On false dichotomies and diversity.

A person who calls for greater diversity is not necessarily advocating the implementation of a quota system — that’s a straw man fallacy. Similarly, having a diverse roster of speakers at a conference does not imply that those speakers were not chosen on merit. Diversity and a merit‐based selection process are not mutually exclusive. To state the contrary is a false dichotomy. And before assuming that a conference probably couldn’t find enough women because not enough women applied (blaming the victim), first find out whether or not the selection process actually included an open call for talks.

A meritocracy of men

The first diversity controversy of 2013 for the Interweb community kicked off a few days ago with a post by Matt Andrews titled Diversity in tech: still an issue in 2013? In the post, Matt details how he called out one of the organisers of Edge Conference on Twitter for having an all‐male line‐up of 22 speakers1, calling it ‘inexcusable’. Edge is a conference run by FT Labs, Google, and Facebook, and the organiser in question, Andrew Betts, is the director of FT Labs. Andrew responded to Matt’s challenge by stating: “I don’t feel [the] need to defend this, but am happy with our process.”

In his post, Matt goes on to state the following:

I don’t know what their selection process was, but if it was me organising it, I would explicitly not be satisfied with a process that resulted in 100% male speakers. I would have stopped once we’d reached, say, 17 male out of 22 possible speakers (being pretty conservative, I think) and insisted that the remaining five (a cool 22% female representation) would have to be women.

In an industry where 27–29% are female, if you manage to get a speaker line‐up with 0% female speakers, you have a bias. It does not necessarily mean that you’re a male chauvinist pig with a deep‐seated hatred for women who is determined to hoist the banner for sexism to exciting new heights with his next event. It may just mean that you have an unexamined, unconscious bias2. If you care about diversity, this is the point where you should be disappointed in your process, not — as Andrew stated he was in his tweet — ‘happy with’ it.

The Quota Straw Man

I know that a lot of people are getting hung up on Matt’s suggestion that he would stop at 17 and insist that the remaining five speakers be women. This is the point that many of my Twitter followers latched onto, using it to inaccurately conflate a call for greater diversity at conferences with a call for a quota system. I believe sloppy writing is probably to blame here more than anything else. People who are interested in seeing greater diversity at conferences are not calling for a quota system. That’s a straw man fallacy3. If, however, you reach 17 speakers and they’re all male, you should realise that you’ve reached a point where you need to take a moment to introspect your process and attempt to modify it to reduce your selection bias. This does not mean that you stop at 17 and start looking for five women as Matt states. It means that you go back to step one and re‐evaluate your entire selection process.

Faruk Ateş covers just this sort of scenario in his excellent post titled The Problem with a Slate of White, Male Speakers, of which I quote generously below:

My point is that in order to get to such a scenario, you have already gone through a flawed process. Already you have failed to actively reach out to (enough) women, and failed to introduce a diversity of selection in your own process of qualification.

If you as a conference organizer are in such a position, all the steps you’ve taken so far have had an element of mistake to them. You’ve ignored or missed every opportunity to introduce diversity into the mix. I don’t attribute this to malice, and neither does almost anyone else. This is virtually never an intentional scenario for conference organizers to find themselves in. They also don’t necessarily want such a scenario, either. The problem lies in them not knowing, or not caring enough, how to avoid it. Plenty of resources exist online to avoid such a scenario, so every time it does happen, it is a failing on the organizers’ part.

As Faruk mentions, there are a lot of resources online that conference organisers who care about diversity can refer to. Here are just three of them by conference organisers who successfully managed to collate diverse speaker rosters via a meritocratic process: How I got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference, Beating the Odds — How We got 25% Women Speakers for JSConf EU 2012, and Solving the Pipeline Problem.

The experiences of the three conference organisers referenced in the articles above not only constitute a valuable resource for others but also serve another important purpose: they help shatter the notion that there is a dichotomy between diversity and meritocracy.

The Diversity versus Meritocracy False Dichotomy

This fallacy takes several forms but it always carries with it at least the implicit assumption that there is a necessary dichotomy between diversity and meritocracy. In other words, it erroneously implies that diversity and meritocracy are somehow mutually exclusive when they are not. You need only read the testimonials of the three conference organisers linked above to realise that you can very readily have a diverse conference where the speakers are picked on merit. In fact, reading through their experiences, you may find that their selection processes are actually more meritocratic than those of conferences where the conference organiser or curator selects speakers from his or her own personal and professional circles (keeping in mind that the two circles often intersect and that they are usually difficult to separate completely).

