I’ve been watching the “conversation” of outrage unfold on Twitter the last few days and finally decided it was time to say something. I know its a minority of people that are making a stir and on the one hand, it’s probably best not to respond and simply let it go away, but on the other, I’ve seen this happen now for so many other conferences too that I felt it was time to try and put things in perspective. It seems that every time a conference is announced and the speaker lineup listed, somebody pours over the list to determine if its racially and sexually diverse enough. It’s almost as if we should appoint an official committee to approve or disapprove every conference’s lineup. Enough is enough.
I find a number of things about this outcry to be contradictory and quite frankly, dishonest.
True Diversity and Representation
The center of this debate is whether or not conferences like LessConf are using an unbalanced and unfair, even racist and sexist representation of the industry demographic by lining up a bunch of Caucasian male’s for all the speaking. The demands have been for more women and more “people of color”.
But let’s use some facts to cut through the heated emotions. Considering that the largest portion of our population, 15%, are descendants of Germans, it would only be fair if 15% of all speakers at all US based conferences are also of German descent. Irish is next at almost 11%. Then we get to African American, English, American, Mexican, Italian, Polish, French, and the list goes on. As for White Americans as a group, regardless of ancestry, the ones who “unfairly” dominate the speaking roles, the percentage is 80. My question to you who want so desperately for every conference to be “diverse”, how do we pull that off without having 50 speakers? And we haven’t even discussed gender yet.
Next I went through Scobleizer’s Twitter list of founders; 500 in total. Want to guess what I found (at least judging by the avatar?) 36 of the 500 were women. That’s 1 in every 14. So to be fair, how about a new rule of thumb for conference lineups? For every 14 males you invite, you have to invite 1 woman? As for African American’s I saw 1. Yes, just 1. There were certainly many from other countries, but very few could easily be determined by their skin color. Maybe 20 – 40 or so who were identifiable by their avatars as non-caucasian male. So if being statistically representative of the demographic is the goal, its going to have to be all caucasian males at the conferences. Sorry folks.
What does it mean to discriminate?
Here’s the thing about racism and sexism, you can’t determine if someone, like a conference organizer, is a racist/sexist by the makeup of the speaker lineup. You are seeing the outcome of a lot of work, a lot of phone calls and emails; a whole lot of networking. The result cannot logically indicate what is in the heart of the organizer. Perhaps if the person in question were making racist or sexist comments, or mistreating people of the opposite gender and race, then you’d have some grounds to make a case.
As for discrimination, I think its time for a refresher on what discrimination actually is. So from dictionary.com, here’s the definition:
treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit
In other words, if you look at a group of speakers and think to yourself, I wish the makeup of race and gender where different in order to be fair, you are practicing discrimination. You see, the conference organizers who pick the best 9 speakers, from the circle of whom they know or are able to come in contact with, and who is willing, and who is available and who is popular enough to draw attendees willing to fly across country and pay almost $1000 after flight, hotel, and ticket, may not have been discriminating in any way. It may never have even crossed their minds as to what color, ethnicity or sex any of them were. If they selected based on merit and availability, then by definition they did not discriminate. However, if after they saw their lineup and thought, “uh oh, no women, African Americans, Germans, Indians, etc, we have to fix this,” they would then very much be guilty of discrimination.
Who has the right to determine the goal and message of a conference?
I’ve read some outlandish opinions on this one during the debate. Some believe the conference is there to give the audience what they want, but that is only half the story. In selecting speakers, a conference organizer generally has a message or a goal they feel is an important one to provide to the audience. While they certainly want the audience to connect and to be enticed by it, they also are doing it because they themselves feel its important to share. It’s not a shotgun of hopes and wishes for success. A lot of thought goes into who the speakers will be and what their message will be. If conference organizers have to be worried about the physical appearance of the speakers, I wonder how many conferences we will even have in coming years and certainly I wonder what the quality of them will be. Not because women and non-caucasian men aren’t wise and experienced (is there really anyone who feels this way anymore? I see no evidence of it), but simply because the focus will no longer be on who the person is and what their message is, but instead on what gender and race they are. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It seems that no matter how hard we try to move on from racism and sexism and have true equality, the very people who vocally champion such a cause, are the ones keeping racial and sexual differences at the forefront, making sure we never forget to see the color of a persons skin when we look at them.
You know what I want to focus on? Building kick-ass startups; creating awesome web sites, solving peoples problems by using our wonderful new technology, and meeting people like Steve Bristol, Allan Branch, Dan Martell, Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, etc. Just like last year I got to meet Gary Vaynerchuk in person and have lunch with him, and then meet David Hauser, who I’d never heard of, but now have great respect for and have learned a lot from, I fully expect to learn from and meet many great people at this year’s LessConf.
Where is our focus?
In the end, the good news is this: those who attend LessConf and other beneficial conferences, will gain new wisdom from the experiences of the speakers and will learn and grow from meeting other like minded folk, regardless of gender, sexual preference, age, or race. They will come away from LessConf enriched, refreshed, and wiser, with new friends, wider networks, and possibly a whole new outlook on their endeavors. Those that stay away because LessConf didn’t put enough effort into purposeful discrimination, will continue to feel bitter and miserable; will continue to shake their head that this world is still so focused on race and gender…even though they themselves are the only ones who still notice the color of a person’s skin, the origin of their birthplace, or the specific mix of X/Y chromosomes.
I hope the offended can one day bring themselves to see past the perceived discrimination to what is being offered here: the opportunity to hear from some truly successful and wise people, and attend one of the best organized conferences in the country, run by two people who really care about everyone who attends, and really care about sharing the wisdom of the speakers to the attendees. This conference puts you close to the speakers, it involves you, it brings you together, not separates. I recommend you attend and leave your discrimination concerns at home. There’s no room for it in this community, and there isn’t near as much of it, if any, as some would have us believe. What there is, is a whole lot of opportunity for us to learn from each other, put our differences aside and build some really great things.