June 02, 2005

The Heterogeneity Issue, Part II: Working Inside or Out

After my first post on this topic, regarding Poptech!, the subject noted there as having a conversation with me about women speakers at conferences, talked again with me about our conversation. That conversation, as I discussed it there, and as we had it originally, was very short, and not terribly nuanced. But I wanted to point it out in the post not because of him or what he really thinks about these topics or diversity and other voices, but because I felt that it represented the short attention many people give to the subject of having other voices join in at some institution or event. I think often this is all the attention people give to the subject, and so the conversation was applicable in that way.

This all may sound cryptic, but let me explain.

The original conversation was short, and simply noted his thought that he saw people complaining about a lack of diverse voice at Poptech! and elsewhere, and thought those people who complained should consider making their own venue to show what they felt was missing. Having discussed it quite a bit more recently, he's noted that this isn't a simple statement, but that he's always felt, with technology development, with social issues, with large and powerful companies and institutions, that effecting change that really mattered was best done from the outside.. rather than working from the inside. He has often done outsider disruption and development, and felt this was a reasonable response. And so the remarks, while short, really had a lot behind them. They were loaded with his experiences of being a disrupter himself, and he thinks that people who want change should do the same: work from the outside to make change happen.

I think the issues are more subtle, and considering that we are talking about women speaking, require some analysis of the dynamics of women and men and conferences.

First, men tend to ask to speak, whereas women don't call conference organizers to ask for a speaking spot. Combined with the lack of thought about who speakers are on many organizer's part, beyond who they see already speaking at events (who tend to be white males), the result is that mostly white men are signed up or asked to speak by the organizers of events. This happens unless they break through their own frames and references about who spoke at past event to actively seek other, different speakers.

Also, women speakers are fewer in overall number, at least in technology fields, and with family and other demands, even when going for those speakers, it's harder to get them than with male speaker who will show up for the conference or speaking engagement regardless of other obligations. However, my experience in organizing a conference was that men who volunteered or we asked, would mention family or other work constraints but they would shift them for the opportunity to speak.

And if there are submissions or requests involved for the conference, women will also not necessarily feel invited to submit or participate in a paper or research demonstration, whereas men almost always feel they can submit or participate.

Additionally, if working from the outside, in this case, means creating a whole new conference, as the person noted in the earlier post suggested, there is a huge undertaking and commitment there. It may be that this is the best ways to effect change, but can most people do it? Is there room for another conference, will people attend yet another conference, will the organizers be able to finance the first conference and want to take on that risk, is it realistic to apply what might be called hacker ethics around technology (roll your own or DIY or just, hack up some new code over the weekend) to those who might make change in conference diversity by making a new conference?

I think making change from the outside is an option, and certainly, Blogher is an attempt to do this. Blogher is finding lots and lots of different speakers, but also, it's not an established conference, and the topic is centered around online communications and blogging, which is less broad than say, Poptech or Web2.0, which focus on the much larger scope of technology, development and cultural trends, as well as their own individual twists of theme. The result for Blogher is that it's attracting people interested in blogging, as it should, not focusing on these larger themes. Therefore, it's not much competition for Poptech or Web2.0.

It's an extreme undertaking, making a new conference, and not many people have the skills or know how, or for that matter, can set aside everything else they are doing for a couple of months, to make one. It is, in effect, making a new business, and very few people want to take that on, even if it does mean effecting change in ways they think should happen.

Instead, it may be more realistic for us to consider speakers with other backgrounds at existing events.. to leverage what has already been created.

Posted by Mary Hodder at June 2, 2005 06:53 AM | TrackBack