Blind CFPs - a Postscript

Since publishing yesterday’s post, I’ve had a lot of great comments, so I thought I’d write yet another post to answer them.

Firstly, let me state that I don’t think blind CFPs are a complete waste of time - for example, I know that there are circles in which speakers will refuse to submit if the selection process isn’t blind. But what blind CFPs are not, is an answer to “How do I get more women speakers at my conference?”, especially if the problem is not that the women are being rejected, but that they simply aren’t submitting talks - this is the situation I see most frequently in the conferences I speak at/help organise.

You’re missing the point of blind CFPs

I want to address the point “Blind CFPs are to protect the organisers, not simply to improve diversity”. OK, great. So in the case of the conferences that had only two women out of 200 submissions: if you make that process blind, whether you select both women or not, when there are nasty comments about your lack of women speakers, you’re protected - you did the right things, you had a blind CFP, and just not many women made it through that process. Women simply aren’t writing compelling abstracts and/or aren’t picking interesting subjects and/or clearly aren’t interested in presenting at conferences.

AAAARRRGGHHHHHH!!!! Anger.

Protect your arse if you like, that’s fine, I see the attacks against organisers and I understand the need to be able to say you did the right thing. But notice that once you’ve protected yourselves, the blame is back on the minorities for not meeting your criteria.

If the purpose of a blind CFP is to protect the selectors, then let’s not pretend it’s an answer to increasing diversity of speakers, it’s a piece in a larger puzzle.

An abstract is not a representation of your talk

I don’t think I can emphasise this enough: blind CFPs have a very big weakness - there is no direct correlation between a good abstract and a good talk. I’ve been watching a bunch of talks online lately, and I watched one with an abstract that absolutely called to me - here was the missing piece for a technology that I simply can’t get my head around. I gave an hour of my life to that talk, each minute I was wondering when this person would get to the bits mentioned in the abstract, so I watched it all the way to the end. They never delivered what the abstract promised, and their meandering style meant I learnt almost nothing from the talk. That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back. Good thing I was playing computer games as well at the time, if I’d paid money for that I would have been very peeved.

There’s another weakness in this process - if you go to a number of conferences (like I do) you kinda learn which speakers are doing which talks. If I submit my “AngularJS, HTML5, Groovy, Java and MongoDB all together - what could possibly go wrong??” talk to a blind process, if there’s anyone on the selection committee who’s even vaguely involved in the Java or MongoDB spaces, they’ll know that’s me. And they can Google the talk and decide whether they like it (or with any luck, the buzz-word crammed title will do the job and they’ll say yes, although probably AngularJS is so 2014).

An abstract is like your presentation in the same way that your CV is like your ability to do your job - there’s a skill to writing good abstracts (or CVs), but mastery of that skill does not necessarily mean mastery of the thing it represents - the ability to present or the ability to do the job. I’m not going to be sold on a blind process being a good way to build “the best content available for the conference” until this disconnect is somehow solved.

For goodness sake Trisha, the postscript is nearly longer than the original post

Yeah, sorry.

I’ve listened to feedback from a bunch of people, and I have learnt more things (thanks everyone!). I am more sold on a blind CFP being maybe part of a bigger process. But I do not believe it fixes the “we need more women speakers” problem, which was the original claim that I wanted to dispute. Conferences have to be much more active to address this issue.

And I am not sold on an abstract being a fair representation of the quality of a talk. Maybe a more realistic “blind” audition would be to give the talk to an audience, like a user group, who rated the talk: the organisers wouldn’t watch the talk, but they could use the ratings to decide. Yes, the user group could also have biases that affect their rating, but when the speaker gives the talk at the conference, those attendees will also have their biases too.

Blindness is not a realistic option, we just have to keep putting women (and other non-white-straight-men) in front of audiences until it’s no longer a novelty.