Every year, net magazine produces a popular awards show recognizing the achievements of the best individuals, teams, and projects in web design. It's called the Net Awards and it's the largest, longest-running ceremony of its kind.
Here's a brief history.
- In 2007, every award winner was white and male.
- In 2008, every award winner was white and male.
- In 2009, every award winner was white and male.
- In 2010, every award winner was white and male.
- In 2011, every award winner was white.
- In 2013, every award winner was white.
The nominees for 2014 were just announced, hand-selected from more than 2,000 community nominations. There are 70 people up for individual awards, and here they are.
Meet the nominees
Hey, that's a good-looking group of people!
All these folks are incredibly talented, and I'm happy to see web designers and developers noticed for doing exceptional stuff. I have quite a few friends in there and I'm rooting for 'em.
But let's take a closer look at—dun dun dun—representation. How are women and people of color, the larger marginalized groups in our industry, represented here?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, something like 33% of web developers are women. They only make up 13.6% of the individual award nominees.
The only woman in Entrepreneur of the Year is part of a couple, making her a half-nominee. No women were nominated for Young Developer of the Year.
In an interesting twist, a non-individual category called Conference Talk of the Year very reasonably features four women. This sounds good until we consider that the only category where women are really represented is not technical.
Not-so-coincidentally, this lines up with stereotypes about women underperforming in technical roles.
Still, these numbers are an improvement from previous years. Oliver Lindberg, editor of net magazine, published Why diversity matters in the web design industry in response to criticism around diversity in the Net Awards.
They seem to recognize a problem... with gender. With the exception of an aside at the end, Lindberg discusses gender exclusively.
Thinking of diversity this way is problematic. There are lots of other underrepresented groups in our industry, each with their own obstacles. Erasing them from the conversation ignores their experiences and perpetuates a cycle of exclusion.
For designers in particular, our work is rooted in empathy. We can't afford to think of diversity so narrowly that we dismiss those people.
Let's take a look at how people of color are represented.
People of color
Have mercy! Out of 70 individual award nominees, 67 are white. There are three people of color. I just about started singing Springsteen: "Blinded by the white..."
Lindberg suggests these disparities are just "symptomatic of the industry". Got it. The buck stops... over there.
Except it doesn't. Look at these numbers for designers and web developers in the United States in 2012! Around 20% of designers and 18% of web developers are of color.
- Women: 51.6%
- Black: 4%
- Hispanic: 6.6%
- Asian: 9.3%
Occupation: Web developers
- Women: 33.7%
- Black: 4.1%
- Hispanic: 5.6%
- Asian: 8%
Additionally, Asians are actually way overrepresented in Silicon Valley, making up more than 50% of those working in computer or mathematical occupations.
These statistics don't even include Natives, Pacific Islanders, or mixed race people like me.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Net Awards don't really approach the "representative [...] ratio" they mention.
Long live the meritocracy
"We couldn't just include [marginalized] people whose visible work wasn't as good as the other contenders in a given category."
Statements like this sound obvious, but are predicated on the pernicious, unrelenting myth that our industry operates in a meritocracy.
Meritocracy was discussed heavily last year, and this post offers a great summary of the issues. It's an idea that sweeps bias under the rug, ignoring its influence on power and visibility.
We have to see and acknowledge that before we can address it. Nominations from the public will never represent complete information.
People with the most privilege—like white, straight, cisgender, abled men—have a way easier time being seen. People with the least privilege—like women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities—often get a raw deal.
Lindberg gives us a powerful example of privilege in his description of diversity issues:
"[The topic of diversity in tech] comes around every so often, gets everyone up in arms and then disappears again for a while."
People in our community are discussing and living with the consequences of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other systemic prejudice every single day.
These discussions are largely unnoticed by the mainstream, even among those who otherwise live and breathe technology.
Diversity is more than an obligation
Lindberg repeatedly acknowledges that diversity is important in the context of obligation.
You [...] have a responsibility as an industry publication to foster new talent, put together a roster of contributors with a representative gender ratio and give everyone an equal chance.
That's evident, but what are the actual consequences? Beyond accountability or appeasement, why does diversity matter?
Well, leaving the system unchecked actively harms marginalized people. Inaction does all kinds of damage:
- Marginalized people don't get to envision themselves receiving mainstream acknowledgement; often develop imposter syndrome
- Disproportionate recognition of white men feeds into toxic, power-tripping, overtly masculine side of tech culture
- Supports the laughable myth only white men are producing the best work in the industry (peep my list of 400+ outrageously good female designers on Dribbble)
- Women continue to suffer from epidemic of sexual assault and harrassment in professional environments
- Women continue to leave the industry FOREVER at twice the rate of men
- Entire industry falls short of potential to innovate by not including and valuing diverse perspectives
This will continue until we change the narrative. That means educating ourselves, aggressive outreach, forming partnerships, and working with specialists until we are including more than "representative" numbers of marginalized people in our conference panels, recruiting pipelines, marketing material, and industry-wide displays of recognition.
Update: In 2014, every individual award winner was white.
I'm putting them under the microscope, but I know the net magazine folks work really hard on the Net Awards. Better representation on the judging panel is a good start, but we must be clear about the issues and why diversity is critical. Thanks for inviting this discussion.