LearnDiversity – The real issues and what we’re doing about it


writes on February 26, 2007

(This is a response to the following posts: Jason Kottke, Anil Dash, Eric Meyer, Tantek Celik, Dori Smith, Shelley Powers, Kimberly Blessing and Virginia DeBolt)

FOWA was a huge success, based on the following things:

  • I had a large numbers of attendees shake my hand and sincerely thank me for putting on the conference. I think that says a lot about the quality of the conference.
  • We received a large number of emails from folks who said they can’t wait until next year.
  • There are hundreds of positive posts about the event on the blogosphere.
  • We helped people connect with each other by doing the following:
    • Colour-coding badges based on people’s type, i.e. ‘Developer’, Designer’, ‘Investor’, etc (I know this isn’t perfect, but it’s a great start).
    • Allowing people to wear big badges that said either ‘Looking to hire _____’, ‘Need a job’, ‘Want to invest’ and ‘Need investment’. I heard a lot of great stories about how people found jobs and connected because of this.
    • The FOWA Lounge, which attendees can log into and request to meet other attendees (needs improvement but again, it’s a great start).

We are extremely proud of the event and we feel that we successfully encouraged, inspired and connected the European web app community.

However, we can always improve.

Why weren’t there more women speaking?

Jason Kottke recently pointed out that there isn’t a large percentage of women at web conferences these days, specifically citing FOWA.

I’d like to set the record straight. FOWA has dramatically improved in the diversity department. Here are the facts:

  • FOWA London 2006: 7 men, 0 women (0% women)
  • FOWA San Francisco 2006: 13 men, 0 women (0% women)
  • FOWA London 2007: 13 men*, 1 woman (7.14%)

In addition to improving the number of women on stage at FOWA London ’07, we also had a much more racially diverse speaker line-up than previous events.

Although 7.14% women isn’t amazing, it’s a definite improvement.

Frustratingly, Kottke (and several other bloggers) didn’t ask us for the complete story before they posted.

In fact we invited three women (Kathy Sierra, Gina Bianchini and Tara Hunt). Kathy was behind on her emails and only got back to us one month before the event, at which time all the slots were full. Gina accepted and was billed as speaking but had to cancel at the last minute and (thankfully) Tara could make it.

If we had gotten all three women we invited, we would’ve had 21.4% women speakers.

Open Mic Slots

We specifically made an effort to diversify the speaker line-up by offering something brand new called an ‘Open Mic’ slot. Attendees could pitch their speaking idea and all the attendees could vote on the presentations they wanted to hear.

There were three slots of 15 minutes each. We had no say in picking these presentations. It was completely up to the attendees who ended up on stage since they voted for their favourite.

None of the ideas were submitted by women. This was a great opportunity for women in the industry to put themselves forward for a speaking slot. But unfortunately none materialised.

The next event

Bleating about the fact that there are no women on stage without offering solutions is counter productive. In the past year we’ve made a big effort to diversify our speakers but we’d still like to improve the number of women on our stage. So here’s what we’re going to do:

  1. Ask for your help. This is an open call for presentation proposals. If you’ve got something exciting to share with FOWA attendees (whether you’re male or female – we don’t care), please add it to the FOWA Writeboard (password: 123) or email me personally (ryan at carsonsystems dot com).Please do not submit cleverly veiled product pitches. They will be ignored. We will however be looking for confident speakers with a clear message to convey to the web application building industry. If that’s you then we want to hear from you.
  2. We’re also going to invite some smart folks to help us put together the program. We’re the first to admit that we’re not perfect – We don’t know everything that is going on in the industry. You may think we’ve snubbed you by not inviting you, but the truth is that we probably haven’t come across you or your work. I’m hoping that by enlisting some smart folks, we’ll be able to cover more options.

I had a great conversation last night with two very talented female developers. We agreed that one of the major problems with getting more women on stage is that women often don’t promote themselves to conference organisers. If you’re a woman in the web apps industry, and you’re mad talented, please email me. Please don’t assume we know you and are specifically not inviting you. This will be a tremendous help to us in creating a more balanced line-up of speakers.

You need to deserve to be on stage

We are going to continue to improve the ratio of women to men at our events.

However, I want to make it very clear that we’re not going to put anyone on stage that’s shouldn’t be there, no matter what gender or race they are. It would be actually be worse to have women on stage who aren’t qualified, then none at all.

Of course there are many qualified women, though. So we’re going to keep seeking them out!

Is lack of diversity the real problem?

