Diversity at Conferences?

Sarah Milstein is TechWeb’s General Manager, Co-Chair for Web 2.0 Expo and a tech writer.  In a recent post on radar O’Reilly she writes, “Would I attend my own conference? Why conferences need more diversity.”

Sarah specifically mentions technology conferences where the slate is heavily slanted with men.  She points to popular conferences like TechCrunch Disrupt’s NY 2010 show and the Web 2.0 Summit where 10% or less of the speakers were women.  This is no surprise to Sarah, she says “It’s well-documented that women are underrepresented in the tech sector.” 

As a techie librarian who responsible for some of the section programs for this year’s annual meeting and as a co-chair for the 2012 meeting, Sarah has me wondering about MLA and other library conferences.  Are we diverse enough?

The library world has more women than men, and I like to think that we try and think about physical diversity (women, men, cultural, ethnic, etc.).  But are we providing diverse enough speakers regarding their library background (hospital, academic, special medical, government, etc.)?  Do we provide enough diversity in the program or is it too tech heavy, consumer health heavy, or reference heavy? 

Since I am librarian who likes to work with technology, I tend to focus and attend tech programs, but I do have other interests and I realize there are other librarians who are not as interested in technology.

So in your opinion do medical library conferences (MLA, regional, local) have diverse topics and speakers, or are we trotting out the same people with the same topics?  If you think we could be more diverse, then what are you looking for and in what ways can you think we can accomplish this? Let me know.

6 thoughts on “Diversity at Conferences?”

  1. I understand that you ask about diversity in topics and speakers, but I would like to make a point about an assumption you make:

    “The library world has more women than men, and I like to think that we try and think about physical diversity (women, men, cultural, ethnic, etc.)”

    We might think about ethnic diversity, but we do not act upon our thoughts. The next time you attend MLA or another librarians conference look around: How many people of color do you see? I see very few besides myself.

    Why is this the case? What can we do to change the profession and make it look more like the general American population? I do not have answers to these questions, but I am interested in discussing the topic.

  2. I respect your opinion about the lack of diversity, but are you talking about those who present/speak or attend? Many of the section program speakers/presenters submit their intended presentation as an abstract that is blinded, the selectors do not see name, institution or any identifying information.
    So I am not sure what can be done if the problem is with presenters/speakers because very few of those people are chosen outright, most speakers/presenters for the section programs are chosen via the blind abstract submission process. The NPC really only choses 1 maybe 2 speakers.
    If you are talking about those who attend, then I am wondering how to increase the numbers of those under-represented, regardless of color, sex, etc. Do they not come because we don’t have programming that they are interested in? Or are they in the same boat as many others, and can’t afford to come. The programming part we can do something about, institutional funding part we really can’t.

  3. If we want to increase diversity at the MLA meetings, either among the presenters or among the attendees, we’ll have to change something that we’re now doing, because it isn’t diverse as it is.

    Possibilities I see are actively recruiting people of color to be speakers, targeting certain geographic locations to encourage attendance, and focusing on getting more students at our conferences.

    Other professional associations, for example the American Pharmacists Association and the American Academy of Physician Assistants, have very strong student representation at their meetings. I have exhibited at both places and waves of students pass through the exhibit hall. Librarians are really missing the boat as far as student involvement in our professional organizations, and that is one place diversity begins.

  4. Last year, I organized the Continuing Education sessions for our national conference (CHLA/ABSC). Because there have been complaints in the past about lack of diversity in speakers, I tried really hard to get speakers who would appeal to consumer health and hospital library attendees. Unfortunately, those sessions had to be cancelled, because we didn’t have high enough registration. In the case of diversity of topics, it is hard to justify holding sessions for people who would like to attend, but can’t/won’t. I think we all can be part of the solution by intentionally going to a session or two that normally wouldn’t appeal to us and seeing what we can learn. Even if x isn’t something you’re doing at your library, or remotely related to your job at all, I believe you can learn a lot by finding out what is being talked about in greater library land!

    Then, there is diversity of speakers in terms of ethnicity, gender, background, etc. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the discussion around the recent McMaster conference (http://librarian.newjackalmanac.ca/2011/03/dear-patrick-deane-president-mcmaster.html) This is something we need to address.

  5. Hi Michelle, I was talking about lack of diversity among attendees (the librarians ourselves). I like Pat’s idea about increasing student involvement in conferences. I am glad that MLA and NLM support ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship for students of color, and it would be great to continue that support.

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