I spend quite a bit of time and effort trying to ensure that my friends and colleagues feel encouraged and empowered to have a voice. I run a journal, independently consult with lots of businesses, and hold monthly talks in my living room. Each of these activities involves folks from many different backgrounds.
I’m not going to repeat the frequent arguments for more gender diversity in our industry; others have covered that better than I could. But as a white, straight dude who comes from an upper-class background and was lucky enough to go to fancy college, I think about what I can do to aid in equality a lot, and I’ve found that it requires constant vigilance. Constant. Every single day I find myself checking what I do and why I do it. It comes out in small, subtle ways – and I see others mess up, too, even though they might be well-intentioned.
So while there are many different types of diversity that all contribute to people’s backgrounds, I’d like to cover some of the ways that I personally work to try and ensure better gender diversity in my industry. Essentially, I vote with my feet and wallet, and I make a conscious decision to build more equal environments.
If I’m asked to speak at a conference, I check out its roster. If no roster has been posted, I check out the previous years’ rosters. If this is the conference’s first year, I check out what other events the organizer has put together; if they’re really green, I ask them who else they’ve approached. I also take a look at the attendee list, if it’s been made public. If the roster is entirely white dudes, or if it’s only got one lady who tends to speak at conferences often, I generally don’t attend or speak at it.
When I turn down such an opportunity, I explain why, and offer to connect the conference organizer with qualified female speakers on the same topic. If the organizer lives in Chicago, I take them out to lunch; often the topic turns to diversity, and what we can do to help.
Many conference organizers don’t even realize they’re doing something problematic; others do, and are either optimistic that nobody will notice, or they don’t care and trot out many of the arguments you’ve heard before. Fortunately, many resources can help; this might be a good place to start. Or just ask around; cast a wider net than you might be used to.
Of Distance’s eight authors, three have been female. I’m happy that I’ve been able to work with all sorts of people, many of whom I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. When 01 came out, I was proud of the work we did, but it still came from three white dudes. I’m glad that things have changed since.
Living room talks.
As mentioned, folks take turns leading a monthly two-hour talk and conversation in my living room. Topics have run the gamut — from the future of digital publishing to iOS camera applications to analyzing current literary movements. I handpick attendees and speakers, and I cap attendance at fifteen people every evening.
People who lead the talks are around a 50/50 split right now; attendees are 65/35 male; the invite list is 40/60 female. Other than increasing the proportion of those invited, I don’t know how to fix the discrepancy between those invited and those who attend. I spend time reaching out to everyone involved, and explain why their opinion is valued and what they can do to contribute. Overall I’m happy with where things are, though; it could be much worse, and over 30% participation is what I was initially shooting for.
Sometimes people need encouragement when they’ve been discouraged for a lot of their lives. There are still a lot of places where women don’t feel welcomed, and in those situations I put in some extra effort. If someone says they don’t think they’re worthy of writing a Distance essay, I don’t let the matter drop: I tell them they are, and why. Same with leading a living room talk, or giving a talk at a conference.
I try to live my values, and I do what I can to make a better world. This requires constant vigilance in how I act and what I say yes to.
And it isn’t just an issue that concerns women. Gender equality requires that men understand their own perspectives, so they know how to act. And coming out in support of equality is a major part of that, no matter what form it takes. Write a post. Tweet if you’d like. If you’re wondering how else you can help out, please get in touch; I would love to talk with you.
I believe equality will be won with thousands of small, quiet gestures. These are a few of the gestures that I make. And every time someone, male or female, steps up and declares that they’re taking action, the more likely it is that these gestures will happen when they need to.
(Thanks to Margot Harrington, Laurel Hechanova, and Erin Watson for reading early drafts of this.)