Joe Clark made an excellent point about diversity in the IT industry:

I am waiting for someone to disprove my contention that the barriers to success in information technology are poverty (can’t afford a computer) and disability (cannot use it), not sex.

The computer does not have an opinion about whether or not you “are wanted”; women have no barriers in *using computers* for their own purposes.

Not only do we need to increase the ratio of women to men at conferences, we need to focus on empowering those with disabilities or those in poverty.

As conference organisers, we can immediately make a difference to those with disabilities by making our site and event more accessible. However, we need your help.

If you have a disability and you would like to attend FOWA, please email me (ryan at carsonsystems dot com), call me (+44 79688 10 253) or IM me (AIM username: ryanleecarson).

All of our venues are accessible and we will reserve a special seat for you if you have hearing or sight problems. Regarding the website, we need someone who can go through our site and check it for accessibility problems. If you can help please e-mail me.

If you have a screen reader, I would love for you to record yourself going through our site so I can actually hear what it’s like.

I’d also like ideas on how we can make the physical events more accessible. We’ve obviously made sure they’re wheelchair accessible, but if we can do anything else, I would love to know.

For the record, one of our attendees was almost completely blind. We allowed him to bring a helper to assist him in navigating the conference. I hope to do more of this.

Get involved!

Frankly I’m tired of people blogging about this issue and doing little or nothing to fix it. We’re committed to working on this by doing what I’ve stated above.

I’d like to congratulate Brian Oberkirch on his brilliant idea for increasing diversity. We’re going to donate $2,000 to help start his fund, and we’re excited to see what happens!

If you’re as passionate about this as we are, be a part of the solution by getting in touch with us and helping make the event better. Don’t be the person on the sideline who just rants and raves.

Onwards and upwards

We’re very proud of FOWA. It’s a world-class event with amazing speakers and talented attendees. However, we’d like to keep improving. I hope this post is a positive step in that direction!

* Jason Kottke said we had 27 speakers at FOWA London ’07. This isn’t correct. 14 of those speakers were either teaching workshops (which attendees had to pay extra for), were sponsors, or were sat on a panel. They were either not directly chosen by us (sponsors) or they never set foot on the main stage.


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27 Responses to “Diversity – The real issues and what we’re doing about it”

  1. Hi

    Very interesting information! Thanks!


  2. Nice one for getting Julie to your next event…

    Really wish i could go, but, we moved to Toronto at christmas 🙁 Gonna hawk it to a few friends tho 😀

    You guys rock!

  3. morganusvitus on April 5, 2007 at 1:17 pm said:

    The site looks great ! Thanks for all your help ( past, present and future !)

  4. My hope is that conferences (all, not just this one), start to show a freshness in their speakers. I know conferences want the big names, but at the same time, there are loads of new startups and developers and bloggers and designers, etc. who can offer new perspectives.

    Ryan, I have always been amazed at how well you do things. I think this post shows how much time and effort you put into the speaker lineup. I think you went above and beyond the call of duty. Hats off to you and the whole CS team. Can’t wait to FOOA, and hopefully FOWA NYC this Sept!

    Of course I understand that everyone wants to meet/listen to the Mickey Mantle’s of the web, not the newbies. Tickets go quicker for the Mickey’s.

  5. Just as an aside, I hope you get a chance to sit with a blind or partially sighted person while they navigate your site with a screen reader (with the volume on so you can hear it too). I would say it is a real eye-opener, but that is obviously not the right word. It is however a GREAT experience for any designer, and while usually embarrassing and humbling, the first time, very interesting. I was lucky enough to have a very helpful person go through a site with me, it made a big difference.

  6. I had a great conversation last night with two very talented female developers. We agreed that one of the major problems with getting more women on stage is that women often don’t promote themselves to conference organisers.

    This sample set of two plus your sweeping generalization, coupled with Matthew Pinnell’s comment regarding how woman just “get on with it” is really quite amazing.

    In between saying “you’re right we need more women” and saying “sure women, come on out and show yourselves if I don’t find you” you manage to get out of your own conference shortcoming by saying “hey women, you’re not aggressive enough with self promotion, better get on that.” Talk about insult to injury.

    I’m not hearing reasons as to why more women aren’t appearing at technology conferences, and creative conferences, I’m hearing excuses. Some of these excuses I might point out, are well, offensive.

