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How To Create A More Diverse Tech Conference

I have been advised by people I trust that it’s not a good idea to talk about how you got serious female representation at your conference until after it’s over. However the shameful RubyConf “binders full of men” debacle and the Neanderthal level of discussion around it has wound me up enough to write this account somewhat prematurely. So here is how we achieved >40% female representation on our speaker roster at FlowCon.

Step 0. Care About The Outcome.

When John Esser approached me to put together a conference about continuous delivery, devops and lean product development, I thought carefully about it. I’ve helped put together a conference program before (QCon SF 2012), and that was pretty hard work, so I wanted to be sure I had the correct motivation.

One of the things that I have always disliked about tech conferences is being surrounded by a bunch of other straight white guys (nothing personal, some of my best friends are straight white guys). It’s a constant reminder of the fact that, due to a number of socioeconomic factors, straight white guys have it easier than others.

I wanted to put together a conference which reflects my community as I would like it to look, not as it actually looks. So one of the four values the FlowCon program committee came up with was this: “Diversity: We believe the technology community – and thus the conference speakers and participants – should reflect the demographics of our customers and the wider world.”

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, we can’t effectively change the world through technology without diversity. To find out why, come and see Ashe Dryden talk about how “diverse communities and workplaces create better products”. Second, one of the main reasons I like working at ThoughtWorks is that one of the three pillars of our mission is to “advocate passionately for social and economic justice.” The fact there are so few women in IT reflects social and economic injustice inherent in our world.

Making sure you actually have a mission for your conference is something I learned from helping out with QCon SF. It is a constant reminder of why you’re doing it and what’s important about it. If you don’t have a mission, you’re at the mercy of the implicit biases of the organizers. As RubyConf shows, you can’t just throw in the “one weird trick” of anonymous submissions and expect that it will somehow solve the problem. Everybody on the program committee actually has to care about the outcome, or they won’t put in the right amount of work to make it happen.

Once you do that, the rest of the steps aren’t that hard.

Step 1. Make Sure Your Program Committee Is Aligned With Your Mission

Once I had an idea about the mission of the conference, I reached out to some people whom I thought would share it. I was lucky enough that Elizabeth Hendrickson, Lane Halley and Gene Kim agreed to join John Esser and me on the program committee.

One of the main reasons I asked those particular people, apart from being extremely competent and well-respected in their field, was another conference goal: “Spanning boundaries: We believe that the best products are created collaboratively by people with a range of skills and experiences.” The program committee has representation from the UX, testing, operations, product development and programming communities.

Step 2. Make Sure Your Invited Speakers Are Aligned With Your Mission.

We made the decision to have about half the program be invited speakers. Part of that was about ensuring that we had a solid core program. But it was also a chance for us to put our mission into practice, so that when we put out the call for proposals we had a bunch of confirmed speakers who demonstrated we were serious about our mission.

Thus we made sure that the invited speakers were respected boundary spanners, and that 50% of them were women. This involved more work than we would have had to put in had we just invited our friends (a popular strategy for program committees). It was also telling that we got more refusals from women than we got from men due to schedule conflicts. The main factor here was that female speakers are actually in greater demand than men because there are relatively fewer of them.

Step 3. The Anonymous Call For Proposals

If you jump straight to step 3, it’s likely you will suffer the fate of RubyConf and fail. If you use this as your only strategy for increasing representation it won’t work. This strategy has been thoroughly discussed by others who have used this approach as part of increasing diversity at their conference.

We created a form in Google Docs for people to propose talks. They had to enter their email address, but we mentioned in the form that they should use one that didn’t identify them if they wanted their proposal to be more anonymous. Of the 82 people who submitted a talk proposal, 18 (21%) were women as far as we can work out (once the program was confirmed I used Rapportive to reverse-engineer email addresses based on publicly available information). Ultimately, three of the eight people who made it into the final program based on submitted proposals were women.

