When every speaker on stage is a white guy, doing sketchnotes of what they're saying looks like betrayal.
I’ve collected a lot of autographs over the past four years. The reactions I’ve gotten, as I hold out my Sharpie, have ranged from shock to blasé acceptance, as though this is something that happens every day.
Well, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.
I do sketchnotes of conference talks, almost always for pay, and mainly ones in the tech industry. One page, summarizing the ideas shared from the stage, making the patterns of the speaker’s thoughts visual, far better than any slide deck can. A sketchnote convinces folks to sit down and watch a video after the event is long over. I am hired to create something that can be shared along through social media, amplifying the voice of speakers long after the conference is over. I’m hired to document whatever the organizer considers to be the most important content.
But I’m limited by who’s already been selected to speak, so in the end, I amplify the voices of those already privileged with amplification: white men in tech. My rough estimate is that 80% of my sketchnotes are of men. Another 6% are of panels of speakers, usually with one woman or fewer on the panel.
The Ocean of White Men
I’ve spoken to a number of event organizers about the “ocean of white men” conference lineup. I’ve asked what challenges they’re facing in finding the right people. Not just for conferences either, but for hackathon judging panels, for mentors at accelerators. All these events have the same problem: lack of diversity. The conference organizers plead that it’s just too difficult to find qualified speakers while attempting to run a solid event.
The claim has shifted somewhat in the last few years. In 2011 when I first started sketchnoting conferences I also started asking, why so few women? I kept hearing that women just don’t want to speak, that experienced women are too busy with their families, have different values, allocate their time such that the duties of a conference speaker just don’t fit. (The same argument was used to explain why women’s attendance at conferences was so low.)
These days, that argument has been replaced with another, equally unfounded: that women, even those with “sufficient” expertise and career clout aren’t suitable speakers because they “lack the speaking experience” needed to take the main stage. Have you ever seen a bad presentation given by a man up on the big stage? I have. I’ve seen innumerable “qualified” men falter through boring talks while I’ve had to sit sketchnoting them. What does seeing this do to the women who need a space on the stage? What does this say to those working their way up?
Ultimately, all of the excuses given for why women aren’t represented at conferences – as attendees or speakers – ring false against the many events that ARE representing women. Take theShe’s Geeky unconference here in Silicon Valley. I finally got to attend this year, and it was a shock I was ill-prepared for. This was a room full of talent and knowledge. I was only at She’s Geeky for one day. One day, on a weekend, with over 250 attendees, all of them women. No, that doesn’t make all of them immediate candidates for the main stage. It does, however, prove that women are willing to show up — and pay for — events where they feel like they belong and where they can have a voice.
So what’s wrong with the other events? Why aren’t women making it up on stage? The way tech events recruit speakers relies heavily on where prospects have spoken before. Big stages are reserved for seasoned speakers or names that will have “draw.” Names that have enough Twitter followers. Names that have a company backing them. Names that have been handed up through the ranks of trusted connections. If there are no connections to hand your name along, you never get that first speaking opportunity. You never have a chance to step up on that first stage because there’s always someone else who’s a safer bet. I’ve asked men in the tech community repeatedly to take a look at their Twitter lists. Do they follow any women in their industry? Can they name any? The ones I’ve had reason to ask come up empty. The women they’re listening to will be friends from school or that celebrity who says “funny stuff,” not peers.
How then would they know, when a call for speakers comes out, which woman would be appropriate for nomination?
Yes, this is directed especially to that “ocean of white men” ’cause you’re the ones who need to be working to fix things. There’s no prebaked easy way to fix this or to ensure conferences and other events just magically repair themselves. But, there are some odds and ends at your disposal, especially at the disposal of men who are willing to recognize that they can change things for the better.
- Follow women in the tech industry on Twitter. Yes, you’ll have to do some research to find them. @FeministsDrinkand @TechLadyMafia and those who follow them are a good place to start.
- If you’re an organizer, or someone who gets asked by organizers “who should speak at…?”, get familiar with Mics-To-Watch-Out-For on Pinterest and be sure to ask some of those women you’ve started following on Twitter to nominate speakers.
- Remember that diversity is not just the responsibility of the organizers. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, ask the organizers what their diversity goals are. Will they be shooting for a 50/50 split of men and women? Offer to help them recruit quality speakers who aren’t just white men.
- If you’re asked to speak at a conference that lacks a Code of Conduct, request that they get one in place before you agree to speak. Not only does this draw more diverse attendees to the conference, it also protects you and all the other speakers you share the stage with.
A Rough Sketch
Sketchnotes are much like writing. You learn a series of pictures just like you learn words in a language. They become shorthand. Sometimes those images get to dominate the pieces, sometimes words do. It all depends on the speaker.
I’m ending with some sketchnotes I’ve done of women speakers I had the honor to document. They each had a part in inspiring me to believe I belonged up there too.
The theme of TEDx DePaulU was “Creators & Curators.” I was intrigued to see that the line-up, an esoteric one to say the least, still didn’t manage to include an equal number of men & women. Particularly since women “own” Pinterest and much of the rest of the curated web. Betsy Hoover shared her story of curating a community, not just online, but door to door. Her story was a powerful one; simple, and strongly delivered.
It’s not often that you run across a conference, and one that – though small – has had five editions, that has consistently maintained such a near perfect gender balance that when you look through the speaker pages you don’t really notice it. At Farmhouse Conf 5, Claire Evans touched on the point of lacking a reset button in our modern world. If you don’t do the right thing from the start, there’s no way to go back and erase those false steps. In a relationship, or as a person of influence picking who steps up on the stage to speak under your auspices.
Geekfest had a long history of being a great place for developers to get a single dose of outside knowledge. Just before Jen Myers moved to Chicago to join DevBootcamp as one of their instructors, she agreed to do a talk for the Geekfest crew.