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Yes, Offscreen (too) has a diversity problem

Posted on Sep 21 2015 in Thoughts

A few weeks ago, when I was still in the middle of wrestling through the content for issue No12, there was a point when I realised that the line-up on the cover would be uncomfortably homogeneous: Everyone is white. Five blokes, one woman. I once again hadn’t delivered on my own promise of promoting diversity. And it weirdly snuck up on me, too.

About a month prior to that I had confirmed an encouraging list of three women and three men, all of whom had assured me that they were interested and would be able to make time for an interview. All of my candidates seemed excited to be on the cover of a print magazine. But, of course, it didn’t take long for my hopes of finally getting a more balanced line-up to crumble.

When people drop out, they usually don’t email me with a clear “Sorry, I can’t do it!”. I understand that everyone is really busy. So part of my process is that I frequently I follow up via email and Twitter over several weeks, treading the fine line between reminding them of deadlines and being too pushy. Typically I get “I’m on it!” or “I will start this weekend!” responses until eventually they either send me a brief note (“Too busy after all, sorry!”) or they simply stop replying.

That’s the reality of doing long-form interviews over the internet. The line-up I had worked so hard on fell through once again. (In fact, there was a moment when it was unclear whether Ariel Waldman would be able to finish the interview, which would have meant that we’d be left with 100% dudes on the cover.) With more than half of my line-up not responding, I was already running late and getting really anxious about it all. You may remember my blog post about being stuck in The Swamp. Well, that was it.

Of course, after 11 issues I somewhat anticipated these problems so I already had a list of folks I contacted to ‘fill in’. But telling busy people that you want to do a 5000-word interview and an extensive photoshoot with them on short notice often results in nothing but a friendly 'maybe we can make it work for the next issue’. And so I frantically went through my contacts and my contacts’ contacts to find worthy replacements…

Putting together an issue of Offscreen means that I’m trying to simultaneously steer about 50 contributors and photographers towards a common deadline. During that intense six-week process of gathering, producing and editing content I have to make constant changes to the original list of contributors. And so when I finally emerged from that stressful and nerve-racking process in early August, I sadly realised that after all the dropouts and changes I had to make, diversity took another backseat. (In all fairness, while the cover is pretty 'white and male’, across the entire issue the ratio looks better: out of 30 contributors 17 are men and 13 are women).

The above is a long-winded way of saying ‘sorry I let you down’. I received a few tweets and emails since launching issue No12 that rightly pointed out the lack of diversity on the cover of Offscreen. No12 is not the only issue in which white guys took over the line-up. It happens more often than I like to admit. There are some issues where I managed to do better, like issue No9 and No10, but overall there is still much room for improvement.

I’ve talked about this problem in previous blog posts, but I wanted to summarise my thoughts here once again and hopefully get some more feedback and ideas from you, my readers.

“It’s almost always just white, successful dudes? What about women and ethnic diversity?”

I hope my little explainer on the process above showed that I really am trying hard. I don’t take this topic lightly. Every single issue I struggle filling even one interview slot with a woman. For some issues I had between two and four women lined up and ready to go, but – you guessed it – they all dropped out or stopped replying. Of course, being busy and dropping out is not unique to female contributors, but the scarcity of women in our industry makes finding a replacement on short notice that much more difficult.

Many of you have written to me with a list of names – folks that don’t fit the typical caucasian stereotype. I follow up an every suggestion. Many of those suggestions read like this: “You should check out XYZ, she’s doing some amazing design work for [company]!” or “XYZ just got funding for this cool app last week. You should interview her!” or “Have you seen this talk by XYZ? She’s the CTO at [company] and has lots of experience in scalability.”

