Demographics applied to the web
Once again the web-developer blog-sphere is ablaze with talk about demographics on the web. Once again the only real point that’s consistently getting raised is ‘why are there so few women’. This time the specific area of debate started as a question about the lack of women speakers at web conferences. I’m sick of hearing about this, and despite desperately trying to not post on the topic, after two days of reading it all over every blog I subscribe to, I’ve got to wade in with my size nines. For those that’d like a little background, Digital Web has a nice round-up of most of the “A-list” (as they’re termed) bloggers topics in this area over the last three days.
My take on the matter is this: demographics don’t really matter. Demographics are an interesting tidbit of information, but they do not on their own mean one damn thing. They are a measurement, but nothing more. You can’t derive any meaning from them, only ask questions about them. You could observe that there are many more male speakers than female speakers at web conferences, and you could legitimately wonder why, but you can not derive anything useful about that from the data alone. The trouble here is that some people with good intentions are misguided in their interpretation of statistical data. They think that having a ratio of men to women that is not 1/1 means there is something wrong somewhere. They see that raw data and interpret it as being ‘wrong’, because for some reason their natural belief is that if the world is made up of 50% men and 50% women, then so too should be the web developer ‘world’. Some people have then ran with this idea and settled upon the event organizers as being cause of the ‘discrepancy’, blaming them for not selecting enough women speakers. Others have blamed the web industry for holding women back so that there simply aren’t many women to choose from. Trouble is I’ve got a strong inclination that’s all utter rubbish. The truth of the matter is that having equal opportunity doesn’t translate into numerical equality. What equal opportunity means is that the process of selection of speakers is utterly devoid of bias based on demographics. What statistical measurements such a process then leads to is something else entirely. People here are working all backwards. They think that in order for a selection process to be ‘neutral’ the statistics need to be 1/1. That’s putting the cart before the horse, and it’s exactly through this flawed thinking that social engineering starts creeping it’s ugly head into view. It’s pure wrong-headed thinking, and the sad thing is that the good intention of the people pointing out the statistics is to ensure fairness - but in putting pressure to skew the numbers to a more equal balance, they’re actually promoting discrimination.
It’s my belief that there aren’t that many women in the web right now because most aren’t interested to the extent that guys are by nerdy stuff like mark-up languages, user interfaces, transport protocols, and all that stuff. I’ve never been aware of a ‘boys own’ mentality on the web, though a popular female blogger commented that she’s had to work twice as hard as the guys to get half as far. I’m not in a position to make a call on the legitimacy of that claim, but I’d be extremely surprised if that really turned out to be the case. The world of web design, and the internet in general, is one that I’ve found to be characterized by a lack of pre-judgment based on any demographic you care to think of. That’s been the shining example of why the web is so good, why it’s a bastion of progress. The people at the top don’t care who you are, but about what you can do. And that is exactly, totally, precisely how it ought to be. I don’t care if you’re a woman, a guy, a transvestite, black, white, green, disabled, colour-blind, or a cross dressing chiuaua with a penchant for dipping biscuits in a morning brew of darjeeling. What’s important is are you good at what you do? Full stop. End story. Nothing else comes into it. The very moment that anything else enters the equation, you’re in grave danger of discriminating. Speakers at web conferences have in my opinion always represented the foremost experts in their field, and from what I’ve observed while living and breathing this industry for a few years, there is absolutely nothing holding anyone back from joining those ranks of experts. Nothing. Once you do, you’ll get picked. Simple as that.
As an aside, consider this: the ‘demographics’ question is almost always about gender. Why is that? Why are people picking up on a single physical characteristic to waffle statistics about? How is someone’s gender any different to observing a “disproportionate” number of ginger people? Of short people? Of Buddhists vs atheists vs Christians? Why do people pick up on the arbitrary physical issue of gender? Why this massively blinkered attempt at social engineering? Why is it assumed that there ought to be a 1/1 mapping of gender within the field of the web? That if the result is not 1/1 then something is wrong?
Perhaps, just perhaps, the reality is that women aren’t as numerous or as driven to get to ’speaker’ level, and the statistics reflect that. Now there’s food for thought…