Bridging networks and gender gaps

Mike posts about attempting to invite women to Sketching 06, the hardware prototyping conference he put on a few weeks ago. Though he made an attempt to invite women outside of his personal network, only one of 30 women invitees outside his network was able to attend. Rather than answering on his site, I wanted to muse on it here for two reasons–he and I have already had extensive conversations
about this (he alludes to the feedback I’ve shared in his post).

The issue Mike raises is akin to several other conversations going on in different places: the Women in Architecture group at Yale School of Architecture, on the Institute of Distributed Creativity list, in a conversation I’ve had with Peter about IDEA 2006 and his frustrations
with the usual suspects
 at conferences, and a piece I’m working on about women seeming to disappear from Web 2.0, at least on a leadership level. Why don’t women attend, speak up, take positions of leadership? How do you go outside of who you know to create something new?

Here’s an analogy. Say you’re inviting a wedding. You’d like to have 90 people there with a good mix of the bride and the groom’s nearest and dearest. You’d even like it to be 50/50. But as it happens, the groom’s family lives in Sydney and the wedding is in San Francisco. You would probably have to invite more of the groom’s side in order to reach 50/50, given that it’s far away. As you created the invitation list, you might stack the groom’s A, B and C lists with more people than the bride, figuring that you’d
need to invite more. Beyond that, though, it’s not a huge wedding. You don’t merely want to hit a number. There are other criteria. You don’t want to invite people who feel too foreign, who behave badly at weddings, who are awkward, who you don’t talk to anymore.

Essentially, there are two things at stake. One is a numbers game. There needs to be more people on the list. Keep a big list of women who do what you do. Anne Galloway keeps such a list as a resource to our broader communities. If yours is more specific, gather it and publish it. Consider people you haven’t heard as a speaker but whose work you admire. The same people tend to speak because they’re in the loop or they self-promote. There
are many other people whose names aren’t on lists, who aren’t speaking because they’re shy, they’re working, they don’t work at the main institutions. Shake the tree. Ask professors, managers. Look at bibliographies and footnotes. Pull in people in fields similar but not the same as yours. Don’t stop with gender: consider race as well. Dolores Hayden recently pointed out to the Yale Women in Architecture group that if you’re creating a list of women in leadership
positions in architecture for future juries, studios and speakers, also create a list of people of color. Cultivate your lists alive and actually use them.

The second is a networks issue (and reminds me of Peter’s lament). Did Mike contact the top 10 electrical engineering schools to see whether there were people there who might have been interested, or any women in electrical engineering groups? Was he able to contact professors aside from the ones he already was working with to see if there were students or researchers he didn’t know about? Did Peter call architecture schools? Since IDEA is about space and information design, Peter and I had a conversation in
which I suggested people from the field of architecture. Both of these examples require bridging between fields, between a dotcom, camp approach to organizing and the rigors of the fields these fields draw from.

However, both Mike and Peter might have found the same thing. Even if they had contacted engineering or architecture schools, would it have yielded anything? Would electrical engineering students find Sketching relevant to how they approach prototyping? Does an architect want to discuss information design or information architecture (a phrase that makes architects of buildings cringe)? With the limited travel budgets that most academics see (or for that matter, that most professionals or students see), might
they people have been able to attend? Or do they need to save the trip for the major meeting of their discipline? Do they care? Or is this not even on their radar, irrelevant?

I do consider the times that someone new has come to an event and they knock my socks off with a point of view I’d not heard before (like hearing Eyal Weizman at PLAN 2005, or meeting Matt Ward at Design Engaged, or Anne Galloway at SXSW 2003)… I would love more of
those moments …