Unfortunately, I’m not just after amazing designers or talented coders or well-funded entrepreneurs. There is a huge amount of talent out there, and everyone is doing crazy cool stuff. But what I’m after is a person with a very interesting and inspiring life story. People that have done a lot of different things and have insights and opinions that are uniquely inspiring – and, most importantly, they need to be able to express these opinions in an elegant and thoughtful way. Plus, their work needs to be related to the web and technology because that’s what Offscreen is all about. Once they fulfil all of these criteria, there is another big hurdle: they need to be accessible enough to actually do an interview with me and a shoot with a photographer, and reserve enough time to make it a great piece. The thing about interesting people is that they are often very busy.

When it comes to women in particular, I also get a lot of emails suggesting the same names over and over again. There are a few dozen women that have been interviewed numerous times on various blogs, in podcasts, and in business magazines. Unintentionally, they’ve become the idealised prototypes of 'successful women in tech’. Without taking anything away from their success, I just don’t want to reprint the same interview over and over again just for the sake of a better ratio. It seems to me that most of the media landscape is struggling with finding a fairer ratio, and so you see a lot of familiar faces pop up again and again.

Add to the above my own personal preference of the type of people/stories I want to feature in Offscreen. As an avid reader you will know that I value independent makers and projects that have the potential for positive impact on our lives. Sure, I occasionally feature projects that are just fun to hear about (like that beer-brewing robot or 3D-printed jewellery), but overall I like ideas that challenge the status quo in a meaningful way. I simply can’t get excited about projects in the fashion or beauty space, for instance. With the risk of falling in the prejudice trap, based on my own research and the many suggestions I get, there are a lot of female entrepreneurs (especially in the US) that try to innovate in these areas. Frankly, it’s just not what the magazine is about. Note that I’m not saying that all women work in fashion and beauty. I am saying there are a lot of tech success stories about women in those fields.

Lastly, I want to add that apart from emails reminding me of more women, I also get a lot of requests from people in non-English speaking countries that add to the complexity. “Why don’t you feature more people from France?”, “Hey, there are awesome apps being developed in Lithuania! Why are all these people in your magazine from the US and UK?!”, “You know, Asia has the internet too!” There are various reasons why featuring more non-native-English speakers is difficult. Most of them have to do with language barriers and fitting translations into the already tight schedule and budget. Also, finding a reliable photographer in places like Nairobi or Mumbai is harder than you think.

I also briefly want to address a specific question I received recently: “Why don’t you put more photos of women on your cover?” Choosing a cover photo is pretty tricky – especially if you don’t have a budget to specifically commission cover shoots. Once I have received all photos of our interviewees, there are usually 2-3 shots in total that can actually work on a cover. (I’m not going into details what works and what doesn’t, but it essentially comes down to having a great quality shot with the right angle, light, backdrop and facial expression. It’s not unusual for larger magazines to spend a whole day just shooting a cover photo, something I can’t afford and my interviewees can’t make time for.) Since I’ve so far always only had one female interviewee in the line-up, the chances of getting a great photo of her are slim. I worked with Helena Price for the shoot of Ariel Waldman in issue 12, and as Helena can attest I specifically pointed out that I’d love to feature Ariel on the cover. But as it often is the case, Ariel is a busy person and time was limited, so we only got a small selection of photos, none of which I thought would have made for a great cover. In the end, it purely comes down to 'getting lucky’ with the photoshoot. So obviously, if I manage to tackle the overall diversity problem, my covers should become more diverse too.

I just came back from XOXO in Portland and I was very impressed with the diversity there – amongst attendees and speakers. I said before that organising conferences and making a magazine share similar challenges when it comes to a diverse line-up. But there are also differences.

Doing an extensive interview about someone’s life story is different to giving an inspiring talk on making great comics or creating a lively Youtube audience. Many of my friends are public speakers and while I very much admire their work and their expertise in a particular field, I wouldn’t necessarily consider them for a long interview. Again, there is a difference between being talented and having an inspiring story to tell that spans personal and professional topics.

(XOXO definitely featured some people that fit the bill. I tried to introduced myself to many of them while I was there and will follow up with them soon. Fingers crossed!)

