On Myths and All-Male Panels

CES is here and, with it controversy. Of the six keynote speakers, six are male. That’s a ratio, for those of you mathematically inclined, of 1:0. Of those six, one is Asian, five white. None are African or African-American. This is the second year in a row that they’ve chosen not to invite a woman to be a keynote speaker in a move which deeply disappoints me as an AV professional.

First, this IS a problem. It isn’t, perhaps, the biggest problem in the industry. It isn’t even the biggest problem in the realm of diversity. Fellow AV blogger Hope Roth said this better than I could in a Twitter discussion on the matter: “An all-male panel is a symptom, not just its own problem. Get more women into decision making roles and the panels will take care of themselves. 😉”

Roth is absolutely correct about this, and it dovetails with something I’ve said about my AV journey – that no amount of hard work, talent and knowledge will bring you to your career destination unless the right people take notice and give you a chance when you’re ready for it. When I see backlash to the backlash over all-male panels the focus is always on two myths we tell about the tech industry: the myth of the perfect meritocracy and the myth of the self-made man. Yes, I used gendered language here intentionally — the myth is overwhelmingly applied to men. To take a brief aside into politics (don’t worry, I’m not making a partisan point here), there has been criticism of New York’s junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for being “too ambitious.” In a man, ambition is not only expected but often lauded. Too see a female politician — regardless of party — attacked for “ambition” is to attack her for the very trait that brings success in politics.

The myth of the perfect meritocracy says that technology is a field in which cream rises, that if you see someone in a prominent position that they earned that, through insight and intelligence, gumption and hard work. That they’re on top because they belong there. The corallary, of course, is that the person who isn’t on top also belongs where they are. If cream rises, that which isn’t cream sinks. Everyone is at their natural level. If you believe this, then the AV industry is overwhelmingly white and male because white males just happen to be better at it. That’s a dangerous way to think, and it’s self-perpetuating.

Again on Twitter, I remarked that my profile in System Contractor News opened with a paraphrase of something I said: that I’m fascinated by the role happenstance takes in shaping our careers and our lives. I won’t rehash my AV journey here, but I’ll note one thing: I began as an outsider who had a perceived skillset that fit what a major integrator needed at the time, having won a major job and needing a full-time site coordinator. Is there a subconscious bias that made me more look the part as a white male? That’s something I’ll never know. What I DO know is that I not only got the job but, down the road, whenever I’ve asked for an opportunity to move up, to take advanced technical training, or to try new roles, it was given to me. I also know that the people who gave me these opportunities looked like me.

Applying the “perfect meritocracy” myth to the selection of a keynote speaker is something that, quite honestly, makes my head hurt. The counterargument I hear to the fact that CES has a problem in not choosing women is that “they pick the best people.” When pressed, nobody can explain what “best person to give a keynote address” means. There is always a choice. Selecting a keynote speaker is a subjective choice, and one made based on any number of conscious or subconscious biases. I’m saying we should look at those.

We like the myth of the meritocracy because it’s the way we want the world to work. Those of us in good positions like it because it means that we’ve earned what we have, that we are beholden to nobody. Those struggling find appeal in that they identify with the ones on the top and believe that, with effort and gumption and talent they, too, can reach the top.

It’s a set of myths that lets us look at the world, see an all-male panel and conclude that men are just better. Because they’re succeeding. Whether we explicitly say it or not, whether we say it out loud or not, that is the message. It echoes.

Some will ask if this is the right battle. They’ll ask why representation even matters, and to whom.

First, the obvious. It matters to girls and women in the industry. Representation matters. Seeing someone from your demographic standing on the stage sends a message that they belong there, that you belong there. That someday, should your path take you in that direction, it could be you on the stage.

Second, a woman is on the stage for all the people who gave me a chance. To have a reminder — even a subconscious one — that a successful AV professional doesn’t always look like a middle-aged white man. That we come in different packages. And the next time they have a role to fill, maybe they’ll gravitate towards someone different, without even knowing why.

Finally and, selfishly, I want a woman on stage for me. This is for the same reason I’d rather read Nnedi Okorofor than, say, Ernest Cline. In addition to Cline being not a terribly good writer, he’s a white man obsessed with the popular culture of the era in which I grew up. I already KNOW that stuff and know how a white, male child of the 1980s thinks. Okorofor is a Nigerian-American with influences, culture and a background which are not mine: I can learn from her.

I’ll learn more from diverse panels of speakers than I ever would from the parade of white men currently holding the stage. We all will.

As an industry, let’s make it happen.