Friday, September 01, 2006

Conference organizers make my head explode

Here we go again.

Yesterday I came across this post by Matt Homann, a 2005 BlogHer attendee. I followed his links to the speaking roster for the Office 2.0 Conference and my jaw dropped. It's not like this was a small list of speakers with only a couple of women. This is multiple dozens of speakers (I believe there are over 50 total) with one, count 'em one, woman speaker. (And I hasten to add there's little of any kind of diversity.)

Jeneane points this out on Stowe's blog. Tara writes a post on it too. And in each case the organizer, Ismael Ghalimi, who I do not personally know, comments and says, at least on Stowe's post:

"Good point. We would love to have more female speakers at the event. Any suggestions for candidates?"

Says something similar on Tara's too.

To which I simply must call BS. This sounds like damage control and lip service.

I'm really not saying that anyone here is consciously evil or sexist or racist. But don't take the people pointing out the issue for idiots. This event has likely been months in the planning. It is a mere six weeks away from the event. It takes time to secure all those speakers. It takes time to gather all their bios, photos and the like and get them up on a web site.

If indeed any organizer would "love to have more women speakers", then they have to get some. You could have even talked to some of the men on your speaking roster for referrals, for example...most of them know a fine woman speaker or two, I'd wager. You could have even Googled woman speakers and gotten a start.

I'm not saying organizers that end up with very few women actively didn't "love to have more women speakers." Not at all. I'm guessing it simply never occurred to them to care enough. It wasn't on the radar screen enough.

Or, they didn't feel they had the time to make a "special effort" to look outside their own first or second circle of colleagues to find new voices. And they also didn't expect that the lack of diversity would negatively impact their registration enough to make the time.

Or, they thought there would be something wrong with simply saying out loud to anyone that they needed to diversify, and could they point them in the direction of great women speakers, or speakers of color or whatever. Because saying out loud then does put the pressure on.

I just want folks to own "it", whatever "it" is. It's like Susan Getgood says: (paraphrasing) it does no good to sweep this casual or unconscious exclusionary result under the rug. Look at it. Shake things up. Explore whatever led to such a horrible result and most of all: only say you'll do better if you really are going to change whatever process led to the horrible result. Because now there are people who will be watching. Deb Landa posted in June asking for women speakers. She got tons of suggestions. If I had time I'd go check out her current events and see if she used any of them. Maybe I will. She kinda put herself on the future spot there, didn't she?

Just please don't expect people to jump through hoops now to solve your problem and make you look better. I mean I'm all for people speaking up and putting themselves forward for opportunities. But I have written my feelings on this many many times, like:

-It's the conference organizer's job to secure a diverse set of quality speakers, not prospective attendees or even prospective speakers.

-I don't spend my money to attend events where so little effort has been made.

-I think we all should put our conference-attending money where our mouths are.

-It's about prioritizing diversity and most organizers simply don't prioritize it enough.

I'd like to close by saying that I say all this knowing it's not always a piece of cake. For example, this year before BlogHer I had to approach some colleagues and admit I didn't feel I knew enough women bloggers of color and could they point me to some more. You think that's fun? You think I felt good about myself saying that? Too bad for me.

I'd also like to say that there are organizers who are doing better. There is progress being made. And this happens when they think about diversity in the early planning stages, months in advance, and reach out to the many loud voices clamoring for diversity and ask for their help then. Progress does not happen at the last minute to avoid embarrassment or bad P.R.

Listening to the voices of the blogosphere is a start. Chiming in to conversations that are critical is a worthy endeavor. I would take this conversation and the people having it a little more seriously, that's all.


I'm really sorry you feel that way. Our invitation for more diversity in our speaker panel is genuine. The orgainization of this conference literally started less than two months ago. While the first post on it was made back in May, we decided to go for it only back in July, as announced on this post. Two weeks ago, we had less than 10 speakers. We then released the website for the conference, and candidate speakers offered their help, proactively. We went from 10 to 35 registered speakers in three days. The demographics of our speaker panel have nothing to do with our personal desires to promote one particular group versus another. So again, we would like to invite you to help us make this event the best gathering it could be. We still have room for speakers, and will do our best to build the most representative panel of speakers we possibly can.

