In the first of this three-part series, I will be exploring a few thoughts and ideas regarding how we can encourage diversity of attendees at technical events. I have been organising events as far back as 2010 so I have (no doubt) been responsible for many failures (and hopefully a few successes) in promoting and hosting events to the community.
Before we start talking about diversity, I think it is first important to define what I mean by this term. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, diversity is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements” and especially “the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization”. I don’t quite think this extends far enough, and I see personally see diversity as the inclusion of all people regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ability, physical appearance, age, size, race, or religion. Our aim, therefore, should be to provide a harassment-free conference experience in which everyone can enjoy this in equal measure.
The following is not a comprehensive list, but I hope it will provide some food for thought when you start planning your next event.
Implement a Code of Conduct
One of the very first things we can do for our event is to implement a code of conduct for all attendees, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, and organizers to adhere to. This will act as a necessary framework to refer back to. I personally like the ability to amend and change the Code of Conduct where it becomes obvious over time that you have made a mistake or omission – but you should be careful not to change policy on a whim, get team approval, and document what and when a revision was made.
The Code of Conduct should be well publicized and kept as simple as possible to ensure that it is understood and followed by everyone at your event.
Have contact details for problems to be reported to – and make everyone aware during the event who they can speak to about any possible issues.
Ensure your event space is accessible and has adequate parking and drop-off areas
I once held a conference at an event space that had stairs and few lifts. After being contacted by a wheel-chair bound attendee in advance of an up-and-coming event, it became clear that we would have to assign a member of the volunteer staff to assist with the attendee in order for them to move from session to session. He was also arriving by train and getting a taxi to and from the event, so we also needed to arrange special dispensation into the event grounds to allow the taxi in and out since we were not allowed to use their private parking or access and the nearest public car park was a 15-minute walk away.
Clearly an event’s accessibility is going to affect who is going to want (or be able) to attend your event and it might not be obvious what someone’s ability might be.
You should look to make accessibility both in/ around and to/ from the event as painless possible -but it is also critical that you provide a point of contact for inquiries where extra help might be needed.
Establish session delivery rules
Firstly the event Code of Conduct should already make it clear to speakers to refrain from any inflammatory, derogatory, sexual, racist, or offensive comments or actions.
Furthermore, all speakers should adhere to a common framework of best practices for session delivery to ensure that a consistent and optimal experience is enjoyed by all. This is usually better being explicitly defined by an event.
Speakers can help people with audible impairments and deliver their session in a calm and clear manner trying their best not to mumble or rush (regardless of time). For people with visual impairments, the slide decks should avoid any color combinations that would give them problems (avoiding colour combinations that make it hard for colour blindness) and they should use large enough fonts and graphics. It should go without saying that all demos should be equally large enough for all to see.
Speakers should be mindful of attendees with mobility disabilities being able to move between rooms. They should aim to start their session on (or just after time) and wrap up well within the designated end time to provide as much time for an attendee to get to another room.
Organizers should ensure that there is plenty of time in between sessions and that session rooms have plenty of access between the chairs. Why not even go one step further and leave a front-row clear for wheelchairs? Why not leave a generous amount of space between chairs to make everyone feel a little more relaxed and comfortable during the presentation?
Publicise your event effectively
It can be very difficult to attract diversity at your event since often people from different backgrounds might not hang around in the same social or disadvantaged circles as yourself. You should be mindful of this and think outside the box. Attempt to contact group leaders in these other communities and ask them to promote your event to their attendees. Perhaps you can even offer to provide a financial incentive for every successful referral they manage to make? Every attendee has a small financial value to an event, and sponsors like to see new faces, so why not pass on a small amount of your sponsorship in this way? Communities supporting communities is really why we run these events.
Whatever you do to spread the message far and wide to potential future attendees, the most important thing you need to do is to promote your positive event message of diversity ensuring that all information is available (or easily accessible) from the front page of your event. You might only get one-shot to attract new faces who traditionally might avoid these kind of events so this is your opportunity to sell it to them.
Set up social and quiet spaces
Not everyone likes talking to complete strangers. For some people this comes easy, but for many (myself included) event break times are usually not something I particularly enjoy. Try to do your best to set up various activities in your social areas to make it easier for people to interact and encourage dialogue and participation (for instance and some of my past events we have set up large garden games (such as Giant Connect 4 and Giant Jenga) in the social spaces. Also aim to provide several quiet areas where people can go and sit down, be by themselves, and relax. Do not forget that some people might have religious or personal activities that they need to do during break times -perhaps they need to pray or take medication. At all of my recent events, I have made sure we have had at least 1 quiet room and 1 prayer room available at all times.
Provide accurate name badges
Name badges are a rather personal thing. Not everyone wants their twitter handle emblazoned across their chest, nor might they want any assumptions as to their gender, names, or other such nomenclature printed there. You should, therefore, give this thought and consider providing a display name type field on the event registration, making sure that the attendee is happy with anything else you might want to print about them.
Probably one of the most frustrating aspects of attending an event is getting spammed. Whilst this is annoying to many, to those from diverse backgrounds, the thought of having their personal private details distributed to complete strangers is probably a step too far. If someone states that they want to opt-out of sponsor communications, then ensure their details are not passed onto anyone else. Clearly GDPR means you should be handling other people’s data with care already!
Having a diverse attendance at your event is not only great to share different ideas from many different viewpoints, but can also be attractive to sponsors of an event who are always wanting to cross-pollinate and promote into different communities. But reaching out to these diverse communities and attracting them to your event can be very difficult. Over time, word of mouth can help to promote your event far and wide, but you first need to lay the groundwork so that your event is a safe welcoming place to be and provides for people with diverse needs and requirements. Remember that attendee diversity can also be encouraged through attendees seeing that there is also diversity in your event organizer/ volunteer teams and speakers chosen for your event. In the last two parts of this series we will explore these things.