Beyond Gender DiversityWeb 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.