Diverse or Representative?

Some casual thoughts about language. I recently received an invitation to a tech talk where all the speakers were blokes. As is normal for these sorts of things, I dropped the organisers an email saying I wouldn't be attending because of the lack of diversity.

I received a very polite email back protesting that the speakers were diverse. There were speakers from India, Africa, and South America - no mean feat for an East-European conference. It just so happens that they were all men.

Diversity is multi-faceted. Some of those men may have been gay, or disabled, or poor, or old, or of a minority religion, or... or... or...

Not all diversity is visible. Not all of it is one-dimensional.

So, I'm thinking about changing my language. I've started asking all male conferences to be more representative.

That's not a perfect solution. Some industries are close to 100% male - so their manels would be perfectly representative.

But it shifts the conversation. Events should represent their potential community.

And, for the hard of thinking, I'm not asking you to change your language. Nor do I think you're a bad person for a language choice. But I want to change the way I think and speak about diversity.

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6 thoughts on “Diverse or Representative?”

  1. Hi Terence - I have a concern with this. "Representative" (when applied to a conference, for example) seems to imply that a panel should represent the make-up of the conference or industry. I think that we need to do better than that. One thing I learned from putting together schedules for Over the Air was that when we featured women speakers, we got more women attendees. And conferences and events are part of how people build their careers in our industry, so there is a follow-on effect of making more people feel more included across the board. I think this applies to every under-represented group in technology and it applies to other situations as well (e.g. standards participation). So asking confefences to be "representative" could imply that they they need to do less, whereas I think they need to do more. Conferences and events need to be on the forefront of activism when it comes to inclusion because they are the public face of our industry.

    1. @edent says:

      I agree that they need to do more. And, you're right, we shouldn't shy away from activism. I want to see if changing my side of the conversation to "does this represent society" or "does this represent the audience you want to attract" make a difference.

  2. Quentin Stafford-Fraser says:

    Mmm. Yes, it's a tricky one.

    I'm generally against any positive discrimination anywhere in favour of particular groups unless you believe that a key function of the institution or operation performing the discrimination ought to be social engineering, and that that should take precedence over other things. If not, then you want to be fair and representative, but not artificially biased.

    We could debate whether it's the role of conferences to perform social engineering. The organisers of the conference may well decide that it's part of their motivation, but, as you point out, it's difficult for anybody from the outside to come in and impose their particular preferences. Yours may be gender, but how many other under-represented groups should be taken into account?

    With these things I think it's always a good thought experiment to think about whether you'd be similarly balanced the other way. If you were going to conferences in the fashion, or publishing, or nursing, or primary-school-teaching worlds, for example, which were substantially female, would you make the same complaint if they had insufficient male speakers?

    A friend was recently invited to a women's dinner for the female lecturers in her university faculty here in Cambridge. She declined. "Can you imagine", she said, "what people would say if an invitation went round for a men-only dinner?"

    1. With respect to you and to your friend, I think that's a false equivalence. Have a look at this blog post for something that captures why I think supporting "exclusive" tech events is important. Also see this post that covers a lot of other issues relating to diversity in tech conferences and events. All of this thinking was inspired by the original GDS diversity statement, by the way.


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