Right now several people i respect a lot in the blogosphere ask "do we have enough diversity at tech conferences?"... most of them meaning "do we have enough women speakers?" In particular, the Future of Web Apps is being skewered for having only one woman at their recent London conf (and they were skewered last fall for having zero women at the SF conference). Organizing a conference with 0 or 1 women speakers out of 20 is obviously going to subject you to a hell of a lot of criticism.
However, i'm helping organize the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo conference and even only having ~15-20% women speakers puts us in the hot seat. Does it matter that we actively sought out folks like Tara Hunt, Deb Schultz, Emily Chang and Kelly Goto to be part of our program committee? that one of our co-chairs Jen Pahlka, has been reported to be female? that Caterina Fake is on our advisory committee? that we have several notable female speakers like Kathy Sierra, Charlene Li, and Mena Trott presenting and moderating at our panels?
No probably not. We still need to work hard to make sure we don't fall subject to all white male lineups (right now our primary keynoters are white boyz: Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, and Jeff Weiner... Kathy is also doing a keynote, and we asked Caterina, still tbd). Especially in the tech industry, that's easy to do. Much as progress has been made in the last few years, there are still a distinct minority of tech geeks and entrepreneurs who are female. Exceptions like Caterina, Joyce Park, Mary Hodder and others notwithstanding, we're likely only in the equivalent of the 50's or early 60's in terms of female geek emancipation.
That said, i think Brian Oberkirch hits it on the head when he notes diversity isn't just about having enough people with vaginas around (sorry my paraphrasing, not his... bitch at me, not him). To wit: one of the critical issues we discussed early on putting together Web 2.0 Expo was to make sure we created tracks & sessions for people in marketing & community, user interface design, and business managers /entrepreneurs, rather than just being exclusively about programming & technology. While we certainly made a point of having women involved in our planning, selection, speaking, and organizing process, we focused more on having OCCUPATIONAL DIVERSITY than gender diversity be at the crux of the conference. Perhaps this was oversight on our part, but we wanted a diverse representation of PEOPLE coming from each of these disciplines, whether or not they're female.
And yet, we still realize we were probably overlooking diversity of people from international geographies, diversity of age (both old and young)... both of these being significant demographics to include in the Web 2.0 conversation. Not to mention we overlooked speakers who were blind (don't think we have any), speakers who were gay (didn't ask, won't tell), speakers who are evangelists (we have a lot of those, but i don't know their religion), speakers who are atheist or agnostic (don't know, don't care), or speakers who like latex and S&M (hey, we ARE having the conference in San Francisco).
So ultimately, what am i saying here? Diversity doesn't matter? It isn't a problem? No & no. Yes, it is something we should care about... specifically, we who are organizers should try harder to invite more women speakers at tech conferences. However, on a scale from 1 to 10, is gender diversity at Web 2.0 conferences a high priority issue? Imho, no it isn't. There are a ton of other issues that people should be paying more attention to. At best, i would say there's more concern around racial mix at tech conferences than gender. But even there... why not spend your time worrying about gender equality in education or the workforce? Or more significantly, gender equality around the world and in religion? Sure tech conferences are one aspect of the problem, but i think you could spend your time on areas of society more obviously lacking... just ask Patsy Mink.
For a reference point on the scale of these issues, consider the tragedy of Zilla Huma Usman. She was a Pakistani politician who fought for human rights / women's rights, recently assassinated by someone who thought she wasn't wearing the proper head covering... Zilla Huma Usman, the minister for social welfare in Punjab province and an ally of President Pervez Musharraf, was killed as she was about to deliver a speech to dozens of party activists, by a fanatic, who believed that she was dressed inappropriately and that women should not be involved in politics.
Now there's a challenge to diversity worth raising hell about.