Connecting Diversity

Looking outside of self

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Dori Smith writes about putting together conference panels made up exclusively of women.

Coming up with panelists for SxSW was easy. As Shelley gave away a few days ago, she, Kathy Sierra, Virginia DeBolt and I are going to be on a panel together, and I think it’s going to be a blast. I asked three women, they all said yes, and life’s been easy.

But I also agreed to come up with one for Macworld Expo in SF in January, and that’s been a different thing entirely. I have asked probably a couple dozen women so far, and I’ve gotten one to say yes (after I twisted her arm). I’ve asked about 40 guys to send me their recommendations for women, or to pass along my search for same, and I’ve gotten nobody that’s willing to do it.

First of all, clarification: I ‘gave away’ the panel discussion at SxSW because I had an email from the organizer who said he was featuring our recent discussion about getting women into conferences on the front page of the conference weblog. (It was in the sidebar, which is not archived, so the entry has scrolled past.)

And to be honest, I had hesitated to speak on the panel at SxSW and there were a couple of reasons for the hesitation.

The first is that if I speak at a conference, my preference would be to speak on the topics covered in the conference, and my hope is that I’m asked because of my expertise on a subject (or interest in same). Because of this, I hesitate about speaking about women at a tech conference, the same as I hesitate on speaking about tech at a conference about women. However, this panel promises to be more than the usual, because those of us on it do disagree, even strongly, on many of the issues related to women in technology. This is not going to be what passes for a panel at too many tech conferences–where people use it as an opportunity for free marketing and nary a dissenting word is heard.

As to the second reason I hesitated: I don’t want it to ever seem that I’m fighting the battle for more representation of women in the tech community, as a way of advancing myself or my career. I have actually seen a person who has also fought this battle being accused directly of this. If we’re perceived as using this platform as a way of advancing our own careers, then we’ve lost credibility. For the little difference we’ve made at times, we have made a difference: small, but present. If we lose credibility, we’ll have lost even this difference.

As for the difficulty Dori is having getting women for her panel at the Mac Expo, I don’t know of many women or men heavily into either Mac development or administration to recommend anyone from either sex. I do know, though, that one instance of having difficulty getting women for a specific panel in a specific city (that is expensive to visit, and no costs are covered) should not be used to extrapolate to the whole. I myself an working with the folks at XML 2005 about expenses for giving the tutorial at Atlanta in November, and this is a very real issue for me.

In addition, not everyone is comfortable on a panel. A panel requires a certain mindset. Frankly, it also requires that a person be proficient at debate, and very comfortable being put into a position of having to defend a viewpoint in front of what could be a large audience. Panels are not for everyone: men or women.

As for women saying that they don’t feel qualified to participate, then it’s our job to help give women confidence in order to speak. This isn’t catering to some view that we have to provide a ‘nurturing’ environment just for women (though why having a nurturing environment is seen somehow as weak or deficient is a worthy topic for much debate); this is working to help women realize that for all the bluster and pontification that men do, they most likely don’t have any more of a clue then we do, ourselves. The men are just better at tossing around BS; oh, and believing it, too.

We have to make a decision not to adopt the persona of that which is acceptable in the tech community: the arrogance, the intolerance, the embrace of competition, and the disdain of being supportive. These personality traits are embedded and imbued throughout technology and engineering, like flecks of mica in granite, precisely because the field is so heavily dominated by men without the necessary balancing influence from the female side of the human race. In my opinion, it is this that led to the first dot-com, with such promises of fame and glory the technology couldn’t possibly support; it is this that is leading to this new dot-com explosion, with no doubt the attending failures and disappointments once the current round of buying has stopped, and the bill is presented.

I wrote a cryptic post this week and immediately pulled it (not realizing it was still in my syndication feed, which is statically generated). I wrote “I give up”. The reason for this is what I read in another post of a weblog of a woman who is a leader in the community of women in technology. She’s a person I had admired for years, even before I started weblogging.

This person (who I am not identifying for reasons I don’t want to get into) had been at an invite-only event lately that had very few women present but immediately, without any hesitation, absolved the organizers of their part in the lack of representation: hard to understand at a invite-only conference, especially one where women had asked to be part and been rejected. Instead, she focused on how we have to get more women in the field, which means more outreach for young girls.

What particularly disappointed me about the comment was the fact that she had completely ignored all that we’ve been trying to do to bring about change in the industry, in favor of an answer that absolved not only the organizers but the industry itself from complicity in the problem. From any woman in tech, it would be a disappointment; from a leader of women in tech, it was massively discouraging.

Let’s focus this discussion on matters of self interest for both women and men: providing opportunities for women in tech also provides opportunities for men. If women reject the 16 hour days, obsessively hunched over a computer, while competing constantly with your co-workers for the opportunity to be skate board down a hall for that free Red Bull, I can’t imagine that we are so different that most men wouldn’t want to reject this, too. Men have families as much as women; men have lives as much as women; and men have insecurities, doubts, and need to have support just as much as women.

(Not to mention that not all of us skateboard, like Red Bull, and walk around with cellphone stuck in one ear, iPod ear bud in the other.)

Ours is a particularly unhealthy industry; it would rather hire young men from other countries, or offshore work than adjust and adapt to a climate that is beginning to finally look at the greed of the few and the manufactured ‘need’ for gadgets and goods and perhaps decide that quality of life is really more important than fame and fortune. To make this environment healthy for women, I like to think I’m working to make this environment healthy, period.

There is a third reason I hesitated on the SxSW panel and that is because I’m fighting my own self-doubts about my value in this field. Does writing this make me seem to you to be weak and deficient? If so, then question why you feel this way, and the answer you’ll find is what I’m fighting.

I hope that Dori finds her members of the panel, but if she has problems, I’m not going to absolve the industry because of it and be willing to dump the problem on the women.


A sudden weight was felt in the room

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I find it, well, I have a hard time explaining the experience but I guess I’ll use ironic for now that it took a post by Anil Dash to push the issue of lack of diversity at O’Reilly conferences into the hot tech issues page. None of the other writings by women on this issue made it into the list.

I wrote a comment on Anil’s post; I find it unlikely it will be published.

Between the two, therein lies so much that is in my thoughts this week.