A couple of days ago tech writer Rebecca Rosen published an article in The Atlantic in which she made a modest proposal that could begin to address the enormous gender imbalance she’d observed at technology conferences.
Rebecca – @beccarosen on Twitter – suggested that men who care about this sort of thing might like to make a public pronouncement to the effect that they would (politely) refuse to speak on or moderate all-male panels at tech/science conferences.
The Atlantic article was prompted in part by an earlier post from Matt Andrews, a web developer at The Guardian, who was surprised and unhappy that the organisers of the Edge Conference on “advanced web technologies for developers and browser vendors” couldn’t find a woman to appear among the twenty-two speakers listed on their website (as of 3 Jan).
He’s not alone in being concerned, and there are many other focal points for this particular debate, including the cancellation of the BritRuby conference after arguments about the all-male lineup
In fact, I’d already been thinking the same as Rebecca Rosen, but only in that relaxed privileged liberal middle-class white male way that allows me to feel good about myself without actually going to the trouble of doing anything unless I happened to remember that I’d decided that I was really principled.
That means I’d look at invitations – and I get a lot of them – and sometimes I’d ask about the gender balance, but mostly I’d forget. I did usually manage to recommend only women as substitutes when I couldn’t do something, but that wasn’t exactly onerous.
So I decided to put my 140 characters to good use and tweeted:
(and of course I extend that to cover *all* the conferences I speak at – including arts, education and whatever else)
I did this not because I think it will make a difference overnight, or because I think that the male-female balance on panels is the most important issue facing the tech community (or any community), or because I want to show off my feminist principles, but because I think the current unbalanced representation of women at conferences does us all a disservice and I’d like to do something about it.
I’m asked to speak at a lot of events and by agreeing to raise the issue I can do something to make it more significant to conference organisers, where the real power to change this lies.
Now I’ll have to think more carefully, and actually ask the organisers what they are doing about making panels and conferences more balanced.
Because I’m working in the BBC’s archive development team there may occasionally be events I speak at where I don’t have the freedom to say ‘no’ – but where I do have a choice (and that’s the vast majority of my speaking engagements) I will now be checking before I appear, and I’ll honour existing agreements to speak.
If I’m giving a keynote then I’ll look at the balance of the whole event and if I’m on a panel or speaking in a session with other people then I won’t take part if it’s all male, though I will give organisers an opportunity to correct this if they choose to.
And if I can’t do a conference then I will always try to recommend a woman speaker who is as good as I would have been as a replacement.
It’s not much to do, it will cost me remarkably little, but at least it’s the right thing to do.