    If you can’t find women speakers then you’re not looking hard enough, say that, don’t say that we woman don’t work hard enough making ourselves known to you, we aren’t hiding under rocks or pushing back against your advances – you’re not looking. Say “sorry we didn’t look, we’re going to look harder next time and make more of an effort, women are an active part of the arts and technology community and have something to say.” Then after you’ve looked, (for more than three) you can write about how all the women you contacted said they didn’t want to speak because we are all inherently not self promoters.

  7. Ryan, I am happy that you’ve made a decision to be pro-active. It’s worth noting that this issue came up in the Fall and didn’t result in any constructive response on your end.

    And, actually, yes – you specifically said to me in email “send me your list of ideal speakers and I will have a look.”

    You might be inclined to be dismissive of my efforts since I’ve been such a persistent critic, but it’s probably in your best interest to peruse the list I’ve been developing. It’s an excellent resource and it’s only going to improve.

    Vic, the list is not specifically focused on women in tech and isn’t as strong as I want it to be in that category just yet. Women like danah boyd, Caterina Fake, Mena Trott and Meg Hourihan are already included, and we’ve gotten many suggestions for excellent additions since Kottke put up his post last week. For the time being, the names are listed below in comments. We’ll integrate those suggestions into the main list in the near future.

  8. Ryan,

    Again congrats on a great event. I noticed more female attendees and speakers this year at FOWA07 so good job on that front.

    Before we start delving into the diversity debate and throwing random numbers around – has anyone established a baseline for the % of female geeks that make up the geek universe? Until we do that how can anyone judge whether or not FOWA was as diverse as the real world or not.

    It would seem to me that if say, female geeks make up 10% of the total geek population and more than 10% of your speakers and attendees are female then you are accurately reflecting real world diversity.

    Lets not be too random here and say “well half the population is female thus half of any population for any given event should be female”. Perhaps gender distribution in the population is not an accurate indicator of gender distribution amongst geeks?

    (Positive discrimination aside) The most anyone can say is that it’s a very good idea to be fair and equitable in your decisions about who the speakers will be and to not base that on gender. Frankly I don’t care if the speaker is male or female – I just want to see a good speaker.


  9. Ryan

    It’s about time that this issues was raised. There were just not enough hot women at FOWA. True, the number of hotties was up on last year, but please, you can do better than that.

  10. I think in a way, a conference like FOWA etc want to leverage on the companies they want to feature as speakers (Techcrunch, Digg, Fickr, Lastfm, Netvibes, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft etc) so that people can attend and expect value for money. Fine. Thats a cool idea.

    But, I after looking at the posts in the blogosphere on this issue, its probably best to invite women who happen to work in those companies with recognizable talent and responsibilies.

    In Jen’s list of women speakers, I notice some (like Caterina Fake of Flickr) but of course, I dont expect Ellen DeGeneres as a speaker at a conference like FOWA.

    Maybe if Ryan works along this line: look out for women and diverse talents in those companies and invite them. Perhaps this could work and make everyone happy(ier).

  11. We agreed that one of the major problems with getting more women on stage is that women often don’t promote themselves to conference organisers.

    I think that this is at the heart of the problem. There is a fundamental difference in the way that women and men see their relationship with the world; men are more competitive, they want to be the best, and they want other people to know it. So, they blog to get attention and they aggressively market themselves because they KNOW “hey, I’m the fuckin MAN!” – thus, they’re the ones everyone knows and will come out to see, and they get booked for the conferences.

    Women, on the other hand, just get on with it; they don’t need their ego constantly stroked by links and conference invites.

  12. Ryan, as stated above you’re the one running the conference – the onus is on you to come up with solutions

    Exactly why I’ve stated we’re doing the above two things.

    Rather than peruse that list yourself, you suggested to me via email that I send you my proposed speaker list.

    Jen, I never asked you to do anything. I want to hear from potential speakers. Not people who’ve compiled a list of women.

    Also, let me state (again) that we are going to be pro-active in seeking out quality women speakers. Asking women to contact me is merely meant to help me discover talent that I don’t know about.

  13. Ryan, as stated above you’re the one running the conference – the onus is on you to come up with solutions. And I’ll repeat to you publicly what I said to you via private email:

    If you cared, you’d have more women on your speaker rosters. If you cared, you’d be pro-active rather than reactive.

    You can focus your energy on massaging Kottke’s stats and sending out defensive form letters or you can put energy towards making sure you have women on your roster and/or engaging your detractors in order to come up with a solution.

    I’d expect that the latter option will have a more favorable effect on your company’s public image.

