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The proof of the pudding

Every 6 months or so, going back as far as 2006, and doubtless further, the issue of diversity in speaker line ups at web industry events raises its head. And there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Folks raise the spectre of “political correctness”, camps harden. Occasionally there’s a mea culpa (for which the “offending” event is roundly praised), and nothing much seems to really emerge from all the sturm und drang, as 6 months later it happens all over again.

Now, at Web Directions, we’ve been holding events for this industry since 2004. And, if you take a look at our lineups over the last few years, you’ll see that women on the whole tend to be pretty well represented (and you know, there are other groups that it might be important to consider who are under represented on our collective stages, so hopefully we can start addressing that issue as well).

First, if you don’t think a diversity of representation, in and of itself, is important at events like these, please stop reading now. Really, there’s no point. I believe, in and of itself, this is an important goal. You might believe that quality in and of itself, unconstrained by any other consideration is all that matters.
I don’t.

Because everything we do has all sorts of subtle consequences. And to me, it’s important to do your best to think about those consequences, and ensure the outcomes from these are better, rather than worse than they otherwise might be.

Let me give you an example.
Suppose that you are running a conference about X. And suppose that the very best speaker on earth about (like so much better than anyone else that no one will even argue with you)
is also a racist, homophobic misogynist.
If all that matters is their presentation on its merits, then of course you’d have them speak right?

BTW, this is not a straw man argument. This is called a “reductio ad absurdum” argument.

  • Assume something is true.
  • Derive something false based on that assumption
  • Demonstrate the assumption is false
  • It’s maths people, it works.

OK, so if you are still reading, let’s think this through a bit.

You want the best possible content
you want to represent a diversity of people in our industry/community

How do you go about this?

Here’s how you don’t go about it (at least in our opinion at Web Directions, and we’ve put our money where our mouth is for years on this).

Don’t have a request for proposals.

1. If you make your decision based on proposals, you have people on stage who are the best at writing proposals. The best at writing presentation abstracts.
Which is almost 100% unrelated to whether they’ll present well.
Because presentation is about a great deal more. It’s about

  • stage presence, including personality, comprehensibility, warmth, humour
  • quality of narrative
  • quality of slides
  • content of presentation

2. You will get a certain kind of person, disproportionately male, who will submit a proposal. This doesn’t make them bad people. Indeed, the sort of confidence to back themselves probably (I’ve no evidence for this, sounds intuitive, which when it comes to human nature gets tricky) means they’re more likely to have the kind of confident stage presence that makes people feel comfortable. But then again, maybe they are self overestimating tossers, who will make the audience hate them.

You’d be surprised, by the way, how many PR people contact us about their awesome client, who would so improve the quality of our event by stringing together jargon laden cliches and buzzwords. We have a special gmail folder for those ones.

Purely submission driven events are always going to be over represented with men. Blind assessment of these submissions is not going to change this. Because you are starting by regarding a certain kind of personality type that is disproportionately male.

3. Unrelated to the main topic, but important issue. You are the convenor. Think of yourself as an editor. The content and structure of your event is your responsibility, not that of random submissions. At Web Directions, we turn this process upside down. We think about issues that are important to our audience (not just ones that are hot right now), and structure a program around these. We then look for speakers to address these issues. And by look, I mean really spend a lot of time and effort locating potential speakers who can address the issue well, who can present, and contribute to the overall event (which is more than simply speaking, we feel it is important that speakers are there for more than just their slot if at all possible).


Maxine and I spend a great deal of time scouring the web for interesting blog posts, articles, slideshare decks. We look for intelligent people saying interesting, non obvious things. If they can express these things well, visually, in writing, then maybe there’s a good chance they can do this on stage as well.


Web Directions runs all kinds of free events around Australia, and supports others like Ignite, Trampoline, and more, which give people an opportunity to begin, and further their presentation career. What Do you Know this year featured nearly 70 speakers, some experienced, many we’d never seen before, sharing their expertise. Some of them went from there to speaking at our main events. We hope, and believe many more will too.

