Gendered podium, gendered crowd

I ordinarily regard John Gruber of Daring Fireball as someone whose insight has its own unimpeachable authority. He knows what he’s talking about, he minces no words, and he suffers absolutely no fools: my kinda guy.

That’s why I’m so disappointed with this piece of arrant nonsense. The topic is the relatively pronounced lack of female voices at design conferences, which discrepancy Gruber feels is plausibly a “reflection of the disproportionate number of men who are interested and involved in this field.”

Well, that rather depends on what you mean by “this field,” John. If you’re strictly talking about Web nerdery, you may narrowly have something to stand on, and this is why I myself have something close to zero interest in events devoted to such. But have you been to a d-school lately?

I can’t imagine how an assertion that “an overwhelming percentage of the people in the tech/design/web field are men” would be supportable after even a cursory glance around any of the programs I’m familiar with, or for that matter the young design and development practices they feed into. Most days, in fact, my “this field” looks to be composed mostly of women, possessed of sound theoretical grounding and fearsomely talented at working with Flexinol, Arduino, Unix and CNC milling.

Without even breaking a sweat, I could name you fifteen such who know what they’re talking about, mince no words, and suffer no fools – in theory, you could compose an entire conference program with nothing but, and at least locally, the problem would be solved. It’s precisely that John defines – has the power to define – this field as a markup-babbling scrum of geeky XYs that strikes me as blind to reality on the ground. My “tech/design/web” space must almost by definition overlap his, somehow, but at the moment I’m having a hard time seeing just where and how.

I’ll admit that it’s more complicated than that. Last year I defended Mike Kuniavsky’s Sketching in Hardware against Anne Galloway‘s similar charge of gender imbalance, because I was privy to Mike’s very early planning, I had seen the original list of invitees, and I know that the issue was of central concern to him. (If I recall correctly, too, Anne’s deeper issue was the more nuanced one that these conferences suffer from a lack of feminist perspectives, which isn’t something that’s necessarily remedied at the level of counting heads.)

In short – and lending some flesh to John Gruber’s otherwise weak assertion that “[i]t seems entirely possible that most of these conference organizers are making an effort at gender diversity” – I had seen that in the real world, even with the issue dead center on your radar, you could literally start out with a list that was 70% female and wind up with a 12:1 preponderance of men.

That would be a far stronger defense against the charge of gender imbalance in conference programming than the lame canard that the “audience” is disproportionately male. Would be, but for the fact that it stretches credulity to assert that this is what’s happening each and every time. It’s clearly not. So I can’t help but conclude that there isn’t really a valid argument in defense of the status quo, and for whatever reason, defending the status quo is what John seems to be doing.

My conclusion is flatly this: that some conference programmers, and more than some commentators – including a few who I otherwise respect enormously – simply don’t get it on this issue. What’s worse is that on some level many of those involved obviously do know there’s a problem, but for whatever reason feel personally attacked when anyone points this out. They react defensively, even dismissively; normally acute observers reach for the weakest and most discredited arguments in an attempt to justify something they deep down know is embarrassingly wrong. I’ve seen it happen more than once.

So. This isn’t about your feelings. There is a status quo, it’s problematic, and frankly it doesn’t deserve the efforts you devote to its defense. Again: this isn’t primarily about headcount. Resolving the situation to anyone’s satisfaction isn’t something that can or should be addressed by (men) inviting a wave of women to the podium, let alone by pandering to perceptions of “what women want.” It’s going to require people – mostly, in this case, male people – being willing to venture beyond the contours of their comfort zones, to rethink which voices they’re listening to. And to reconsider just who it is that they’re willing to grant the power to define their communities.

One response to “Gendered podium, gendered crowd”

  1. Dannie says :

    Oh, thanks for this. I have been female for the past fifty years of my life, and I have with some delight noticed the difference between men and women. However technology and work is not a matter of gender. I do not get gender issues. Period. There is however something about equal opportunity and something about authority. My voice will be heard when I have something to say, and frankly what I have to say will never be based on a gender issue. I am tired and sick of the polarisation between men and women, we are all one kind, we are human, deal with it.

    But then, I may just be not very tolerant. Why would I expect a society hung up on sex, to be free thinking when it comes to gender? Why muddle work or technology with gender?

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