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The Fallacy Of Equality At Conferences

posted on 27th Apr 2011

I often like reading "translation" posts, where someone takes what someone said and puts it into the terms everyone was thinking. I also like reading posts regarding the problem of equality and representation of people at conference and the lack of people who aren't straight, white men in the community, and how we can possibly solve it. I also have a lot of respect for Faruk Ates (@KuraFire on Twitter). So it was a dissapointment this morning to read a "translation" style post by Faruk this morning on the topic of how to increase the participation of minorities at tech and design conferences, which I almost entirely disagreed with and considered crass and unhelpful.

For those who can't be bothered clicking the link (though I strongly recommend you do), here's a brief overview. Apparently a big discussion took place last night on Twitter between Mike Monteiro and some others. Apparently Mike stated that conferences that have only white, male speakers is unacceptable and they MUST have female and black speakers. There was some back and forth on Twitter and then some people wrote some blog posts. Faruk took it upon himself to "translate" these posts, but sadly he seemed to completely miss the mark on many of the quotes.

NB: Some of the thoughts I expressed in this post have since changed, but I'm leaving it up in its entirety if only so I can occasional look back and see how my thinking has changed since I wrote it.

Now there was some silly things said by the people he was quoting. For example

Are you retarded? How many black swimmers do you know? How many white 100m sprint runners? How many female fighter pilots?

While at first glance it's a reasonable point, it ends up being worth remembering two things. The lack of female fighter pilots is likely influenced by discrimination against women, both preventing those who do serve and putting off those who may want to. So not really equivalent to conferences. And the swimmers vs sprinters argument. That is down to biology. Last time I checked the reason was that this was all down to bone density, apparently black people have lower bone density than white people. Lower bone density is an advantage for running but a disadvantage for swimming, which is why you see white people dominate swimming and black people dominate running. (UPDATED: While I've not see stuff to disprove this, in the time since writing this post I have seen evidence that it is more down to culture than biology, though not necessarily discrimination. Regardless, the point still stands that the above quote was misguided). But again, I've seen nothing suggesting that the biology of someone would affect their ability to speak at a conference, just because of their gender, race or sexuality.

Now I'll briefly like to focus on what Faruk said. As I've previously stated, I respect him. But in this post he is not arguing about equality, no matter how much he may like to try and make it seem that way. He's simply arguing for a different form of discrimination that is more preferable to his world view. Whenever one of the people he quotes talks about equality and choosing people based on talent, he is quick to throw out the racism or sexism cards. This is a shame.

Quality Or False Equality

To deny there's a problem is crazy. There are too few non-straight, white, male speakers at conferences. This is something that needs addressing so there are more role models for people and so we can increase participation. But there is another problem. Too many people are look in the wrong places or assuming evil where there is none.

Let us get some facts straight. Women are a minority in our community. Black people are a minority in our community. Gay people are a minority in our community. Now within every group there will be a subset of people who are both good at and want to speak at conferences. And on that subset there is another subset of people who are available to talk at Conference X due to time constraints, location etc. This means there is a smallish pool of speakers and given how many conferences there are they are in high demand.

So that's a good thing, we want high quality speakers. But the problem is that, as there is nothing to really say that one group is better than another at speaking, this means that the pool of good, willing speakers has likely the same makeup as the community at large. Now everyone is trying to get the minority groups to speak at their conference as they're wanting to try and solve this issue. The problem is they can't be at every conference, even if they went full time. This means that a conference organiser may be faced with two choices:

  1. Go to the larger pool of good, willing speakers who happen to be straight, white and male
  2. Go to the larger pool of bad or unwilling speakers who happen to be of a minority group

So your choice is, pick someone because they have a different colour of skin or because they have a vagina, or pick someone because they are the best person for the job. So what do you want, quality or a false sense of equality? Personally I would prefer quality.

This all reminds me of a quote from The West Wing. C.J. is asked why she doesn't agree with positive discrimination and gives the following quote:

After my father fought in Korea, he became what this government begs every college graduate to become. He became a teacher. And he raised a family on a teacher's salary, and he paid his taxes and always crossed at the green. And any time there was opportunity for career advancement, it took him an extra five years because invariably there was a less qualified black woman in the picture. So instead of retiring as superintendent of the Ohio Valley Union Free School District, he retired head of the math department at William Henry Harrison Junior High.

