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Why "Gender 50/50" Is An Important Challenge and Commitment for the Tech Industry

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 23 2013

Credit @adriarichards

I'd like to take my hat off and give Toby Daniels and his team at Social Media Week (SMW) a salute for the email that just landed in my in-box. Titled "Gender 50/50: Help Us Address the Challenge of Gender Balance," (here's the accompanying blog post) it marks the start of the speaker and panel submission process for next September's international SMW with an admission and a commitment.

The admission: "We have largely failed in our efforts in being balanced. We do not have fair representation, and we have not achieved a 50/50 balance in men and women participating in our events."

The commitment: "My team and I are 100% committed towards making a fundamental change to how we approach diversity, starting with gender balance."

Daniels, who has built SMW into a global juggernaut that in 2012 gathered 65,000 attendees in 24 cities across 16 countries, relies heavily on local partner organizations to host thousands of individual events and thus has less control over their content than say we do here at PDM. So his email doesn't promise a quick fix to the problem of male-dominated tech conferences, which is probably wise. Instead, he is calling on his co-curators "to ensure [that] your events have half or more female participation," and promises to reward those that do by working "with out media partners to highlight the best and most balanced events."

SMW's Gender 50/50 commitment is a terrific response not only to the general problem of male speaker privilege, but a hopeful answer to the endemic pattern of sexist and exclusionary behavior prevalent in many parts of the tech industry. (See also Deanna Zandt and Andrew Rasiej's "One4One" effort to get people thinking about those silly "top 100" lists that so often come out dominated by men.) Adria Richards' firing for calling out bad behavior at the PyCon conference a few weeks ago was just the latest reminder of that deeper issue; feminist commentators were right to use that incident to point to this timeline of sexist events in geek communities, which runs all the way back to 1973.

If I have any criticism of Daniels' email and post, it's that he dodges around a discussion of why we as organizations, communities and, indeed, society at large, keep reproducing old, sexist (and other discriminatory) ways of behaving. And if we don't try to have that conversation--as painful as it can be--we won't get very far.

Contrast SMW's approach to the poorly-named "TechCrunch Disrupt," which is bringing its self-congratulatory brand of industry boosterism to our fair city of New York this weekend. After Hacks and Hackers founder Jenny 8 Lee turned to Twitter to criticize an early line-up announcement from TechCrunch Disrupt that was literally 21 men and no women, TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis responded, "FFS we haven't announced all our speakers yet." She also told Lee that she was "not the biggest fan of speaker affirmative action, doing things for optics" and declared that "announcing the women first because of 'optics' is affirmative action." That led some to imagine that when the full line-up was rolled out, it would have more women. And indeed it does: a total of ten out of the fullline-up of 64 speakers. That's a lower ratio than the 20 women US Senators. It's pathetic.

Three years ago, we made a conscious and public commitment to make sure that PDF would do its best to break this terrible pattern, and as a result we are doing better on most fronts. Right now, as we go about finishing the planning for PDF 2013, we've so far announced 23 women and 25 men as speakers. That number is going to grow rapidly as we finish finalizing breakout sessions, but we're committed to achieving as diverse and balanced a speaker list as we can, and I appreciate the help of a number of people who have been equally conscientious in sending us good suggestions and networking. Ten out of those 48 are people of color, which is also an improvement over our past conferences, but not nearly as inclusive or diverse as we would like. I'm also not happy with our political balance, which still tilts left--though as you will see when we roll out our breakout line-up, our policy sessions should have a good mix of differing viewpoints, in part because we've deliberately reached out to some conservative and libertarian advisers to help expand our network.

Why do we pay attention to these metrics? Because we believe all people can make enormous contributions to society, but that certain people--men, for starters--have constructed and benefited from all kinds of societal structures that artificially block and reduce the chances for everyone else to make those contributions. And if we want to ensure that all of those contributions flower, some who have had more privilege need to make room for others who have had less--and those of us who curate these events have a responsibility to take affirmative action to make that happen. Conscious, committed effort is required, because otherwise all the hidden hydraulic pressures that keep pushing more men forward than women will keep winning.

Tsosis apparently disagrees. She argues to Lee and Jacqueline Kazil, another female tech geek who took her to task on Twitter, that the goal should be to have the best speakers, of either gender."

That is a dodge. The goal should be to have an equal number of great male and female speakers, and a better and more enriched conversation as a result. (See Cheryl Contee's amazing talk from last year's PDF, where she took the "digital divide" head-on, as a powerful example of how much better a conference can be when you do this.) The fact is that if you are putting on an event with say, 64 or 128 speaking slots, there are easily hundreds of great male AND female speakers who can fill every one of those slots. If you don't know who they are, ask for help (as Daniels is doing) rather than acting like you are omniscient (like Tsosis is). Most of us currently know more great male than female speakers because our skewed society has rewarded more of them with fame, up til now. And while not every speaker has the same presentation skills, one of the ways they get to be better is by being invited to speak, and where useful, coached on how to present well.

It's 2013. This shouldn't be so hard.