Can boycotts help diversity in the tech industry?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

Another old post from Shelley Powers. This one is from 2005:

A few years back, Clay Shirky held a invite-only meeting in New York, and a person who attended posted photos. As we looked at them, it became obvious, glaring really, that not only were all the attendees white, all but a few were men.

We pointed this out and it started a conversation that ended up pulling in Clay’s good friend, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Publishing. We began to look at other conferences and events in technology and saw the same thing repeated: participation consiting primarily of men, who were primarily white. When questioned, the men would bring up the lack of women interested in (fill in the blank); or how there are no women who work with (fill in the blank); or how the event’s organizers are mostly interested in quality rather than diversity.

Yet whenever we (women and men both) would question the assumption that diversity degrades equality, there would usually be one or more women who would come along an re-assure the men being challenged that they, for one, are quite content with how things are. They are not those type of women, I remember reading in one weblog.

Not long ago, Michael Bernstein sent me the link to the story in Haaretz (no longer working, but the story is here). The government of Israel had pulled together a conference of scientists in the country “…as a national forum for examining Israel’s science policy”. Only thing is, out of thirty invited speakers, there weren’t any women. In fact the only woman who participated, did so as part of a panel.

As a response, several scientists actually decided to boycott the event. Several graduate students also showed up at the event to demonstrate, but the key impact was the boycott.

Compare this with our own reactions to events here in the States. For every one person who questions the criteria used to select speakers or invite guests, there are several who hasten to point out that ‘quality’ is what matters — with an implication that women don’t have the ‘quality’ to hack it. More, rather than protest such obvious inequities, men and women, both, will defend the conference organizers as being “…fair and unbiased”.

As for an organized boycott, these are unheard of in technology in the US.