The Phony Balance Benchmark

There’s a palpable tension in my shoulders as I tap this out — I know already that this post will create cringe-worthy responses and name calling and all the rest. But on we plod.

A friend called out to me a peculiar feature of a conference Program Committee they were serving on: that it was part of the PC’s role to keep a look out for strong minority/female speakers and encourage them to submit to the open CFP.

Soooooooo much has been written on these points, but in my (biased) view Frances covers it well:

Discrimination is a problem. I, personally, don’t give a monkey’s how many women or whoever are in our industry, as long as everyone who wanted to be here could and had free opportunity to do so, but sadly that is not the case and as such our community is not representative of all those that could be here if discrimination, from stereotyping roles to outright sexism/racism/agism/*ism, was not present. As such, we have a duty to address the problems that disable people’s opportunities.

I found myself reflecting on the PC’s I’ve served on over the years and the many styles they’ve embodied. There’s a particular style to the O’Reilly-run conferences that is distinctive, largely for the scale involved. OSCON is hundreds of talks across dozens of rooms. Velocity EU isn’t that much smaller. The level of curation that each PC applies is also hugely variable: Steve Souders is incredibly hands-on and detail oriented whereas I have no idea who actually heads up the OSCON PC any more. It doesn’t seem to functionally matter. But in both cases, despite the huge differences in style and approach, the box into which ORA puts the PCs creates the illusion of responsibility for a balance which, as Frances accurately notes, isn’t a particularly local concern.

The pressure itself is unmistakeable. The overt urges to over-select for some trait, the conversations that happening among PC members or in comments in the review tools…as long as it’s not anonymized feedback against anonymized submissions (my favorite kind), the cultural need to be seen to be “doing something” at a point far, far removed from any actual leverage is nearly overwhelming. And the risks to “doing something” are enormous. Nobody at a tech conference wants to be a token of anything other than sparkling technical achievement.

The risks to conference organizers run counter, however: we’ve seen over and over again that the angry mob demonstrates little faculty with math. And that mob can sink a conference. The mob’s leaders don’t appear to acknowledge that some populations are structurally under-represented in computing (conflating it with generic “STEM” representation levels, even after correction), or that being the case, that bludgeoning PCs and organizers into over-representation may present as many pitfalls as positives.

What to do?

The conclusion that smacked me upside the head today is that conference organizers must nip this in the bud: demonstrate action at the root cause to diffuse the tension that would otherwise bubble into inappropriate selection pressure and math-challenged “advocacy”. The solution is the same in both cases: credibly commit to donating a % of revenue (not profit) to efforts that teach more girls and other under-represented minorities how to be engineers.

We can’t retroactively fix the selection pressures that got us to the current terrible state. But we can clear the path for the next generation, and we can set a better example of being decent humans each other while our overly-white, overly-male generation of engineers recedes into anecdote. Conferences that commit, audit-ably and credibly to doing this, along with setting codes of conduct and taking their responsibilities seriously in other regards, are doing the only things that can be truly argued to be in the best good for our discipline. We must work to create the conditions of equal opportunity in our field, not merely affect the outward appearance of a discipline that has it.

It’s time to de-fang the phony arguments about “balance”, re-direct our focus to the areas that can have more effect, and judge the results by the wellbeing of our peers and those who seek to join those ranks.

Update: I elided any discussion of effectiveness of the organizations which I’m suggesting conferences should be supporting. That was intentional. There’s quite a lot of variability in effectiveness and, in most cases, not even much measurement. The process of bringing interested youngsters into CS is fraught with hurdles, and the right mental model is a “sales funnel” in which we lose potential conversions at many steps. Equal opportunity must be present at each step in the funnel for it to be truly achieved. I’d hope that conferences and others supporting the cause of equality in technology take a data-driven view to how to best deploy their support. But the failures of most charitable organizations to characterize their results is a long digression for another time.


