All-Male Panels — On Representation

The is an AV post but also a feminist post; it seems that this is the time of year for me to discuss such things. Last year, if we’ll recall, I wrote about the use of female models to attract attention at trade-shows — so called “booth babes.” What got my attention this year? I had an interesting and sometimes frustrating set of discussions on Twitter regarding the upcoming InfoComm keynote speech to kick off the show in Orlando. The keynote is something different and sounds legitimately interesting: New York Times lead technology writer Nick Bilton is moderating a panel discussion/debate on the Internet of Things, including implications for privacy and security as well as growth potential and open specifications for this segment of the industry. Panelists include Fred Bargetzi, CTO of Crestron Electronics, Ron Gazzola, VP of marketing for Samsung, Kevin Hague of Harman, and Mike Walker of Cisco. It’s a smart, accomplished group of men representing some of the largest and most influential manufacturers in the industry.

So what’s the problem? Heather Sidorowicz, owner of residential AV contractor Southtown AV, pointed it out:

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Yes, five out of the five speakers are men. I seconded my discomfort with this (coupled by honest embarrassment that I’d not noticed it myself), and was immediately greeted with fairly tense skepticism about the idea of seeking diversity for its own sake. The concern was that seeking to include women on a panel would potentially pass over more qualified candidates if all of the best choices were men. I’ll agree that the idea that one should select the most qualified candidates for any position — be that on a discussion panel, as new hires, or as bullpen arms for a major league baseball team — is an appealing one. It’s also one with which I fundamentally disagree.

The first question we can ask ourselves is what one means by “most qualified.” How does one measure qualifications to sit on a panel and discuss technology? For something like the InfoComm keynote, speakers should have a firm grasp of the subject matter, an engaging public speaking style and a position in the industry giving them access to information about not only current trends but short- and long-term roadmaps. The last qualification — place in the industry and access to information — is measurable. The other ones, interestingly, are not. This means that any move to choose “the best people” are, almost by definition, subjective. This is not akin to choosing, for example, the fastest person to run a leg of a relay race. There’s no stopwatch, no scale, no yardstick against which to measure the “best” speaker. I’d make exactly the same argument on a broader level for choosing the “best” new hire to be the “best” employee. There are scores of factors, only the most superficial of which are easily measurable. Our biases — even if only subconsciously — will affect our choices.

I gave “bullpen arm for a baseball team” as one hiring example. This may seem to be a case in which you CAN make objective measurements, but let’s look at this as an analogy: you’re looking to find the best pitcher to add to the team. You measure by strikeouts, walks and hits per innings pitched, and a dizzying array of advanced statistical metrics. Say that the best four choices for two available roster positions are all hard-throwing right-handers. Do you sign all four of them, or do you select a soft-tossing lefty who might not be in some ways as “qualified,” but adds something the others don’t.

This is one reason why all-male panels are problematic. Seeing a group of middle-aged white men presented as the topic experts they are reinforces the subconscious idea that this is what a technology thought-leader looks like: a middle-aged white man. As a middle-aged white man myself, I benefit from this. I was not only always encouraged to pursue math and science education, I was pushed to try again and harder if I struggled with something. Professionally, I was offered the chances to take more technical roles and responded quite favorably when I asked to. Would it have been the same if I were from a different group? Perhaps and perhaps not. What I do know — and know that I can take for granted — is that experts, presenters, speakers, and executives will very often be people who look like me. I’ll never have the experience that AV control system programmer Hope Roth described on Twitter:

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Roth shouldn’t be an outsider. I’ve spoken with her about technology and the industry and found her to be not only very smart, but also very heavily engaged with the industry in a way that not enough people are. I want more women to engage, and I want more to see examples of how they CAN engage. An all-male panel sends a message to Roth and those like her that their voices aren’t the ones that we want to hear.

We should want to hear those voices. While we don’t have any women in a technical capacity at SMW’s office here in New York, my cubicle-neighbor is an African-American millennial. Sharing a workplace with someone much younger than I am with a different background gives me different ways of looking at not only projects and various corporate cultures, but also the the world at large. I’d argue that his presence makes me not only a better AV designer by giving me different ways to look at corporate cultures, but also a better person by pulling me out of my comfort zone.

The InfoComm keynote panel looks terrific, but like so many other all-male panels, it runs the risk of keeping us too far within our comfort zones and of NOT reaching out to those who aren’t already part of the tribe. We can do better. And, I hope, we will.

Expect more on this topic in posts to come. I will close with one note of caution: While we need to listen to the thoughts of our sisters in the industry on this, we need to approach respectfully. It’s tempting to ask a woman in the field what she thinks of representation, how it feels to be a woman in the field, etc. Doing so runs the risk of making her the Ambassador of Femininity at best, and the Traveling Female Museum Show at worst. Remember that all of us — men and women alike — are first and foremost humans. That doesn’t mean that representation isn’t important, but it does mean that we all need to remember that no group marches in lockstep, and to ask that one speak for all is another form of unfairness.