Recently there has been a little tempest, started by two very visible people in a small professional community, about the superficiality of diversity in the context of workplace: specifically, in the line-up of conference speakers. I’ve met both of the posters, and think that they’re both thoughtful people. I wouldn’t call them sexist people, but I do think the more pervasive aspects of sexism may have been lost on them, and that their own race and gender may hamstring them into seeing it without remedial help.
So let me try to explain it.
Our days as people are filled with information, conclusions and decisions – some we get to make, some are made for us. Most people don’t have the time to truly ponder each decision we make, and so we come up with shorthand ways to evaluate what comes before us, whether it’s visual or audio stimulus, documents from one publisher or another, or people we meet. We look to understand quickly whether to include or exclude based on a bunch of methods based on our own individual experiences and education, as well as our own station in society. And make no mistake about it, we all have a station whether we like it or not.
Some people face more interpersonal challenges on their way through life based on color, or religious identification, or physical arrayment. But the one knife that cuts through nearly every subgroup in society as well as the uncomfortable, gaping patchwork of the whole is gender.
Women, biological and self-identified, are the underclass in each group. Their lesser status is often manifest in legislation, or remnants thereof. Or it’s in religious hierarchy. Or it’s in education, and who is granted access or unequal challenges to a particular sphere of study. Or it’s in the workplace, in the interview process, and in the paycheck.
It’s also in who we “see” (whether we actually can see them, or if we know them as representative of an organization or field).
Recognizing that this is pretty rich speech coming from a white woman with a university education, I would note that the additional factors I barely touched on earlier in this post serve as multipliers, not additive factors. But from my little part of the world, as someone whose success has been impacted in real ways by the advantages of race and education and a sensitivity to sources of power, gender is always the first line of obstacle, and frankly, unless you have professional aptitude and the stomach for battle and, in my case, some completely random factors that served you, it’s enough of an obstacle, even today.
Whether these people don’t care about having diversity in conference panels is orthogonal to why it’s important. Everytime conference organizers write it off, not even thinking about what kind of environment is explicitly created with a cadre of white guys, some of whom are not very good speakers, over and over again, you just reinforce the notion that these guys are all the people worth listening to. The only ones. Others need not apply.
And the audience turns from people with potential impact to a bunch of dorks on the latest webgeek reunion tour, reminiscing about the good old days. You don’t need to wait 20 years for that in Web industry.
Finally, you don’t have to be able to figure out why it’s significant for it to be so. It will go on being important, with or without you.
p.s giving into the queen-bee slot won’t help either. It takes a hive to make honey.