Damn it. I try so hard these days to resist doing things that don’t make me money. I really do. But sometimes I make an exception and today is going to be one of those days.

Today Debra Mastaler tweeted a link to an article in The Atlantic about the latest up in arms cause in the tech industry – the “bias” against women speakers at tech related conferences.

For the record, I love Debra Mastaler. She’s been on SEO conference panels since before there were dozens upon dozens of conferences surrounding the topic and well before anyone started insisting that “more women” be on them. She made the cut because she was – and is – extremely talented at what she does. I admit I am kind of surprised she backs the premise of the above article. But, I guess there had to be something we’d disagree on after nearly a decade of harmony in opinions. ;-)

The newest target under attack is the Edge Conference. At the time that I am writing this, 22 of the 23 speakers are male (the one female speaker had yet to submit a photo, so if you click through to The Atlantic’s article, you won’t see her in the screen grab). The article suggests to all men who aren’t “women haters” (my summation, not a quote in the article) that they should refuse to speak on conference panels in the tech industry unless at least one woman is on the panel with them.

Are you freaking kidding me?

We see what we want to see

Of course, some people look at the lineup and immediately assume highly talented women are being “excluded”. Of course, they don’t know that for a fact. For all they know, 95% of speaker pitches came from men and thus why they ended up with a 95% male speaker line up once they whittled down the list to the best pitches.

But let’s say a larger percentage of the pitches came from women. Then people are also assuming that of the pitches that came from women, 100% of them were awesome pitches that organizers passed up solely because the presenter would be wearing a bra.

The Edge Conference organizers tweeted at Matt Andrews, a Guardian web developer who wrote the (non Atlantic) post linked above attacking the lineup that…

“Inexcusable is pretty strong. I don’t feel need to defend this, but am happy with our process.”

And Andrews was quoted as responding with:

“I don’t know what their selection process was, but if it was me organising it, I would explicitly not be satisfied with a process that resulted in 100% male speakers. I would have stopped once we’d reached, say, 17 male out of 22 possible speakers (being pretty conservative, I think) and insisted that the remaining five (a cool 22% female representation) would have to be women.”

All I could do was shake my head. Google is sending 8 representatives to this conference. Why is no one asking Google why it didn’t insist on sending a certain % of female representatives instead?

Is this really empowering women? Or marginalizing their achievements?

So – assuming that Edge Conference took what they felt were the best presentations for their audience (not taking gender into account at all) – we expect them to cut four “better” presentations to simply “put more women on the panels”.

Not only that, but the one woman who made whatever the cut was based on her own talents and merits would then be accompanied by four other women who are there “for the sake of including women” – which in turn, to me – makes it look like she is only on a panel to fulfill the “women quota” rather than the actuality – that the organizers thought her pitch kicked ass enough to make the cut.

Years and years ago, Danny Sullivan used to have several blogrolls when he first launched Search Engine Land. One of those blogrolls was (lovingly) called “Old Farts” – meaning people (about 14 or so) who weren’t associated with agencies (at that time) and had been around the block a time or two whose blogs he thought were worth reading. I was the only female on that list when it first debuted.

At a conference shortly after a woman was complaining about that blogroll (seriously) saying how it needed more women on it. I took offense to that. It’s well known that Danny has long had women speakers at his conferences and as columnists on his site – he’s far from “sexist”. I earned my way onto that list. And here is someone telling me people who didn’t should be added simply so I wasn’t the lone female on it?

In three words? That’s some bullshit.

Let’s look at a non-tech example. My friend Amanda (who is in a “tech” career) is a graduate of the Citadel. For those who don’t know, the Citadel is the toughest military college in the United States. It was also an all male school until 1996, when its first female student won a legal battle with the school to be allowed in. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that the formerly all male college would need to change its admissions policies to accept women.

But they didn’t require a percentage. The courts merely said they had to let qualified female applicants in. Aside from separated living quarters, there were no special rules made for those female applicants at that time either. For instance, if a woman wanted in, they were going to have to get the standard issue buzz cut, same as their male counterparts.

