Eric Meyer: 'Diversity is Not of Itself Important'

I was disappointed to read this morning that Eric Meyer, organizer of the An Event Apart series of conferences, doesn't think it's important to take proactive steps to recruit more female speakers at tech events:

In my personal view, diversity is not of itself important, and I don't feel that I have anything to address next time around. What's important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability. That's it. That's always been the alpha and omega of my thinking, and it will continue to be so the next time, and time after that, and the time after that.

You'll note that nowhere in that list do you find gender, race, creed, or any other such parameter. Those things are completely unimportant to me when organizing a conference.

The fact that he's addressing the issue at all is a step in the right direction, since conference organizers are starting to realize they risk a public flogging when their speaking roster's a men's club. I wrote last year about the Spring Experience, a Java event organized by NoFluffJustStuff that was 0-for-38. Jason Kottke plays the same numbers game on his blog and finds more 0-fers.

Whenever someone in Meyer's position claims that he's running a meritocracy, I check the bios of the speakers at his event and find reasons to doubt it.

An Event Apart Seattle in June has nine announced speakers, all male. Though a couple names are so big you'd have trouble finding replacements of equal stature and marketability, the total absence of women says more about his recruitment process than the pool of potential speakers.

I spent an hour looking into the companies and projects associated with his speakers and found 10 women well-qualified to appear:

  • Rachel Andrew, the author of 11 books on CSS and web publishing and a steering committee member of the Web Standards Project
  • Kimberly Blessing, colead of the Web Standards Project and the manager of PayPal's web development platform
  • Elizabeth Castro, author of the HTML, XHTML, and CSS and XML for the World Wide Web books in the Visual QuickStart Guide series
  • Heather Powazek Champ, founder of JPG Magazine, Flickr community manager and recipient of a Bloggies lifetime achievement award
  • Janice Fraser, cofounder of Adaptive Path, interaction design teacher at San Francisco State University and frequent speaker on user experience
  • Kelly Goto, founder of the strategic design firm Gotomedia, author of Web Redesign: Workflow that Works and a speaker at SVEF
  • Molly Holzschlag, author of 30 books on CSS and web design, Web Standards Project steering committee member and an invited expert for the World Wide Web Consortium HTML and GEO working groups
  • Laura Lemay, million-selling author of the Teach Yourself books on HTML, XHTML and Java
  • Dori Smith, Web Standards Project steering committee member, author of Macromedia Dreamweaver 8: Visual QuickStart Guide and a frequent conference speaker
  • Cynthia Waddell, executive director of the CSS-promoting International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet, Santa Clara University School of Law lecturer and frequent speaker on accessibility

A couple of people I knew already, but most were found simply by browsing the bios of Meyer's chosen speakers. He could've found these people by asking his own invitees. On Shelley Powers' blog, Meyer made this comment in defense of his position:

... if it's a marketing failure, the conference will fail, crater my bank account, and endanger my ability to feed my wife and daughter.

If his daughter follows his footsteps and runs into the stupid self-perpetuating belief that women interested in tech are outside the norm, I wonder if he'll still find the issue completely unimportant.


Regardless of the topic, I'd rather have intellectual diversity than gender/race/creed diversity. Now, I know less than nothing about this event, or the speakers - they might have a variety of viewpoints, or they might be mired in group-think. All I'm saying is this: The pursuit of "diversity" usually means gender/race/creed - it ought to mean an escape from group-think.

I think that diversity is very important to any business or industry.

However, diversity is not about male / female or race / ethnicity. Diversity is about different histories and backgrounds, whether it comes by one's ancestry, one's gender, one's economic situation, one's place of residence, or even one's education and work history.

We need to settle this and move on. Quotas=bad. Those of us who've worked hard to do anything do not appreciate being told that we got whatever little bit we accomplished because of our ancestry, gender, or whatever. However, sameness=bad too. In any industry, if all of your conference speakers have similar backgrounds (ancestry, gender, country of residence, education, work history, economic background/status), you are lying to yourself if you think you're choosing only the best people.

The truth is, idea creation and actualization is occurring in a broad spectrum of places, with a broad spectrum of people doing the work. If we cannot acknowledge this thirty or forty years after the civil rights movement swept the US, have we learned *anything* yet?

In the future, new things will continue to come from people all around the world. These people will be male and female, of Asian, Native American, European, and African origin, both young and old, rich and poor, educated and self-taught, experienced and brand new. We can and should expect any conference that claims to represent the best of an industry to recognize this in its speaker selection as well as its promotion / invitation lists (to generate attendees).

so do we invite the best speakers on a topic or the best mix of speakers, with more emphasis on the speaker than the topic? I understand the underlying desire for representation and I agree that women are often under-represented in these events. But there are some who will complaint that this is a quota or numbers game.

