Diversity makes many things easier.

One of the most often cited ways to encourage diversity within our communities is to promote diversity amongst the speakers we feature at our events. There has been a lot of high-profile success in this – TAM has been approaching 50/50 gender representation, for instance – but there still seem to be a lot of mostly-white, mostly-male speaker rosters and panels. One way that has been proposed for speakers to take action is for white men to decline an invitation to speak at an event or on a panel that lacks diversity. Those of us who organize conferences and events have even more power to make a change because we’re the one making invitations in the first place.

I can sense the comments coming in already.”But Sasha,” you ask, “isn’t that just establishing quotas? Aren’t we ignoring qualified dudes because we’re stocking our conferences with woman and minority speakers?” My answer is “No, don’t be so ridiculous and offensive by assuming that trying to create a diverse group of speakers means choosing less-qualified speakers in order to have more than white men talking.

Let me say that again, very clearly: If you think that ensuring a diverse representation of genders, races, and physical abilities in your conference speakers means creating a conference stocked with unqualified “tokens” you are making a prejudiced assumption. Your internalized bias is showing. Don’t freak out, it happens to the best of us. So take a deep breath, maybe have a laugh with yourself for freaking out like that and then look a little deeper for those experts who are just too busy doing work and making a name for themselves that you haven’t heard of them yet. Or maybe you have heard of them but didn’t think of them because our brains are lazy and go for the comfortable and familiar rather than stretch a little.

Again I will repeat myself: there are lots of experienced, qualified, and entertaining speakers you may not have heard of. They may also be brown and/or women. You may even have heard of them but you don’t think of them RIGHT AWAY because the front of your mind is filled with The Usual Suspects. (Some of those Usual Suspects are women, like Rebecca Watson, and some are racial minorities, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but as much as I love their work they can’t be at every conference ever for all time.)

So, how do you cast your net wider in search of diversity? Here are a few ideas:

  • Attend your local SkeptiCamp. Since this is an event where the attendees speak, they are often more diverse. See someone whose talk you like? Maybe they have other things to talk about.
  • Consult the faculty of your local colleges and universities. Academia is often very diverse. Professors are good at giving talks. They are usually excited to talk to a receptive audience. They almost always care passionately about spreading interest in their field.
  • Consult a pro-diversity speaker registry. In the UK there is She Talks! and Australia has No Chicks No Excuses for rationalist woman speakers.
  • Invite a blogger whose work you admire. These days it seems that most people who speak at our events also have blogs. Maybe there is someone who blogs but doesn’t speak all that often that you can “discover”?

So there you go. Just a few ideas for you to consider as you cast your net. Have you got suggestions of your own? Who are you favorite non-white or non-male speakers? Does anyone want to make me super happy and make a She Talks!-style registry for the US that includes all under-represented groups?

- Sasha Pixlee

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6 Comments

DerGegnerJanuary 24, 2012 9:45 am

“One of the most often cited ways to encourage diversity within our communities is to promote diversity amongst the speakers we feature at our events. There has been a lot of high-profile success in this – TAM has been approaching 50/50 gender representation, for instance – but there still seem to be a lot of mostly-white, mostly-male speaker rosters and panels.”

As Hans Eysenck pointed out in Genius: A Natural History of Creativity, the trait of psychoticism is more pronounced among men than women. A certain degree of psychoticism (if not outright psychosis) in turn, has been rather reliably linked to high creative achievement. If I provide a whole bunch of links, my comment might be marked as spam but try Google Scholar searches with various combinations of terms like “schizotypy”, “lateral inhibition” (or “low lateral inhibition”), “psychoticism”, along with “creativity” of course.

Why should a lack of diversity be an issue when there’s a reason for it?

Incidentally, if you decry an excess of men in scientific discussions, you may as well decry an excess of Jews in the same. That wouldn’t go down well, would it?

Sasha January 24 2012 10:46 am

So your argument is the following:

1 - Men are more creative than women, and therefore more likely to be qualified.
2 - The sciences have more men than women in them and it's fine to just accept that and not try and encourage more people to be involved in science.

Do I have that right?

Stephanie Zvan January 24 2012 11:30 am

So you'd like us to focus on "psychoticism," a construct that's lacking in general support and external validity, instead of something like depression, which is tied strongly to creativity and more common in women. Why would that be?

DerGegnerJanuary 24, 2012 10:08 am

Why did my comment disappear? Is some science not acceptable?

Sasha January 24 2012 10:44 am

Your first comment was marked as spam, probably because you used the word "spam". There is no conspiracy to silence you.

LousyCanuck January 24 2012 15:55 pm

It is equally likely that this poster, as I pointed out in the argument over at my blog, has been doing things that Akismet, the cloud-based spam prevention engine, does not like. Given that this blog is also Wordpress-based, and also uses Akismet, I would not be surprised if he's being thrown into spam because Akismet has learned that his comments / actions are generally spammy.

It is up to said poster, in my estimation, to rectify that, rather than assuming censorship. Assumption of censorship is a pretty unskeptical position, in fact.

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