When your advertising is more diverse than you are

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

When choosing pictures for a conference website from the event held the previous year we have specifically looked for photos that happen to include women, to the extent that they are disproportionately represented compared to the actual attendee breakdown, with the specific objective of making the event seeming more diverse than it is, so that we actually get a more diverse set of attendees for the next one. This seems OK to me, would be interested in what others think.

A related point is where there is a group photo of everyone at an event, I would kind of encourage women in attendance to take part because avoiding group photos creates a negative feedback loop.

What do people think? I’m not sure. The kind of questions I’d ask before even beginning to answer this are along the lines of the following:

Is this the only/main diversity scheme for this conference? (I didn’t edit the question, so this is all the information provided.) For that matter, what do you want diversity for? For all that I and other people who write here really want diversity to be a concern for geekdom, I think having it as solely a checklist thing is a disservice to the people who will comprise the diversity. What are you offering those people? What are they offering you? Is it all one way? Is this about avoiding negative publicity or something more?

After that, are you behaving like a more diverse/diversity-friendly conference in ways other than your advertising? See Women-friendly events on the wiki for some ideas.

Finally, I am not a lawyer, but in some circumstances in some jurisdictions you may want a model release for this use of people’s images.

13 thoughts on “When your advertising is more diverse than you are

  1. nonskanse

    My company does this with internal marketing.

    I find it offensive as a woman (Unfailingly, 3 of 5 are women in a 5 person picture. We have 1 female VP. 25% of the company are women, 10% in engineering, so we’re overrepresented in marketing, HR, and accounting).

    If your audience is already fairly diverse, then a slightly optimistic view isn’t offensive. If they’re not, you’re not fooling anyone.

    But I don’t see how it will help… fake diversity doesn’t add more diversity.

  2. A.Y. Siu

    I don’t see what the problem is, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked in admission offices too long.

    Pictures for promotions and brochures are not supposed to be random snapshots taken every five seconds. They are always—like pictures in advertisement—intended to present an image, an idea, a feeling.

    They are real in the sense that they are not staged pictures, but they are never randomly chosen.

  3. Dorothea

    Re avoiding group photos: It is not my responsibility as a conference attendee to shill for your conference. Sorry. It is even LESS my responsibility if I have a pressing reason not to want to be caught on film/pixels — to the point that pushing me (and women generally) to do it is kinda tone-deaf.

    (Yes, I avoid group photos. And individual photos. My reasons for that are my own, and “look! I give you diversity points!” is hardly sufficient reason for me to change my practice. But don’t worry, conferences, I’m not anyone whose image you want advertising your conference anyway!)

    As for the first question, I don’t see an issue with choosing photos for that reason, as long as photographers weren’t going all creepy-stalker in order to get the photos in the first place, which is all too salient a possibility. Whether a model release is legally obligatory or not, I think it would be polite to ask permission of those prominently featured in a given photo before using it to advertise the conference. Burying “we can take your picture and use it however we like because you came to our conference” in the fine print at registration is deeply uncool.

    And Mary’s questions are all good ones!

  4. Addie

    Mary’s questions are the most important and valuable response. My impression is that MOST conferences / organizations / companies that want more diversity in tech do so because they feel embarrassed. And I think they typically feel embarrassed due to a vague social pressure towards diversity, rather than an actual understanding of the value that diversity provides an organization. They’re probably also aware that once in awhile they’ll lose the participation of someone of great technical value if that person has deemed them not diverse enough, but once again, I don’t think that actually requires a critical understanding of why diversity is important.

    Beyond that – I think it’s totally OK for photos to be *slightly* disproportionate. But I also think photos will, at best, create a neutral impact. Photos that are wildly disproportionate – either totally ignoring the presence of minorities, or portraying them to an extent that is obviously disingenuous to anybody who has any knowledge of the tech / conference / specialty in question (i.e., any participant!), are insulting and will turn me off immediately. (I actually think that the disingenuous stuff bothers me more, because it feels like naive people trying to put a band-aid on a broken bone, but that’s completely subjective.)

    The one place I will look at photos is on a list of speakers, and I almost always will remove a conference from consideration if there isn’t a single female || minority speaker present. I tend to assume that a homogenous group has very little to teach me, at least to an extent that will actually resonate.

