ABA TechShow Has a Diversity Problem

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The 64 presenters at this year’s ABA TechShow were overwhelmingly white and male. I count 15 women (23%) and just 2 people of color (3% — although it is difficult to tell who might consider themselves a person of color just from a photograph). All of the LexThink.1 presenters who showed up were white and male (LexThink.1 is not officially part of TechShow, but it has become a much-anticipated prelude to the conference).

Why is this? Is the planning board consciously or unconsciously excluding women and minorities? Are no women or minorities interested in presenting or qualified to talk about tech? Do women and minorities feel like their speaking proposals will not be taken seriously?

For background, the profession as a whole has a diversity problem. According to the ABA’s 2012 statistics on the legal profession (pdf), women make up about a third of lawyers, and non-whites make up about 12%. The world of tech conferences also has a diversity problem. A Ruby (that’s a programming language) conference in the UK last year was cancelled after negative reactions to its 100%-white-guy faculty.

Getting women on a tech conference faculty is not impossible, but it may be more difficult. A gaming conference planner in the US achieved a 50% female faculty, and found out in the process that getting women to speak may be more difficult than bringing in men:

When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead*[title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

Here is another success story on getting more women onto the faculty of a tech conference. If women tend to be less agressive in promoting themselves and their ideas than men, or they are less assured of their expertise, then they need to be encouraged to apply, and the submission process must ensure their proposals will be taken seriously. Is the same true for other underrepresented groups? Possibly. Or maybe the number of people submitting proposals from those groups is smaller because there are just fewer people qualified to submit proposals. I don’t pretend to know which is true (or if both are), but it seems like similar solutions would work for increasing participation from any underrepresented group.

Let’s just assume that TechShow’s planning board is not consciously excluding women and minorities. I doubt that is happening. It is also possible — perhaps likely — that the planning board this year did better than the planning board last year. I don’t have last year’s faculty list for comparison, but I do know that the ABA places a strong emphasis on diversity. If the faculty has improved from last year, then the ABA TechShow is on the right track, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. The same conference planner I quoted above says she “came away from the process of promoting and recruiting potential speakers with a bitter, unwilling sympathy for event organizers who say, ‘there aren’t any women speaking because no women applied.’”

Based on what I glean from conference planners who have successfully gotten more women on their faculties, there seem to be two important steps to increasing participation by underrepresented groups:

  1. Conference planners must be pro-active and aggressively encourage people from underrepresented groups (women, minorities, LGBT, etc.) to submit proposals.
  2. The submission process must be anonymized, so that presenters and their proposals are approved on the basis of merit, not name recognition or subliminal biases.

I have no idea whether the TechShow planners are doing these things. I suspect they are doing #1, because even though 23% women on the faculty is too low, it is not egregious. But I also suspect they are not looking for minority submissions, because 2 presenters out of 64 is egregious. I suspect they are not doing #2, because the same presenters are on stage year after year. I actually have no idea what the submission process looks like, because I have never seen a public call for proposals for ABA TechShow (perhaps I am just not paying close-enough attention).

This would almost certainly have the additional benefit of getting a broader diversity of viewpoints on stage. If the submission process is opened up and anonymized, we might see more submissions from actual practicing lawyers instead of the numerous tech consultants that appear on TechShow’s panels.

Whatever the solution, if diversity at the ABA TechShow is going to improve, the conference planners need to keep working hard at it. TechShow is a very good conference, even with all the white guys on stage. It is like a huge workshop, with something for lawyers who are still trying to use Word properly to lawyers trying to figure out how to gain an edge at trial. It would just be a lot better if there were a greater variety of voices on the presentation stages.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ntr23/4269951848/)

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  • http://www.sportsandentertainmentlawplaybook.com Joe Bahgat

    I didn’t notice a lack of minority programming until you mentioned it. The irony is that one-third of the TechShow Planning Board is female, as is the board’s chairperson, and even the current LPM chair. Maybe we can suggest that next year’s Planning Board bring in Charles Barkley for the keynote.

  • http://www.goclio.com/ Joshua Lenon

    I want to emphasize that LexThink did have a woman, who’s topic was voted to be in the main program.

    Unfortunately, illness kept her from attending.

    LexThink attendees wanted to hear from her as much as she wanted to be there.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Very true. I just don’t think a single woman would have made it “diverse.” I heard grumbling about the all-white-dude presentation throughout LexThink.1, in the audience, on Twitter, and during the rest of the conference. It’s a problem.

  • http://www.senseient.com Sharon Nelson

    Sam,

    As a former Chair, I think the ABA TECHSHOW Board has always taken diversity seriously. Truly, I think you would be amazed at how many speakers were LGBT, handicapped, non-white etc. My husband, TECHSHOW presenter John Simek, is Asian though often misidentified as white. That would be true of others who spoke as well. I can tell you from experience that the Board members care ONLY about the speaker’s knowledge and presentation skills – and that all Board members (and former Board members) are always on the lookout for qualified and talented minority speakers as we attend conferences.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Given the ABA’s emphasis on diversity, I have no doubt that the board takes diversity seriously. That doesn’t mean there is no problem.

  • Julie Scotland

    Sam-

    I am glad to see this matter brought to light. Considering the following information:

    “For background, the profession as a whole has a diversity problem. According to the ABA’s 2012 statistics on the legal profession (pdf), women make up about a third of lawyers, and non-whites make up about 12%.”

    Therein lies the problem. With such a small pipeline of diverse individuals within the legal community it is more difficult to find a diverse array of speakers for events like ABA TechShow. Legal practitioners with differences from “the legal masses” in gender, race , or culture need to step up for these opportunities. In addition, those in charge of educational programs in earlier stages and larger scale industry events need to encourage and provide avenues for these individuals to enter the legal community and then thrive as expert contributors.

    As for the lack of enthusiasm for women in the Gaming industry to talk at tech events- I would hypothesize and hope that it is a bit different from women in the legal profession. Mainly because of the difference in their job roles, but I would also hypothesize a difference in their personalities , especially when it comes to public speaking. Maybe the legal tech industry needs to make these speaking opportunities more accessible, or reach out to a larger group of women rather than whatever pool they have been pulling from in the past.

    Or, I could be wrong. If that is the case- step it up ladies.

    Nice post Sam.

  • Giovanni Breakstone

    Person of color? That is a term that should die along with all other divisive language about a persons nation of origin. Since when is white not a color? And is a black person really “black” – am I “white” like the color of the paper on which I compose this comment? I think not on both counts. “Whites” are mostly Europeans and the correct terminology in most cases would be to call whites European Americans as blacks are called African Americans. People all come from three main gene types, African, European or Asian, and the language including those types as “American” should reflect those origins in place of such ridiculous terminology as “people of color” – which I obviously find offensive, perhaps despite, or because of my one African Grandmother and one Asian Great Grandfather. The US Census has determined that within X number of years, Europeans will account for less than 50% of the American population, at which time the term “minority” to describe any non European American will also be the wrong way to describe non European Americans. In reality, “Mexicans” are Europeans and descendants of the tribes that crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska and down the West Coast, and are therefore a mix of Asian and European peoples. So how about we drop the divisive terms, starting with people of color. That is, until “clear” skinned people start to show up.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Fair point. I guess I just didn’t realize “people of color” was contentious.

      I do think the meaning is clear despite the obvious inaccuracy of the word “color,” but maybe I’ve fallen behind the times on acceptable ways to say “people who are not white” (and male, for that matter).