In its least vocal form, this fallacy is present as an unspoken assumption:

The conference has an all‐male speaker list, therefore the selection process must have been a meritocracy.

Of course, this is a non sequitur — it does not logically follow that a selection process was based on merit simply because it resulted in an all‐male speaker list. The speakers may have been drinking buddies of the conference organiser, for example, or the curator’s sample pool may have been otherwise biased.

Another version of the argument goes:

A conference that has a meritocratic selection process is bound to end up with few women.

Again, this is confusing correlation with causation. It is not a meritocratic selection process but rather selection and sample biases that lead to the under‐representation of women at conferences. And by under‐representation, I mean in relation to their already‐low rate of representation in the industry.

And, of course, the argument leads to conclusions similar to the following:

If a conference is to have gender diversity, it will be forced to choose females based on their gender and not their merit.

Which leads us back to the straw man we mentioned earlier that those who ask for greater diversity at conferences are calling for quotas and that this will lead to female speakers being chosen based on their gender and not their ability. Some brave defenders of male rights even go so far as to state that potential deserving male speakers will be unfairly stripped of their meritocratic rights to speak at conferences because of this. Needless to say, this is absolute hogwash.

As the three conferences linked to above can testify, not only is diversity possible in a meritocracy, it can actually thrive in one. Implying that we must sacrifice merit for diversity is to argue a false dichotomy.

The ‘How Many Women Applied?’ Loaded Question

A final fallacy I am seeing repeated often during this latest controversy is people jumping to the conclusion that women must just not have applied to speak. Many times, the question asked is a loaded one. It assumes that there was an open call for speakers. This is not always the case at conferences.

Some conference organisers choose to curate the talks themselves, extending invitations to speakers whom they have found by means other than a call for submissions. Given lack of evidence to the contrary (I could find no link to a call for submissions section on their site), and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary provided by the conference organisers themselves, we must assume that the Edge conference was curated without an open call for speakers. In other words, asking ‘How many women applied?’ is meaningless as women could not have applied to speak. Nor could men have. The speakers were chosen by the conference organisers.

The flawed assumption behind this particular loaded question is not merely the result of an innocent mistake; it has a more nefarious purpose: to blame the victim. The argument goes:

Surely not enough women must have applied if they ended up with an all‐male speaker list.

So the blame is of course not with the selection process or the organisational committee but with the women who did not apply to speak at a non‐existent call for speakers.

How very convenient!

And yes, we will continue to talk about this…

If anything, the people who annoy me most on this subject are the ones who tell you to shut up about it. These men and women4 are happy with the status quo. They play by its rules and it works for them. Good for them. We, who are unhappy with the status quo, have as much right to voice our opinions as they do. So, whatever you do, don’t you dare tell me to shut up about it. I couldn’t care less if you’re ‘sick of hearing about it’. You will keep hearing about it until it changes. We’re not just talking about it either, we are working to change it. And if you’re standing in our way, don’t be surprised when you soon find yourself on the wrong side of history. I want to see this change as much as anyone. I am a boy but I hate the boys’ club — it’s outmoded, greasy, and it stinks.

In my article on The Male Gaze, last year, I concluded with the following thoughts, which I feel bear repeating:

I believe in equality–regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, etc. I want to live in a world where, as a white, heterosexual male, I have no special privileges. And, I’m happy to use whatever privileges I may have today to help achieve that goal.

But I’ll leave the last word to Martin Belam, who makes a poignant point about why making a fuss about all this is so important:

If my daughter grows up and wants to go into tech, and is still faced with events where organisers think it is OK to have 22 male speakers out of a possible 22 speakers, she’ll be entitled to turn around to me and ask why I didn’t make a fuss when I could.

Further reading

References for conference organisers who care


1 The conference has since added two female panellists to its line‐up.

2 Faruk Ateş covers the difference between systemic discrimination and active discrimination well in his article, The Problem with a Slate of White, Male Speakers.

3 The straw man fallacy is committed when a person ignores your actual position on an issue and substitutes it with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version to attack. In this case, we are pointing out that a conference that has an all‐male speaker list of 22 speakers lacks diversity. The straw man is that we are asking for a quota system (e.g., ‘at least 30% of speakers at a conference should be women’). We are not asking for this at all. What we are actually asking for is that conferences adopt selection processes that result in greater diversity. It is not necessary to defend the straw man position since it is a misrepresentation of the position that we actually hold.

4 Yes, women too. As Jolie O’Dell states in her article Play with my V spot, “Patriarchy wouldn’t be patriarchy without women’s participation.”