Encouraging diversity at technical events – speakers

In the second of this three-part series, I will be exploring a few thoughts and ideas regarding how we can encourage diversity of speakers 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.

Promote your Call For Papers through other events and groups

In a similar way that you would (if you were trying) to encourage attendees to your event, it is important that you also reach out to other community events and user groups to announce your Call For Papers. There are lots of groups like Girls Who Code and PASS Women In IT who would be a great starting point, but you should also think about even contacting non-technical groups and associations. This will give your event much more reach to communities beyond bridging more than just the gender balance and help make your speaking roster incredibly diverse, interesting, and appealing.

Seek non-technical Sessions

If you are seeking speakers from non-technical communities, it probably should go without saying that the vast majority of the potential speakers in them would be non-technical. You should be open to (and actively seek) non-technical sessions on subjects that might be of interest to a technical audience. Topics such as embracing diversity in IT or designing a workplace for mobility could be a perfect fit for your event and will appeal to a more managerial level of audience – these are the very same people that your sponsors will be keen on (those with the power to sign off purchases of products!).

Approach Speakers Directly

As an event organiser, there is always a niggling voice in the back of your mind saying “if someone cannot be bothered to submit a session then they don’t deserve to speak” but the reality is that many people do not submit to your event for a million and one reasons. It might be a confidence thing, or it might even be a fear that your event won’t be welcoming to them. This mindset will not help encourage diversity of submissions, so you should make the effort to approach those individuals directly that would traditionally not submit to your event. Remember that you are not selecting someone because they simply “fill a quota” but instead selecting someone because they bring something extra to your event. It is a bit like a music festival organiser signing some great bands for their schedule – you are almost certainly going to want the populist bands that tour everywhere, but you’ll also want to seek out those exciting new bands so that people can say “I saw them first at your festival!”.

Do not be afraid of setting diversity targets

A persistent concern that I wrestle with is the fear of positively discriminating against someone in order to “fill a quota”. It is not good for anyone if your speakers are not selected on their own merits -and they should be, but you should also not fear aiming towards (and reviewing) your diversity targets year on year. Remember that the whole point of aiming for a good diversity balance today will serve to encourage others tomorrow and remove the fear of “I can’t do this” or “I shouldn’t be here”. Remember that until your event gets an equal balance of submissions from all-comers and becomes a norm (which is probably not going to happen any time soon) you cannot truly say that selection was “fair” and you should work towards making it so.

Blind selection

Blind selection of sessions can be a good way to remove unconscious bias from the selection process, but it can also help to miss striking a good diversity balance if (as we talked about earlier) you do not have an equal representation of sessions. If you perform blind selection at your event, you should also not be afraid to review how that may have skewed your diversity targets – and not be afraid to address them for the reason given above.

Fast Call For Papers and announce your schedule early

Speakers with a young family are going to have more difficulty in speaking at your event if you do not give them enough time to make arrangements for childcare or other such considerations. The earlier that you are able to give a speaker notification of selection, the earlier they can purchase flights and accommodation at much cheaper prices. This is essential for a speaker that does not have a large disposable income, or other dependents to consider, or someone traveling from another country. I generally find that a minimum of 3 months’ notice should be given to minimize the expense to the speaker and make it more likely that they will be able to attend.

Provide Creche facilities

At the last conference I organised, I tried very hard to provide creche facilities but sadly our venue did not allow children under 16 on-premises. It was my belief that if we could provide a temporary place for children to be looked after during the event, more speakers with children would be more likely to attend and drop their child in the creche whilst they spoke. Obviously a similar argument could be made for having a creche to encourage attendees with children, though I think it is less likely for a parent to bring their child or children to a conference and want to drop them off in the Creche all day.

Avoid unisex speaker shirts

Unisex speaker shirts sound like a good idea at the time since (as an event organizer) you would only be dealing with ordering various shirt sizes rather than worrying about cut, but from personal experience, I have heard too many complaints from female speakers (to ignore) that these Unisex style shirts do not fit ladies very well. In practice, the overhead of ordering a different style of shirt is insignificant, though one problem you might run into is that commercial clothing manufacturers often only supply certain items of clothing in Unisex style. Do your best to go for alternative items of clothing where possible as your official speaker shirt since I know that this is very much appreciated and demonstrates to all speakers that you really care.

Be flexible with timeslots

Speakers with children, medical conditions, or other considerations may have to return home as soon as possible once their speaking engagement has finished. It is important that organizers try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible when drawing up an event agenda and (occasionally) be able to juggle timeslots on the day due to short notice change of circumstances. Liaising closely with your speakers about speaking arrangements will give them confidence in your ability to accommodate any known or unforeseen problems and make them more likely to be able to deliver their session.

Provide a private area for speakers

It is important that speakers have a quiet place to relax, hang out, and get away from everything. I know that many events have started to “do away” with the speaker room to encourage interaction between speakers and attendees, but some speakers might feel socially awkward and uncomfortable doing this. Remember everyone is different. You are trying to encourage people from diverse backgrounds and identities to speak at your event, so you should try and provide what they need to let them be able to be themselves.


Summary

Having a diverse speaker line up at your event is a very powerful way of encouraging new and existing talent from other communities to speak at future events as well as promoting your event further to a larger potential audience. In my opinion, it is going to take a lot of time and effort to get to a point where we won’t have to proactively need to go out and look for speakers from other communities to present at our events, but the more effort we make today, the more likely it will become the norm in the future.