Regarding Kottke’s Piece on Gender Diversity at Web Conferences

Yesterday Jason Kottke published a gender breakdown of the speakers at recent and upcoming “tech/design/web” conferences, and the numbers are rather striking. Several of the conferences have no women speakers at all, and the only conference where more than 25 percent of the speakers are women is SXSW (31%).1

Kottke writes:

From this list, it seems to me that either the above concerns are not getting through to conference organizers or that gender diversity doesn’t matter as much to conference organizers as they publicly say it does.

This implies that the problem lies with the conference organizers. These numbers are indeed striking, but striking compared to what? The 50-50 gender split of the general population?

What percentage of the attendees at these conferences are women? What percentage of the developers and designers of web apps are women? What percentage of tech/design/web weblogs are written by women?

My guess is that the answers to these questions would show a gender breakdown comparable to that of the speakers at these web conferences. I.e. that an overwhelming percentage of the speakers at these conferences are men might not be a sign of gender bias on the part of the conference organizers, but rather a reflection of the fact that an overwhelming percentage of the people in the tech/design/web field are men. The proportions are even more skewed if you consider programming specifically.

Without answers to these questions, it’s impossible to know whether these conference speaker numbers indicate bias on the part of the organizers. It seems entirely possible that most of these conference organizers are making an effort at gender diversity, and that the discrepency is a reflection of the disproportionate number of men who are interested and involved in this field.

Consider other intellectually challenging fields such as medicine and law. Both of these fields were, until recently, dominated by men. But the reason for this is that women were denied the opportunity; starting a generation ago, these barriers were removed, and the percentage of women in those fields has risen ever since.

This 2001 story in The New York Times reported that women are now close to being a majority of students in law schools, and in 2000 constituted 46 percent of first-year medical students. In 1970, only 10 percent of law students were women.

There’s obviously something quite different about science and technology. For example, according to The Boston Globe, the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001, and only 20 percent of computer science PhD recipients are women. It’s not because of a lack of opportunity or aptitude; it’s a lack of interest.

So the issue here isn’t why there aren’t more women speaking at web conferences, but why there aren’t more women interested in web nerdery.

  1. Not counting the BlogHer Business 2007 conference, where all 43 speakers are women. ↩︎