  1. Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    So – I always find it a bit disingenuous when men argue or otherwise opine about how to be more inclusive towards women, but I will wade in: Yes – it’s important to support getting more women and girls into engineering. However, my perception is that there are already many women in tech who may not participate in tech conferences partially due to a perception that they are not friendly environments for women due to the gender imbalance they see in the speaker line-ups and program committees. My own experience in running conferences and events is that when you have more women speakers you will have more women attendees. The other issue is the need to work against hidden bias – is it that there really are no qualified female speakers on a particular topic or is it that you (as a male program committee member) just “feel more comfortable” with male speakers (has been called “mirrortocracy.”) I think that conference organizers need to actively work against these biases and do sometimes need to make special effort to find women speakers, in service of making events more friendly to women.

  2. Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Hey Daniel,

    I don’t find it disingenuous at all. It’s like saying you have to be African to understand AIDS: at the level of fixing it, there are better and worse ways to approach the problem as attested to by data about outcomes. Experience is a shortcut to both understanding and misunderstanding. There’s little to suggest that the genitalia (or continent of origin) of the thinker is correlated with better/worse solutions independently of other factors.

    But back to conferences: I think the point got missed. Having nobody represented from a minority group when the sample sizes are small is just a statistical probability. I’m with you in in terms of working against bias up to the point of population reflection. After that, everyone has reasons to suspect there’s something amiss.

    So we need more and better data from conference organizers: what % of speakers and attendees represent various groups? Doing this in an anonymized way is likely best as it will discourage the pitchfork wielding and it’s only from a broad picture that you’ll get any sense of structural under- or over-representation.

    I can’t, agree, however that seeking over-representation has huge benefits of its own. To what end? Why shouldn’t those participating feel less valued for the quality of their technical accomplishments?


  3. Alice
    Posted July 10, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I’m honestly not sure how you went from “part of the PC’s role to keep a look out for strong minority/female speakers and encourage them to submit to the open CFP” to “angry mob [which] demonstrates little faculty with math”.

    I’m wondering whether you came across this piece in your research: – this article describes a three-pronged approach which led to a speaker line-up with a 25% female representation. One part of the strategy was, yes, to seek out and “encourage people from under-represented groups to submit to the CFP.” But I doubt you would object two the other two parts: “Open an inviting call for presentations (CFP)” and “Select talks anonymously, and state in the CFP that you do so.” The piece even concurs with you on tokenism: “Nobody wants to be invited to speak because of their gender, or skin colour, or sexual orientation, or whatever else. Nobody likes special treatment. Nobody likes to be the token-representative.”

    The idea that women in technology could be somehow unaware of how under-represented they are (or… incapable of calculating ratios? I know the jokes about programmers and mathematics, but seriously…) in general is mind-boggling. During my career, I would say that I’ve been the sole woman in the majority of meetings I’ve been in, and certainly on practically every team I’ve been on. Which is all the more reason why I want to see women speaking at conferences – a 50/50 split isn’t what I’m after, I realise you can’t create people out of thin air, I just don’t want to see yet another conference with an all-male line-up, when it’s so easy to avoid – just because it takes effort doesn’t make it tokenism, or unrepresentative. It’s simply an acknowledgement and response to the fact that the experiences of under-represented groups are different to those of the majority.

  4. Posted July 10, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Hey Alice,

    The angry mob has actually shut down well-organized (and intentioned) conferences and created a few near-misses as well. I don’t think it’s bad for the PC to keep their eyes open, nor for the chairs to suggest it, but I know it’s a microcosm of various pressures (which I may not have represented well) that I have heard organizers fret about time and again. The line between them is clearer in my head than in my writing. Apologies.

    I have seen the JSConf post and have recommended that approach on occasion. I think — disagreements about which orgs to support to the side — they’re doing a great job and have thought about this in more depth than some others.

    But I really can’t stomach the idea of broad, aggressive over-representation of any population without something like a good cause. And saying “it’s easy to have women (etc.)” makes no claims about the utility of inclusion. And it’s the utility I’m hung up on: I want more women in computing because I know that our lack of diversity is hurting me and the people I care about.

    All of this, for me, hinges on the “why”. It’s not just a thing to do to check a box and I’m hoping we don’t let organizers, PC’s, or speakers off the hook for being introspective about the contents of the gatherings we put together.

    If our gatherings accurately reflect how far we have to go, and if that annoys and stirs us to some effective action, that’s a good outcome from my perspective. And it doesn’t need to deny or accept the currently endemic sexism of our discipline. We can be as loud, angry, and worked up about this as we need to be without stooping to demand ineffective remedies.