My thoughts on diversity in tech conferences

Today there has been some discussion on Twitter about diversity in tech conferences. I’m not going to link to the discussion directly, because this isn’t about the specific conference that spurred the conversation. I’m not here to name and shame anyone.

I volunteered for 3 years as program manager for PASS Summit, so I will be speaking from experience. I have written before that diversity is important, and I think the bar for that is raising for tech conferences. So where should that bar be?

What is your target goal?

First, I think every single tech conference needs some kind of target goal for diversity. It doesn’t have to be a a hard numerical goal and it doesn’t have to be a quota, but diversity should be somewhere in the thought process, every step along the way. If you are not intentional about this, you will trend towards the default, which is a very homogenous speaker pool.

So what kinds of goals are there? In my mind I see 4 easily defined ones:

  1. No goal. No consideration given to diversity. This is unacceptable in 2021.
  2. Attendee demographics. Aiming for parity with the diversity of your audience
  3. Speaker demographics. Aiming for parity with your speaker pool
  4. Regional/Global demographics. Aiming for parity with the general population.

I personally believe the bar today should be set at #2 & #3, whichever is more difficult. In my experience, there are concrete steps you can do to improve the diversity of your speaker pool, such as encouraging folks to submit, or setting aside a certain number of invitation slots. If the your selected speakers aren’t at least as representative as your submitted speakers, then you aren’t trying hard enough.

When I was working on PASS Summit, diversity was a secondary concern, but it was a consistent one, and we took steps when there were issues. We didn’t have any hard targets, but if we felt there was an imbalance, we would go out of our way to juggle the schedule or intentionally invite speakers. There was plenty of room for improvement, however, especially with decisions outside of the selection process.

Where does diversity matter most?

It is not enough to say that your total pool of selected speakers has diversity. Diversity is most important where there is an implied endorsement or there is money involved. You don’t get to shine a spotlight and then ignore your responsibility.

If a conference is placing emphasis on a subset of speakers, the bar for diversity is even higher there for two reasons. First, there is where a conference has the most discretion. It is much easier to get it right with a dozen speakers than a hundred. And if they are promoting a specific set of speakers, they have much more control over who they are promoting and why.

The other reason is any time you elevate a subset of speakers, you are making a statement, even if it’s an unintentional one. Let’s say that hypothetically your conference had 25% females speakers, but not a single female precon speaker. That would send strong implied message, because precons are lucrative, highly coveted, and a strong endorsement of the speaker. These kinds of implied messages can be immensely discouraging.

For us at PASS, this applied to two areas main areas. First was the televised sessions, because these sessions had a broader reach and there was an implied endorsement of quality. It also applied to precon trainings. If folks saw the same old faces for precons, we would get roasted, and rightfully so. Lastly, it was also an issue in some of the marketing of the early invited speakers, and sometimes that presented a tension between marketing process and the selection process.

One other area where it matters are panels. In the year 2021, there is no reason to ever have an all male panel, ever, ever, ever. On a panel of 4-5 speakers, it does not take that much work to for you to find at least one female speaker. If you can’t, you should cancel the panel and look into the deeper issues with your selection process. Even if it is completely accidental, a “manel” comes across as lazy at best.

What can conference organizers do?

Generally speaking, conference organizers have a wide variety of tools to improve diversity if they are willing to get creative and especially if they have a budget to work with. PASS was notoriously stingy, which forced us to depend on the former.

Ideally, it should start during the call for speakers. If the speaker pool seems lopsided, the conference organizers should be taking steps to encourage new and diverse speakers. Any conference integrated into the community is likely going to have connections that can amplify those messages. Even better, if a conference is willing to pay speakers, that opens up a much broader pool instead of the most privileged folks. In some cases, conferences can also set aside a certain number of slots for invited speakers and use those to improve diversity.

During the selection process, a lot of it comes down to mindfulness. A conference should be spot checking things all along the way, even better if they can get folks from outside the team to help. Again, having a certain number of reserved slots and being willing to invite and pay people can go a long way here.

Finally, there are indirect steps the conference can take. First, what are you doing to encourage new or low-profile speakers? Things like feedback on abstracts or speaker mentoring can increase the breadth of speakers available to you. As a new speaker in 2017, I felt discouraged about submitting to big conferences and I’m sure under-represented folks feel the same way.

Additionally you can take steps like having a clear code of conduct, having sessions on diversity, and providing support for underrepresented groups. Signs that a conference is safe and fair to underrepresented groups will encourage more of those folks to submit.

Summary

Improving diversity in a conference is hard work, and the average call for speakers is often an unbalanced starting point. However, conference organizers have a number of tools available to them, especially for large paid conferences.

In 2021, there is never an excuse for an all male panel, and any elevated subset of speakers, such as paid precon speakers, should come under heightened scrutiny. Every tech conference should at least be aiming to match the demographics of their submitted speakers and their attendees. To me these all feel like a reasonable starting point.

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