At the end of last week I was asked by a contact to make some suggestions for potential keynote speakers for an event being organised later this year. I had a think, and a couple of names came to mind. And then a few more. And then one that was probably well out of their reach financially. And then a few more.

In the end I had a list of eight, which I joked would pretty much make for my perfect conference. Because I do, I tweeted the list out. Most of the people on the list I know, and so I thought if nothing else it would be a nice thing for them, a bit of a positive stroke.

The first response I had surprised me.

But a candidate for the #allmalepanel blog?

The list of eight were white, middle class, middle aged and male. Every single one.

When discussions with someone else on Twitter reached…

I mean, it suggests that you don’t automatically think of any women who have that degree of worth in terms of being heard..

… well that was quite a stiff accusation.

As humans, we depend on subconscious biases to make sense of the world. In Kahneman’s world, this is System One – fast thinking. It doesn’t necessarily make it right thinking. That’s why we have System Two – slow, deliberate, logical thought.

Learning one: when it comes to Twitter, my System Two thinking is dominated by squeezing meaning into 140 characters. That’s not the same as really thinking about what it is I am saying.

But when it comes to creating a list of potential keynote speakers, what are the biases to which I am susceptible? I’m not naïve enough to think that, as a white, male, middle-aged chap I’m not riddled with biases around gender, age, race, sexuality’s, nationality, religion, even regionalism. But is that so extreme as to mean that I don’t believe any non-white, non-male, non-middle class person has the right to a platform? That feels like a big stretch in comparison to the other big information bias, my experience of attending other events in recent years and the profile of keynote speakers at those events.

Learning two: I need to go to more diverse events.

The thing is, the industry in which I work, like many other industries, is gender (and race, and class) biased. That’s not an excuse for me not being able to be more diverse in my own thinking, but it’s part of the reason why it’s hard for me – most of the speakers at most of the events I go to are white, middle class, middle-aged (or nearly), men. If I were to randomly select 8 people from all of the presenters at all of the events I’ve been to in the last few years, the chances of them all being men are not that long.

But how can I rectify this? I could have just bunged a woman or two onto the list – but that would have been tokenism. In the context of the list I created, many of the people involved are people who are diverse in their thinking and challenge the orthodoxies held in our world. Many if not all of them would completely understand the self-analysis that I’m currently undertaking.

Learning three: I need to get my own head clearer about why diversity is important and then find some checks and balances

There are a number of reasons why having diversity in our world is valuable. I very strongly argue that diversity of thinking is important in any industry, and diversity of people is possibly a good proxy for that. Making bad decisions about people and our interactions on the basis of poor System One thinking based on gender, race or other personal attributes is also to be avoided. Should everything that I do comply with some sort of quota? No – but doing the check is probably something that I should be more explicitly thinking about and considering.

As a social scientist ploughing a furrow in the world of tech, I know what it’s like to hold minority views. As someone born in Belfast, I have memories in the 90s of people given special treatment once in a while at border security. But ultimately, I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged man so my own experiences of being discriminated against are light and fluffy. Alone I can’t fix any of the issues that others face, but I can make more of a conscious effort to check I’m not just perpetuating things…

One thought on “Stark awareness

  1. I was at the event marking the launch of the NHS Test Beds the other week and I couldn’t help but notice how, I think, 4 out of the 6 speakers were white, middle aged men, all of whom were bald.

    I’m sure there was nothing intentional in their likeness to one another, but it was amusing nonetheless.

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