There are lots of conversations about the lack of diversity in science and tech these days. Along with them, people constantly ask, "So what? Why does it matter?" There are many ways to answer that question, but perhaps the easiest is this: because a homogenous team produces homogenous products for a very heterogeneous world.
This is Design Bias, a Motherboard column in which writer Rose Eveleth explores the products, research programs, and conclusions made not because any designer or scientist or engineer sets out to discriminate, but because the "normal" user always looks exactly the same. The result is a world that's biased by design. -the Editor
I was recently set to co-host an event. I wore a cute blue dress that ended just at my knees. This, I soon learned, was a mistake.
My male co-host and I were seated on two tall stools. As he chatted up the audience, the dress slowly crept up my legs. I spent the entire event balanced precariously at the edge of the stool, legs crossed, trying not to move too much so I wouldn’t inadvertently flash the audience. When I thought maybe nobody was looking—which made no sense, since there were only two of us on stage—I lightly tugged my dress down.
Next time you're at a conference, pay attention to the chairs and the folks in skirts and dresses trying to navigate them. If you do, a frustratingly common problem will become clear. Nearly every femme-identifying person I know has wrestled with tall bar stools, directors chairs, deep arm chairs, and more. Recently at a podcasting conference I watched as a woman perched herself awkwardly at the edge of an armchair that was elevated so her crotch was exactly at eye level for the audience. At another conference I saw two women convene before their panel purely to scope out the seating situation. One of them decided to change into pants.
“Once I wore a dress to a panel I was on that was quite appropriate in length but slightly above the knees and they had these super tall stools for speakers,” Megan Berry, VP of product at Octane AI, an automated messenger marketing platform, told me. “I had to be strategic about how to sit down with the whole audience there so I didn't flash anyone and sat very carefully for the whole panel.”
Emily Finke has a similar story.
Finke, a science educator, once wore a knee-length pencil skirt to a panel where she and the other speakers sat on barstool-height chairs, not behind a table. “That skirt is fine for normal chair heights and for standing,” Finke said, “but I knew in the angle of the tall chairs that it would mean the skirt vent would have the audience looking directly up my skirt.” Rather than sitting in the chair, she spent the entire panel leaning awkwardly against it with her hand over the backrest, “in the worst Riker in Ten Forward pose ever.”
“I knew in the angle of the tall chairs that it would mean the skirt vent would have the audience looking directly up my skirt.”
Then there’s the microphone dance. If an event has a lapel microphone with a battery pack, many audio techs are completely stumped by dresses. Where to clip the mic?
“I honestly look and feel better in dresses,” said Madeline Ashby, a futurist and science fiction author. “Which leads to holding [mic packs] in my hand, wedging them between a thigh and the chair.”
What gives? Tons of people wear skirts and dresses. Why do conferences seem to forget they exist?
The most obvious cause of terrible seating choice is that conference organizers haven’t even thought about it. (And chairs aren't the only issue either—podium heights, inaccessible stages, and inoperable sound systems can make these setups hell for disabled speakers and attendees alike.) Renée Hložek, an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Toronto, recalls the time an audio tech at a talk she was giving on women in science and technology admitted as much. “Oh, we didn’t think anyone would wear a dress,” the tech told Hložek.
I heard the same thing when I asked one of the organizers of a conference I was speaking at why chairs that seemed designed to foil dresses had been selected. He seemed confused, and then shocked. It hadn’t occurred to him that the chairs might not be dress- and skirt-friendly.
Trevor Knoblich, the head of programs and special events at the Online News Association (ONA), says it’s also a matter of people just mimicking each other’s bad choices when it comes to conference seating. “When organizers have more time to plan, I think it's easy to get overwhelmed by the options available, so you default to what you've seen other events do,” Knoblich told me, “even if that's not the right choice for the speakers or audience or stage design. Since so many conferences have bad seating, it creates an unfortunate default position.”
A default position that assumes everyone will wear pants.
“Since so many conferences have bad seating, it creates an unfortunate default position.”
Other times, conference organizers are so committed to “the look” they’re going for that they’re willing to eschew practicality for dress wearers altogether. “Conference planning can be a little like show biz,” Knoblich said. “If you're going for a certain look, the presenters might be asked to be ready to sit in a director's chair or park bench or unicycle or anything else that fits your theme or design.”
I reached out to Knoblich for this story because I was impressed when he sent me an email before a talk that actually described the seating arrangement I could expect. “We want our presenters focused on those important aspects,” Knoblich said. “They shouldn't have to worry that their clothes match the furniture fabric, or that their presentation is becoming an inadvertent sequel to Basic Instinct.”
Knoblich helps oversee a handful of events for ONA each year, including the association’s annual conference which hosts around 3,000 journalists. Before each event he puts on, Knoblich discusses seating choices at length with Melinda Cooke Vandaveer, his event operations consultant. “We consider what kinds of seating will be most appropriate for the format, won't be a distracting color or style, and hopefully is skirt-friendly,” Knoblich said.
Of course, people organizing small conferences are sometimes stuck with whatever venues give them.
“We’re really at the mercy of whatever seating is on hand at the facility,” said Lux Alptraum, founding director of Out of the Binders, which organizes a conference for women and gender-variant writers, called BinderCon. (Alptraum has also written for this website.) “I’m sure there are opportunities to rent custom seating arrangements, but that’s going to cost money. If you’re on a limited budget it’s not necessarily going to be your priority.”
At BinderCon, participants sit behind desks with tablecloths, meaning audience members can neither see a panelist’s legs nor up their skirt. Alptraum admits that this choice isn’t one that BinderCon organizers explicitly talked about. But she suspects they had an advantage, being an event that's run and attended by mostly femme people. Even without talking about it directly, they managed to land on something that worked. “I suspect that BinderCon organizers intuitively wanted to create an environment where we, personally, would feel comfortable presenting, which led to a relatively skirt-friendly set up,” Alptraum said.
Members of the BinderCon community are vocal about what they do and don’t like, she added. If people didn’t like the seating arrangement, or felt the issue was being overlooked, Alptraum says she is confident she would have already heard about it. “And I’m not sure many other conference organizers can say the same.”
And yet, even when you do plan ahead accordingly, you still never know what you might get when you arrive.
“Chairs don't show up, or the wrong chairs are delivered,” Knoblich said, by way of example. “Union rules may prevent someone from physically moving the chairs from the storage docks at the venue to the main stage in a timely manner. Or the chairs may be stained, or broken, or have stuffing falling out of the bottom of them.” In these types of scenarios, Knoblich said, you just have to get creative on the fly. “You may not have an ideal choice on hand.”
When you’re going to a panel, you want to be able to wear what makes you feel your best, which isn’t easy when you’re sitting with clenched thighs, wondering every few seconds if you’re showing too much leg. As far as sitting goes, male-presenting speakers largely don’t need to worry about what pants they wear, whereas femme-presenting folks, like New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner, told me they’ve taken to scoping out on-stage setups early to make sure they’re fine with what they’re wearing. It’s just one more example of how default assumptions shape our world.
After co-hosting in the blue dress, I went through photos of the event with a photographer. Had the organizers considered that someone like myself might have worn a skirt or a dress, I can’t help think I wouldn’t have had to ask the photographer to delete shots in which my outfit was barely hanging to the edge of my butt.
Knoblich had this word of advice: Don’t like the chair? Ask the organizer to change it.
“We keep so many details in our minds that it helps if everyone is proactive,” Knoblich said. “Most organizers will be happy to accommodate you with a little notice.”
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