    I’ll also note: I personally haven’t merely voiced complaint, but rather I’ve created a List of Woman Speakers for Your Conference, and while that list has its shortcomings, it’s a start, and it’s been well-used thus far.

    It’s a list I know you’re well aware of. Rather than peruse that list yourself, you suggested to me via email that I send you my proposed speaker list. I find that rather galling.

  14. There is one woman you really need to get at one of your gigs.

    Julie Howell (http://www.juliehowell.co.uk/), she is primarily an accessibility person, But she is one of the most inspiring people i have ever seen talk. Rather than talking about standards and ticking your legality boxes she focuses on the human aspect and carefully talks about individuals and the real issues they face.

    I know you guys already cover accessibility and usability, but, i think your attendees would be really missing out if you could get Julie.

  15. Not sure if you get trackbacks/pingbacks, but I’ve written something directly in response (please don’t take it as a flame — it’s not the intention):


    And I also have some more suggestions of how everyone can get involved in improving the situation:

  16. Hey Ralph – thanks for pointing those out. I’ve updated the list.

  17. Oh irony of ironies. At the very beginning of your post about diversity, you say you’re responding to a number of posts. Notice anyone missing?

    I’ve read any number of prominent women addressing this question, women who write books, women who lead teams that implement standards-compliant web sites for Fortune 100 companies. But they’re not on your radar, apparently. And that’s why you get roasted to a crisp.

  18. I think a lot of people are lumping two distinct issues into one. One issue, that I think all conference organizers should concern themselves with, is “new blood.” Seeing the same speakers at every concert year after year would be tiresome. Searching outside of the so-called A-list is crucial to feeding our industry with fresh ideas and perspectives.

    A totally separate issue is diversity. Clark has hit it right on the head with that one; in our industry there is less reason to emphasize diversity than in almost any other. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can learn to do what we do.

    I will say that a more gender and ethnically diverse set of speakers may bring in a few new perspectives which would be helpful, but that brings us back to the first issue. It’s important to involve people with new ideas, but that doesn’t require diversity in the traditional sense.

    Organizers should be seeking out folks with great ideas. I predict that finding lesser-known people to share their thoughts on stage will be important for upcoming conferences. These new faces might not all look the same, but if they do it won’t be the end of the world.

  19. so it’s kind of rich for you to complain that people are voicing their disappointment rather than pitching in to improve the event next time

    I welcome the criticism – but only if a solution is also offered. What’s the point of saying you’re not happy with something, unless you offer a way to make it better?

    And why should Kottke, or anyone else, “get the full story” before having an opinion?

    Because that’s the responsible thing to do. Also, isn’t it crazy to “have an opinion” about something if you don’t have all the facts?

  20. I quite enjoyed this post Ryan. I think it was very transparent and very appropriate. You did discuss all aspects of organizing a great conference like FOWA, which I did find very interesting.

    Like you said, people should think of how to resolve/act on diversity issues, instead of pointing fingers at you. After all, the FOWA and Carson System team is mostly women (your wife, Meg and Lisa) so its obvious that you have nothing against women as work mates nor speakers at conference. The truth is, you can’t change things. Things have to change itself.

    Women and racially-diverse people have to make themselves available and then things can happen.

  21. Listen Ryan: if you run an event, and charge people a big chunk of cash to attend, then they can bitch about it if they didn’t like it. You’re the one providing the product, doubtless you’re pocketing the surplus cash, so it’s kind of rich for you to complain that people are voicing their disappointment rather than pitching in to improve the event next time (to your advantage). They’re not the ones claiming to be conference organisers: you are.

    And why should Kottke, or anyone else, “get the full story” before having an opinion? You only had one woman speaker; you had shitty wi-fi. Okay, so you invited more women than that, and you’d organised less shitty wi-fi, but things didn’t go to plan and you didn’t have contingencies so the result was bad. Where are the details going to get anyone? If you want sympathy for your misfortune then that’s fine, but ultimately FOWA is going to be judged on the results just as much as any other conference is, and heartwarming stories about exactly why it wasn’t your fault that things got screwed up doesn’t put money back into people’s pockets or hours back into their lives.

  22. Thanks Rob. Appreciate the support.

  23. An excellent post Ryan, diversity and equality at conferences, while important, is a hard subject to battle with when people do, as you say, just sit on the sidelines.

    I thought FOWA was a superb event with some excellent speakers and I have to say I enjoyed Tara’s more than many!

    You know this already I’m sure but I think FOWA is pushing the UK web scene down the right path and I look forward to next year and many more.

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