Diversity, equality and an apology

Paul Boag

Recently on Twitter I shared some comments about the selection of speakers at conferences. These comments polarised opinion and caused a lot of hurt. In this post, I want to apologise and share some of the things I learned.

What is it we say in the web industry, “embrace failure” and “learn from our mistakes”. Well I have screwed up recently. Screwed up so badly that some will feel this post is too little and too late. For that I can only apologise.

But in this post I endeavour to learn from my mistakes. I will be the first to admit, I am far from at the end of my journey, I still have a lot of unanswered questions. Questions that I believe we should resolve through open and civil discussion.

But let me begin with some context.

A bit of background

I speak at a lot of conferences both in the web industry and outside. I have also advised on speaker selection many times.

Over the years I have seen a growing desire to expand speaker diversity at conferences. This is a position I wholeheartedly support. There is a lack of diversity within our industry. Something that is not only unhealthy but damages the quality of what we produce.

But more recently I have begun to feel the atmosphere shift. Speaker selection panels start to ask me to ensure a certain number of female speakers in the line up. I have seen speakers rejected who had great ideas but didn’t fit the demographic makeup.

This came to a head when I received an email from a conference organiser who had asked me to speak at an event. I was chasing them to get a speakers agreement in place. I was then told that they no longer wanted me because “they had too many men”.

This came as a surprise. This was a European conference and in most of Europe positive discrimination is illegal. Yes, there is some flexibility for positive action (which I won’t get into here). But based on other comments in the email that didn’t seem to be applicable.

This is where I made the first of many mistakes.

Some of my mistakes

I was upset, partly at being rejected. But more because we had a verbal agreement that had been cast aside for what felt like a ‘quota’. As many were keen to point out on Twitter, I had had my ego bruised.

But it did go deeper than that. This incident tapped into a growing concern I had. A concern about the move towards positive discrimination. An area I had a lot of questions around. An area that I had read up on but didn’t seem quite right to my mind. No doubt this was because of my European bias as I will come onto in a moment.

Of course, I did the one thing you should never do. Tweet when frustrated. To make matters worse, I tweeted about a complex issue. That is never going to go well on Twitter!

The maddening thing is I know better than this. I knew that whatever I said would be easily misinterpreted and without context. But, I did it anyway and for that I apologise. The wording was sloppy, the context was lacking and I should have known better.

But I also made another mistake. In all my reading on diversity, I had missed the differences between the US and Europe.

What I learned

I have learned so many things through this process. But one of the biggest was that America has different attitudes towards this subject. In the states (as I understand it) affirmative action is commonly used.

This immediately polarised the resulting Twitter firestorm. Many thought that my only ‘supporters’ were white men. But that wasn’t the only distinction. Both men and women from Europe had a different attitude from their American cousins.

Those European’s who disagreed, tended to deny ‘positive discrimination’ was happening. They focused less on whether it was right or not. Now that is a generalisation for the sake of brevity. But it was the trend I observed.

Of course this difference was far from the only thing I learned. I learned just how deep the anger and hurt goes on all sides of the debate. I have always been aware of the abuse people endure. Endure because of race, gender and sexual orientation. But the stories people shared with me drove that home.

But I also learned just how disenfranchised some young men are feeling. How under attack. Now the reaction of many is that they can ‘suck it up’ or that they now know how women feel everyday. These are of course fair statements. But I am not sure they are particularly helpful in moving us forward. But more on that in a moment.

I could go on and on about the things I have learned. The nuances of different countries equality legislation. The different opinions on solving the ‘diversity problem’. The ingrained bias in the system that favour white men. But despite all I have learned I still have questions.

Where I still have questions

I have spent hours reading people’s responses to my tweets. Even longer reviewing all the material they have sent me. This added to my existing reading on the subject.

All this has reinforced my conviction that society has a bias in favour of white men. Something that to be honest is obvious even to somebody as ignorant as me.

But I do still find myself with questions. Questions about the best way to solve these issues. Questions about how positive discrimination can be about diversity and not just filling quotas. Questions about how this implements in practice when it comes to conferences. Questions about how we get more women and minority groups into the industry in the first place.

Unfortunately this is where I have hit a major barrier. Many women feel they don’t have to justify themselves to me. And of course they do not. Not in the slightest.

It must be annoying going over the same ground with every ignorant white male like me. It must be draining, demoralising and frustrating. I know I would hate it. To them the answers must be obvious. To them they see excellent material all over the web explaining this stuff. Why the hell should they have to hold my hand through the process?

But here is the thing, I have an inherent bias. I have grown up in a tiny little rural community in Dorset, England. A conservative region made up predominantly of middle class white people. I have an utterly different world view to you or even the white men you know. Maybe you consider me ignorant because of it. I wouldn’t blame you for that, I probably am. But as a result I cannot see the answers you see. What is obvious to you is not to me.

And I am not alone. The comments I shared on Twitter proved that. The tweets I post were some of the most liked tweets I have ever put out. There are a lot of people (both men and women) who have questions and doubts about affirmative action. That need to discuss it without fear of judgement. People who live outside of the big tech hubs and so have a very different life experience. These are the people that make up the bulk of the web design industry.

They might not deserve explanation in your eyes. But look at it selfishly. To change any system you need to win hearts and minds.You have to convince people to change. You shouldn’t have to, but it is the only way it will happen.

You can force change, but that won’t stick. Sooner or later for better or worse it will lead to a backlash. That isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But it is what will happen. Things like Brexit, #alllivesmatter, gamergate and the US election shows that. I don’t want that to happen in an industry I care so deeply about.

So how do we solve this?

What I would encourage us to do next

It is not my place to tell anybody how to deal with this. I feel in many ways my time contributing to the direction of the web ‘community’ is over. As is clear, I am now lagging behind in my thinking and I wouldn’t want to hold it back. After all, it is a grown-up industry now. That is a different beast from what it once was.

But can I at least make a suggestion? Start talking openly and honestly to one another, with a sensitivity I failed to show.

Let’s not discuss this on social media, which only inflames conflict. But lets see more panels at conferences discussing diversity. Let’s see more people blogging about their thoughts and questions.

You will notice that I have disabled comments on this post. That is because I don’t want you to make my mistake. I want to discourage knee jerk reactions. Instead, if you have something to say, take your time and write a blog post. Then let me know and I will link to it from here.

But most of all, let’s bear with one another. Lets be patient with one another. Let's listen to the most bias views by recognising that we too have our own bias. Let’s create an environment where people are not afraid to express concerns or doubts.

I screwed up, because I allowed my frustration to get the better of me. Don’t make my mistake. Instead let’s make 2017 a year of reasoned, caring and sensitive dialogue. Because lets be honest that has been lacking throughout the world in 2016.

Responses to my comments