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

(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:

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:

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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