So you want to put on a diverse, inclusive conference

  1. By Ashe Dryden
  2. On November 18, 2012
  3. Tagged diversity Conference Organizing Resources inclusivity community tech technology help how to

As someone who has organized 20 or so conferences over the past 10 years, I can tell you: organizing a conference is hard. It takes a lot of time - way more than you initially thought when you agreed to organize a conference. It's hard work. It's expensive. It's nerve-wracking. Organizing a conference also represents a lot of risk - what if no one shows up? What if we don't get good speakers? What if the wifi goes down? 

The thing a lot of (especially first time) conference organizers forget to focus on is driving diversity to their conference both through speakers as well as attendees.

It's a complicated issue - most people in technology fields are white, male (specifically cisgender male), straight, abled, speak English as their first language or have had to learn English, and are between the ages of ~20 and late 40s.

So if the community is rather homogenous, how do keep our conferences from being homogenous as well? 

Educate yourself! Why is it important and why does the problem exist?

It's difficult to understand why the problem exists, why things need to be changed, or how we can encourage change if we don't educate ourselves. It is each of our responsibility to educate ourselves about what it's like to be a member of a marginalized group. This education encourages empathy within us and our communities and promotes positive change.

My friends BryanLindsey, Steve, and Julie have all covered this pretty succinctly, take a look at these relatively short videos on this subject:

Make your intentions known and ask for help

  • Ideally your organizing committee should look as diverse as the community you want to create. Even if you're unable to find people who can dedicate the time and energy into helping you organize an entire conference, many people are willing to sit with you to discuss your current plans and how they can be improved.
  • Send emails or tweets to people in the community who have experience creating diverse, inclusive communites or have a lot of reach. You'd be surprised how many people you can reach just by asking someone to tweet that you need help finding women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc to submit proposals to your conference - especially when this is an issue so many people are affected by.

One of the first things I notice about a conference when I am checking out their website is what their speaker lineup looks like. Is it the same people I see at every conference? Are they all white, straight (or straight-passing), men? Sadly the vast majority of the time all of these are true.

Last May I attended Farmhouse Conf 2 which boasted a 50/50 split of male and female speakers. The conference itself was amazing and each speaker provided a unique perspective. So diversity in speaker lineup can be done, you just have to make it a priority.

How do you advertise that you want to see a diverse community at your conference when you don't already have one?

  • Admit you have a problem. There is nothing wrong with going to colleagues or to twitter and saying "We want to provide an inclusive, diverse conference experience, but we need help. Can you help us?"
  • Explicitly ask for constructive criticism. Write a blog post on your conference's site explaing what you have done and ask where you are going wrong or what you might have forgotten. Maybe you didn't notice that all of the pictures on your conference site are of white people or that the language you use in your CFP is gendered.
  • Be gracious, humble, and kind. It's hard to hear that you may have misstepped or made a mistake, but it happens to everyone. Before responding to criticism (constructive or not), take some time to examine the truth in it. For best results, ask an unbiased third party to examine the evidence and the criticism and help you understand the problem. Then, humbly apologize and make known the steps you're taking to correct the situation.

There are lots of simple things you can do to make people feel welcome:

  • remove gendered language from your CFP or other materials referring to speakers and attendees
  • ask a group like RailsBridge to offer a workshop alongside your conference
  • anonymize proposal submissions before going through them. This includes removing gendered language.
  • ask a diverse group of people to review your proposals.
  • create a diversity statement and an anti-harassment policy. Verify the links to them are easily found on your website and in any emails you might send out. 
  • on the registration, ask attendees if they need any special accomodations
  • offer tshirts in men's and women's styles in a wide range of sizes for both
  • offer full or partial scholarships and student rates for tickets

Don't play the blame game

The absolute worst thing you can do is shift blame. It is our responsibility as conference organizers to make everyone feel welcomed, accepted, and safe in our communities.

We have a long way to go before the numbers of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups represent the same percentage of people in tech as they do in the general population. The biggest drivers for creating that balance are employers, conferences, and educators. We are ambassadors and should represent everything we want to see in our communities.

(Plus, essentially blaming the victims makes you look really bad and does not endear your event to sponsors, speakers, or attendees.)

Offer your help

  • Is someone organizing a conference in your area? Ask how you can help. Offer to put together an anti-harassment policy or a diversity statement or invite your friends and colleagues to submit proposals.
  • Mentor. One of the ways you can have the biggest impact is to mentor people trying to make it in your field. Encourage them to submit proposals for conferences and help them edit or practice their talk. Building confidence is key!
  • Stand up when you see something wrong. We all have a duty to speak up when we notice something wrong. Marginalized groups need allies more than anyone else as detractors are unlikely to listen to them if they speak up for themselves.

Other Resources

A handful of links that I send to people on a regular basis when the subject gets brought up. If there's something you think I'm missing from this list, please let me know - I'm happy to add to it! :)

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