Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take part in a panel at SXSW on the role of mentoring in diversifying our industry. (That link includes the recording if you’d like to listen in.) At the crux of our discussion, organizer and panelist Cathryn Posey offered insight she attributed to her mother: “The door to power opens from the inside.”
Those of us who’ve achieved some measure of success, whether through privilege, participation, or some combination of the two, are best positioned to help others. “Success” can be big or small, visible or ongoing: it can be the professional and financial success of growing a company and guiding it through an IPO, earning a place at a conference podium for the first time, or simply building relationships and friendships in a new community. The point is this, and it’s simple: the investors, speakers, serial networkers, and peers who go ahead of us are in the best position to help those who come behind them.
While that point is obvious, it belies a sneering question: why would they want to? Why would popular conference speakers want to see other people on stage? Why would a published author want to introduce a less visible writer to her editor? If we assume those questions are the right questions, we’re doing the wrong math.
This is the same issue raised in the first part of the 20th century by organizations opposed to women’s suffrage. Men, why would you want to extend the right to vote to women? Their votes will only diminish the value of yours!
This is the same logic that poorly conceals the fear that fuels the current discussion of inclusion in the web industry. (See also the matter of reverse discrimination and misogyny.) In the November 14, 2012, edition of A List Apart, Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote an excellent argument about the web industry’s failures of leadership and opportunities for improvement in building a more diverse community, especially through its conferences.
As we design community events, it’s important to ask the same thing: Are we just allowing the same people to keynote each year? Are we creating a divide between the haves and the have-nots—those with all the speaking experience, and those with none? If so, which people are we leaving behind? What value could they bring, what new connections could they build across our community, if we amplified their voices instead? What is our industry not learning, where is our industry stagnating, because we’re inviting the same cast to perform the same show each night?
She raises questions that may surface emotionally contentious issues, but that we can resolve with the most basic tautology:
- A speaker draws, at least in part, on his or her life experiences.
- If conference attendees always hear the same speakers, they are always hearing content filtered through the same life experiences.
- If conferences present a broader array of speakers, conference attendees will hear content filtered through a broader array of life experiences.
(If 11th grade math doesn’t fail me, I believe that’s the law of modus tollens.)
Diversity of experience and perspective has merit for many industries, but Sara raises questions specifically for the web industry: what is our industry not learning? Those life experiences are important, because ours is an industry that favors user research and quakes at concerns of confirmation bias. We need to understand who presents case studies, who advocates different methods in workshops, so that we can better understand the lens through which they see their work, their clients, their users, and the industry. We value those different perspectives.
In the comments, Leah Reich described it like this:
The fact of my being white and female, just the same as the fact of your being whatever you are, deeply affects your experiences in the world, and to argue otherwise is disingenuous. You bring these perspectives, your experiences in the world, your triumphs and your social and cultural wounds, to the work you do. For all of us, but especially for those of us who are designers, this is important to remember: We cannot challenge our work if we are surrounded by people whose experiences and opinions mirror our own.
But none of that rings true for a small segment of our community. Never mind what we’re not learning from the voices we’re not hearing. In the comments on that article and ensuing dialogue on Twitter, a few voices attempted to draw the issue away from the benefits of diversifying our conference stages, citing the happenstance of racial and gender homogeneity. Sometimes, industries and their conferences attract people of primarily a single race and gender, they argue. And for conference organizers to try to diversify those traditional demographics is an unwelcome intervention. “The issue is not ‘angry white guys,’” writes commenter Don_U. “It is our culture.”
While that may be true in pockets, it neither represents the whole nor the culture we want to perpetuate and the community we want to build. Industry conferences seek to forge that “better future” in their effort to identify trends, create groundbreaking dialogue, and present bellwether speakers.
Enough to go around
And that brings us back to the speakers. Red herring arguments against diversifying their ranks belie a fear that’s very familiar, as it informed recent Republican campaign rhetoric.
Letting them have some of what’s ours will mean there’s less for us.
That assumes there’s only a limited amount of visibility and a limited amount of success to go around. Replace a white male speaker with someone of another gender, race, or ethnicity, and you’ll have to take that white male speaker off the agenda. But that fear makes two false assumptions.
First, there isn’t a limited amount of success. If you’re a published author, go ahead and champion the work of other writers. Let your editor know about the up-and-coming voices in your field! There isn’t a limit on the visibility in the publishing industry, and there are always other conferences with additional speaking slots. It’s faulty logic to assume this is a game of musical chairs and we have to claw over the remaining seats.
But more importantly, the point of playing musical chairs isn’t just to get a seat. It’s because, in its own style of cheery, wholesome party game, it’s fun. You play it to have fun. That’s the goal. Conferences don’t assemble speaker rosters with the aim of building brands and egos. Speakers don’t speak primarily to promote themselves. We speak to create new knowledge and grow a discipline. That’s the goal. Does extending suffrage to others dilute the value of each vote? Irrelevant. We really don’t vote to make our individual voices heard. We vote to collectively advance our democracy. That’s the goal.
When we focus on dividing participants by the wrong numerator—by limited speaker slots, limited visibility, limited success—it’s the wrong math. We should be growing our community, industry, and knowledge. Any other sort of thinking is nothing more than broken logic. It’s a misconception that misses the point, and distracts us from the goal: we need to solve an increasingly broad array of problems. To do so, we need to learn from a wide array of people.
When we come together in conferences and in online forums, let’s remember: we engage each other to advance our industry, not just ourselves.