Playing in your walled wurstgarten

Earlier this week, after my post about mesh‘s lack of visible reasons for a having a bunch of white guys as their keynote speakers, I had a conversation with Mark Evans, one of the mesh organizers. Based on this chat, my assessment is that the mesh organizers exhibit little or no commitment to diversity, and Mark’s stated reasons for no women keynotes are even less compelling than the ones that I wrote in parody. He said:

  • But the high-tech industry *is* a bunch of white guys. [Do you know how smug and stupid that sounds when you tell me, a woman in the high-tech industry, that the industry *is* a bunch of white guys, as if I didn’t exist?]
  • We tried! We really tried! [uh huh]
  • Will we try harder next year? Definitely! [Did I make this blog post last year? Definitely! Will I be repeating this blog post next year? Definitely!]
  • I have a lot of things going on right now, running a startup, organizing a conference. Have you ever organized a conference? Do you know how hard it is? [Oh, puh-leeze, enough with the patronizing “I’m busier/more important than you are” crap. If you couldn’t do a decent job, why did you take it on?]
  • Can you suggest any women speakers? [It’s the organizers’ responsibility to find the speakers, and maybe if you’d opened up a call for speakers, you’d get outside your walled wurstgarten — there’s a pretty direct connection from the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” message of your Contact page to the homogeneity of your keynote speakers, drawn from your circle of friends and their friends. Or if you looked at any one of the lists of women speakers on the web that have been developed in response to exactly this issue in the past. Or if you looked at my profile as a speaker, I’m even local.]
  • Can you suggest any topics? [What, like “breastfeeding 2.0”? Women in technology talk about the same things that men in technology do, we don’t need special tracks or topics. We just bring some different perspectives to the table.]

He ended up with “thanks for your feedback, stay tuned and I think that you’ll really like what we have to offer.” Hmm, do I detect a dismissal?

This is such a perfect echo of past conversations on reasons why white guys choose only white guys as speakers as tech conferences. Lots of people are seeing the problem, and trying to do something about it. Just not the group of white guys who are organizing mesh.

By the way, today is International Women’s Day. Do your part by sending the mesh organizers a suggestion for a woman speaker, or post it here in the comments. Or better yet, if you know someone at any of the mesh sponsors, have them do it.

Out come the long knives

Yesterday, in frustration at a post that I read by one of the mesh conference organizers explaining why they were yet another tech conference with no women keynote speakers, I wrote a post that parodied their unnamed reasons for this. I didn’t give a lot of background to this in the post, but it’s key to note the instructions on the mesh contact page:

mesh isn’t your typical pitch-us-a-speaker type of event (sorry, PR folks). We look for people we would like to hear from — and think you would like to hear from — and then we ask them to participate.

In other words, don’t call us, we’ll call you; and since we already have our clique lined up, don’t hold your breath. In spite of those instructions, I emailed one of the organizers about the potential for participating, with no response; it took my post yesterday to even get them to engage in a conversation.

I was a little surprised by Leesa’s reaction to my post, which was (to paraphrase):

  • Total eye-rolling exasperation that I would even raise this subject.
  • The topic that I suggested for mesh was lame.
  • My idea was ignored because I didn’t email to enough of the conference organizers.
  • It’s women’s fault that we’re not being invited to be speakers.
  • I’m just a big ol’ whiny complainer.

I raised the subject because it’s still an issue, and I’m not the only one noticing that there needs to be more diversity (I’m focussed on gender diversity, but obviously there’s other underrepresented groups as well) in conference speakers. I go to a lot of technology conferences each year — usually on my own nickel — and I speak at a few of them. I have a widely-read blog in my area of technology (business process management and Enterprise 2.0) that enables much of this by providing the opening for the conversation, as well as presenting my ideas in a public forum. I host online webinars and panels, including one this Tuesday on BPM and Enterprise 2.0. In other words, I’m not sitting around waiting for someone to call me, I’m out there calling (or emailing) them, and it’s having results for me.

