On boycotting tech events to promote diversity

Rebecca J. Rosen’s well-intended editorial in The Atlantic suggests that the right course of action to promote gender diversity at tech conferences is to simply boycott the ones that feature all-male speaker lists. The editorial has been bouncing around the blogosphere since it was posted last week, and Rosen’s comments are a response to a larger debate about gender diversity that’s been bouncing around the tech industry for some time.

Brittany Tarvin, in an editorial on her own Tumblr blog, thinks this is the wrong approach and offers more constructive suggestions, like mentoring a minority in your own personal network to speak on topics they’re knowledgeable and passionate about, and advocate for them to be part of the speaker list at conferences you attend or are interesting in.

Tarvin’s point, if I’ve interpreted it correctly, is that in order to affect change, sometimes it’s more important to act positively than it is to just say no.

If the topic interests you, make sure to read both posts and feel free to share your thoughts with us.

  • rwitt

    The biggest problem isn’t that there are no competent women to speak at these conferences. It’s that the organizers don’t think of them to ask them. If the organizers are men, the first people who come to mind when they are brainstorming speakers are often.. you guessed it, other men. It takes conscious effort to diversify, to actually think of women speakers during the initial planning phase– but it is well worth it in the long run.

    I work for a company that sponsors a small to medium sized annual conference (roughly 800 attendees). We spend a lot of time striving to make sure our speaker lineups are well balanced and representative of our audience and, hopefully, the population. We get lauded for it because people notice. It didn’t happen by accident– we made a conscious effort to diversify our speaker lineup. No tokenism here. Everybody is superbly qualified to speak. But we didn’t take the path of least resistance to choose only the first people who came to mind, or the easiest people to book. It is time consuming sometimes, but worth it.

    The best part is, as women and minorities become more visible in the industry, it erodes the self-perpetuating cycle that causes the problem in the first place.

    • Mother Hydra

      Thank you for this well-reasoned response.

  • quietstorms

    I disagree with The Atlantic story and somewhat agree with “wildchocolate” but I view it more simply. If anything, you have the chance of being the Jackie Robinson of that company. Make sure that you are at your best and be prepared to handle anything because the men will respect you more and there are women in the audience looking for guidance and leadership.

    I’m a traditional guy. I’m a believer that one parent should always be home. I do believe that it should be the woman typically if they have the greater heart. If it’s the right guy then that’s fine as well.

    However, I’ve had to raise two sisters while I also had to grow up. One works for a company that many on this site would dislike including myself. I taught them to be as tough as nails mentally. The gender bias in The Valley that I read in a NYT article this year showed I was right years before. It should also be said that, like a good brother, all they have to do is call me and I’ll settle any “troubles” they have.

    • Lukas

      The problem isn’t that no women are qualified to speek at these conferences. The problem is that they don’t get invited.

  • alexander

    I think people are saying “Oh look, a conference lineup where it looks like the organizers just called up their friends to be speakers. This is tiresome and I’m not interested” and reading it as “OMG I’m boycotting this conference.”

    A non-diverse speaker lineup is boring to a lot of people, and an indication of a culture people are tired of.

  • Lukas

    I think Rebecca is right. There are plenty of women who could speak at tech conferences. There are whole websites devoted to listing them. Boycotting conferences that ignore women is a good thing, since it alerts these conferences to the fact that they’re doing something wrong (something they might not even consciously realize), and that their behavior isn’t going unnoticed.

    Brittany is also suggesting good approaches, but I think her suggestions don’t solve the actual problem. The actual problem here isn’t that there are no qualified women, it’s that they don’t get invited.

  • The issue here is the attempt to overcome the clubby behavior of a male-dominated culture that either (a) has the blinders of a privileged class unable to appreciate what being excluded from access to professional circles feels like (“Problem? What problem? All my techbros are here!”) or (b) has the sheltered presumption of full awareness of a situation (“There are no qualified women out there. I called and asked every techbro on my list.”).

    This is a lot of foolishness to overcome. There’s likely more than one way to do it.

    And, hey. Here are indeed two of those ways. Perhaps best suited for slightly different situations, but certainly not mutually exclusive.

    In attempting to not antagonize anyone, Tarvin talks about “fairness,” perhaps extending more tolerance and understanding towards the perpetrators of this problem than they possibly deserve. Her caution is understandable, given the degree of threatened-male idiot backlash we often seen when this issue is discussed.