Breaking the echo chamber: diversity (or the lack of it) at tech events

Late last year the thorny topic of diversity (or lack of it) at technology events was in the spotlight again after the British Ruby Conference (BritRuby) was cancelled following outcry about its all-male, all-white speaker line-up. Following the controversy many men pledged to boycott all-male panels at tech conferences. The idea proved controversial, with bloggers making impassioned arguments for doing so, and as many putting the case against.

A month ago, I popped along to altUKGovCamp (with UKGovcamp postponed due to snow, the brilliant Lloyd Davis and James Cattell swung into action and swiftly convened an impromptu geek meetup event. An un-unconference, if you will.) where this quickly became a hot topic for conversation. Our discussion covered the full gamut of issues, like:

  • Is the lack of diversity an issue?
  • Is it merely a symptom of the makeup of the industry?
  • If it is a problem, what can be done about it?

This proved a lively discussion which generated a range of practical ideas, particularly from the rather brilliant tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna, who noted many of the issues which make women reluctant to put themselves forward to speak – nervousness, undervaluing your own skills – are also those which make women less likely to negotiate a pay rise. She’s already blogged her tips for successfully negotiating a better pay deal, and I said I’d follow up with a post on diversity at tech events. So here we are.

all male panel

A typical panel at a tech conference

Diversity in tech is important

And not just because I’m a sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading leftie. This is a knowledge economy which increasingly relies on digital skills to create products and deliver services. We need more skilled tech people. The world particularly needs skilled creative tech people who can focus on the needs of the customer and find creative solutions. So we need diversity in skills, experience, knowledge and thought, at all levels. Diversity makes tech better.

But the tech industry is male dominated – aren’t conference speakers just a reflection of the audience?

Women are a minority in the tech world, it’s true, particularly at senior levels. But is that chicken or egg? The lack of visible, high-profile women at these events only serves to reinforce the idea that tech is a male preserve.

All-male panels aren’t just the preserve of the tech field either; following the BritRuby conference bloggers took aim at conference organisers in all manner of industries. It’s clear conferences have a problem, and not just in male-dominated industries.

Diversity isn’t just about women

The current debates focus on women, but the fact is panels are overwhelmingly white, and very rarely include people with disabilities.>

So diversity shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’; it’s about ensuring conference panels reflect the audiences they’re talking to. Inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds might bring a different point of view to the conference, which helps making talks and panels a lot more interesting. It’s been long known that diverse teams in the workplace are more successful– is there any reason the same wouldn’t be true for conferences?

As Mary McKenna pointed out, promoting diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s also something which makes commercial sense.

So if it makes so much sense, why are there so few women speakers at tech conferences?

Good question. Here’s some of the reasons which have been suggested:

  • because of a lack of confidence
  • because they lack experience and are unsure how to write a good proposal
  • because they don’t see other people like them speaking, and feel uncomfortable being the only woman there
  • because they don’t think their work will support sending them to the conference
  • because they have childcare or other commitments that limit their ability to travel
  • “we’d love to have more women on the panel, but we haven’t had any submit proposals”
  • Because conference organisers – consciously or otherwise – seek out male speakers more actively than female ones
  • Selection committees may be biased against female speakers when selecting papers
  • There are fewer women in the field in the first place, so the lack of women speakers just reflects this

So what can be done about it?

The discussion at altUKGovCamp covered a wide range of ideas. Widespread threats to boycott all-male panels have certainly succeeded in drawing conference organisers’ attention to the issue. What’s clear is that conference organisers have a clear role to play in promoting diversity in their conference lineups.

Quotas provoked some fierce debate, with many suggesting this is tokenistic and ultimately devalues the contribution of women who are selected – suggesting perhaps that they weren’t selected on merit alone. Others felt a firm commitment to have, say, women make up a third of speakers signals a strong signal to those attending that diversity is a real issue. But it’s also bloody hard work.

