“Help! someone has pointed out my conference has diversity issues!
How do I fix this?”
I get asked this question a lot.
Often it is in response to me refusing to speak at a conference because it does not meet our team’s Diversity & Inclusion policy. I will decline to speak at a conference if the line up is all white men or if there has been little to no effort by the organisers to ensure that attendees from diverse backgrounds are able to attend.
I won’t speak at a conference just to be the token woman speaker, either. Even though it may appear to help, at that point it is often too late for your conference to be appropriately diverse to conform with our policy. I would prefer be chosen for my technical skills, rather than because I make your conference look good.
Before I get stuck in, I would like to make it clear that my perspective is that of a white woman who has lived in London and the Bay Area. My experience is from these communities. The issues for race and gender will vary by location and community. Also my experience dealing with race issues is limited and you should pay people of colour to consult with you, if you need help.
In addition, I am not a diversity and inclusion expert. My expertise lies in Virtual Reality and new Front End Web technology. I attend and help run a lot of conferences as a developer advocate.
Every conference should aim to have better representation of underrepresented groups than that of the community, because conferences should represent what we want to see in the rest of the industry. Improving the diversity of the tech industry should be a core value of any worthwhile community event.
Don’t ask people from underrepresented background to help you with your diversity work for free, their work has value.
People who are underrepresented in tech are often also underpaid in tech. Being expected to work for free compounds these issues. Ensure that the people working to diversify your community are fairly compensated for their labor.
Diversity & Inclusion isn’t just about speakers
I’ve often seen diversity and inclusion presented as just being about the lineup of speakers; but a conference is more than just who is on the stage, otherwise we would all just watch the videos on YouTube, rather than attending.
They key groups of people who make up your conference culture are as follows:
- The organisers. They set the rules, write the code of conduct (CoC) and select the other people who will be involved.
- The speakers. They are people that the conference has selected to deliver what they believe to be a worthwhile message.
- The staff and volunteers. They enforce the CoC and will be the first point of contact at the event of someone feeling uncomfortable or there is an issue.
- The participants. The largest group at your conference. Most will try to have fun, some will try to cause trouble. People will probably remember your conference mostly based on interactions with their fellow attendees.
Understanding the importance of each of these groups is key to understanding how to increase the diversity and inclusion of your event. Last-minute diversity pushes for speakers merely place a ‘diversity facade’ over a rotten core. When diversity is just done for appearance’ sake, nothing about the conference’s culture has actually changed.
Each group represents a microcosm of the conference as a whole. Which reflects the value system of the organisers. By changing only one aspect, such as the speakers, the diversity issues of the conference have not been solved, only covered up.
If your conference staff was picked by an all white male team they are likely to be chosen from their friends, who are likely also white and male. You must consider, for example, whether your attendees would feel comfortable reporting gendered harassment to someone who looks exactly like their harasser.
If you have complaints about speaker diversity after you have already started selling tickets, lack of diversity is often just one symptom of a deep underlying problem and it may already be too late to fix it. Building a conference culture which reflects your community happens long before the speakers are even chosen. It primarily lies in having a diverse organisation team. The values of your community culture will reflect the values of the people organising it.
Everything, including the contents of the code of conduct, the staff manning the venue, the chosen sponsors and graphic design of the website will reflect the make up and values of the organisation team whether explicitly chosen or accidentally.
So… what should I do as a conference organiser?!
If you are being told there are issues long after all the decisions have been made, perhaps take this opportunity to look at where things went wrong.
- Look at your feedback from the underrepresented groups who did attend to understand your missed opportunities.
- Carefully consider the make up of your team.
If you haven’t paid for your venue and haven’t sold tickets yet then it is probably not too late, better delayed and done right than potentially making an event which may garner lots of negative attention. It is harder to improve Diversity and Inclusion if you have a reputation for making people from underrepresented groups feel uncomfortable.
The organisation team for your event should be as diverse as the people that you hope will attend it. They should also be actively engaged in the industry community. If you do not know the right people for your team then you may have to pay people for their time. Don’t expect people to fix your community for free.
For meetups and smaller events, you may need to change the format of the event. If you have a diverse audience but can’t get diverse speakers perhaps make it an event to shine a spotlight on the community such as panels or an unconference. Make it an opportunity for new speakers to give their first talk.
If you are a larger conference, be sure to consider diversity at every level:
- The organisers. Most importantly make sure your team is diverse.
- The staff. Usually we ask our friends to help, so this is easier with a diverse team. These are the people your attendees will turn to in the case of trouble so ensure they feel safe to do so.
- The speakers. Speakers are seen as experts in their field. Many people look up to speakers as aspirational figures. It is important that all of your attendees get the chance to see role models in your speakers.
