Blind CFPs – a Postscript

Since publishing yesterday’s post, I’ve had a lot of great comments, so I thought I’d write yet another post to answer them.

Firstly, let me state that I don’t think blind CFPs are a complete waste of time - for example, I know that there are circles in which speakers will refuse to submit if the selection process isn’t blind. But what blind CFPs are not, is an answer to “How do I get more women speakers at my conference?", especially if the problem is not that the women are being rejected, but that they simply aren’t submitting talks - this is the situation I see most frequently in the conferences I speak at/help organise.

You’re missing the point of blind CFPs

I want to address the point “Blind CFPs are to protect the organisers, not simply to improve diversity”. OK, great. So in the case of the conferences that had only two women out of 200 submissions: if you make that process blind, whether you select both women or not, when there are nasty comments about your lack of women speakers, you’re protected - you did the right things, you had a blind CFP, and just not many women made it through that process. Women simply aren’t writing compelling abstracts and/or aren’t picking interesting subjects and/or clearly aren’t interested in presenting at conferences.

AAAARRRGGHHHHHH!!!! Anger.

Protect your arse if you like, that’s fine, I see the attacks against organisers and I understand the need to be able to say you did the right thing. But notice that once you’ve protected yourselves, the blame is back on the minorities for not meeting your criteria.

If the purpose of a blind CFP is to protect the selectors, then let’s not pretend it’s an answer to increasing diversity of speakers, it’s a piece in a larger puzzle.

An abstract is not a representation of your talk

I don’t think I can emphasise this enough: blind CFPs have a very big weakness - there is no direct correlation between a good abstract and a good talk. I’ve been watching a bunch of talks online lately, and I watched one with an abstract that absolutely called to me - here was the missing piece for a technology that I simply can’t get my head around. I gave an hour of my life to that talk, each minute I was wondering when this person would get to the bits mentioned in the abstract, so I watched it all the way to the end. They never delivered what the abstract promised, and their meandering style meant I learnt almost nothing from the talk. That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back. Good thing I was playing computer games as well at the time, if I’d paid money for that I would have been very peeved.

There’s another weakness in this process - if you go to a number of conferences (like I do) you kinda learn which speakers are doing which talks. If I submit my “AngularJS, HTML5, Groovy, Java and MongoDB all together - what could possibly go wrong??” talk to a blind process, if there’s anyone on the selection committee who’s even vaguely involved in the Java or MongoDB spaces, they’ll know that’s me. And they can Google the talk and decide whether they like it (or with any luck, the buzz-word crammed title will do the job and they’ll say yes, although probably AngularJS is so 2014).

An abstract is like your presentation in the same way that your CV is like your ability to do your job - there’s a skill to writing good abstracts (or CVs), but mastery of that skill does not necessarily mean mastery of the thing it represents - the ability to present or the ability to do the job. I’m not going to be sold on a blind process being a good way to build “the best content available for the conference” until this disconnect is somehow solved.

For goodness sake Trisha, the postscript is nearly longer than the original post

Yeah, sorry.

I’ve listened to feedback from a bunch of people, and I have learnt more things (thanks everyone!). I am more sold on a blind CFP being maybe part of a bigger process. But I do not believe it fixes the “we need more women speakers” problem, which was the original claim that I wanted to dispute. Conferences have to be much more active to address this issue.

And I am not sold on an abstract being a fair representation of the quality of a talk. Maybe a more realistic “blind” audition would be to give the talk to an audience, like a user group, who rated the talk: the organisers wouldn’t watch the talk, but they could use the ratings to decide. Yes, the user group could also have biases that affect their rating, but when the speaker gives the talk at the conference, those attendees will also have their biases too.

Blindness is not a realistic option, we just have to keep putting women (and other non-white-straight-men) in front of audiences until it’s no longer a novelty.

Are Blind CFPs Really The Answer?

Off the back of yesterday’s post, I received a number of comments and questions around blind CFPs (Call For Papers - usually to get into a conference you submit to a CFP) for conferences. I often hear it said that a blind CFP will fix, or at least improve, the diversity imbalance at conferences.

I don’t believe this.

Firstly, I should caveat this with: this is going to be a blog post based on my experiences and chats with people, and I have zero science to back this up. Sorry. But I do have some numbers.

