SXSW, why i attended and marginalized populations
OK, SXSW was awesome. I’m sure the Flickr photos show the amount of ridiculousness that went on. There was more. I could pretend to discuss the panels but, let’s be honest, i didn’t attend many. I did however miraculously make it to mine. I spent a lot of time talking with people, hearing people’s stories. I got to meet lots of bloggers i didn’t know, got to hear about what other people loved about certain technologies and learn about a few new ones.
Malcolm Gladwell made the entire trip worth it for me. OMG… to have a speaker who was able to speak to the issues of marginalization at a tech conference in a way that people listened by focusing on the experiments took my breath away. I hope at least a fraction of the packed room heard the implications of what he said, of what Blink says. Take his key example: orchestras thought that they were judging men and women equally and that women were just not as good. When they started putting up a curtain at the auditions, suddenly, the ratios changed. Drastically. We have biases in every interaction, unconsciously. And in order to level the playing field, we have to actively work to deal with those biases because we have to change the social structure in order to rid ourselves of the biases.
Speaking of which, i feel the need to address the why sxsw post by Liz and David’s why etech post. I chose to go to SXSW. I was actually part of the 5% who applied to etech, only my application was rejected because it wasn’t emerging. That’s fair. But as an academic, i can only go to conferences that i present at. I wasn’t even thinking about SXSW until Tantek approached me to speak on a panel there. At first, i hesitated at his puppy dog eyes. And then i started talking to the gals and realized that it would be a great opportunity to meet up with folks. And then when i saw the program, i got ecstatic to see that issues of identity and other risque topics were going to be actively dealt with, all in the topical structure of SXSW. And there were going to be diverse keynotes, not all of which were technically focused, but applicable to the tech crowd. This made me very very very excited.
David argues that the reason that Etech should be forgiven is because their applicant pool was dismally lacking diversity. I think he’s wrong. Of course it is dismal and not due to a lack of talent out there but due to social networks. Lots of people don’t even know that they can submit proposals. Almost all of the speakers at this year’s Etech were floating around Etech last year. They’re already part of the in-crowd. What percentage of Etech applicants attended Etech in a previous year? Given that a small number of women attend the conference, there’s going to be a poor representation in applicants. And there were even fewer people of color.
More importantly, marginalized populations often don’t think that their voice matters as much as the dominant voices. If we’re not part of the social network, we’re going to think that even less. I didn’t know you could apply to be at Etech until after i was invited to go – i never would’ve even considered applying. And i didn’t know how SXSW panels magically appeared until two days ago.
It’s socially and culturally not an equal playing field. You can’t build a meritocracy on top of that and one doesn’t exist. There are biases at every level. And if you want diversity, you need to actively go after it. Conference organizers – reach out to the women and people of color you know and ask them to brainstorm with you. Actively invite marginalized groups who you know are doing great stuff (or get your friends who are women, POC to do so). Make sure you have diversity on your board. Put together identity-driven BOFs. Invite diverse groups to the low-key events where they’re underrepresented so that they can meet and greet (because not all get-togethers are conferences). Do *NOT* expect them to come to you. When you do so, you perpetuate hegemonic forces – you become part of the problem. Meritocracy doesn’t emerge by just pretending it exists and without equal grounding, it is not possible.
Update: After a conversation last night, i wanted to clarify a few things. In conferences like SXSW and Etech, there’s no clear delineation of what is an acceptable topic or not (as opposed to say CHI). I mean – what is interactive or emerging? Additionally, the review panel consists of a very small number of people (all of who are pretty much guaranteed a slot). At CHI, there are hundreds and hundreds of blind reviewers. At SXSW and Etech, the metric is “interesting” – this is where we get ourselves into trouble. Interesting to whom? To the un-diverse review committee?
At CHI, everyone who is working in the field of HCI knows about it and gets to decide whether or not they appreciate the scope. Many of us in the margins grumble regularly, but still submit our work there. Not everyone working on emergent or interactive knows about Etech and SXSW. A few small percentage of people in each field go. Who goes is very very driven by social networks. Given the homophilous nature of social networks, the longer you go without diversifying, the less diverse it will get and you will have to work harder and more explicitly because you will not get random diverse applications when it’s seen as non-diverse. Thus, you have to be explicit to counter that process. People who apply to these conferences have mostly gone to it before or been recruited. If your audience is not diverse, you won’t have a diverse application pool.
One concern that was raised regards the % of women working in these fields. We’re not talking computer science – not everyone at Etech/SXSW is a CS person. We’re talking technology-related. And there are lots of folks who can inform emergent and interactive that aren’t CS folks, especially when you have huge tracks that are supposedly on social. I know so many women working in the social tech field – they just aren’t part of that network. Most of the social tech events that i go to and throw are more like 40/60 – just not the ones that are part of the “social software” network.
Additionally, i don’t believe that the % in the field is a good metric for a conference – i believe you have to surpass that through explicit effort in order to affect the field as a whole. Conferences are networking events and need to be treated as explicit social activities meant to diversify the field. I’d bet most people who attended Etech or SXSW came home with a lot more contacts and relationships, even if only built on beer. Those are people that we’ll all run into again, we might even work with simply because we had contact to personalities (not just resumes) at a conference. And if that group isn’t diverse, it will affect our work environment as well as our social and general professional.
This is why i’m so invested in this. I’m not an idiot – i know that i get invited to talk partially because i’m a woman. But i believe in opening up the tech field, i believe in diversifying it. And to do so requires more than motions towards meritocracy. If i can be a tool to aid in that activity, fine, but it also doesn’t have to be me. It just has to be someone.