We also give people the opportunity to get a taste of what it is like up on our stage by introducing speakers. More than one person first graced a stage as a Web Directions session MC, and has gone on to speak at the event. Even to Keynote our events.

And recently, we’ve experimented with session formats, introducing 15 minute, highly focussed sessions, that make the transition to speaking about something you’re passionate about less daunting than starting with a 50 minute extravaganza.

Work at it

You really have to work at this to make it happen. It is true in our experience that women are less likely to put themselves forward, and more likely to turn down an invitation.
Do we have a quota? There’s no number we must hit, but we look for balance, and we kind of just know when we don’t have it. When we run a multi-track event, a lack of balance might mean a fair representation in say design focussed tracks, and little or none in developer focussed tracks.
Have we ever had a substandard speaker striving for diversity. I’d say, hand on heart, no. Certainly, well known speakers leaving the audience underwhelmed is a far bigger issue.

Dirty little secret

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret of conference organizing. The most well known speakers are rarely the ones people ultimately remember best, and rave the most about. It’s those who they’ve never heard of, who challenge them, who are. As I just mentioned, substandard presentations by “token” speakers has never been an issue for us. Substandard presentations by well known speakers has been on more than one occasion.

Trust us, “rock star” speakers won’t guarantee your event is a sell out success. This is not lollapalooza (note, now defunct) where people come to see the most popular acts.

A successful event has to reach far beyond those who follow the most well known industry voices on Twitter or comment on their blogs, to have the remotest hope of being an ongoing, sustainable event. Most of your audience won’t even know who they are. Truly.

Involve women

I have a whole swag of daughters, so from a personal perspective, this is an important issue. Going back years, decades really, equality, diversity, these have been important to me. But the truth is, I’m a staggeringly privileged person. I’m male. I’m “white”. I was born and raised in the developed world. I was sent to really good schools. I had parents who valued education, and had enough resources to invest in it for their kids. I went to about as good a University you could go to in Australia. So my perspective is ultimately basically theoretical.

Guys like me like to think that being intelligent, thinking a lot about something, knowing its history means we really understand it. In the case of things like discrimination, we really don’t.

I’ve had the even greater good fortune to have Maxine as a partner in Web Directions. Her perspective is what really guides the shape of our lineup. We discuss who should speak, about what, and why, all the time. We don’t always agree. But when it comes to this sort of issue, I trust her “spidey sense”. If you don’t have that sort of perspective, you’ll struggle. Because as well meaning, and intelligent as you are, it’s all still theoretical.

So, involve women, and others with diverse perspectives in your decision making, trust them and listen to them. Your chances of going terribly wrong will be greatly diminished.

By the way, for what it is worth, our first event, way back in 2004 had no women speaking. We realised this after putting the program together. We’ve made sure that we rectified this every subsequent year. But it demonstrates that unless you are conscious and work at this, you won’t do well enough.

In the eating

Now, while virtue is its own reward, might I point out that having been around since 2004, we’ve been around for longer than just about any event in our industry (at present I can only think of Web Visions predating us and still going, meanwhile juggernauts like Web 2.0 Expo have come and gone), with an audience of 35% to 40% women, having a commitment to diversity as a central, if not necessarily (until now at least) trumpeted core value, certainly hasn’t hurt us. Not once to my knowledge, have we been accused of tokenism. Not once has a speaker been criticised as substandard with the insinuation that they were there just to make up the numbers.

I always come back to a pretty basic question when I make a decision about important things in my life. What kind of a world do you want to live in? And how do I go about making the world a little more like that place?

At Web Directions, we’ve spent years putting our money where our beliefs are. And while it’s not why we do it, it’s paid us back in spades. And that’s a great privilege.

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I’ve been admiring the Web Directions events for years, and was honored to be part… What a fantastic event!

Ethan Marcotte Inventor of 'Responsive Web Design'