Week 189: the boy's club

| Hans Gerwitz

Last week, we all went to Lisbon to attend Web Summit. This is essentially the SxSWi of Europe—attendance is large and largely oriented towards the business and marketing side of software businesses. We take the whole team to a conference at least once a year for both cultural and training purposes, and thought a business-oriented perspective would be valuable this time.

The organizers made a laudable effort to increase the gender diversity of their event, primarily through giving out a large number of otherwise-pricey conference passes to women. This was effective in that there were many more women in attendance than I would otherwise have expected, including 6 members of The Artificial.

Perhaps more importantly, women were also well represented on stage both as speakers and panel participants, and, to a small extent, diversity-related subjects appeared throughout the conference tracks.

But diversity is more than numbers. As far as I can discern, there was no code of conduct published. Related, the conduct of several men on stage was disheartening.

After our first session (a too-short1 panel on “The filter bubble versus democracy”), another began immediately on “Finding your calling in the digital economy.” Immediately, moderator Joe Green opened by flirting with a panelist who had attended his high school (she’s also a Harvard graduate and CEO) and openly declared that he would be “picking on her” because she was “the most beautiful member of the panel.” (My douchebag sensor could not deal with this, and we left to find a more productive session.)

A debate-style session entitled “We need gender quotas in technology companies” was more rewarding. The choice of participants, though, was a disappointment.

Rana Kaliouby (Affectiva) started a bit shy and nervous, but quickly found her groove and was highly competent debating on behalf of quotas as necessary to bring measurable, actionable focus to the issue. She also brought relevant anecdotes about using internal, unpublished quotas to drive improvements such as purpose-driven briefs and childcare options which resulted in measurably improved experiences for all.

Her counterpart was not so professional. Naveen Jain (Moon Express) shouted a lot, threw around “like Trump” as an insult in incongruous ways, and consistently fell back to his talking point of diversity of ideas being more important than focusing on people. He came with no evidence that an “ideas” focus improves diversity or even how to measure them. He even complained that quotas force people to make decisions that are unnatural to them, which is obviously their intent.

Matching his aggressive stage demeanor, he even dismissed Rana as “lady”. Unless this fellow was chosen as a straw man to highlight the psychosocial immaturity of silicon-valley-type business leaders, I cannot understand why he was considered suitable for the main stage on this issue.

While these examples illustrate my sense that Web Summit’s treatment of diversity is more shallow than I’d like, they nonetheless deserve credit for the effort and some successes. One highlight was “The battle to bridge the gender gap.” This panel was very well attended but almost exclusively by women, which I guess is a microcosm of the industry’s interest in diversity. Telle Whitney (Anita borg institute for women in technology) did an excellent job making use of the time moderating discussion between Rebecca Parsons (thoughtworks) and Cathryn Posey (Tech by Superwomen).

  1. Besides some crowd management issues on opening day, the biggest structural problem with the event was how short the individual events were. Stronger curation to give room for the stronger speakers and panels to get past high-level discussion might have made the difference on my interest in returning.