Diversity Is Hard

The opening keynote was a woman, the closing keynote a black man.  In between there were 16 white men, 4 white women, 4 women of color and a Hispanic guy. According to my math that’s only 60% white guys, excellent numbers for most tech conferences, but not what I had hoped for. You see it was my conference, and I love diversity.

I love diversity because it makes us smarter. We learn from people of different genders, races, cultures, backgrounds, educations, life experiences… we learn every time we meet someone who isn’t just like us. And a conference is all about learning.

As well, it’s critical for young practitioners to see role models up on stage that look like them to be inspired. We may pretend it doesn’t matter all day long, but enough studies show it’s an indicator if young folks choose to stay in a career, or even consider it in the first place. We need women and people of color up on stage if we want this industry to get smarter.

When I was asked to “symposiarch” the Re:design conference, I was pretty excited. I got to pick a theme, and invite the speakers. I got to even coach them on their talks. Re:Design is run by Abuzz Productions, a company started by two fantastic and brilliant women. I felt like I was part of a team that would make this darn world better!  I wasn’t wrong, I just didn’t know how slippery a goal that was to hold onto.

It’s a very small conference, with tight margins, so I was asked to keep the speakers to local folks, with the exception of the keynote. Steve Johnson was on the top of my list; he and I used to joke about who was more oppressed by the Silicon Valley.  He’s funny, smart, charming and the head of a very successful User Experience team inside of a successful company.  Then I sent off a list of initial asks of New York smarties I hoped would speak, and went back to my regular life.

Then I found out there would be a few speakers not chosen by me, because of their pre-existing relationships with the conference. I am not criticizing this; I chatted with them and they were smart people with interesting ideas. And then a person I wanted to speak said she couldn’t and recommended a coworker, to whom I said yes.  Do you see where this is going? They were all white men. I started out about 50% men and women, then woke up to the fact the balance  had gotten away from me.

Meanwhile, we needed more speakers and guess who wrote in and asked to speak? Guys.  I stopped and stood my ground at that point. I was going to have as much diversity as I could possibly fit into the remaining slots. I didn’t know enough people in the New York City area, so I started hitting my network asking who was smart and awesome and a woman of color? My favorite response was,  how brown? More than one person asked it. I’m still contemplating what that says about us. Is a Hispanic person who you don’t know is Hispanic until you hear his last name diversity? Do Asians, well represented in the tech workforce, represent diversity?  I went with anyone who isn’t a white guy, and hoped for the best.

We still had one speaking slot to fill, and my organizers were freaking out a bit. One said, just get a body. And I said no. She sighed, and said, that’s why we chose you. You won’t back down. But I was wishing I had started stronger so not backing down wasn’t needed. I wish I had started with diversity.

Unless you start up with diversity as a goal, and constantly check to make sure you are living it, your conference will be white guys. They ask to speak, they ask for money, they promote themselves shamelessly so they end up top of mind when you make out wishlists. So even if you start with diversity, you have to also keep guarding it with all your efforts. It’s hard to do when you are dealing with venues and accessibility and dietary restrictions and a million other things.

I write this not to blame anyone, but to say, if you want diversity you are going to have to work for it.

It is well worth it.

As the last notes of jazz faded from Jeff Gothelf and Jim Kalbach’s session, and Steve Johnson took the stage, I felt relief and joy. The speakers were brilliant, and the stage had been as diverse as the audience, a mirror of each other.  We had put lie to any idea that making sure we had women and people of color made the quality any less, and had created a welcome and inspirational space for all.

Diversity is magic.




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  1. 4
    Catt Small

    Thank you so much for this. I hope this inspires more people to work this hard in order to make conference lineups more diverse. It really is important for people to see themselves in those on the stage, and different perspectives are crucial to improving the way we think and create products.

    I’m tired of hearing excuses about meritocracy, racism, and sexism as a reason not to search outside of our comfort zones. Conference and event organizers have the power to put the spotlight on people, and they should use that power responsibly. Keep doing what you’re doing, Christina!

  2. 5
    Ben Henick (@bhenick)

    From where I’m sitting the success of a product team—the kind of success that would get one of its members invited to a conference—is a function of talent, commitment, and esprit de corps. All of these need leadership, sometimes but rarely self-leadership, to make their mark in full.

    Catt’s bit about “comfort zones” leads me to the suspicion that, given a choice, most people thrust into a leadership role would prefer to lead those most like themselves.

    …Which strikes me as the anti-pattern you’re fighting.

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