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.


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