A theme which came up at BlogHer, which I’ve been hearing more and more in other places too, is: “How do we get more women on the program at tech conferences and other traditionally male-dominated events?”
Generally the answer which arises is to form some sort of women’s speaker list. Honestly, I see that as a Band-Aid which will only foster tokenism. We need to get at the core problem: Why is the culture of tech and other male-dominated fields so unwelcoming toward women? (And if you don’t think that’s the case, start talking to more women.) Also, how might increased participation by women benefit those fields? What new strengths and perspectives might women bring to the table, and how might they benefit that field (and society) as a whole?
Why aren’t we discussing this crucial issue directly in traditionally male-dominated events and forums, instead of resorting to tokenism?
I just raised this issue in a comment to a post by Robert Scoble, who seems to think it’s all just a meritocracy…
On Sunday, Robert Scoble wrote:
“…We already have that list [of female speakers]. It’s called Google (or MSN or Yahoo, they all pretty much work similar). I used to hire speakers. And that’s EXACTLY what I used to do. Go to Google and see who is known on a particular topic… I’d make a list of the names I kept seeing over and over again. Here’s a hint: you can get on those lists. Just blog and blog well.
“So the real trick isn’t to make some sort of new list. It’s to teach people how search engines work and how to get other people to notice that they have expertise in a certain area.”
Sigh… the tired old “meritocracy” argument rears its empty head once more…
I read through the comments to Scoble’s post, and I recommend that you do, too. They’re quite interesting because they show both how the dominant and marginalized factions in tech talk past each other, and how difficult it is to see tokenism as a problem in its own right.
I hope at some point we’ll stop collectively fearing and ignoring difference, and realize that in all systems (including human society and professional communities) diversity = resilience. The more diverse a community or system is, the more resources and options it has to respond to changing circumstances and the better-equipped it is to realize how circumstances are changing in the first place! Homogenous groups and systems tend to become less responsive, flexible, and aware over time.
In other words, gender diversity is crucial to the long-term viability of any community or field of human endeavor.
This is why I commented, in response to Scoble’s post:
” Well, as I mentioned at BlogHer, there’s a bigger problem in this “who gets to speak at conferences?” issue: Tokenism.
“Should more women be invited to speak at formerly mostly-male conferences in tech and other fields? Absolutely. But rather than just having a few token female faces in the lineup, let’s see about getting those conferences to directly address the unique strengths, perspectives, and issues that women bring to the event and to that field. And also why so many fields and events have developed a culture that is yes hostile and unwelcoming to women.
“This could be addressed in panels, plenaries, and other aspects of the program. Or it could be a theme to be explored throughout the program. Of course you’d have to have some women present and on the program to have that discussion. But it wouldn’t be tokenism. It would be relevant.
“…And it’s about damn time that people in tech and other male-dominated fields started becoming aware of how relevant it is, IMHO. By fostering cultures which effectively denigrate or marginalize women and what women bring to the table, by denying that such barriers even exist, that it’s all just a meritocracy, men in tech and related fields are hurting themselves as much as they’re hurting women and the future.”
We’ll see if this theme makes any difference to the discussion.
Just for context, several months ago I was contacted by the male organizer of a major tech conference. He asked me to supply names of some prominent female bloggers or tech people to speak at his event. I said I was willing to help him, but I was far more interested in helping him find a way to move women’s participation in his conference beyond tokenism, to directly address the issue of the culture of tech and what women have to offer.
…Well, that conversation stopped there. But I’ll try again. Ideas like this usually take several tries to get through.
SPEAK UP, AND CARRY A BIG STICK
At the BlogHer wrapup session, just after I mentioned the problem of tokenism, Deb Jones (who writes the Mobile Jones weblog) suggested a good backup strategy: If more women don’t start getting invited to speak at traditionally male-dominated events, women can “smart mob” those events.
Heh heh heh… I’m just picturing that…. Cool! Count me in!