Tag Archives: Diversity

Encouraging diversity at technical events – volunteers and organisers

In the third and final post of this three-part series, I will be exploring a few thoughts and ideas regarding how we can encourage diversity of volunteers and organisers 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.

Understand why you are doing this

It is important that you understand why and who you are going to supplement your organiser and volunteer team. You are not trying to fill quotas here, but instead trying to build a diverse team that truly reflects all views, ideas, outlooks, and abilities. The reason why this is a good thing is it will help you implement an event that will appeal to a diverse audience (and we have already discussed why that can be a good thing). So remember, it is not quotas you are filling, but representation.

Look towards encouraging volunteers from other events and groups

It perhaps should now go without saying that you should reach out into other communities for help for your event. These people will be more attuned to meeting their own communities needs and wants, and will also be used to coping with the demands of pulling off a successful event.

Give people ownership of their responsibilities

If you are a control freak (like me), you will struggle with the idea of handing over power of any sort for your fellow organisers and volunteers to run independently of you. This kind of command structure is not conducive to team members from growing into their role and are more likely to fail. No one wants to be bossed around at an event and if they are, you are probably not going to see them wanting to join your event the next time. Most people will live up to their responsibilities if they have control, so it is important that you give them this, and offer your support where they need it.

Understand a persons strengths and appoint accordingly

Do not assume that all of your volunteers will have exactly the same abilities (or capabilities). One person might be able to stand on their feet for a large part of the day and run between rooms – but someone else might have a medical condition that could struggle with these kinds of duties.

It is important that you communicate with all of your volunteers and understand how they can most effectively participate with volunteering at your event. Assign them roles that they will not only be able to perform, but also ones that they will enjoy.

Get plenty of volunteers onboard

Not everyone can easily deal with the pressure that running an event entails. It is important that you do not put unnecessary and extreme pressure on your team members to deliver or that exposes them to too many problems. Ensure that you bring onboard plenty of volunteers so that one person is not a single point of failure to the event activities, and that everyone has plenty of support.


Summary

It is incredibly important that you try to bring onboard lots of diverse representation onto your team so that you can run a more informed and efficient event schedule that meets the demands of your audience. This representation will also act as a great way to encourage further involvement and diversity in future years and ultimately help you achieve your goals (where you alone might fail) of encouraging diversity at technical events.

I hope you have enjoyed listening to my ramblings on this topic and I am very happy to listen to your thoughts and ideas too!

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.

Encouraging diversity at technical events – attendees

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.

Respect opt-outs

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!


Summary

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.