The low female representation through the CFP is the reason our program isn’t 50% female. Even getting the 21% of submissions that we did involved reaching out through mailing lists, Twitter, and our networks to encourage women to submit. This step, along with making it clear that you actually care, is essential if you in fact expect women to submit through the anonymous CFP.

Observations

These four steps resulted in 10 of our 24 speakers being women. I have three main observations coming out of this process:

First, unlike increasing the number of women who take programming classes in school or enter the IT industry and don’t immediately quit in horror, creating a conference with reasonable female representation is not actually a hard problem. Yes, we put in more work to achieve this goal than we would have had we not cared. But it wasn’t significantly more.

Conference organizers who claim to care but fail to achieve good representation should quit whining and take real steps to achieve this goal. The community should hold them to higher standards. If the conference speakers are a bunch of straight white guys, the only reason is that the organizers didn’t care enough.

Second, in the wake of RubyConf, I have been angered but unsurprised to observe the usual chorus about how increasing representation somehow means lowering standards. Not only is this incredibly insulting to the many extraordinary women working in our industry, but it is just false. I dare anyone to look at the kick-ass program we have put together for FlowCon and try and claim that we have somehow lowered standards to achieve great a barely acceptable level of representation.

Another thing you will hear is that it is harder to find female speakers on “hard” topics such as programming than for “soft” ones. I find this claim baffling because in my experience changing organizational culture (considered a “soft” topic) is, in my experience, way way harder than knocking out lines of code (even well-factored unit-tested ones). But you’ll see on our program that women are covering the whole gamut from organizational change to refactoring to configuration management.

Third, it’s not all good news. In particular, we have only one non-white speaker. I’ll hold my hand up on this – we didn’t explicitly set non-white representation as a goal within the program committee, and by the time it became obvious it was a problem (Step 3) it was too late to do anything. This demonstrates why steps 0-2 are important. If we run FlowCon again, we will do better.

Meanwhile check out the program, and follow this link to register with a 10% discount. If you need more than a one day conference to come to San Francisco, Balanced Team are running their conference the following two days.


End notes

Another popular silencing tactic in this discussion is that bringing attention to the level of diversity in a conference is in itself a form of sexism or racism. There’s a cartoon on the left which expresses nicely why this is in fact horribly misguided (or you could check out one of the many excellent articles on “colourblindness” and racism).

Check out the Geek Feminism blog and wiki for tons of useful information and advice on making things better for women in tech. Also check out the @CallbackWomen and @DevChix Twitter accounts to spread the word for your CFP. Ashe Dryden also wrote an excellent post on creating more diverse conferences.

Another important factor when designing a woman-friendly conference is to create an anti-harassment policy. Check out this account of a woman who actually needed to use the anti-harassment policy (trigger alert).

UPDATE Of course, this entry is now starting to receive the attention of anonymous trolls. I’ve left the first one as an example of the idiocy that passes for dialogue in this debate (and from supposedly smart people at that). But forthwith I’ll be deleting anonymous or otherwise uncivil posts.

  • esserjohn

    Excellent summary Jez! I am a member of the FlowCon program committee. When I first heard the idea and goal for 50% women speakers from Jez I was undoubtedly skeptical. I was in that “demographic/distribution” mindset that occurs all too frequently. I really wondered for a while how we would pull off a 50-50 gender ratio, but we set the goal and began to work on it. It was some extra work, but I didn’t think it was at all a burden. Jez, along with Lane and Elizabeth, kept us on track. It really wasn’t that difficult. The whole committee made a conscious effort to also keep the quality and standards for content high! Not doing that would have been a disservice (to say the least) to everyone involved, men & women alike. It is clear you have to have an explicit, conscious goal to do this or you will fall victim to the current social equilibrium. It has been a rewarding experience and an accomplishment I think the whole program committee is proud of. The best part? I got to meet and work with some fabulously talented women in my field!
    I’m looking forward to the conference.
    John Esser, FlowCon Program Committee member

  • JMounce

    It takes active mindful work to reduce (eventually eliminate) injustice. It is really appreciated that the committee actively worked to do that with FlowCon. Thank you. Really excellent!

