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Beyond Gender Diversity

Web Design • February 25th, 2007

The shiny stars of the web design blogosphere — and their loyal readership — are flaming with a heated discussion about the lack of diversity among speakers at web conferences. While some of the opinions touch on the wider meaning of “diversity”, most of the argument centers around the issue of gender diversity.

Kottke started the fire by sharing some statistics on the percentage of women speakers at recent web conferences. The post was received like a hard pinch on the butt by conference organizers, some of whom quickly began to reply. Eric Meyer among them, frames his response with a seemingly hot opinion: “I don’t care about [gender] diversity”, strongly supported by the argument that penis vs. vagina is not relevant to him when choosing speakers that fit the brand of his conference. He cares about expertise, presentation skills, professional stature, and marketability. A list anybody could understand when you’re told about the financial risk that conference organizers take on whenever they put together one of their big events.

From there, I heard men voicing “right on!” opinions along the lines of don’t you dare put on stage some mediocre woman just to push diversity. I also heard accomplished women beating their chest with don’t you dare give us any extra opportunities just because we are women. And then, there’s the argument that gender imbalance in speaker roles is justified by the existing imbalance in the industry. However, I don’t think that the web design industry is prominently masculine; only the group of visible players / celebrities… And does that really surprise anybody? I’m not being sarcastic.

I think the wisest opinion I’ve read on this matter comes from Jeremy Keith, among many arguments reminding all screamers that in this case, it’s not a question of balance between men and women. What’s desirable and valuable is a better balance between masculine and feminine. The quest for real, wider diversity is a worthy one. I’m not even talking about gender. I’m talking about the fact that the most memorable and inspiring panels I’ve attended at SXSWi were not those delivered by the same old people, on the same old topics. Instead, I was enlightened and filled with new ideas when I heard about topics I had never focused on before, from people I didn’t know anything about: men and women, young and old, designers and yoga teachers, human and virtual… I don’t go to SXSWi for yet one more session explaining why CSS-based design is good. I go there to get inspired and hear new things, get new perspectives… Be it from big names, or lesser known ones.

Maybe An Event Apart is not about that. If, as Mr. Meyer says, the main premise of such event is to “bring you the biggest names in the field of standards-oriented design”, he better stick to those bigger names and he better stay on the topic of standards-oriented design, and if I’m paying big bucks to see those bigger names (which I currently can’t afford), I better get them. In the end, not unlike any other business, web conferences need to differentiate themselves in order to compete. It’s also possible that An Event Apart may eventually change as its planners feel like the business is solidly established and can dare to diversify a bit. I’ll tell you one thing: Making me feel like a groupie chasing Beatles won’t ever work for me: The loud display of Vitamin’s Advisory Board made me dislike the site from day one.

I have nothing against the individuals whose work, talent and ambition have put them on the spotlight. In fact, as a freelancer, I constantly fall on the trap of comparing myself with them. When I worked as part of a team I had constant feedback on how I performed compared to others. Now, I don’t. Those “others” are now the people I read, the industry’s top leading designers and developers. It’s exhausting. I constantly feel like pure failure. But I digress…

What I meant to say with this is that I choose to attend a web conference precisely because I see those big and admired names on the list of speakers. And once I hear from them, I usually get something new to take back with me. But I also value hearing from accomplished and interesting people who may not have gotten their spot on our hall of fame yet, because the greatest marginal impact comes from them. I think that here, just like in similar arguments, “diversity” gets lost in politics. I like to see that Jeffrey Zeldman is not satisfied with the status quo. A true leader never is.


  1. On February 27th, 2007 at 2:16 pm, Jennifer wrote:

    I agree with what I think is what you’re saying. That ultimately just provide speakers that will fulfill the purpose of the event, but both credible “top” names as well as up-and-coming ideas presented by whomever is credible on that topic: man or woman.

    Now, if I got your point wrong, I still want to share something else. I don’t really believe in a feminist society; I believe in humanist – that people should be treated like people, as equal as is possible in a given situation (sorry, but men and women do have some baseline genetic differences that do limit them in their opposite gender’s predominant roles).

    The computer industry, including the Internet, has long been dominated by men I believe because of the need for people who studied science and math. I’m not saying women are not capable of holding such positions. However, historically women have been driven to pursue careers that hold more of a nuturing nature, e.g., teaching, nursing – or support roles such as secretarial. Yes, that sucks, but we’re still climbing out of that outdated and non-humanist ravine.

    As the Internet has evolved, along with it has come a need for better design. Women have long been considered artistic though I’d say it’s a split down the middle (men/women) of whom I’ve worked with so far in the design world. However, since the two worlds of science (computers) and design have merged I think women are “under represented” in terms of “top names” because historically the realm of computers has been dominated by men. We’re just not as out there.

    I’m not saying there is NO sexism out there – I just don’t think it’s as black and white as some are making it out to be. If women want a place in these conferences – that is to SPEAK – then they should make a good strong go at it. Contact your favorite conference and say, “hey, I’m here – and I’d love to talk about my pet topic,”. And, if you are good enough, if you really can sell yourself as a credible, knowledgeable, and passionate presenter, then you should find a place. However, if after meeting those criteria a conference or two doesn’t accept you, maybe it is because you’re a woman, maybe it’s not. If it is – do you really want to present to those people anyway?

    FYI… years ago I was an active member of a group called Webgrrls. I attended the Dallas group where we’d have quite a few regulars, some good talent, but mostly a crop of women who really had little talent for the big-times. The presentations were never that impressive. Leadership was weak. Finally, Webgrrls got some form of national organizational structure. Our location was to be overseen by a MAN of all things. How dare they introduce a man to lead a women’s group! (Sarcasm) You know what happened? Check it out:

    That page has been up since 2003.

    Sorry for the diatribe. Ultimately, I too, like you Maria am interested in TOPICS with people who can speak passionately about them while raising my interest. I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman. And, as you pointed out with one phrase, I don’t care if they’re young or old either. Just give me the content I come for.


  2. On February 27th, 2007 at 3:14 pm, Maria wrote:

    I’m glad you wrote all that, and you did get me right.

    I’m not for “women = men” either. I think that argument is silly. We’re not equal. Our brains aren’t equal. And by this I don’t mean that one is superior to the other. It’s too bad that some cultures still believe that men are superior, and give them more rights than they do to women.

    I’m thankful that I was born at a time, and in a place, where I don’t feel any paralyzing barriers to do anything I want to do based on my gender, or race, or ethnicity (I still can’t go to Europe without having to cry fat tears in front of a mean European consulate official, but that’s a different discussion).

    I checked the site you mention, and found “The Dallas, TX chapter is currently undergoing a leader transition”. Are you saying this has been up since 2003?

  3. On February 28th, 2007 at 7:52 am, Jennifer wrote:

    Yeah, Webgrrls in at least Dallas, pretty much went defunct not long after getting wind of the new leadership. And, I think I stopped going (they stopped having meetings!) maybe in 2002 while I was at PwC.

    Though I too wanted a place where I could learn and share about my industry with other women, I did not care who it was managed by. Ultimately, the women weren’t doing a good job of managing it anyway! We never had any really compelling speakers. And, not to sound snotty, but the group was mostly made up of (barring a very select few) women with home businesses related to entry-level desktop publishing. Hey, I’m all for making your own niche/career. But, to grow you need to start attracting talent and diversity. I had hoped that whomever we had as a new leader would put us back on track – man or woman.

    I’ve long felt that women’s groups that get angry over men joining or leading them is just as sexist ast them complaining about not being allowed into the men’s groups. I’ve never understood the hipocrasy.

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