O’Reilly Conferences’ Strata 2012 New York City agenda features women in fifteen speaking slots, up from 10 last year. That’s a 50% increase! What a commitment to diversity! O’Reilly really takes inclusion seriously, don’t they? Well, no, they don’t.
Have look at these bold statements of commitment to diversity, which are excerpted from a diversity statement posted on the Strata website and some of its communications:
O’Reilly Media believes in spreading the knowledge of innovators. We believe that innovation is enhanced by a variety of perspectives, and our goal is to create an inclusive, respectful conference environment that invites participation from people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, abilities, religions, and sexual orientation.
We’re actively seeking to increase the diversity of our attendees, speakers, and sponsors through our calls for proposals, other open submission processes, and through dialogue with the larger communities we serve.
Sounds good. It’s got a great beat, you can dance to it! But the proof is in the pudding. What’s the result? It’s challenging to investigate some aspects of inclusion – it hardly seems appropriate to inquire about a speaker’s religion or sexual orientation, for instance. But gender is a fairly public matter, and there is data to support the discussion, so let’s have at it with that in mind.
Of all the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, computing has the dubious distinction of being the only area where participation by women has been dropping consistently over the long term. We’ve lost a lot of ground since 1987, when 42% of American software developers were women. Today, 25% of the computing workforce is female.
Still, women in computing are no rarity. When you walk into a tech workplace or conference, expect that about 1 in every 4 people you meet will be female. If not, ask, “Why not?”
At the other end of the spectrum are mathematics and statistics, STEM fields where women have the greatest participation levels. The number of women in those professions equals the number of men. Yes, you read that right – the number of women mathematicians and statisticians equals the number of men.
So, if you walk into a workplace or conference and the focus is on analytics, expect that about 1 in every 2 people you meet will be a woman. If not, ask, “Why not?”
Now let’s say you are headed to a technology conference, with a focus on analytics. What would you expect?
Paul Doscher attended the conference last Spring and reported, “Attendance remains around 90% men, 5% women and 5% unknown.” Another source estimated the last New York City conference attendance at 20% women. Clearly these are not dependable estimates, but the implication is that there were not heaps of women present, certainly nothing like what you’d expect if the attendees were representative of the analytics community as a whole.
We have better information regarding speakers, as they are all listed in the agenda. Using the highly complex techniques of picking out the female speakers and counting, I determined that 15 speaking slots went to women at the upcoming conference. (To be clear, some talks had multiple speakers, and some people are speaking more than once, but I counted every name listing equally. The actual number of women involved is fewer than 15.)
Using the even more sophisticated technique of counting the total and dividing, I determined that women represented about 12% of the speaking slots, and again, some of the women had more than one slot. So the representation of women among the speakers is far less than the proportion of women in the analytics professions, far less even than the proportion of women in computing today.
But wait, there’s more! There are many more speaking slots at this year’s conference – which encompasses Strata and Hadoop World – than last year. The total is about twice as large. The 10 slots taken by women last year represented about 16% of the total. So that’s 16% last year, 12% this year. In other words, the proportion of women speaking at the conference actually dropped.
What a remarkable embarrassment for an organization so deeply committed to diversity.
O’Reilly’s diversity statement goes so far as to list a variety of things we can do to help them achieve diversity. Among their suggestions is this tidbit:
…Suggest ways that the onsite conference experience can be more welcoming and supportive, free from intimidation and marginalization (send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hmmm. That’s suuuuch a temptation.
Now, I should disclose that I proposed a talk for the upcoming conference, and it was rejected (or as they put it, “not accepted.”) No biggie, I’m just one speaker, and perhaps they were unimpressed with my topic, my position, or me. Fair enough. But a couple of days later, a colleague, also female and very knowledgeable, mentioned that she also proposed a talk and was rejected. Her topic sounded like one that would be quite relevant to the Strata audience. And then another highly qualified woman mentioned that she had the same experience.
In data mining, we have a technical term for that. It’s called a “pattern.”
My rejection letter claims that there were nine proposals for every available slot. Taking that as gospel, let me conjecture that the reject pile contains many proposals from qualified women who would like to speak. You can claim any one person or proposal isn’t good enough, but if you exhibit a pattern of rejecting qualified women while women remain seriously underrepresented among speakers, people are going to think you are (gasp) not committed to diversity.
Which, I fear, O’Reilly is not.