  • Elizabeth Geno

    This is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. I’ve forwarded it to a friend of mine in diversity outreach for college admissions, and she’s sending it on to colleagues.

    Kudos to you, even with a nitpick from my friend (final ‘I’ in first sentence of Step 1 should be ‘me’). On a ten-point scale: 9.8 on outcome, 11 on living the principles, and 10 on narrative.

    • http://continuousdelivery.com/ Jez Humble

      Thank you Elizabeth! I give myself a lower score for outcome because I believe in intersectionalism and we did a poor job in terms of non-white speakers. But I am happy we have close to 50% women speakers. What would make me really happy is if we got close to 50% female participants at the conference…

      • Elizabeth Geno

        Cut yourself some slack; you have no idea how many panels I’ve sat on because I was ‘the Jewish/Buddhist woman of color’ with my carpool partners the Hawaiian Deadhead rabbi and the Ethiopian Jewish guy. ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ and all that.

        Might there be an incentive for me to motivate my sister (a scrum master in e-discovery) to attend?

      • Elizabeth Geno

        Recommendation for encouraging female attendees: some sort of incentive for bringing a friend in a different field*. Many of these processes and principles can be applied in non-technical workplaces. I’m a financial administrator in higher education and I would get as much out of this as my sister, a senior manager in e-discovery.

        *I have a number of reservations about the ‘Lean In’ phenomenon, which are well expressed by Susan Faludi here: http://bit.ly/18thMOM

        Even so, it could serve as a rationale for getting someone to try something outside their comfort zone. Exposure to a real message of empowerment and people who are not quite so corporatist could sow the good seed.

        • http://continuousdelivery.com/ Jez Humble

          Thanks for the suggestion. It’s a good one. I’ll run it by the producers and we’ll see what we can do – I’ll post back the response.

          Also, loving “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” :D – at least you had some carpool partners. Most tokens ride solo in IT conferences…

  • Gene Kim

    Like John Esser, I had the privilege of being a FlowCon program committee member and was also skeptical that we could achieve anything near the 50% goal of women speakers. (Read John’s comment first, as it is far more thoughtful and informative than mine.)

    The process that Jez outlined really worked. I’m incredibly proud of the amazing FlowCon program, and am excited to be there on November 1. It’s obviously a world-class roster of speakers and experts.

    I’d like to amplify one thing that Jez and John Esser already mentioned, because I believe it was crucial to achieving the right outcome: 50% of the program committee were women. This was important, because it helped ensure we had the best women experts in the relevant fields in the running for the invited speaker slots — it took all of our networks of colleagues, friends and acquaintances to make this so.

    Each week, the program committee voted to get a certain number of speaker invites out — for each batch, we aspired to have 50% women representation. From my personal perspective, it added a 20-30% more effort and argumentation, because all the candidates we identified were so awesome.

    However, by the end of the invited speaker selection phase, it felt second-nature, and doing anything else would feel wrong.

    I’m extremely satisfied by the outcomes, was honored to be a part of the process, and learned a whole bunch as well.

    Thank you Jez, Lane, Elizabeth and John!

  • None

    “Thus we made sure that the invited speakers were respected boundary spanners, and that 50% of them were women.”

    This is completely sexistic approach and pure evil. Where Black, Asian, LGBT, blind people are? Or some minorities? Where they are!? They missed in the program. Aren’t they involved in the industry like females as well?

    Our approach is awful hypocrisy! I’ve held several conferences and I personally invited several females. Why? Because they make or know something great. I haven’t looked at them like females but at human beings who are really great in something…

    • John Esser

      Jerks (saying it politely) with a name of None are minorities too and we should have added that category to the list so we could have invited you.