Best regards
Ismael: I certainly appreciate that you are willing to actively engage on this topic now that it's come up.

I think there are now at least 3 posts listing sources for women speakers. (The Head Lemur and Tara Hunt being two I can think of off the top of my head.) And some of the links in my post as well. So go check the suggestions out and act on it. That's the assistance you were asking for. Asking for anything more is an abdication of your responsibility as conference organizer.

But my point is this: next time I hope when you're working on your programming/speakers you never get to a point where you publish a list of 50 men and 1 woman, and someone else has to tell you that's a bad thing that you should proactively fix.

As I stated in my linked post above about what a conference organizer's job is, I continue to maintain that a simple, public call for speakers is not enough.
Elisa, I have met Ismael once but we are part of a bloggers group. I have been amazed what he (and us helping him) have virally managed to pull together in speakers for him in 3 weeks as he says. At least 20 of us gave him suggestions and introductions so i guess we share the blame for not bringing enough female candidates to the fore.

We talk about boring enterprise software stuff in our blogger group. We may be boring, but not sexist. I proudly write about my 15 year old daughter's chess tounaments on my blog.

Let me share my experience on my blog. I invite bi-weekly guest columns on my blog - especially non-bloggers I respect to give them a chance to blog. I have invited 10 female friends. 2 have posted so far. I realize the others are busy, but looking at my blog you would wonder why the lop sidedness.

Blogging and other social networking tools are such a wonderful gift to us - they should trascend so many historical barriers. I love the fact that I get emails from my blog readers in Argentina and India and Israel. If we can break that barrier, shame on us all if we cannot communicate more locally across sexual, racial lines...cheers...
Vinnie: thanks for the comment. Your last paragraph says it all. We have an amazing opportunity with today's technological tools to reach across social lines of all sorts.

When I think of the size of my personal network today vs. 10 years ago, it boggles the mind.

But, it's still probably a conscious decision that drives us to expand our reach across lines that we don't cross in meatspace.

Public debates like this one can raise our consciousness if we're willing to let them.
How about checking facts before bad mouthing people? But then the 'string 'em up and ask questions later crowd' rarely let facts get in the way of a good rant - do they?
Anonymous: how about citing a single thing that I stated as fact and got wrong? I believe that's what someone on their high horse about "string 'em up and ask questions later" might do to avoid a pot calling the kettle black situation.

Oh, and you and I both know you can't count all the statements I make that I refer to as my guesses, or inferences, or assumptions or speculation...because right there: I'm admitting when something is my drawn conclusion or opinion not empirical fact.

But I've reviewed the timeline available via this specific event's blog and web site and think it's clear that there was time and opportunity to do something about the speaker roster, and the organizer himself isn't trying to do anything but apologize, say he was the victim of his own blind spot and ask for help to do better.
"victim of his own blind spot" is a very good way of putting it, Elisa.

I've been attending more journalism-oriented conferences lately, and find a similar problem--mostly males. It's even funnier that many of them who want to talk blogging and citizen journalism have an amazingly limited understanding of both...

but, aside from that, most of the ones who show up constitute their own little clique. At one conference, I was with a bunch of citizen journalists, and a particular journalist, who's always shooting his mouth off about citizen journalists, whom I know, didn't even bother to meet any of the citizens. I was flabbergasted, but not really surprised. It's so bloody easy to just gladhand the folks you know, rather than go out of your way and meet those you don't...

however, I also think that women need to be much, much louder about blowing their own horns and getting the attention of conference organizers. Groups such as the ones organized by y'all at BlogHer work well for putting pressure on (or bringing to the attention of organizers)to get more women speakers (without y'all I think there'd be less women at events than there already are), but we need to take some cues from the men and, in some ways, be more pushy. Yes, we'll hear the "pushy obnoxious bitch" comments, but if we've got the chops to back up our pushyness, it'll come thru.
Hi Tish: Oh yes, I'm all for self-promotion and going out and getting what you want. Absolutely. That is definitely one part of the complicated equation.
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