from a no-interest loan. And if it’s money that first-worlders could happily give away, then everyone benefits.

Non-consumerist presents are all the rage this Xmas — from Alpaca packages to Terrapasses. I just wanted to encourage people to think about this option too — after all, at the end of the day it costs you nothing!

Heather Gold has written a fantastic piece about what coming out is really about:

“Coming out is not just about the gender of the people you desire. It’s about being your whole self, in public. It’s about honesty. It’s about transparency. It’s about difference and togetherness. It’s about self-acceptance, not waiting for the acceptance of others. It’s about integration. It’s about the whole cookie. I wish it, in all aspects of life, for you.”

This is the most brilliant explanation of why coming out is important I have ever seen. And it’s not just relevant for the LGB community either. It speaks to why it’s important for ALL aspects of diversity to be acknowledged, given head-space, entertained, celebrated. As Stonewall say, “People perform better when they can be themselves”.

I wrote an article a while ago for the FFLAG newsletter. Since I wrote it as a representative of my company and I prefer to keep my work and my blog separate, I won’t re-publish it here, but I’ll re-make the most salient point:

People talk about our society becoming more and more tolerant. Tolerance is not something to aim for, though. It’s the absolute baseline. Being tolerated just means not being killed. It means someone putting up with your existence. Sometimes in a very passive-aggressive way, but in more progressive countries it’s probably more like the way people tolerate visits to the dentist — not the way they’d prefer to spend an afternoon, but something that has to be done.

In my personal opinion what we should be aiming for is so much more than tolerance. It’s about celebrating diversity — the different experiences, histories, cultures, customs, memories, practices, viewpoints, attitudes. Everything from respecting the right of a devout Muslim woman to wear whatever veil she feels appropriate, to that of a gay man to wear leather hotpants and a pink feather boa if that’s what makes him feel comfortable.

As Heather would put it, it’s about the whole cookie.

Is it just me, or does anyone else find the Daily Express’ “We stand for traditional values” TV campaign more than a little sinister?

I don’t like people pointing guns at me. It makes me nervous.

I’ve just had my second laptop hard-drive die on me in about 6 months. After much hassle, I am finally back with access to MOST of my data (down to a nice little auto-incremental backup tool I use).

The only thing that went smoothly was restoring Firefox — those guys really are getting ahead of the industry in terms of install/reinstall usability now. I literally just downloaded the install, ran it, used MozBackup to restore my profile (which I had rushed to save as soon as the laptop starting making grinding noises…) and now I’m back. With all my (many thousands of) bookmarks, saved logins and even my plugins loaded for me. No effort whatsoever.

It got me thinking though — lots of people get very worried about their stuff being hosted. I’ve heard people who object to Flickr because “the servers might go down and I’d lose EVERYTHING!”. I suppose they have a point, especially when their data is being encrypted away from them (not the case with Flickr, but there are some offenders).

The other side of the argument is this though: do you really think that your hardware and backup regimen is BETTER than that of the company you are concerned about?

When my harddrive started making sounds like it was trying to grind sand into powder, I was suddenly very happy that so much of my life was online. The really important bookmarks? Largely on delicious and this blog. The photos? Flickr. OK, so my document management is a little haphazard — I imagine I can fix that.

I’m quite enjoying relying on other people to keep systems up and running, to make sure backups are happening of my stuff on the web. They seem to be a lot better at it than I want to have to be 😉