Diversity and speaking engagements


I’m in the privileged position of receiving more invitations to speak (at conferences, user groups and podcasts) than I can realistically agree to. I’ve decided to start applying some new criteria to how I pick which ones I go to1.

However, over the last couple of years as feminism has become an increasingly important part of my life I’ve found myself saddened by the lack of diversity at conferences, both in terms of speakers and attendees. It’s not uncommon for me to spend the first couple of minutes of a conference talk commenting on this, and asking the audience (broadly white men) to think about what they can do to improve this, understanding that it’s our problem to fix. I don’t know whether that’s had any impact, but I’m likely to keep doing it anyway. (Drip, drip, drip.)

I should point out that some conferences do pretty well. When I was invited to speak at NorDevCon for the second time, a large part of why I accepted was because of the diversity of both speakers and attendees. (It varies by year, of course.) When I recently spoke at Web Summit the attendee gender diversity was the best I’ve ever seen – along with a Women in Tech lounge that was certainly busy.

Anyway, to do my part in encouraging diversity, from now on when I’m invited to speak, I’m going to refer the organizers to this post.

My requirements for speaking engagements

  • Conferences must have a published Code of Conduct, including incident resolution steps. Where possible, this should be highlighted in opening remarks (typically before the keynote). It’s important that all speakers and attendees feel both safe and welcome – and members of under-represented groups are the most likely not to feel safe and welcome.
  • Organizers must take active steps to encourage speaker diversity. One common challenge to diversity initiatives is that they mean compromising on quality, but I disagree with the assumption behind the challenge. There are many high-quality presenters who are women, but it may mean making more effort to find them. (It’s all too easy to rely on the “regulars” in the tech speaking circles.) If an organizer publishes how they’re trying to encourage diversity, that’s definitely a bonus. I’d at least expect organizers to keep track of how they’re doing over time, and be willing to privately share how they’re trying to improve. It’s hard to give concrete limits here as I may need to make a decision before the rest of the speaker list is decided, but any time I find myself at a conference where 25% or less of the speakers are non-white-men, I’ll be vocally disappointed. Over time, I expect this number to get higher.
  • Ideally, publishing data on attendee diversity over time, with a public plan for improvements. This may not always be possible historically, as the data may not have been captured – but I doubt that it’s very hard to add it to future registration processes. (I’d encourage organizers to think beyond binary gender identification when adding this, too.)
  • I won’t personally speak in any white-male-only panels of three people or more. Ideally, I’d like to see efforts for there not to be any such panels.

If conferences and user groups don’t want to make any efforts to improve diversity, that’s their choice – but I hope that they’ll find it increasingly difficult to attract good speakers, and I’m going to be a tiny part of that scarcity.

How I’m happy to help organizers

On a positive side, I’m happy to:

  • Try to help organizers find diverse speakers. I don’t currently have much in the way of a contact list on this front yet, but that’s something for me to try to improve.
  • Help potential speakers tune their abstracts or presentations in private. I know that presenting for the first time can be daunting, particularly if you feel under-represented within the industry to start with. I don’t have any experience on this sort of coaching, but if I can be helpful at all, I’ll do my best.
  • Co-present with someone who might otherwise worry that they wouldn’t get much attendance, etc. In particular, I’d be very happy to be an on-stage guinea-pig, learning from another presenter in a field I’m not familiar with, and asking questions along the way in an active tutorial style. (I’d expect any partnership like this to be primarily about highlighting the other speaker’s knowledge – it mustn’t be tokenism just to get them on stage while I waffle about C# yet again. That would propagate negative stereotypes.)
  • Be very vocal about positive experiences in diversity.

Diversity matters. It’s good business and it’s important ethically. Improving the diversity of events is only a small part of improving the industry, and I’d encourage all readers to think about what they can do elsewhere in their own place of work or study.

Further reading:

For conference organizers:

For new speakers:

1 Previously, my criteria have been very loosely based on:

  • Preferring events where I won’t need to stay overnight
  • Preferring events where there are other talks I’ll be interested in
  • Preferring community over commercial organizers
  • Preferring events where the focus actually seems to intersect with my area of dubious expertise. (I’m unlikely to speak at any Agile, Testing or DevOps conferences – while I can appreciate them, that’s not my area.)
  • How many other things I have going on at the time

I’m expecting this post to change over time. I don’t generally like revisionism, but I want this post to stay “live” and relevant for as long as possible. As a compromise, here’s a revision history.

  • 2016-12-10: Initial post
  • 2016-12-16: Updated structure for clarity, fixed MVDP expansion (oops), rewording around not lowering quality