Discriminating against someone based on their race, gender, sexuality etc is wrong, be it positive of negative for them. One could argue that the reason straight, white, males have so much power isn't because of negative discrimination against others, but positive discrimination towards straight, white, males. Discrimination based on what you are always causes resentment with others and can cause unease with you. If a female dev gets a speaker role simply because she's a woman, then more capable male speakers will likely resent that person. She's there because her reproductive organs are on the inside. Likewise the female speaker may feel unease at her capabilities. Is she really capable enough or is she there just because she's a woman?

Don't Treat The Symptoms, Treat The Cause

The lack of minority speakers at conferences isn't the cause for the fact that these groups are minorities. There is a lot of emphasis put on it though as being something we must solve. Personally I don't think we should put quite as much effort into it. As long as conference organisers are contacting these minorities groups as much as the majority group, and are asking them because they believe them to be high quality speakers, then that's fine. If all the minority speakers they contact can't do it but they find enough white, male speakers who can then great, you've got a conference with N high quality speakers.

Claiming that you cannot have conferences where all the speakers are white men is incredibly impractical. I mean to get that enforced you'd need to either say that any woman, black person or gay person who is asked to speak at a conference MUST accept, or to say that any conference that doesn't have at least one of those cannot go on. Why ruin something for a large group of people simply because those on some self righteous guilt trip can't be satisfied with the reality of the situation and don't want to tackle the real problems.

We need to treat the cause of the problem. All groups are equally good at speaking, so the only way to increase the numbers of the speakers in minority groups is to increase the number of community members in those minority groups. We should be trying to get more female, black, gay etc developers and designers. When we have more of them we have more chance of finding good, willing speakers in those groups and so will increase the amount of speaker slots filled by them.

The fact is that conferences don't really inspire people to get into this industry. They may influence a few people but you often don't learn about conferences until you're already part of the community. What gets people interested is the stuff outside of conferences. First and foremost parents help. If my dad hadn't brought home a computer when I was 3 and let me play with it I would not be where I am today. They also bought me a lot of the greatest toy ever made for inspiring creativity: Lego. We already know that toys help children learn. There is also evidence that the bias in toys between girls and boys affects their outlooks on life. I mean what are the bulk of toys for girls? Baby dolls, toy cookers, toy cleaners etc. Is it any surprise people grow up and inherently assume women will be the child carer, chef and cleaner?

We also need to get into schools. Go and speak in a school and open their minds to the possibilities of being a developer or a designer while they are young. If you can get them interested they'll start looking into stuff on their own. Show them how cool and interesting what we do is and show them how to get started and where to look.

Make sure to write blog posts and guides and offer help to those who ask for it. Maybe take someone under your wing and mentor them. Just as much as you want to give to the community, give to those outside of the community who may want in. It is thanks to the help and recommendations of several people down the line that led me to where I am now. They got me interested in Mac dev and the possibility of going to university to do Computer Science. That got me to choose what A levels I would take and helped me get round to starting my company and selling software.

And finally, build cool stuff. Make beautiful, spectacular and amazing applications and website and designs or whatever it is you make. And then show people how you made them. I put my interest in creating apps down to two pieces of software that came with a Performa 5200 my family got when I was 7: Myst and ConcertWare. These two apps were eye openers for me. And best of all, Myst came with a making of, so I could see how they did it and I could try and do it myself. Down the line I started going to the library and looking at programming books and everything spiraled from there.

The fact is, it is a shame that there aren't more female, black, gay, etc speakers at conferences. It's also a shame there aren't more attendees of those groups at conferences. And that there aren't more bloggers of those groups in the community. And that there just aren't more devs and designers of those groups in the community. But these are all ultimately symptoms. We can try to treat them all we like but we'll still be stuck where we are now. We need to attack the cause. I can tell you one thing for certain: there will be more people of all backgrounds inspired to join our community due to things like Facebook, Twitter and the App Store than there ever has been due to a conference.

If you would like to send me a comment on this post, send an email to pilky@mcubedsw.com. Alternatively send a tweet to @pilky.