- The participants. If you’ve created a diverse and inclusive lineup in the rest of your event, you’ll find that you won’t drive away people from underrepresented backgrounds. It is worth noting that even if your immediate community is not very diverse, that is no reason to think that the above suggestions do not apply to your event and can’t/won’t make a difference.
The venue must fully support people’s accessibility needs. This must also be clearly stated on the web site. Which must also be accessible to people using screen readers, captioning or the Loop.
Your event must have a code of conduct which also clearly states how it is enforced, and who incidents can be reported to, even after the event.
Consider providing discounted tickets or full sponsorships for people with special circumstances. Even better, providing travel bursaries or childcare bursaries for people who may not be able afford to attend otherwise.
Provide childcare or ‘childrens tracks’ at the conference, many women are still the main caregiver, even if also in a full time tech career.
It may sound obvious, but make everyone at your event feel welcome, if you do decide to give away branded apparel make sure there are options to suit the body shape of everyone, have a wide range of sizes and ensure there are fitted cut shirts. If you can’t afford to cover all of these sizes/shapes consider another option for merchandise like a tote bag or socks.
It is really important that the badge printing service can print non-ascii characters, it is very unwelcoming if your ID badge doesn’t even display your name correctly.
Make sure there are food options for everyone, vegan options which are more than just salad and options for people with allergies such as nut or gluten.
Quiet rooms and prayer spaces can all make people feel welcome and able to attend your conference when otherwise they would be unable to. In addition private breastfeeding rooms allows new mothers to attend. These rooms aren’t always required but if you make it clear on your web site that one can be made available if requested it will be very useful to many potential attendees.
Providing ways for attendees to indicate certain pieces of information can be really useful for attendees to make them feel safer e.g.
- Alternate coloured lanyards for ‘don’t photograph me’.
- Methods to indicate ‘Please don’t talk to me’ or ‘Please come chat to me’, and making sure other attendees know what these indicators mean.
“There are literally no women or people of colour who do public speaking in my area…”
This is an excuse I see frequently. An area with history of lack of diversity in tech conferences will only get worst if not actively remedied.
This can sometimes be a matter of economics. It takes days worth of work to write a talk to give. Even a lightning talk takes a long time. Then to attend a conference can take up a full day, or multiple days for international. To have this time a available is to be very privileged. It may mean putting off freelance work, not working a 2nd job, or relying on a partner or carer to look after ones family.
Make a clear offer of paying for travel/hotel and providing a speakers fee for any speaker you have asked to speak from an underrepresented minority. They are doing work for you, to make your conference better. But if you only have budget to pay some speakers use some of your budget to help these speakers rather than more white-male keynote speakers.
In addition to funding, providing mentorship and professional speaker training can really help encouraging speakers from underrepresented groups to give their first few talks. This training and mentors can be provided by the conference but if you are a new speaker and would like this training another option is to ask your company. Some companies are happy to provide speaker training as part of employee growth.
What can really help a community in the long run is exclusive events and spaces.
Events exclusively organised by and for only women, LGBT people or people of colour can help make a more inclusive tech community in the long run.
This amazing article by @uveanto goes into detail about how and why.
Sponsoring exclusive events allows them more resources and enables people who maybe otherwise be unable to attend come by helping pay for travel or childcare.
Communities like these will provide safe spaces for new speakers to get accustomed to speaking and maybe even come speak at your inclusive tech (where you will pay them to speak, and pay for travel, child support and accommodation).
What can I do as a speaker or sponsor in a privileged position?
Most importantly don’t speak at or sponsor conferences which are not making a clear push for diversity and inclusion from the ground up.
(For the pedantic, yes, if asked to, I would speak at a conference exclusively for women or LGBTQ people because I am part of those communities and it supports diversity efforts in the long run.)
When they ask why explain your reasons and if there are fixes which they can make which would fix the issues then help them work through those issues.
As people giving time or money to the conferences we have power to help them change for the better.
If you are getting paid twice, e.g. once from your company, once from the conference (or can otherwise afford it) ask the conference to donate your speaker fee or travel money to either pay for the travel/hotel of a speaker or an attendee from an underrepresented group.
If you are in a company which frequently sends speakers to events it is definitely worth having a Diversity and Inclusion company policy to enable speakers/sponsors to have these discussions with events organisers. Make sure it is publicly visible so you can be held to account over it.
Sponsors especially have the power to swing conferences one way or another. A sponsor often has space in the venue to provide their own message which can either be an inclusive one. Or one one which alienates your invited speakers and attendees. A sponsor bringing booth babes or using excessively gendered language e.g. ‘looking for code warriors’ can alienate women or non-binary people.
It is important to ensure sponsors are a good fit from the start because once they have provided money to your conference it is difficult to dissolve the partnership if your guests start complaining.
If your team sends speakers to conferences please take a look at the Samsung Internet’s Diversity & Inclusion policy and use it as a basis for your own.
Thank you for reading,