The problem with generalisations is…

Last week we held our third All Your Base conference in Oxford. It’s a one-day, single track conference on data and databases. It’s a fully curated conference and we work hard to balance interest and budget to end up with 10 or 11 excellent speakers from around the world.

Just as we want the talk topics to be diverse we also care that the lineup is diverse. We care about all kinds of diversity, but for the purpose of this post we’re focussing mainly on gender. This year we had a lineup made up of over half women speakers.

We’ve talked about our approach to gender diversity at conferences before. Essentially we believe a more diverse industry is a stronger one. And when groups see themselves represented, it reinforces the idea that they are welcome and that they can succeed. We love that we have an opportunity to contribute in a small way to this, through our events. We hope our conference lineups paint a picture of the future of our industry – one that we believe can become a reality.

Ours isn’t the only way to programme a diverse conference but it’s been working for us. We proactively seek out female talent alongside male talent. We don’t give up easily if we can’t immediately find a woman to speak on a topic. Sometimes the first 20 or 30 speakers you research happen to be male, but female speakers are out there. We never ever programme anyone we don’t think will be brilliant.

Last week at All Your Base, we found ourselves at the centre of an incident with one of our speakers. We’ve been asked to clarify exactly what was said and we’re very happy to do that. Here’s a conversation which took place on stage in front of an audience between a speaker who had just finished their talk and was taking questions (Monty Widenius) and a speaker who had spoken earlier in the day (Laine Campbell). It was the end of Monty’s talk and time for questions. The slide up on the screen at the time referenced an amount of time spent working on a project: “30 man years”.

Monty: So, questions.

[John (our host) calls to the audience for questions]

Laine: 30 man years? How many woman years on top of that?

[Audience laughter]

Monty: The thing is that…I think women are great coders, they have a different mindset than men. The problem with women is that they want to have a life. The don’t see what’s the passion of sitting 16 hours in front of the computer screen and screaming “I will be there soon, darling”. They don’t do that.

Actually I’m happy that they don’t do that. I think it’s great that you can combine life and a programming life. It’s really good. I just say that men are incapable of doing that and that actually is a bad thing.

Immediately following this exchange, a number of people in the audience (male and female) expressed their anger at Monty’s stance, many of them on Twitter. Our conference host spoke to Monty right after the conference and explained why we feel that generalisations aren’t helpful, even if in your own view you are saying something complimentary. Perhaps we should have said something on stage but at the time we chose to address it quietly off stage.

We had worked hard to programme a diverse and brilliant lineup, and we felt upset that our efforts may have been derailed by a single comment and by the reaction to it on social media. We tweeted that we didn’t agree with Monty’s comments. Quite simply, we just don’t believe in these simplifications. Work-life balance is handled in different ways by different people, regardless of gender. In a climate where only a small percentage of people working in tech in Silicon Valley are women and where companies are paying women to freeze their eggs, it’s harmful to make generalisations about what either men or women are good or bad at and it reinforces stereotypes.

Laine wrote a blog post following the event, and Monty replied to the incident in this interview.

Monty has apologised for any offense caused. And this certainly isn’t the biggest or worst incident to ever happen at a conference on the topic of gender. However, it is an opportunity for dialogue on a really important issue. People get passionate about this topic because there is still lots of work to be done. We are committed to continuing to play an active role in this work. We are also committed to challenging ourselves to work harder. Diversity covers more than gender and we have lots of work to do as an industry and at our own conferences to broaden the representation of other communities on our stages.

We take pride in our conferences and work hard on all aspects of them. We certainly never get everything right, but we try and make them a little bit better each time.

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