Mr Robertson pretty much summed things up for me.

Finding people who are qualified is one thing.

Finding people who are qualified, are willing to take the time to speak, don't charge too much, and who aren't already booked is something else altogether.

...and then there's the "can they do all of that and also do a good presentation in front of a thousand or more people" issue.

I know Rogers is shuddering to see me here...he probably thought I fell off the face of the earth...sorry, homey, no such luck. ;-)

On the topic, this is a day I dreaded: when the delightful malapropism "diversity" winds up getting injected into the tech field.

I'm the last person to believe that women (or any other race/gender/class/whatever of human beings) are incapable or incompetent to perform the kind of work we geeks do every day. I'm on a contract development job right now. Our team consists of the following:
one gay male project manager;
two women developers, one of whom is Black;
one Puerto Rican male DBA;
one long-haired, hippie-type male programmer (well, he thinks he's a programmer, but that's another comment...and his hair is very red, so that must fall under some diversity category);
and three white guys representing a range of ages (me == 52, one @ 37 and one @ 25).

I believe we have every potential area of discrimination covered in this group!

Yet, if I gaze across the landscape of this department at our weekly meetings, the fact is that the majority of the folks in attendance are male. And, trust me, no one works harder at attempting to bring women into this specific workplace then the Fed.

While I agree with Rogers on the wide experience of those women he lists (especially Andrew and Holzschlag, who's works are incredibly good), perhaps this is simply a case of these women being unavailable for this particular conference, or having no interest in speaking at it.

But, regarding Meyer's comments about diversity, I believe he has a point.

I can address this with a specific example. On a recent job, I worked with a woman programmer. She had a college IT education, was very smart and learned pretty quickly. But she had literally ZERO experience in the environment in which we were working. She did some self-study to get prepared for the job, but the rest of the team was far more experienced in this specific language/platform. Those other people on the project and I spent a considerable amount of time showing her the ropes in little impromptu "training" sessions, as well as a lot of SQL stuff for the database backend.

We were on a deadline. Personally, I wasn't as concerned about the deadline as I was regarding the quality of her work...not because of her gender, but because her work was being incorporated into the live application, upon which we were all placing our names (along with our various companys' reputations). The more experienced people on the team had to spend a lot of time looking over her shoulder, time that should have been spent working on the project's application.

Now, I don't know why she was brought on board. I don't know if it was a gender thing, an "intern" thing, or she just happened to apply and she puffed her resume. The plain fact is that she didn't have the necessary experience.

Let's assume for the moment that she was hired as part of a "diversity" program. (This job was contracted by the government, which has many requirements in this area). Wouldn't it have made more sense to hire a programmer in that "diversity" group with more experience? Sure, but what if one isn't available or not interested in coming to the location? From my point of view, I'd want someone with experience that can do the job, no matter what group in which they might be a member.

All the "diversity" in the world is empty platitude if the product you create is crap.

Hey, nothing would please me more than to see more women in this field. My 20-year-old daughter is in univeristy, and she's as geek capable as they, analytical, ordered, logical...she's she's expressed zero interest in IT as a career.

I understand what Meyer is trying to address. Pity that he's going to be added to a lot of enemies lists.

I think you should come right out and say that we need affirmative action here, rather than imply that these are equally qualified women.

The list of speakers at the Seattle event includes more than "a couple" big names. I've heard of every single one of the speakers. I've never heard of any of the women you listed. So marketing goes down the toilet right there.

And even if people come to the event, are these women dynamic, entertaining speakers who will bring people to the next year's event and create buzz and word-of-mouth? If you haven't spoken much (due to any reason, including discrimination), it's unlikely that you're that good at it. Oh, they wrote books? Ever watch that author interview show on C-SPAN? Hope so, because it was so boring they cancelled it.

Remember, these conferences are not COMDEX. They're struggling small businesses trying to make enough to pay a few people a measly salary.


I tried contacting you on this subject through the site's webform, but it may not be working. Could you e-mail me at vkochend at Thanks.

I agree that the things listed are important: technical expertise, speaking skill, professional stature..etc. But what exactly does it mean to have "professional stature" and "speaking skill". These attributes are subjective. The organizer has a *concept* of what it means to have "speaking skill" and he forms a homogeneous group of people that satisfies his notion of what that is. Promoting or trying to achieve a diverse group of speakers does not negate finding people with the attributes he mentions - it achieves it.

Why not affirmative action? How else do you achieve having a diverse group? would it not force this coordinator to be
open to new perspectives?

Research shows that diverse (gender, race) groups are consistently better at decision making than homogenous groups. Diversity in itself implies being more thorough and competent.

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