How To Create A More Diverse Tech Conference

Published 26 September 2013

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.


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.