With issue No12, my budget finally allowed me to get some help with finding and organising contributors. My editorial assistant Ivana has already been very helpful and a big reminder to continue to work on improving diversity. However, I think after just one issue she’s also come to realise that it’s harder than it seems from the outside.

Finally, I want to be clear that I fully understand that the onus is on me to improve diversity. ‘Receiving bad suggestions’ is not an excuse. However, Offscreen is still pretty much a tiny one-man operation. In order to make this publication a sustainable full-time job for me, I need to at least release three issues per year. With the current process, this gives me around six weeks to gather content and conduct interviews. As I’ve hopefully shown, my heart is in the right place (really, I get it!), I just often struggle to make good on the promise. And to be honest, I have no idea whether I will succeed with issue No13. But you can be sure that I’ll continue to try my best…

If you do want to help (thank you!), here’s how: instead of a whole list of people, please think about just one amazing person who you think fits the following criteria:

  • she/he has an interesting career and life with lots of unique insights and a great story to tell that would inspire our readers
  • the web/technology is a crucial part of what she/he does
  • she/he is accessible via email and is most likely able to make time for an extensive interview and photoshoot

If you know someone you think would inspire our readers through a long, intimate interview, please send over their name and any links that help me find out more about them (interviews, videos, podcasts, etc).

Feel free to also send any suggestions or feedback you have on the topic. Thanks for your support of Offscreen, despite its imperfections. :)

UPDATE: Since writing this post I’ve received a lot of emails. It seems easier to do a ‘reply-all’ through a brief update here...

I was told that some companies are only willing to sponsor events if x per cent of their speaker line-up is female. Apparently there are recruiting agencies that have specialised in placing women at companies where the workforce is at least x per cent female. To me (yes, as a guy) having these sorts of forced quotas in place seems kind of counter-productive. Nobody wants to feel that they were invited as a speaker or hired in a new job purely because of their gender or the colour of their skin. In both cases, the onus is on the event organiser and the employer to create an inclusive, welcoming environment.

Up until this post, I have never kept exact count of how many men vs. women or caucasian vs. people of colour I have in an issue. Of course, I always wanted to have a more balanced and more diverse pool of contributors, but to me it was never about hitting an exact target.

My biggest concern about Offscreen has always been that it (unintentionally) becomes a mouthpiece of Silicon Valley’s digital elite. No doubt, some of the most talented and forward-thinking people can be found in the larger San Francisco area, but it’s also a massive echo chamber that in many ways has lost touch to how the rest of the world functions. I truly admire some of the ideas and creativity coming out of Silicon Valley and, as my readers will know, I happily include many of them in Offscreen. However, I have always put a lot of effort into also covering stories that have nothing to do with what’s currently trending on TechCrunch.

The startup that 3D-prints orthotic braces for kids, an India-based organisation that helps the poor with setting up their first savings account through their mobile, or a non-profit that hopes to reform tech education across the UK putting an emphasis on kids with a migration background – these are stories of and about diversity. They are stories by people with many different backgrounds affecting all ethnicities and genders in many countries around the globe. I’d like to think that presenting these stories does more to promote diversity than simply adding two more women to my interview line-up in order to make Offscreen look more diverse. Can a powerful story about the lack of funding in education – told by a white guy – contribute more to this discussion than an interview with an award-winning female designer? If the goal of the diversity debate is to empower minority groups, I believe the message is often more important than the messenger.

With all that said, I totally understand that women and people of minority groups face many challenges in having their voices heard that others just don’t. And that’s why I think it’s important to make an extra effort to reach out to women and people in those minority groups and to provide a safe and inclusive environment for them to share their stories (which is one of my core values. I did and I will continue to do exactly that, as I’ve described above. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t yield more results, but it’s not because of a lack of trying. If it was just about a better ratio and if I didn’t mind pretending that all is well in the tech world, I would have had a very balanced line-up from issue no1.