The gender of conference speakers

It must be conference season because Anil is stirring the pot on the old “why aren’t there more female speakers?” debate. I guess I have something to say about this, or at least some mixed feelings to put out there.

First off, I gotta call bullshit on some people — many of whom I respect and like. With one exception, technical (or tech-biz) conference organizers do NOTHING proactive to seek out or push for female speakers — and I wish they would just stop claiming that they do. I am a long-time LAMP dev and author, a founding member of Dojo, leader of a Comet project, a proven scaler of graph-based systems, CTO of a venture-backed Web 2.0 company, vocal proponent of women in tech, experienced speaker at technical conferences, and friends with many of the people who program talks, panels, and tracks. If I’m not being proactively sought out to speak, I can be confident few other women are either. The sole exception — the only conference organizers who make it clear that diversity is a priority by saying, “You need more women on your panel if you hope to get accepted” — is SXSW.

That said… whose responsibility is it to ensure there are plenty of female speakers? If I don’t submit a proposal by the deadline, is it the conference organizers’ job to send me email asking for one? That’s absurd and paternalistic. What I would love though is to see the raw data on how many conference proposals were submitted by women, and what the acceptance rates were, and ideally the comments pro and con. For all we know, it’s literally true that any woman who sends in a proposal will be accepted — and then we’d all have to accept that the problem is on the pipeline side, not the conference side. On the other hand, it’s possible that the data would show that female speakers get disproportionately rejected as speakers at tech conferences. Carson and O’Reilly, if you’re sick of being castigated — will you release the (anonymized) data so we can see for ourselves?

As a conference consumer, I can tell you that I’m only going to two this year: SXSW and OSCON. However, these two conferences illustrate the power or the limits of Anil’s argument. SXSW is the best party and the most possibility-expanding — and it’s totally due to diversity of the speakers and attendees! An idea-sparking conference really benefits from diversity — Etech and Web 2.0 in particular need some color, they seem like the same damn conference every year and not in a good way. But my favorite conference of all is OSCON, which is admittedly the least diverse conference evar. This is where I’d love to see whether Anil’s thoughts would work out in practice. Would a more diverse speaker lineup or track set lead to increased business? It’s hard to say in one year because these things are arranged in advance — if OSCON suddenly had 50% bigger demand due to diversity, they wouldn’t necessarily even be able to accomodate everyone — but it would be awesome to know.

Truly social profiles

One of the oddities about social networking profiles is that they’ve never been all that… you know, social. They seem to be less about actual fellowship and good times, more about creating a persona — projecting an image of who you’d LIKE to be to people who don’t know you very well. That aspect of the web actually sort of creeps me out.

I always thought it would be cooler to get your actual friends to reveal stuff about you — and call bullshit on you if necessary. Not only would it be less trite, but you might actually end up getting some fresh insight into yourself and why people like you. So I invite you to answer the question of the week on my public profile (hint: invite me to something using Renkoo) — and if we’re friends, check your profile cause I might have left you an answer already :-).

King’s Academy

Big ups to my brother, who will be a founding member of the faculty at King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan! It’s such a rare opportunity to get involved in a brand-new educational institution from the ground up, particularly a school with a mission as ambitious and important as this one… should be very exciting to watch. I’ll encourage him to blog about it, of course ;-)… and now I have a great excuse to visit Jordan.