Phillip Smith

Diversity: we *all* need to step up our game

If women don't recommend women, who will?

Without fail, eight out of ten of the women I reached out to, recommended a man to take their place. Maybe that man is the right person at that organization for the topic I’m pitching, but how does that help in a world where most tech events are a wall of pale-male faces?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working with a small team to produce a great little event that will happen during Internet Week in New York.

We imagined an event with “no boring panels,” something that strives to keep participants interested as well as contributing to the conversation.

Like many, I’ve been to a lot of these events. The ones I enjoy most are the ones that bring in new voices: people I haven’t heard from before; not the usual suspects. Let’s call it a “diversity of voices.”

However, achieving a diversity of voices at an event is surprisingly hard work!

This isn’t a new concept to me, as I’ve been producing events on-and-off for more than a decade now. In 2004, I was discussing this very topic with the co-organizers of Web of Change, shortly after attending the first and only Designs On Democracy gathering in Berkeley, California – a gathering so diverse that it still stands out in my mind today as one of the best events I’ve ever had the opportunity to attend.

The secret of the Designs On Democracy event was described to me as a very simple recipe: “getting that diversity of voices involved, and involved early” so that the content will resonate with a broader audience.

We didn’t have that opportunity for this Internet Week event, unfortunately. The event coalesced into something very real, very unexpectedly: one minute we were saying “Hey, wouldn’t it be timely to do an event like this?” the next minute “Holy cow, we’re doing an event like this and soon!”

So, working from the knowledge that we didn’t have that diversity built-in to our bootstrapped team, we started reaching out to women in our network to ensure that we would have a good balance of people involved in the content. That’s where I encountered this perplexing pattern:

Me: “We would really like *you* to speak at our event!”

“I’d love to, but I’m not available. You should ask John to do it.”


“You should really speak to Joe, he’s the expert on this topic.”

I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist of the majority of the conversations I had over the last couple of weeks.

When I replied to each person that I was really looking for someone that people might not have heard from before, someone that might not typically get asked to speak at an event like this – gently pointing out that’s why I reached out to them specifically and not to John or Joe in the first place – I would inevitably receive a great list of other women to reach out to.

But why did I need to ask? To point out (to me) the obvious? That is the question that I find so confusing.

If we want events to be diverse, everyone’s got to step up their game. Because, frankly, finding the usual suspects is really, really easy – they are the people that everyone recommends first, and – from my perspective – that’s part of the problem.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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