a child screaming into a microphone

White, Male Speaker Seeks Microphone

Another white, male conference speaker has sounded off about the “quotas” that are “stealing” “his” speaking gigs and “giving” them to women or people of color despite the fact that they are “inferior.”

In case my liberal use of quotation marks above didn’t sufficiently convey my opinion on the matter, this strikes me as absolute nonsense!

I am weary of folks like this propping up the fable that conference speaker selection used to be this objective, meritocratic process where the best of the best are always selected to take the mic. I’ve been involved in running events off and on for more than a decade and a half, and when the process wasn’t simply “reach out to your network of friends” (friends who, strangely, looked just like you), it was still based heavily on the perception of “who will our attendees want to see on stage.”

Who did event planners reliably think a predominantly white and male group would want to see on stage? White men? Well, the public has spoken!

And for decades, that snake has been eating its own tail. Those that are minority in our industry are less likely to be seen at the conferences both by virtue of being a minority in the industry and because those that are in the industry don’t see conferences as places for them. Because they don’t attend conferences as frequently and because they never see people like themselves on stage, industry minorities tend not to submit themselves for talks. Speaker selection committees get a pile of submissions that is mostly white and male and, in order to cater to their mostly white and male audience, select mostly white and male speakers, thus starting the cycle over again.

What a meritocracy we’ve created! And this ignores the pipeline problem that is the foundation on which this white, male domination rests.

The simple fact of the matter is that the facts of the matter are in no way simple. Having been in a position to select speakers (a lot), I can tell you that the actual material that the speaker intends to deliver is a relatively minor percentage of the selection process to begin with. If all we cared about was the technical jargon, we would simply put together really good slides directly from a book by Crockford, project them slowly on a screen, and call it a day. Delivery matters. The message within the material matters. The point of view of the speaker matters. The subtext matters. The entire package matters. When each of these entitled white dudes caterwaul about not getting “his” speaking slot, he becomes the jilted lover complaining that the wife he’s been neglecting for years has moved on to a dude who is way less attractive—and poorer too!

The whole package matters, and the fact that you can’t summon the empathy to consider what other factors might have been in consideration says far more about you and your message than you probably meant to reveal. Further, our pipeline matters, so a bias in favor of a broader set of voices is not only reasonable but it is essential to the ongoing health of our entire industry.

I have learned so much—as a white, male conference speaker—about how to become a better speaker by choosing to become introspective when I’m passed over for a speaking gig. Regardless of the gender, skin color, ethnicity, or point of view of those that actually make it to the  mic, I look for what factors might have driven the committee to select these folks over me. Is it possible that it was entirely driven by some evil leftist plot to overthrow the white man? Sure; and I’ve certainly witnessed some grossly misguided attempts to force equality with rigid quotas, but those are the distinct minority in my experience—and I don’t learn anything from point of view that at any rate. It is a valueless point of view. It’s far more likely that they had an approach that differed in an important way from mine, or that their point of view was a fresh one, or that they had a unique take on their subject matter, or that their delivery itself was more relatable to the desired audience.

What I have learned from years of reading the abstracts that beat me out and from watching the talks that were chosen instead of mine has been of tremendous value in crafting my presentation and in making me a better speaker. I have grown so much from the effort, and I am genuinely grateful for the opportunities to become better that these instances have provided. It sounds like there are others that could similarly benefit from minds more open and mouths more closed.

But what do I know, I’m just some displaced white, male speaker looking for a stage.