There are a couple of London conferences that I won’t name (because I haven’t asked their permission not because they’ve done anything wrong) that in some years have received only 2 from around 200 (or more) submissions from women. These conferences have accepted 100% of the submissions from women, and then been open to criticism for not having enough women speakers.

A blind CFP to remove unconscious bias from the selection committee might have resulted in zero women speakers.

Now I know the next argument is that advertising a blind CFP might encourage a wider diversity of speakers to apply. This does seem to work in some parts of the industry (I’ve been talking to women from tech scenes that don’t intersect with mine and I’m starting to see that we have different problems in different segments of the wider development world). But for my world, which is largely Java, with some forays into Agile, NoSQL, Open Source, and Enterprise, the women I speak to aren’t scared they’ll be discriminated against if they put their name on a CFP. Besides, they don’t have anything to lose by submitting and being rejected. They’re more afraid they’ll be accepted, and then they’ll have to give a presentation! No, the women I’ve spoken to in my world don’t submit because they don’t feel ready, they don’t think they have anything to talk about, and they’re worried about the sorts of questions they’ll get asked when they’re standing up there. Those fears aren’t allayed by having a blind CFP.

If there are any fears of being judged as a woman, it’s when we’re standing up in front of people at the conference, and no amount of blindness during the CFP process is going to make us feel better about that.

For me, personally, I find the idea of a blind CFP terrifying:

  • Firstly, if you have such a problem with judging people based on race or gender that you have to anonymise the selection process, I’m not sure I want to speak at your conference where my gender will be blatantly on show.
  • Secondly, when I was starting out as a speaker, I was new to writing titles and abstracts and expected that they would not be good enough to get in. With a blind CFP I would never find out why as I could never ask for feedback on my anonymous abstract. As a novice speaker, I expected my gender would help me be selected, not hinder.
  • Thirdly, as an experienced speaker I know my abstract-writing has not really improved, but I know my presenting has, and I know there are videos of me out there doing a good job as a presenter, this is my audition tape.

When I was starting out as a speaker, I knew there weren’t enough women presenters around. And although I hate the idea of positive discrimination and hate the idea that men might think I got into my position merely because I’m female, I knew that being a woman made me stand out in all those submissions. And I knew that enough conferences would take a chance on me, if only to improve their diversity, and that’s all I needed to bootstrap my speaking career - once I had spoken at enough conferences, once I had videos of me doing that, I would find it much easier to get into the next conferences. And that’s worked. And now, as an experienced (female) speaker, I fear blind CFPs as they won’t know who I am or what I’m capable of.

So that’s my opinion as a female speaker. But I’ve also been fortunate enough to be on the programme committee for a couple of conferences, and after three years or so of speaking at conferences I know a lot of conference organisers. Let’s assume you’re “merely” trying to build the best conference you can around your subject whilst not discriminating against anyone (i.e. let’s assume you’re not going out of your way to actively promote diversity). How can you do this when you only have abstracts and titles to go on?

I am aware of the studies around blind auditions for orchestras. And I understand how tempting it is to try to apply that to our world, since it has had an effect on the number of women in orchestras (but let’s not get too excited here, we’re talking about an increase from 5% to 25% over thirty years…). I think blind auditions would work really well for coding - we can look at just the code, without knowing anything about the physical body behind the code, and figure out if that person is good enough for us. We could even do blind pair programming, using screen sharing and chat (actually that’s a great idea, I think I’ll patent that!). Because the thing you’ve anonymised (the code) is the output you really care about in a programming job. If you communicate via chat you can even measure someone’s communication skills without judging them physically, another vital skill for being part of a team.

But a talk abstract is not the output we’re looking for. Sure, a good title and abstract will attract attendees to the conference and bums on seats in the actual talk. But the output you’re looking for is the presenter - their style, their approach to the topic, their ability to hold attention, their ability to impart information. We’re not always looking for the same things either, an interesting topic presented nervously but logically is fine, as is an entertaining presenter reminding us of fundamentals we already know (and any other combination of strengths and weaknesses). An abstract can’t tell you how good the presentation is going to be. Evaluating a presentation on a blind abstract would be like evaluating those musicians on a couple of paragraphs explaining what they’re going to play and how they’re going to try to make you feel when they play it - the words could sound great, but the musician might not even be able to play the instrument.