    But I reiterate that Mary’s questions are the most important. When I’m looking at photos, or solicitations for diversity participation, or any of those other efforts, what I’m really trying to gauge is, have these people actually thought critically about diversity? Do they understand what diversity brings to a group? Or are they just embarrassed?

    1. anonymous

      “My impression is that MOST conferences / organizations / companies that want more diversity in tech do so because they feel embarrassed. And I think they typically feel embarrassed due to a vague social pressure towards diversity, rather than an actual understanding of the value that diversity provides an organization. They’re probably also aware that once in awhile they’ll lose the participation of someone of great technical value if that person has deemed them not diverse enough, but once again, I don’t think that actually requires a critical understanding of why diversity is important.”

      I don’t wanna derail this thread or anything but… I thought the reasoning for promoting diversity WAS to not loose talent, prevent possible participants with something to offer from not attending, to work towards the unattainable utopia of meritocracy, etc. Perhaps ill get slapped with a fem 101 link but why exactly if not for those reasons IS diversity a good thing?

      Obviously I’m not suggesting that diversity is a bad thing, but in all my research of sociopolitical movements I always understood the diversity to be this kind of “measuring stick” used to measure just how “fixed” a certian area of society was, since there really isn’t one that can tell you what the general “attitude” is of a particular social sphere.

      It seems there some other X factor that is inherently good about diversity ASIDE from simply “not being oppressive” and I am VERY curious to figure out what part of this argument I’ve missed!

      as you are a member, please feel free to email me privately if this facilitates an answer without derailing the thread.

      1. Addie

        Sorry, I wasn’t tracking the comments thread. It is a very 101-level question, but clearly something most people haven’t thought critically about.

        The main reason we need diversity in tech, imho, is that homogeneity is extremely problematic. I mean, financially, you’re supposed to “diversify your portfolio”, in farming, crop diversity is supposed to protect against unexpected events (pest outbreaks or unexpected weather, etc.). In both cases, this is to protect against the inherent risk of putting all of the stakes in one place. A diverse staff is better-equipped to identify blind spots in the entire software development lifecycle than a homogenous staff.

        The book Unlocking the Clubhouse, which discusses the retention of women in computer science programs, makes a really good case for this as it opens. Both the medical industry and more tactical engineering specialties have made oversights in the past due to gender homogeneity. As a result, actual *lives* have been at stake, if not lost. So there’s a really critical human factor here, too.

        I’m aware that most of my peers do not understand the purpose of diversity because I often find people (inadvertently or not) trying to de-legitimize my experiences or box me into a certain mold that fits within their understanding of tech culture. In other words, even though I’m a woman in tech, my actual contributions to diversity are often strongly resisted. It’s an enormously frustrating experience, especially since I can’t understand the resistance (beyond the discomfort in realizing that the “happy tech bubble” that many programmers live in may need to be popped to accomodate these realities). I think hearing perspectives from people different than me is really cool, and I geek out on it. It’s literally made me a smarter, more skillful, and more knowledgable person in all areas of life.

      2. Addie

        Another, more superficial / pop culture example of where a lack of diversity hurts: any cultural gem that tends to deteriorate in quality as the creator is given increasing free reign with his or her ideas for the franchise. When you have people with different perspectives, you ultimately stand a better chance of creating a better product. Good examples of where that’s clearly gone unchecked, to the detriment of the product, include the more recent Star Wars trilogy and practically everything M. Night Shamalyan has made since The Sixth Sense, the final season of LOST. I also know many people who argue that the Harry Potter books bloated considerably, to their detriment, once J.K. Rowling developed such a fanbase that her editors probably became less strict. (That’s one where there doesn’t seem to be such clear cultural consensus, but this does seem to happen a lot with pop culture, and people do feel very ferocious about their beloved franchises “jumping the shark”; I think it’s something most people can identify with directly.)

  5. takingitoutside

    This may or may not be relevant to the specific conference in question (I can’t tell from the details given), but do you need to haveattendee pictures on your website? When I used to work in event planning, we only put presenters’ pictures up (sometimes with the backs of people’s heads in the photos, but speakers and staff were the only recognizable people).

    “Action” shots where the presenters are gesturing animatedly and photos where you see audience members from behind leaning in to hear the speaker are an effective way of generating interest and excitement that won’t leave your attendees feeling like they’re being exploited. Conversely, speakers are presenting in part for publicity. They are likely to be happy at being featured on your website, and if their picture is on your site they’ll be more likely to send traffic your way from their own websites/twitter accounts/what have you.