In other words, I’m not pissed off because I’m personally not speaking at mesh (although I’d love to talk about Enterprise 2.0), I’m pissed off because even though the mesh organizers assured us that they were the experts at finding us people who we want to hear from, they couldn’t find a single woman keynote speaker. I’m not holding out a lot of hope for the rest of the roster, whenever it’s announced.

Elisa Camahort (of BlogHer) recently recapped the issues, pointing out the advantage of diversity amongst the speakers, and puts the onus on the conference organizers to make sure that that diversity exists: conference organizers become shapers of our industry based on their selection process, and have a responsibility to do it right.

mesh: a conference by, for and featuring white men

Last year, there was a certain amount of noise about the fact that the mesh organizers managed to find only a tiny number of women speakers — 6 out of 50, or some such ridiculous ratio — and this year is not shaping up to be any better, with exactly zero women keynote speakers. It appears, however, that they’re trying to head off the protests via a somewhat disingenuous post on Mark Evans’ blog:

The truth is we wanted women keynotes, spent a lot of time compiling a list of excellent candidates and tried to make it happen. But, for a variety of reasons, we couldn’t make it work.

Yeah, those reasons being:

  1. If we talk to them, we might get cooties.
  2. The strippers women who we usually hang out with don’t meet the requirements.
  3. None of them would agree to get the coffee and take notes.
  4. The only ones that we could find didn’t have good enough tits.
  5. We didn’t think that their husbands would let them attend.
  6. What do women know about technology, anyway?

Feminist nightmares

Do you ever wake up from a nightmare about speaking in public where you’re naked and everyone is laughing at you? I understand that’s a popular one, but not one that visits me: I’m pretty comfortable with public speaking. However, I woke a few weeks ago from the feminist version of that nightmare: in my dream, I was at a technical conference and was trying to show some of the work that I had done, but was told that it wasn’t worth anything because I’m a woman.

In my mid-40’s, having spent the past 30 years facing down the boys in shop class at high school, then the ones in engineering school at university, then all the ones that I’ve encountered in the marketplace as a female engineer, you’d think that I’d be immune to this particular nightmare by now. Indeed, many younger women believe — foolishly — that there is no more sexism in the business world today. In fact, three days ago I heard a 16-year-old girl at BlogHer who is in an advanced math and science program say that she was accused of having her boyfriend doing her math homework when she received top marks.

My nightmare was undoubtedly triggered by an event the night before the dream: I was at the board meeting of a volunteer organization, and we were discussing new board members. I had put forward the name of a woman who would be great at helping to organize our events, which everyone was in agreement with, and there were two men put forward for positions including that of our retiring board secretary. One of our older board members (a man) said “Oh, I think that [new woman candidate] would make a much better secretary”, making it clear that he believed that secretaries should be women. I accused him outright of gender bias, one of the other board members jumped to my defence, and the issue was closed but left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another event that happened recently was at the Mesh conference in Toronto where Tara Hunt, previously living in Toronto but now in California, was to deliver a keynote address. The man who introduced her made a point of her moving from Toronto, then said “well, she has a boyfriend in California now, so I guess that she’s not coming back.” I was speechless at his assumption that her relationship was the thing keeping her down there, when she also has an exciting job which is the reason that she went there in the first place. At that same conference, once of the women volunteers organizing the event admitted to me later that at the networking cocktail party, one man spent a good deal of time hitting on her: seeing her only as a sexual object, not as a potential business networking contact. This is the enlightened mindset of today’s technologists?

Then, about a week later, I was at the BPM Think Tank in the U.S. where the format was a number of small roundtable discussions, each led by one person who could appoint a scribe for the session to take notes. At the first one, I sat down at a table of all men, and after the table leader didn’t get a volunteer to be scribe, he turned to me and said “Would you be the scribe? It’s just easier that way.” I accused him outright of gender bias, which he didn’t deny; I did act as scribe for the session but made it very clear to him that his policy of just picking the woman at the table to take notes was completely unacceptable.

Is there a moral to my rant, or even a point? Not really, or maybe just the obvious point that equality between the sexes in North America has not yet been achieved. It makes me feel a bit tired to say that; sure, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.