Thursday, March 31, 2016

The destructive forces against conferences

My social justice need raises its head once more to blog as a response of what is going on in the interwebs: the Agilia Conferences rude response to a query on diversity. But the recalling of sponsors and asking speakers to take a stand starts to feel like a witch hunt. And there still are no witches!

What happened?

Agile development (and Testing) in my experience are areas of software conferences with very healthy gender ratios in general. Take Agile 2015 in US for example: lots of women.

When  there is a conference with 27 speakers on Agile, and only 2 are women, it is hard to not wonder. And I love the world where we nowadays are (mostly) encouraged to point that out, because awareness is the first step to change things.

So Agilia Conference representative had a rude response. The response refers to caring about this as feminist game, makes the choice of a he-pronoun on welcoming speakers, and and mentions engineer diversity games and not being a political party. Judgmental language, sure. They further referred to extensive screening and later even shared blog post of what that means unintentionally implying that since women don't get through their screening, they are lying more often in their conference presentations.

A step back

Surely the responses have been insensitive and unaware. But what is this campaign I see of twitter going for killing the conference? They were very clearly defensive with their first reply, and their defensiveness under the attack isn't going to change things, just make them feel the great injustice.

So, they miss out on a lot of things:
  • They most likely invited some of the speakers as paid keynotes. There they had full control of choosing. When they did not choose a woman, it more often is about not being aware of great women than an intentional choice of the 2-4 absolute best speakers in the keynoting circle. The chosen men are great. There could be other chosen people who would be equally great.
  • It matters if you see people like you speaking for future years for availability. Conferences that struggle with diversity keep struggling with diversity, because none of the minority speakers wants to be on stage as the token. Software is built by people for people, and we're relatively even on the gender ratios as users. Across roles in organizations (esp. non-technical agile) the ratios are not that far off balance in creation of software over its use. 
  • Their call for proposals is responded by people who  have something to sell. They might pay their own travel to be there - we'll, their companies do. Looking at the Agilia commitment to extensive screening it looks like this applies to people's promises to speak there. But they are very likely to miss out on groups of people to submit that they are willing to publicly insult. 
  • Insulting anyone and not being nice is always  bad. The underlying idea of not really caring for the gender of the speakers gets distorted and just oozes unwelcome.
But really, is this crime so bad that there needs to be a campaign to hurt them?? If they don't see things our way, they should go away??

Regardless of the bad expressions, I'm reading into their responses:
  • They might be genuingly puzzled on what aspect is making people upset. It's not the amount of women they ended up with, it's their response to raising that issue. 
  • They might not have the help to solve this. They need women to help but it is not the womenkind's responsibility to stop all their doing and jump to help (even if they seem to be thinking that). 
  • They're oblivious that conference organizing is not about passively waiting for your call to be found and responded to,  but you need to actively seek. Very much the same way the extensively screen what they get for being truthful, they need to pay attention to the truthfullness of the industry they are aware of.
If you have energy for the negative action, how about targeting that energy for a little more positive? 


  1. Very much agreed Maaret. On Twitter, a single badly written Tweet can be pulled out of context and make your life hell (remember the Justine tweet? I also felt pity for her). Sure, they got defensive, but I would have gotten defensive too. I also don't see the need to crucify them over 1 bad message

  2. Their tweet said they don't care what gender their speakers are and they don't give special treatment to women.

    1. I may read that differently than you. I read it as they don't select based on gender and do not want to start considering that at all.

      I know other very nice and considerate people, who feel strongly about this. Including women. They hate to have to think about gender in any way as part of the selection process. Same treatment for all.

      I personally believe there is work to be done to enable women in speaking after making it appear so long that women don't want to speak and thus recognizing gender (and other aspects missing from the rosters) is important. I want to find someone I look up to and who looks like me. Or different from the masses so that I can learn from someone different.

    2. Also, their reply is ignorant. Right now they give special treatment to men - the keynotes - for not knowing all their options.

    3. I feel like I had a role in igniting this tweetstorm.

      I worry that my actions drew a bunch of rude tweets aimed at Samantha, and that sucks, but I also know that the people writing those tweets are responsible for their actions, not their victims.

      I also worry I directed the conversation towards argument, where people take sides and won't back down, and become unable to learn and grow. That seems to be your concern, Maaret. In this case I believe the organizers were entrenched before we began, but I could be wrong about this.

      My main goal was to support and amplify Samantha's voice. I don't know if she feels like I have done that effectively, or if I instead helped things turn ugly.

      I sympathize with the organizers' failure to line up gender-balanced speakers. I bet if I organized a conference, I wouldn't do any better. I can even imagine myself not noticing the gender imbalance. And if I did notice (or someone pointed it out to me), I might not see anything I could/should do differently to support a different outcome.

      But I could say "I don't know how to get a different outcome; can someone help?" instead of saying that it's not my problem.

      I know for my own experience that if I organize an event that ends up all men, then there was probably something I could have done differently to change that outcome, without reducing the value of my event even a little (and probably adding a lot of value at that). It's not about a quota. Mostly it's about how the things I say and do project an image that makes women (and other marginalized people) see my event as being something that is or is not for them.

      I don't want to demonize these conference organizers, but I do strongly disagree with them, and am deeply disappointed in their unwillingness to engage and discuss on this topic.

    4. Thanks for your views, Jay. Many of us take sides for Samantha, because her asking really should be a normal thing. I also sympathize with the conference organizer: perhaps he's been asked this before and made his own (uninformed to my view) conclusions. Perhaps he just had a bad moment a week into the conference someone questioning this. Hands tied, attack is the best defense (not).

      I'm guilty of organizing gender-imbalanced conferences to the other way. Sometimes just to create the questions of how this can be in an industry that is so male dominated.

      The point to me is that there's excessive amount of great speakers and stories that are truthful in both genders (and those who identify with neither). Unequal balance shows either an active decision or unwillingness to work on organizer biases of connections and awareness.

      To have more women speak, we need to model more women speaking. We don't want to be a minority in this field and it would be much easier to change if people would stop counting us and actively make it so that NONE cares to count.

      Disagreeing is necessary. Saying things to raise awareness is necessary. We can't just keep quiet when we see bad behaviors. But we can try to think how far we emphasize our saying and if there would be more positive strategies to influence than making it appear as if we're asking their speakers / sponsors to back down or make this the point instead of the conference contents.

      Awareness is really important. I just talked with a friend who pointed out he never volunteers for committees because then he is not responsible. My view is that every one is responsible for this as we participate and keep the wheels in motion to create more of this stuff. Awareness is necessary to get away of the dismissal of the problem. But we can stop at agreeing to disagree, and try again later.