    It all comes back to Mary’s initial remarks. This strategy just won’t work if you never have female speakers. Overall, skewing your pictures to feature a few more women won’t have much effect, and could have a negative effect if female attendees feel hounded or marked as different by the staff.

    If you want to have attendee photographs but still feature women, why not make the photos more of a feature on your website? When asking whether you can take someone’s picture for the site you could also ask them to enter whatever information they’re comfortable sharing (name or nickname, years involved in X, website(s), job, how long they’ve been coming, that sort of thing) on a form. When you put the pictures up, link each to a page with that information. Colleges do something similar with their admissions websites – pictures of students link to pages of information including their year, major, favorite thing about the college, et cetera.

    If you’re looking for optimum diversity impact from audience pictures alone, that’s probably it. Everyone has to opt in, so you won’t get negative results for sneaking photos. Likewise, since people only fill out the information they want to there shouldn’t be any blowback from that (unless someone later asks to have something taken down and you refuse, of course). Finally, biographical information can allow you to show kinds of diversity that a picture alone won’t capture (open to beginners? a photo won’t show whether your models have been doing whatever for two years or ten).

    About group photos: I’ve been in and seen group photos taken where everyone lines up and then the photographer carefully rearranges all of the women, no matter how tall, so that they’re in front. That’s embarrassing to be part of, blatantly obvious and problematic for viewers. The intentions may have been to highlight diversity, but it comes across as the important people (i.e. guys) calmly standing in the back while some pretty faces are brought forward and made to crouch and contort in order to decorate the proceedings. That’s not the impression you want to give.

    Along similar lines, participating in a group photo can create a negative feedback loop as well. It’s a lot harder to remove a photo that has unintended negative effects than to add a photo. The problems that arise will have their own negative effects, and it can get out of hand. I was once blamed for ruining someone’s happiness just because I asked that a group photo be taken down. You can bet I won’t be enthusiastically suggesting people get involved with that person again.

    1. Annalee

      Following in on the idea of using presenters’ pictures only: one idea would be to invite a diverse group of speakers and presenters, then use their photos (with permission, of course, and in proportion to their actual presence). That way, you’re not fudging things to make your event look diverse–you’re just showcasing the diversity of the event you’ve actually put together.

      Personally, if I had to choose between two events; one whose website featured attendee photos of women and another whose website featured an anti-harassment policy and an inclusive list of presenters, I’d choose the second.

      1. Annalee

        …which takingitoutside totally said already. That’ll teach me to skim a comment I’m replying to. >_<

  6. Cv harquail

    What a great set of thoughtful responses. I love the way that folks have dug underneath assumptions to ask the key question “is the conference committed to real gender diversity, or are they just trying to look better to avoid criticism”?

    After working on the SheShouldTalkAtTed campaign, I want to believe that conferences will respond to pressure — it’s a decent way to push them to act, and then through action they can understand and deepen their commitment. While I wish that folks would just ‘get it’ and get on with it, responding to pressure or guilt is better than no response at all

    I think it’s important to show women, men of color, and people older than 35 in tech conference visuals. Without overdoing it, a slight gap between reality of last time and hopes for conference ahead might make an event feel more welcomng and lead to more diverse participation

    Of course, having women and menof color as speakers, and having an explicit stated commitment along with outreach efforts is more important, yet optics still matter. As they say “you can’t be it if you can’t see it”

  7. Bruce Byfield

    As someone who has committed marketing in my time, I would consider the sort of selectivity described unethical. The distinction between presenting a subject in the best possible light and creating a false impression is not always easy to make, but this seems an unquestionable case of misrepresentation.

    The argument that the misrepresentation might help to create real diversity, either by itself or as part of a larger strategy complicates the issue in theory, but not in practice. In practice, I would be highly skeptical about the sincerity of either claim. Both sound like excuses to hide the fact that real efforts at diversity are not being made.

    Just as importantly, I would suspect anyone who would make such claims of being ethically elastic, or, at best, more interested in appearance than reality.

    In short, I’d need a lot of convincing before I’d consult on such a project — and I’m not sure that any arguments could be made that would convince me.

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