The best audition you can have as a presenter is to, well, present. Videos, audio clips, even screencasts. But the problem with presenting is that it’s so freaking obvious that you’re a woman (or other variation on non-white-straight-male). If you can’t objectively evaluate a presentation without taking away the presenter’s physical body (for colour or gender or whatever), then you’ve got real problems. Your audience is going to be faced with that physical body for an hour of their life, and you can bet they’ll be judging them too. You want to be damned sure that you’ve selected a competent presenter, and you’ll need to stand by that choice. Saying “oh, well, they didn’t seem boring in their abstract” is not going to make the audience feel like you did a good job of the selection.

There’s another point about non-blind selection processes, other than the process allowing you to select on presentation ability rather than abstract-writing ability: you can be more active in promoting diversity. I am against “affirmative action”, but if the proportion of women submitting presentations is lower than the proportion of women in the field, there’s something missing. Here are some of the things you can do if you identify a lack of a certain demographic - as usual, I’m going to use “women”, but you could equally argue this for any demographic, even not-enough-C#-developers or too-many-startups-not-enough-enterprise:

And there’s more - you don’t just have to drain the pool dry of known competent speakers-who-tick-some-diversity-box. With a non-blind process you can actively improve the submissions you do have, assuming you’re not one of the conferences suffering from a complete lack of submissions from those people. For example, if you’re looking to increase the number of women presenting at your conference, if you have women submitting but they don’t quite meet your criteria (maybe the abstract is weak, the title isn’t catchy, or maybe the presenter simply isn’t quite ready yet) you, as the conference organiser, are in the perfect position to mentor these people: you can help them re-write their abstracts; you can offer them mentoring and training for presenting. If there’s no record of them presenting but you’re interested in evaluating their ability, you can set them up with a user group to present at - as a conference organiser, you have the network contacts that new speakers might not. You can run sessions aimed at people who have never done public speaking (I’ve run a session like this four times now, at the LJC and at Ladies Who Code - I had over 70 RSVPs for the last London Ladies Who Code session, twice the number of the last LJC session, so there are plenty of women interested in breaking into this field, who are looking for training, who don’t feel ready to present yet).

So, what are my points?

  • A blind process of selection can be applied to something where the output you’re selecting for can be effectively anonymised: music auditions, code, technical writing, etc.

  • A blind process where you select based on criteria that are not the end result will only be effective if it’s the selection process is biased, or if submissions to the selection process are lower from discriminated-against-groups because they fear a biased selection process.

  • For those conferences that are getting very tiny numbers of submissions from women (I’m picking women as the example but you can pick any group you want), a blind process could lead to even fewer selected women speakers. Instead of switching to a blind process, you’re probably going to want to check:

    • the messaging around your conference (remember masculine words like rock star, ninja, competitive, hardcore, challenging etc put women off applying to jobs, the same probably applies to technical conferences)
    • subliminal messages on your website/info (one of the conferences I mentioned, for example, sent out a couple of emails containing photos of previous years’ conferences which happened to only show men - this was not even representative of the conference, but it can have an unexpectedly big effect on the subconscious)
    • have you showcased the diversity of the conference, or previous years’ conferences, with photos, interviews, testamonials?
  • A non-blind submission process allows you to be more active in promoting diversity - instead of hoping that the submissions are representative of the diversity in your community, and that selecting the most interesting talks will naturally lead to improved diversity, with a non-blind process you can track exactly how many women are submitting, address problems in this area early and offer mentoring to those who aren’t quite ready yet. Remember that women only apply for jobs they feel 100% qualified for and take fewer chances, they might need that extra push.

So, no. I don’t believe that implementing a blind CFP will address the lack of diversity in conference speakers. I know it helps in some circles, but I personally think that conference selection committees should a) be much better at identifying their own biases and actively attempting to overcome them b) be active in improving the diversity of their conference, and c) be offering feedback and mentoring to those who are not quite ready yet in order to improve the overall ecosystem.

Diversity isn’t going to accidentally happen when we stop looking at gender and race and other visible you-don’t-belong-here cues. Diversity is only going to happen if people fight for it, and if we actively train, mentor, and support those trying to break through the barriers.

Postscript

I wrote a follow up based off responses to this post, covering additional questions raised.