Amanda entered the Citadel in 1999. There was one woman in the Senior Class at the time she entered as a Freshman. She entered with 30+ other female cadets. When she graduated in 2003, she was one of 14 women who did so. In short, 4% of the Citadel’s 2003 graduating class were women. And Amanda busted her ass to be one of them…

Amanda Repelling

Can you imagine if the Citadel were required to ensure 20% of their graduating classes were female? People might look at Amanda and wonder – did she really have what it took, or was she merely allowed to graduate to fulfill a quota?

How would that be fair to Amanda, who’d earned her walk across that stage? And are we really suggesting that her massive achievement be downgraded to the possibility of being speculated as nothing more than “quota fulfillment”?

Where does it end?

So here we are. Women should get special consideration – and a forced percentage of inclusion on conference panels – according to the articles above (however, it’s ok that BlogHer currently only has one male speaker – but I digress). So where does it end?

(I know Edge Conference is in London, but my examples below are based on US numbers and conditions because I’m American and we hear this same argument regarding US conferences all the time.)

Once we add five women, are we sure that one of them is a single mom? We wouldn’t want to leave out that demographic and have people assume the only women who can make a conference panel are single ones without kids or ones with partners at home to lessen their load.

There’s also no African Americans on the Edge Conference’s roster. I don’t see any people of (obvious) Hispanic descent. Why is no one up in arms over that?

Unless someone looks really, really good for their age, there’s also no one 55 or above representing senior citizens. Does this mean it’s high time that the AARP get involved to ensure adequate representation in tech for their community?

Let’s not discount looks either. Of those who have been assigned to speak on the conference panels, are all of them good looking? We need to ensure people don’t think that’s the only reason they’re on the panel. Are we sure we’ve included a few people that are less attractive? Should we require headshots to be submitted prior to speaker approval?

Do we have anyone who is obese on the panels? We need to ensure that the overweight population is represented – after all, almost 36% of people in the United States are obese. Surely that same percentage is represented in speaker pitches.

Another 10% of people between the age of 18-64 in the United States have a disability. Are we adequately reflecting that in our choice of conference speakers?

Be prepared to eventually see a checkbox on the speaker pitch forms asking you about your sexual orientation too. We need to make sure members of the GLBT community are included on each panel as well – and we’re going to need at least one from each of the four that acronym represents.

Do we not see the problem here?

No one should ever be denied a speaking slot BASED on any of the above. ABSOLUTELY NOT.

But conference organizers shouldn’t have to pick speakers to fulfill an “equality quota” either. They should pick the best speakers, for their specific event and topics, that successfully get people to shell out their money to attend.

Conferences are a BUSINESS. I highly doubt that most conference organizers care if you are a purple asexual hermaphrodite, providing the quality of your presentation puts butts in their seats.

When I attend a conference, I’m not there to see a proverbial rendition of We are the World. I’m there to learn. I’m there to be inspired. I’m there to increase my bottom line. The speakers I want on stage are the best possible choices to fulfill those needs. Period. And I certainly don’t want to be sitting in the audience wondering who is there on merit and who is there to fulfill a quota.

Do you want to see more women showcased in the tech space?

Asking men to partake in reverse gender bias isn’t going to do that in a way that empowers anyone. But there are plenty of things that you can do to help achieve that result.

  • See a conference panel you think a woman you know would rock? Let her know about it and encourage her to pitch – and pitch well.
  • Know of amazing female speakers? Make your favorite conferences aware of them and tell them why being able to see them speak would be a draw to you purchasing a ticket to their conference.
  • Stop supporting publications that attempt to convince the female tech and business population that they’re inferior to men.
  • See tech industry professionals being showcased on a blog somewhere? Write in and suggest some kickass women that would also make great interviewees.
  • Have a daughter? Encourage her to enter the space. Until females represent an equal number of the population in this industry, they’ll never represent an equal number of those showcased within it.
  • Are you a woman in the tech space? Want recognition as a powerhouse? Want to speak on conference panels? THEN GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s up to you to stop letting them.

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