In October, the Wall Street Journal is hosting WSJDLive, its inaugural global tech conference in Laguna Beach, CA. The announcement website for the conference tells readers that it will “[bring] together select global CEOs, leading thinkers, and sought-after entrepreneurs.”
But, in this case, what “select” seems to mean is “male,” — and primarily “white male.” The WSJ announced 17 speakers for the conference, all of whom are male, and only three are non-white. The conference’s lineup at a glance resembles nothing so much as a Dartmouth fraternity’s alumni newsletter.
The conference, which has already been re-named “WSJDudes” on Twitter, is drawing a mass of criticism for its exclusionary lineup and tone-deaf PR. Rachel Sklar called out the all-male roster and organizers at the Journal in a series of tweets, saying she was “embarrassed for them.”
Sklar also notes that the Wall Street Journal has numerous female staffers covering tech. And, beyond the walls of WSJ, there are high-profile leaders in tech who happen to be female, or happen to be non-white: Adria Richards, Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy & Technology, Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi, Eileen Naughton at Google, Satya Nadella at Microsft, and Shantanu Narayen of Adobe are all figures working actively against the white-male dominated culture in tech.
Much has been written on the difficulties that anyone who isn’t a white male faces in the world of technology, and these difficulties remain a painful truth. However, the attention that has been given to this inequality is heartening: It demonstrates that women and people of color’s voices are being heard, and that these groups are refusing to leave this field solely to white men. The WSJ’s conference, unfortunately, seems to send the message that certain powerful and visible organizations might be happier if they did. The lineup can be read not only as uninformed, but as a willful choice to ignore the changing culture in tech.
The problem here doesn’t start with the selection of speakers for the conference, but rather with the lack of female CEOs in tech and tech-related companies. There’s even research that proves men get more money than women for the exact same ideas — not a new revelation, of course. But, when conferences like this one recognize only white male CEOs, they reinforce the ideas that there only are white male CEOs. This perception in turn reinforces investors’ preexisting bias to fund only white male CEOs. Making non-white males and females visible in this way is one simple step toward changing existing investment and hiring biases.
The conference organizers responded to Sklar’s Twitter critique from the WSJ’s Communications account:
Both Daisuke Wakabayashi and Evelyn Rusli from the WSJ have stated that this is only an initial lineup. In response to a request for comment, the organization echoed the same:
"Yesterday’s WSJD announcement only highlighted an initial lineup of participants, it’s in no way final. Please know that we are dedicated to adding the best, most qualified speakers to address the issues of how technology is driving business, and our final lineup will include women."
The problem? This clarification was made only in response to criticism. The WSJ has shown itself to either be only willing to include women or people of color when forced by controversy, or else clueless enough to not notice its own skewed lineup until it was pointed out by many. At best, it’s a massive PR screw-up, and at worst it demonstrates approval of an existing bias.
I find it difficult to believe that the Wall Street Journal is unaware that women’s visibility in technology is a hot-button issue. Rather, it seems the paper's telling us loud and clear who we should all be listening to — and that's the voices of white men.