Conferences are big business, and conference organisers are not charities. Those conference organisers who are making real efforts to recruit more diverse speakers are to be applauded for their efforts. But the fact is, it is a real effort – this blogpost from Courtney Stanton explaining how she got 50% female speakers at a video game conference illustrates it can be a real pain, and when you’ve got venues to book and tickets to sell, it’s a hassle one can easily do without.

If you’re organising a conference, here’s some advice:

  • Timing. if speaking at your conference is contingent on attending all three days (plus a half-day travel each way) you’re already making it more difficult for someone with caring responsibilities to attend.
  • Say it. Why not put a diversity statement in your call for submissions, making it clear your conference values diversity and actively welcomes papers from women and other under-represented groups. Let people know they are welcomed (here’s a great example from J Boye)
  • Be proactive. Check websites focusing on women speakers, get in touch with potential speakers who may be reluctant to put themselves forward, ask potential speakers to recommend others.

But making conferences more diverse takes both sides. Women need to put themselves forward, too. Here’s some tips for women who’d like to speak at a conference but aren’t sure about how:

  • JFDI. Speaking at a conference is a great way of boosting your professional profile.
  • Speaking in front of hundreds of people is a little scary. But you don’t have to start there. If you’re not sure, start by running a session at an unconference or doing a quick Ignite-style presentation to get a feel for it, and work up from there. Starting at a lower-key event gives you a chance to practice your material and get over your nerves
  • Don’t undersell yourself. It’s all too easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and think you’re not good enough. Fight those negative feelings! What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Make some noise. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, don’t keep it to yourself; mention it on your blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. Once you have a track record as a speaker you’re more likely to be asked again.
  • Advocate for other women. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, ask the organisers if they’re interested in hearing from more women. Get them in touch with some of the brilliant and talented women you know.

Having a greater variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented makes conferences better. But for that to happen, organisers need to be more proactive about it, and more of us need to get over our nerves and put ourselves forward.

To that end, Mary McKenna and I will be holding a session at the rescheduled UKGovCamp next week for anyone who’d like to raise their professional profile by speaking at events but isn’t sure where to start. We’d love to see you there.If you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions on diversity at tech conferences, let me know via the comments.

Creative Commons photo credit: miss604 on Flickr

4 thoughts on “Breaking the echo chamber: diversity (or the lack of it) at tech events

  1. Good piece.

    This same issue came up at CommsCamp last week. So much so that we had a session on it after the facilitator raised the issue at pitches! Hardly any women pitched ideas. I must admit I didn’t – but then I was a bit dazed and confused as the host/organiser! But I did run two sessions in the end. And I will be pitching at GovCamp this coming weekend.

    I’m fine with the idea and reality of doing things like this at unconferences. What I don’t know is even how to go about doing something at larger, more traditional events. How do you find out about them? Are you invited? Etc etc.

    Also, I’m not entirely sure gender is the entire answer to this question. What if you are an introvert? or an introvert man? Same problems. I think the issue is multi-faceted and all tied up like a ball of string. Fascinating discussions to be had tho!

    So for me, much less of a woman issue, rather than a knowledge issue.

  2. Hi Sharon
    I co run WordPress Users Wales and we’re running an event ‘Mostly Women Doing Digital’ on the 23rd March in Swansea. We’ve all female speakers and a mixture of women and men attending.

    We’re half full after only officially announcing the event on Fri.

    We’ve run quite a few events now and find making them as informal as possible works well – but also that some people who have a great deal to offer just won’t present… but will agree to be interviewed or kind of ‘notable expert’ or ‘notable enthusiast’ who will take lots of questions….

    We are nomadic as a group and our events are always free – but for this all day workshop we applied for a small grant from the Woman’s Equalities Network of the Welsh Govt. Interestingly enough, they turned us down…. but we did get given support by the Digital Dev Fund from the govt.

    This means we can pay the speakers – albeit not a fortune! But symbolically important we felt…

    If anyone would like to talk more we are @wordpresswales on twitter

  3. Pingback: Questioning Y | between personal and professional

  4. Pingback: Introducing 300 Seconds: a series of talks by women, for everyone | Sharon O'Dea

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