Women at Tech Conferences: Look Beyond Tokenism (comment to Scoble)

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.


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!

6 thoughts on Women at Tech Conferences: Look Beyond Tokenism (comment to Scoble)

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  1. I got an email from Hugh Forrest from SXSW. I mentioned that he will probably be getting some proposals for panels for next year from some fantastic women. Guess what? He already has. So yeah, lets get into action. Ask to speak. Submit proposals, attend en masse and show the SMART conference organizers that there is a savvy, intersted market out there waiting to be served.

  2. I suspect this goes back to your comments about Dave Winer. The reason men think that there are no good women IT experts is that they stop listening as soon as a woman opens her mouth.

  3. Thanks, Nancy and Cheryl.

    Nancy, I’m glad SXSW is getting proposals from women, and thanks for encouraging women to make such proposals.

    Still, I’d encourage women getting involved in traditionally male-dominated conferences (or anyone organizing such a conference) to try to find ways to encourage direct discussion of the potential impact of increasing gender diversity and equity in these fields.

    Let’s get the issue on the program, not just female faces.

    …Cheryl wrote: “The reason men think that there are no good women IT experts is that they stop listening as soon as a woman opens her mouth.”

    I agree that’s the case with some individuals (both men and women, and not just in IT). However, in this case, I don’t think that’s what Dave indicated.

    Dave said he finds it easier to “read and link to” male perspectives. This does not necessarily mean that he tunes out female perspectives. It just means that he personally finds it easier to relate to men. That may not be politically correct, but it is honest, and it represents a common starting point for many people.

    The reason I’d like to have a civil public discussion with Dave about this is that he is willing to admit to his own mental filter — something many of us avoid doing for fear of criticism. Such openness can be the starting point for a useful, constructive discussion. This is why I’m hoping Dave decides to participate in that discussion, rather than let people put words in his mouth.

    – Amy Gahran

  4. Amy, I applaud what you are trying to do. You’re absolutely right that just having faces up there isn’t enough.

    The issue with ‘meritocracy’ is that there is an underlying implicit assumption of what is ‘meritorious.’ It’s subjective, value judgment ultimately. Gender is bit less an issue than worldviews (i.e. there are a lot of men that relate to me but that’s because they hold the same worldview or conceptual ‘frames’ or values that I do.) I recently wrote an essay on worldviews and “value memes” for an upcoming book (More Space, edited by Todd Satterson). It really echoes much of what George Lakoff writes about cognitive science and linguistics.

    “Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have – the long-term concepts that structure how we think – is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact [heck, often the person] as irrational, crazy or stupid.” – Don’t Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff

    The fact is that many people have different ideas of what is valuable, meritorious depending on their worldview. Many women do hold different perspectives and frames than corporate executives do. A start-up company had me review their plan briefly. They told me that I asked useful questions on a cursory initial meeting that NO ONE else had brought up. I was surprised; but they realized they’d only asked male executives, engineers and financiers with a common career background.

    I’ve had my fair share of labeling as “irrational, crazy or stupid” plus “weak, impractical, idealistic” because of my worldview, which I often keep to myself but it echoes Mother Theresa’s idea that small acts done with great love ARE significant. I try to see what’s common among human beings and refrain from “us” versus “them” thinking which mystifies many people.

    Thus, merit is assigned by how much facts and ideas fit into our own existing frames/worldviews. Things that fall outside of that frame are unconsciously ignored.

    That said, I am speaking at the upcoming BlogBusinessSummit in S.F. in about 3 weeks – http://www.blogbusinesssummit.org and I intend to bring up new viewpoints with my involvement.

  5. I work at an all women’s college in the IT department and coordinate an internship for 6 women in order to teach them tech skills–mostly web design and multimedia. It really empowers them and every year, a few former graduates go on into the tech industry–as many as go on from CS!

    One of the difficulties I have as a slightly older woman in the tech field is catchup. Always trying to find time to catch up. And I have a hard time going to all these conferences on the west coast (I’m on the east coast). I have a family and job to juggle. I suspect other women have the same issue. How about some childcare at some of these conferences? How about some workshops to help some of us catch up? And I think addressing these issues head on is essential. I’m planning to attend SXSW and Etech (despite the latter’s maleness) this year. I’d love to present but I feel so behind the curve at times. I’m interested in the struggle I personally have in getting young women interested in technology–how that is possible, strategies, etc. But I don’t think people want to hear that at these conferences.