Aral Balkan writes about false dichotomies and diversity at conferences — at tech conferences. These issues come up in every field, and we atheists aren’t alone.
A person who calls for greater diversity is not necessarily advocating the implementation of a quota system — that’s a straw man fallacy. Similarly, having a diverse roster of speakers at a conference does not imply that those speakers were not chosen on merit. Diversity and a merit‐based selection process are not mutually exclusive. To state the contrary is a false dichotomy. And before assuming that a conference probably couldn’t find enough women because not enough women applied (blaming the victim), first find out whether or not the selection process actually included an open call for talks.
He covers the concerns well, but I want to add another point. Every time we discuss this stuff, there will be a number of people with sour grapes syndrome: they will say that conferences are too expensive (which is true), too difficult to get to (also true), and impossible to schedule for busy people with families (agreed). And then they will say they’re elitist and that they don’t need to go hear a bunch of jerks pontificate from a stage anyway, and that’s where they’re going wrong.
Every form of endeavor or interest that I’ve been associated with has conventions of some sort or another. When I was a software designer, we had cons. We even had in-house cons: the company I was affiliated with as an independent contractor, Axon Instruments, would bring us all in to learn about up-and-coming hardware and new programming techniques. I read science fiction; hoo boy, do they have cons everywhere. SF cons are all about bringing fans together to talk and brainstorm and have fun. And then of course, there’s science: every field has regular conventions on various scales, from local consortia to regional meetings to national events to international mega-conferences.
And here’s why equality is important: those meetings are essential stepping stones in career advancement. In my very first year as a grad student, I was trained and groomed to present my work at local meetings. Heck, when I was an undergraduate and had made it clear that I planned to pursue a research career, my professors took me to regional meetings. We all knew that this was how preliminary work was disseminated, that this was how you made connections with peers and leaders in the field, that this was how you linked your face and name in the community as a whole with a body of work.
It’s also where graduate students go to find post-doctoral positions, where post-docs go to find tenure-track jobs, where university departments send representatives to do preliminary interviews.
And of course the other important part of the meeting circuit is that that is where you get inspired and get new ideas. I have never gone to a science meeting but that I’ve come home afterwards fired up and excited about some line of research that I hadn’t known about before. It’s where I talk to new people and get new perspectives.
So don’t belittle cons if you can’t go. These events matter. It’s where community is built, where volunteers grow to play a bigger role in the progression of our goals, where everyone gets enthusiastic about some shiny new aspect of the subject.
And that’s absolutely why we have to do a better job of opening doors for everyone at these events. It’s the faces in the audience at the convention that will someday be leading the movement. It’s those faces that will go home afterwards and share the stories and get more people interested. And if we don’t make opportunities for participation by everyone, we will be limiting our growth.
So please, don’t complain. Your concerns are legitimate: a con may be too expensive, too far away, too inconvenient for you. You should instead try to think of ways to get one near you that you can afford and attend…and there are more and more of these things emerging all over the place.
What we should focus on is making them more accessible, more common, and more openly participatory.