The Old Boys Club is for Losers

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time trying to show the tech community I belong to that diversity is essential to our survival. Not just to the Web 2.0 world being healthy and thriving, but as a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately, my diatribe on the topic was boring and thus unpersuasive. Jason Kottke kicked off another conversation about the paucity of female participants in some of the higher-profile technology conferences. I agree with Jason's point, but am disappointed that his preference for rationality and logic led to him using numbers and statistics to justify the idea: The responses quickly devolved into the expected defensive numbers game.

One bright spot is that at least some of the people on the defense are smart guys whom I respect and like. Because, while they're wrong, at least I can debate them in good conscience without feeling bad. I would have felt bad if I only linked to defensive rationales foisted by those who I think are malicious and idiotic.

So, the good guys on the wrong side of this debate include, first Eric Meyer:

In my personal view, diversity is not of itself important, and I don't feel that I have anything to address next time around. What's important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability. That's it. That's always been the alpha and omega of my thinking, and it will continue to be so the next time, and time after that, and the time after that.

You'll note that nowhere in that list do you find gender, race, creed, or any other such parameter. Those things are completely unimportant to me when organizing a conference. (Or, really, when I'm doing almost anything.)

In a similar vein, John Gruber:

It's not because of a lack of opportunity or aptitude; it's a lack of interest.

So the issue here isn't why there aren't more women speaking at web conferences, but why there aren't more women interested in web nerdery.

Eric and John are both good guys who mean well, but that two people who are smart, forward-thinking, and open minded are still unaware of the limits and constraints imposed by their own shortsightedness is disappointing. Eric: Are you saying that it's your explicit desire to only make a conference that's marketable to the audience you already have? Because that seems so boring and unambitious that it feels like you're saying "we're only in it for the money".

Unless I'm going strictly out of obligation, I go to events to learn things, to have my mindset challenged. Being presented with familiar, unchallenging ideas just so someone can make a buck is the equivalent of junk food. Don't get me wrong -- I'm a fan of pop music, so junk food has its place. But I expect better of those who are seen as leaders.

And John, to fall into the laziest, least persuasive argument of all leads me to believe you're being almost willfully naive. "Women aren't in these disciplines because they aren't interested?" Really? There's a simpler explanation, which falls under the heading of "I know where I'm not welcome." This kind of bias isn't new; Guys are almost always unable to see the barriers they construct.

Let me put this into terms your respective audiences can better understand:

  • Limiting the speaker list of an event to those that appeal to your existing audience will yield diminishing returns as your attendees tire of seeing the same voices over and over. And in the meantime you will make less and less money.
  • Saying that you want to design an event to appeal to the audience that you already reach is like making a web page to work with only the browsers that can already see your site. Do you believe in open standards and accessibility when it matters, and when it's not easy, and when it's not merely a technological problem?
  • It's foolish to think that the feedback loop of a strong network effect doesn't act as an enormous barrier to new audiences. If you are an Apple fan, do you think that merely touting one's own technological superiority is sufficient? Or does it make sense to accommodate those who aren't yet part of the community by being able to run their applications, get the same economies of scale from processors and peripherals, and improving distribution and retailing? If you do, then you're saying it takes more than opening up the door -- it requires welcoming the audience you haven't yet reached.

And in passing, I am not surprised that those who advocate yelling at their customers tend to get very defensive about their lack of ambition. It is a fitting punishment that the web of some people's "future" only includes more boys like themselves, progressing further and further into a rounded-corner of irrelevance.

That brings me to my final point, which I'll explain more in my next post: Those of you who are defending this status quo are defending a culture of failure.

And that's the most important thing to remember: Those who are reaching out to include all members of their community, who are seeking out new ideas and voices, are not only winning, they're the only ones who will continue to win. You may succeed in defending the boys-only nature of your treehouse. But you'll be dooming yourselves to irrelevance.

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