I'm so tired of it all

We work so hard to promote equality, to fight for the rights of people who are not middle-class white men, and time and again it just feels like we’re not getting anywhere. International Women’s Day highlights the issues that face women all around the world, and make our women-in-tech problem look like a genuine First World Problem, and yet we can’t even get that right.

I nearly gave up. This weekend I thought, fuck it. I’ve done my bit. Personally, I’ve been through the phase in my career where being a woman was a disadvantage and somehow arrived out the other side - in my position, in my job, it’s an advantage, and I don’t need to change anything to improve things for my career. I’m going to carry on doing my job to the best of my ability, but I’m no longer going to let this diversity thing drain my energy - nothing ever seems to make a difference anyway.

Over the last year, four (white, middle-class, English-speaking) men who I know well, who I have seen by their actions are champions of women in technology, who have personally mentored me in some way or another, have been accused of not thinking about women techies, not encouraging them - have been accused of sexism.

This third year of being on the programme committee for QCon, I could see we had achieved far more to promote diversity than ever before, but it was so much work to get that far, and there’s still so much more to do.

Another conference I have great affection for which has never previously suffered badly from a lack of women speakers received practically zero submissions for full conference talks from women this year. The submissions that did come in were from the usual suspects, the speakers who one calls upon when desperately trying to shore up the gender diversity of your speaker line-up.

The Sevilla Java User Group, which I started, with my money, which I present at regularly, has had zero female developers attend who were not previously friends. Apparently the impact of visible female role models is far smaller than I imagined.

It’s so much work.

And it’s thankless.

For the men who support the women, they get attacked by both sides - by women, for not doing enough, or sometimes for simply being privileged white men, by men and women for fighting for something that doesn’t impact them, and by men for betraying their gender.

For the women, it’s the same but more so: some women accuse us of not doing enough, some women sneer at what we’re doing, telling us we already have equality, men and women think you’re in it just to improve your own life, and the men, well, many men genuinely don’t understand the problems (and it’s exhausting to explain), and some are outright hostile.

It’s fantastic to find men allies. I don’t know about anyone else, but at this stage in my career I’m surrounded by men who are all allies. And I can honestly say that any professional struggles I’ve had in recent years I can see are suffered by my colleagues of the opposite sex, so I know they’re not because of my gender.

Maybe it’s only fair that our male allies suffer the same way we do, even though they get even less out of fighting our battles than we do. Maybe it’s fair that they are attacked by both genders, and have to put up with unfair, unjust criticism and accusations. After all, look at some of the vile, hate-filled messages thrown at women leading the charge - that’s abuse. Some of these women fear for their lives. I couldn’t live that life, and I despair that we live in a society that can’t seem to prevent that.

So I’m a bit burnt out. So my friends are finding it tough. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. And I never did this for me anyway. I care about diversity because it matters. I try to change the gender balance specifically, because that’s an area I might be able to impact, one I have a chance of understanding. I care about equality, about justice, because it matters. And I do my tiny part to try and drown out the hate, the anger, the “get back into the kitchen, woman” because those things make me feel sick, because “you can be whoever you want to be” shouldn’t be a lie, shouldn’t come with caveats.

Maybe I don’t have the time or energy for large-scale revolutions, but I will carry on trying to make a small difference:

  • By trying to be a role model for anyone who can relate to me, whatever their colour, gender, or sexual orientation
  • By being visible as a woman techie, who does woman techie things, who’s also a human being.
  • By calling out (quietly and personally, at least at first) where I see things that might give the wrong message: e.g. e-mailing conference organisers to point out they only have white men in their line up; private messaging people to let them know their comments could be taken the wrong way; pointing out to user group leaders that their meetup page shows only men at their events.
  • By continuing to give an honest view of what it’s like to be a female Java developer, especially if these experiences are different to those of other women - one woman’s view does not represent every woman’s view, if more of us tell our different tales, we have a better view of the whole ecosystem (and its inhabitants).
  • By sharing not only the negatives, but the many positives of working in such a varied and rapidly changing profession.

I am tired of fighting, however tiny my efforts are. But I’m more tired of inequality.

I’m so tired of it all

We work so hard to promote equality, to fight for the rights of people who are not middle-class
white men, and time and again it just feels like we’re not getting anywhere. International Women’s
Day
highlights the issues that face women all around the world, and make our
women-in-tech problem
look like a genuine First World Problem, and yet we can’t even get that right.