Tuesday, October 10, 2006

It's only fair to pick on the big dogs too

A couple of months ago, the blogosphere put Ismael Ghalini, organizer of the Office 2.0 Conference, through the wringer for having the biggest gender-diversity blind spot ever, posting an initial speaker list featuring 52 men and 1 woman. The rest is history, as Ismael asked for and received much assistance, including from me, to add more than a dozen more women to his speaking roster.

(If you're really interested, my posts chronicling this saga and pointing to the others in the discussion are here, here, and don't miss this one here, and a link to one white man's thoughts here.)

It was rightly pointed out at the time that this was hardly the only conference out there with an unbalanced roster. And the usual debates roared, including the usual argument that these were "tech" conferences ,and that this was a larger problem in "tech." Now, I would happily argue this point, because half of the participants are not hands-on developers at any of these events, but "business" folks or analysts or other pundits who aren't really tech gods themselves. But I digress.

My point is that if we're going to point out the failings of a guy putting on his first conference in a somewhat niche-y part of the world of web technology, then we should give equal scrutiny to a very prominent organization who is putting on a conference in a broad subject range that I would even submit is highly populated with women: and I'm talking about AlwaysOn's OnMedia Conference, which is focused on Advertising, Marketing, Branding and Media...not an industry that suffers from a dearth of women

Yet you can find OnMedia's speaker list here, and I've spared you the time and done the counting. I may be missing a gender-neutral name or two, but I count 3 out of about 60. If I review their schedule I can't comment on some of the sessions, but I can certainly know female VCs in this space, female analysts in this space, female journalists in this space, female "power bloggers", female marketers who are actually hands-on working in the blog space with bloggers every day, senior females at ad and PR agencies who are trying to extend their brand into the world of blogs and other consumer-generated media sites.

Of course this isn't new. (Read BlogHer partner Lisa Stone's post about the 2005 AlwaysOn conference roster here.)

Some organizers try to expand and improve their offerings year over year. The example of SXSW Interactive is well-known. SXSW doubled their number of women speakers to about 100 last year, which brought the ratio to about 33%. We're even bringing a BlogHer workshop to the Web 2.0 Conference, which should about double the number of women speakers...seriously. A quick look at Web 2.0's speaker roster shows 9 out of 69 women (or 13%), if you count the two out of five BlogHer workshop participants who have yet to be added to the list. [I found this list from last year, which reflected 6.5% women speakers.]

But some organizers think they're doing fine as is. And indeed perhaps this will be a highly successful event, I don't know. If it is, I'm going to bet that the paying attendees will be highly male-dominated too. I know plenty of women, me included, who see a homogenous speaker list, sigh, and simply stay home, saving the money and aggravation of being talked at by the same cast of characters. Not just the same as in same gender or color or whatever, but same as in, oh my God, haven't these people spoken at 4 dozen conferences already this year?!

Given the number of women in PR, advertising, marketing and media, that seems like a lost opportunity, a missed boat. Maybe, however, not a missed boat for revenues...and maybe that's all that really matters.

I guess more men have to realize that they too will gain value from a more diverse speaking roster, and they too can make the economic choice to spend their money on conferences that will deliver that. Then, perhaps, revenues will fall short. And then perhaps some organizers who don't currently care, will start to care.

PS-Completely coincidentally, Deb Roby's latest article over at BlogHer showed up in my RSS reader while writing this post...Where are all the creative women, and why don't they speak?. So, it's not just tech. As I always say: the original BlogHer wasn't born purely out of the "where are the women bloggers?" question. Back in early 2005 there were more far-reaching questions being asked. Like "where are the women on op-ed pages?" and "where are the women on Sunday morning talk shows?" and "where are the women in Fortune 500 boardrooms?" and "where are the women in doctoral programs or tenured professorships." Deb closes with this:
"This sounds like the emotions and call to action occurring just over two years ago that lead to the creation of BlogHer. Do creative women need to take the step of forming CreateHer... or can the public discussions like this one work as a call to action to conference organizers without a formalized organization to push the issue? From Tokien's responses, I do not have confidence."

I guess my response is why Either/Or? I think we have to keep doing both.

Hence this post. You gotta pick on the big dogs too.

You aren't kidding about the lack of diversity being a turn-off. I look at that roster and I'm not excited by the fresh, new, interesting compelling voices and topics - it's the same boys club, echo chamber clique talking to themselves. Seriously - that "power blogger" panel is just ridiculously tired and played out.

As an "executive" involved with media, advertising and branding I am underwhelmed and if I were still in a traditional, Fortune 500 non-tech industry, that roster would be less than meaningless to me.

However, as most of these events are, even if it is less than useful as a learning event, it should be fabulous as a power schmoozing event for that particular crowd (as represented by the speakers.) Perhaps some ambitious outsiders might want to crash the schmoozy part but for me, meh, I'll just stay home.

One of the brilliant things about BlogHer is the new voices from event to event, actual worthwhile sessions and reasonable pricing - what a concept.
What's most interesting about that is that it's almost identical to the Ajax Experience speaker list count. I've tried to talk to them about the issue (before the event occurs) and have been told that since they have an "open" process for speakers, there's nothing else that needs to be done... maybe the "others aren't producing good enough quality content to be included?" they seem to imply... which, as we know, is horseshit.

But to see a similar problem in a community that actually is traditionally more diverse means that this problem is endemic and not just something that's amiss in the tech scene.

The answers to the matter are diffuse and hard-won, but I do think that spreading real responsibility is important, as is eternal vigilance.

I would hope that we don't have to move to a world where each gender and ethnicity has to run their own conference because of the exclusive practices of a majority gender or ethnicity... but certainly recent history suggests that things are getting quite a bit worse before they get better.
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