    • http://continuousdelivery.com/ Jez Humble

      I should really be deleting comments by anonymous cowards, but this one is so hilarious I had to leave it.

      In fact, we do have an Asian-American speaker and at least one LGBTQ speaker too.

      But that’s beside the point.

      If you had read the post, you’d understand that you had committed the classic silencing tactic I note in the very first end note (and cartoon). That marks *you* out as the sexist. And employing the schoolyard technique of accusing your accuser of the same fault you are guilty of marks you out as a pretty stupid sexist at that.

      Finally, you also made the other mistake we were careful to avoid – assuming that we had invited women _just because they were women_. Increasing representation doesn’t mean lowering the bar. We invited them because they were women _AND_ experts in their field who “make or know something great”.

      I’m sorry you did such a crappy job of attacking me :(

  • jennifersmith145

    Great article – I would like to see more and more people publishing their experiences in trying to achieve more diverse conference speaker lineup. Certainly for gender diversity it is starting to become more widely discussed and thought about.

    I had one comment though. I am familiar with the “Hard to find women to talk about ‘hard’ topics” excuse and I agree that this is a very denigrating statement to make about things like org transform that is bloody hard work. However, the other stuff (from architecture to machine learning to type theory) is important too, just not the be all and end all. I still feel there are some additional challenges in getting more women to talk in these areas – whether we don’t believe we can, or the world doesn’t believe we can, or we don’t believe the world believes we can. Just like getting more women into IT should mean across all roles, I want to see women talking at conferences about all kinds of subject too: because we should, and because we’re good :)

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  • Michelle D’Souza

    Thank you for writing this article, Jez. The mission and goal for this conference seems so well thought out and executed. I found the following statement especially inspiring “Unlike increasing the number of women who take programming classes in school or enter the IT industry and don’t immediately quit in horror, creating a conference with reasonable female representation is not actually a hard problem.”

    I mentor young girls and young women entering the technology field and am constantly overwhelmed by how to solve the harder problem that I forget how small, measured, thoughtful steps like these go a long way to addressing perception. Keep up the good fight!

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  • kevdog

    You lose me when you cite Sarah Nell. Her rhetorical method of making all white people racist cannot be taken seriously.

    • http://continuousdelivery.com/ Jez Humble

      Funny, I just read this post by Randall Thomas and the one it references by Questlove and I think Sarah Nell is probably on the money. I know I am constantly working to recognise and counter my own implicit biases. Having lived all over the world, my observation is actually that racism is everywhere, once you start looking for it, in sometimes small and subtle but nevertheless incredibly pernicious ways. Worst of all, it’s more or less invisible to a lot of people until you start looking for it – the problem of privilege.

      One example is people who think that caring about diversity at conferences is somehow racist or sexist. If you’re at a conference and see a sea of white dudes and don’t see a problem, you’re part of the problem. If you can accept that, I’d hope you can still see value in the post, whether or not you agree with Sarah Nell.

  • Meta Brown

    Wow, what a pleasure it has been to read this post. I will happily post the link all over the place for my colleagues to read.

    My field is analytics, stuff like statistics, data mining, and text analytics. Analytics happens to be the STEM field with the highest representation by women (More on that here: The STEM Profession that Women Dominate http://bit.ly/smartdata030). Since there are many women in the profession, it’s not surprising that most conferences that I attend have 30-40% female speakers. In certain venues, the representation is much higher.

    But at events where the organizers come from computer science and programming backgrounds, or the tech startup community, representation of women is really dismal. Ironically, the only analytics event where I have ever seen a diversity policy posted has the lowest representation of women, by far, of any event in the industry. It’s certainly not that women speakers aren’t available or interested. I know of a number of top-rate women who have proposed talks, and been rejected.

    I’ve come to believe that the heart of the problem is the illusion that diverse speakers are supposed to think just like the not-so-diverse insiders running the show. When folks say that diversity lowers standards, it’s often a cover for resistance to hearing new and different points of view.

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