Diversity Wars

My respect for Eric Meyer just increased (yet again). He had the courage to say that gender or race is not a valid criterion for selecting speakers at An Event Apart. For stating this, he seems to have been castigated by some very heavy hitters, which is a real shame. Because both Meyer and his detractors want the same thing: fair treatment of worthy people on the basis of merit, not gender or race.

Eric Meyer posted the other day about gender diversity in Web Conferences. Specifically, the ratio of men to women at his upcoming An Event Apart Seattle, which I am very excited about and hoping to attend.

He referenced Kottke’s recent post on the issue, and proceeded to state that

diversity is not of itself important… What’s important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability. That’s it… I’m just not interested in a person’s plumbing. I care about what they know, how they’re perceived in the industry, how well they fit the conference’s brand, and how well they do on stage.

To me, this is the key to being race- and gender-neutral — actually not caring about a person’s race or gender, but simply whether they can contribute what is needed in a given situation.

And the renowned Anil Dash weighed in (twice), and Mr Zeldman posted (cautiously as usual), and all those posts were commented on extensively all over the blogosphere. And Eric ended up taking the scathing reactions pretty personally.

His point, though, was important. I don’t see the logic in stating that gender or race or what-have-you should not be an issue, and then weighting selections based on gender or race. That’s exactly what Anil Dash did in his “The Essentials of Web 2.0 Your Event Doesn’t Cover” post, which effectively said: “Don’t go to An Event Apart unless you’re a bigot.”

Do you want to learn about the future of web applications? If so, when choosing an event, you might want to make sure it’s one that cares about including speakers based on merit, instead of based on arbitrary gender qualifications.

Followed by:

[My list is] skewed towards women whom I know well or whom I have already seen speak.

So Mr Dash agrees with Eric that choosing who speaks at a conference should not be based on gender. Except then he chooses a list weighted strongly by gender.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine that refused to check the “are you a member of a visible minority” box on his application to government work. He was born in India, but grew up in Canada since before Kindergarten. He is culturally Canadian, if ethnically Indian — and didn’t want to get his job based on his race. He wanted to qualify on his own merits.

He got the job.

I believe Mr Meyer’s opinion is far closer to an appropriate non-bigoted attitude than Mr Dash. And the tragedy is, they both want the same thing — equal and fair opportunity for all humans. I hope Mr Dash can see past his own prejudices and see that. And I hope this whole mess doesn’t have a negative impact on this very exciting conference.