Diversity and technology conferences, part 1: the Government 2.0 Expo

We received 189 valid proposals for talks at Expo Showcase.  A few people, men and women, submitted two proposals, but the vast majority submitted just one.  Of these 189, only 41 (or 22% of the total) were from women, with 147 proposals submitted by men.  I have no reason in particular to offer for this. Perhaps women would like to comment on this blog about why a two month open call for proposals for anyone with a good idea for a five minute talk about Government 2.0 was dominated by 78% men.

— Mark Drapeau’s Government 2.0 Expo: Women by the Numbers

The women in technology community has been doing a great job of highlighting lack of diversity in conference speakers, using mechanisms like the #diversityfail Twitter hashtag and act.ly.   Mark’s post provides some interesting data on how an O’Reilly conference he’s co-chairing wound up with more than two-thirds of the presenters being male.  While I’m not actually a woman, I’d nonetheless like to take him up on his invitation for discussion about how the submission process became so male-dominated.

Some context here: I’m writing this from the perspective of somebody who’s been a program committee member of the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference for the last couple years, and will be co-charing in 2010.  CFP’s gender ratios have similary hovered around 2-1, and other dimensions of diversity have been equally problematic.  There’s no denying that it’s a challenge to get diverse speakers for conferences in male-dominated fields, and it’s almost never a matter of bad intent.   As Ellen Spertus said almost 20 years ago, “women’s underrepresentation is not primarily due to direct discrimination but to subconscious behavior that tends to perpetuate the status quo.”

In the process of thinking through how to improve things for CFP 2010, I’ve talked a lot with gender equity and other diversity experts — and with other conference organizers as well.   Based on those discussions, and what I was able to discover about the Government 2.0 Expo with some quick web searching, here are some questions and observations that may help explain the gender skew that Mark has documented … and point to future opportunities for improvement.

  • Did the conference establish and publicize explicit diversity goals?
  • How many diversity experts (gender equity and other dimensions) did the conference recruit for the program committee, and how much power did they have?
  • Did conference materials and communications channels feature women as much as or more then men in the videos, phtoso, and quotes on conference materials? [The overview page currently has two videos by guys, and links off to a page where five of the six videos are by guys; the names mentioned gov2events twitter profile are overwhelmingly male.]
  • Were the male and female co-chairs perceived as equals, and did they have equally big roles in outreach and shaping the program?  [On the program committee page, there are two long paragraphs with many links describing Mark’s credentials; co-chair Laurel Ruma is described in one short paragraph with no links.]
  • Only 38% of the program committee are women.  Why wasn’t their gender equity here?  And given this bias, what did the connference organizers do in their outreach to counter the potential impression that this was a male-dominated event?
  • How did the conference reach out to the “women in technology and politics” network, Shes Geeky, Women Who Tech, the womanist and feminist blogospheres, and organizations like Women in Technology and the Anita Borg Institute?
  • Did the conference organizers investigate the possibility that the unfamiliar five-minute rapid presentation format might be a barrier to entry? What coaching or mentoring did they offer? [In conference general manager Jennifer Pahlka’s response on the act.ly petition about increasing representation of women at another O’Reilly conference , she said she’s been meaning to start up an “Women’s Ignite” series, which implies to me that there’s a perceived need here …]
  • As the program committee noticed early on that the proposals were skewing male, what did they do to adapt? For example, did they discuss inviting specific women who hadn’t submitted proposals in order to get a better balance?

Mark ended his post with the comment that “no one likes being publicly blindsided with baseless accusations,” and I certainly hope these questions don’t come across that way.  I certainly don’t mean to be accusatory, and I hope it’s clear that I’m not attributing bad intent or blaming anybody.  With over a month before the Expo and the related Gov 2.0 Summit (whose initial speaker list is 90% male), there’s still time to adapt and improve gender equity and other aspects of diversity.  A better understanding on all sides of the dynamics that have led to the current situation is crucial for making progress.

And I also don’t mean to single out the Government 2.0 Expo.  While a 2-1 ratio is a long ways away from gender equity, it’s much better than a lot of other technology conferences out there.  In part 2 of the series, I’ll take Tim and Jennifer up on their requests for suggestions on  improving gender equity at the Web 2.0 summit.*


PS: While I’ve followed the lead of the discussion so far by focusing on gender, this isn’t the only dimension of diversity to consider.  How many blacks and Latin@s speak at the Gov 2.0 Expo and Summit or similar events?  How many people with disabilities?   People under 25, or over 70?  So while the increasingly-well-organized women in technology are taking the lead here, it’s important to view it as a more general challenge.  Hopefully the conference organizers will take this feedback and generalize it to other dimensions as well.

* Update, September 4: I did a very rough draft of this, but never actually published it.