Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Worrying about tokenism?

Laura Kalbag has written a insightful piece on her blog about her views on women and conferences. This has perhaps been spurred in to being after some truly horrible stories that have been spoken out about by the likes of Sarah Parmenter, Relly Annett-Baker and Ashe Dryden (and, unfortunately more still than them). However something is sitting uneasily with me, and perhaps the best way to describe it is this idea of there being a perfect and non-disruptive solution to our industry (and sister-industry's) problem with diversity and latent discrimination.

Laura says:

Nobody wants to be the token speaker

I enjoy speaking occasionally, but I’m really more of a fan of attending conferences. I don’t want token women speakers to exist, let alone have people suggest that I am one, and that I was only asked to speak to fulfil a quota.


Quotas don’t help, because that just results in “token” speakers, but men pledging to not speak unless there’s a satisfactory representation of women is helpful, because it’s telling the organisers that diversity is important to them, and that you believe the current lineup isn’t representative of a fair speaker selection process.

I'd love to be an optimist and hope that this will pull the curtain up from in front of the eyes of conference organisers and goers, and even perhaps filter it's way down in the thinking and ethos of those that employ people in web design and development. But I don't think I can be.

While I don't agree with strict quotas, I do agree with targets. If conference creators were to sign up to a pledge, not just (or at all) the male speakers of this world, that promised to be open and transparent about their selection process, and to achieve some basic diversity targets...this would make a lot more difference than people sitting on the sidelines saying "no, I can't be a part of this".

This pledge might change attitudes, but it also might just give organisers a feeling of being snubbed. It doesn't mean that their prejudices won't continue to operate, that they won't just go to the next white guy on their list that they like. Any buy-in to increasing diversity has to come from a combination of getting these organisers to sign up to a transparency pledge, detailing to prospective conference goers what they're doing about diversity at their conference, and getting those outside pressuring through boycott or through persuasion that they want a better and more socially/culturally reflective conference.

And there is another issue with this pledge. I can't find the link, unfortunately, but there was a woman who said it best when she said that it's not realistic to expect all speakers to honour their pledge to only speak at diverse events. It's easy for those at the top, that are enough of a draw to the crowds that their action might make a difference. But a new speaker, trying to break in to the scene...there is no benefit to them or to diversity to do this.

But this does, of course, lead to this idea that "tokens" would exist in the speaking panel, where the conference has signed up to try to meet some "targets" and have thus got some women on the panel...

...I say that this is a short term problem, and largely an internal, self-reflective one we have to battle through. The idea in attendee's heads that people are tokens on stage will only last as long as they don't realise those "tokens" are good speakers. No-one (that is not inherently and deeply rooted in their bigotry) will remain sitting there thinking "regardless of how useful this talk is, I will always view it less because this person is a 'token' speaker"

To put it in to context, there are sponsors that get spots at conferences, perhaps indirectly. These are people that work for Apple or Microsoft or Adobe, for example. The initial thought may well be that they're only on stage because they're advertising something. So how does this go?

Well, if they are advertising...just pushing a soft-sell...people's prejudices against this kind of speaker placement are reinforced. Yet regardless of the state of the "sell", no-one comes out of the room complaining about the fact that it was a corporate pitch if the talk was useful and of good quality. Those that do are usually just fervent fanboys, the company brand version of racism.

Yet women and other minorities in this industry don't need to pitch anything, they aren't competing on that stage for market share in any practical sense...all that they need to do is offer a useful and well presented talk and no-one of reasonable mind will even think they were a token placement. Part of the problem right now with some seems to be that they honestly think, while completely oblivious to the misogyny of it all, that there just aren't as many good women speakers and men. The problem with leaving it to male speakers to "drop out" is that this unreasonable feeling is reinforced by such an action, not challenged.

We have to accept the reality that, as much as we may wish it away, this sexism and racism is not going to disappear for a LONG time, if it ever does. There will always be these arseholes, but there won't always be a culture that what these arseholes say is tolerable. Just like we now grimace at racial stereotypes of 1960s "chinese" in the cinema of the time (also, watch that link for bonus "friendzone" style bullshit), we are already starting to realign our culture and find it uncomfortable that we have to hear some of the utter drivel that some bigots come out with.

What we can't do is be afraid of the self-doubt that might come with that, that the path to embedding diversity as a standard, not an ideal, will be opposed by those who have prejudice to bring forward. Fear like this leaves the power of change outside of our own control.

To put an analogy to that of a kid...a kid that really doesn't like carrots. Are we going to wait until all the other food, the chips, the bread, the jam, is no longer available before we say "look, you HAVE to eat carrot now, you have no choice!"...or are we just going to be good parents and say "Try that carrot, look, let's mash it in with some potato...now wasn't that actually really nice?". Only one of those routes is going to lead to your kid overcoming their prejudices against orange vegetables.

The male speaker pledge? Fine, it's a nice idea and at a high level it raises awareness...this is good. But without conference organisers promising to be open, to explain that actually the reason their line-up is all male is because they literally couldn't find a single woman to come and speak (and here are the steps we took to try!), and ultimately without women accepting that positive cultural change doesn't come without a bumpy ride that they must weigh up against not being on the ride at all, change won't happen at the rate we want it.