Diversity and speaking engagements

Background

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

29 thoughts on “Diversity and speaking engagements”

  1. I don’t really understand this feminism thing… I don’t believe women are being marginalised/sidelined… probably they are just not interested? case closed?

    Probably we should add gender in SO profile, I put my money 99% of them are male.

    Like

    1. Case closed as in “if I believe something, it must be true, therefore I will dismiss any suggestion to the contrary?” Well, you can go that way if you want, but it’s certainly not going to persuade me. And yes, I’m sure most SO users are male – although not to the extent of 99%.

      There are many complex reasons for a lack of diversity in tech – and many other professions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really glad to see that you are both doing this and being public about it. I think diversity in tech is vitally important and I hope that others adopt your stance to help elevate minority voices.

    Like

  3. Reblogged this on InTruthItsNotThatSimple and commented:

    I found this post recently and wanted to share it more widely. It touches on issues of strong interest to me and I think offers some valuable suggestions about ways all of us can work to make things better. Hope you enjoy it.

    Like

  4. Diversity is neither vice nor virtue.
    Feminism is based on envy, which is a vice.
    Merit, not sex, race, or religion, it what determines success.
    Codes of Conduct are meant to exclude people in favor of others.
    Diversity, as it is commonly used, is merely meant to be anti-white, anti-male, anti-Christian, and anti-straight.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve approved your comment, but hopefully it’s extremely obvious from the post that I strongly disagree with you. I won’t try to persuade you here – I doubt that it would do any good.

      Like

    2. That’s not really a compelling argument. It is simple to contradict each of your assertions. For example, I’d say diversity in a system is indicative of the equality and fairness of that system. Equality and fairness form a very important part of justice which is certainly a virtue. I’d assume based on your last comment, that you are a heterosexual, white, Christian male who could maybe benefit from imagining what life might have been like if that weren’t the case.

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      1. “For example, I’d say diversity in a system is indicative of the equality and fairness of that system.” So for example tennis is unfair — first of all there is segregation (bad) but even worse the matches for women are shorter than for men. Given the publicity of the sport couldn’t we start with that — no segregation in sport, equal conditions for all.

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        1. Tennis is a bad example as you can compete in mixed doubles. Sport is a poor comparison to programming; clearly there are physical differences that mean men can outperform women in many sports which would make competition between them unfair. That said, Serena Williams would absolutely destroy me at tennis (and probably many other sports). I’m struggling to see your point though; why does it mean we shouldn’t address diversity in our own industry?

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  5. If non-white-men represent less than 25% of community, why 25% (or even more) of them should be present on any given conference? Is there any statistics about sex and gender distribution in programming? One thing if conference distribution is the same as overall (seems perfectly fine to me) and another thing if non-white-males are indeed underrepresented.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Basically, I would like to use community events as a way of encouraging the diversity to improve within the industry in itself. As a natural place for networking and inspiration, it feels like a good sparking point.

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  6. I applaud the motive but certain components of this this feel like a form of affirmative action or forced diversity. Maybe it’s just me but in some ways this takes away from the merits of those who have earned the role of a speaking gig. For all the women who have earned the right to speak, this format basically undermines that accomplishment as they will begin to question did I actually earn this or was I just given the role so the event organizers can feel good about their “diversity numbers.” I’m totally on board with trying to attract any and all people to tech but I hate the idea of grouping like minded individuals into categories so an event or group of organizers can pat themselves on the back for what they perceive as a “diverse audience.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s why I specifically call out that this is not about lowering the bar. I don’t want to go and hear people give poor presentations – but that’s not been my experience when I’ve been at more diverse conferences.
      Instead, I want conference organizers to up their game in finding those “qualified” women… and helping to encourage talented newcomers too.

      Like

      1. I can get behind that and like the idea of event organizers having a plan in place for how they are attracting a diverse group. I do think having hard numbers though of speaker gender or other category could cross the line though and cause qualified minority candidates to question their legitimacy in the back of their mind as they are just 1 of the x that the event needs to meet their numbers. At least that’s how I would feel but I could be unique in that regard.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I can see it’s a risk – but it’s one that I would expect the organizers to address by stressing that they value quality as well as diversity. I don’t think this is an impossible situation – it’s just going to take effort :)

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  7. Jon,

    I respect you as a developer and as a fellow Christian, so take this feedback in that spirit.

    Welcoming and even encouraging diversity (race, sex, viewpoint diversity) is probably good for our tech industry. We’re better off without a monoculture. I applaud you for that.

    But your post crosses into forcing diversity. You force diversity when you advocate boycotting conferences whose diversity levels don’t meet your arbitrary numbers.

    Forcing diversity politicizes our education and work environment. Forcing diversity hurts minorities among us – they may rightfully question whethet they’re there by merit, or just to fill the diversity quota. Forcing diversity elevates race, gender, and class above the love of technology and the passion for learning that motivates us to host and attend conferences.

    So by all means encourage diversity. But do not force and artificially cause it to happen. Encourage it, provide a welcoming environment, and allow for it to organically happen.

    -Judah from Twin Cities Code Camp

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If there were enough signs of it happening organically, I’d agree. But I feel sometimes more of a push is required. Do you really think any of my requirements is unreasonable? Is it only the 25% ‘quota’ that bothers you, or would you still be objecting without that? (Not that I’ll change my policy regardless of your answer, but I’m genuinely interested.)

      Like

      1. Jon, you asked,

        “Is it only the 25% ‘quota’ that bothers you, or would you still be objecting without that?”

        It’s the arbitrary quota combined with the boycott that I find troublesome. Any kind of forced diversity is probably wrong from a moral and social standpoint. The comment below by Itil , himself a minority, explains why.

        Like

  8. ‘There are 15 % black people in the world. Seeing less than 15 % of black people in my country must certainly be a flaw of the culture and I am determined to fix it.’
    Correlation, maybe?

    I am sorry, but either you give somewhat poor description of what you are trying to achieve, or you should devote more time to programming articles than philosophy. After all, this is a coding blog.

    Like

  9. I don’t see any real issue here that needs any extraordinary efforts in addressing. Women are not being barred in any way from being developers, speaking at developer conferences, or attending developer conferences. There are no government, academic, or business barriers preventing women from doing any of these things. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of nurses are female, but there is no great outcry for more men in nursing, because there is likewise nothing keeping men from becoming nurses. Why must we keep wringing our hands about this issue?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m a member of a persecuted minority, and I’ve been singled out in front of my colleagues because of it. It was humiliating.

    It’d be even more humiliating if I learned I was chosen for a conference over someone else, not because the organizers thought I was a better fit, but because a celebrity wouldn’t agree to speak until they invited more people like me. You can say it isn’t tokenism, but it still feels that way.

    I don’t want pity from white, upper-class, Christian men because of how I look, or what their ancestors did to my ancestors. I’m embarrassed even to mention it on your blog, because I hate knowing that’s the only reason you’ll take my comment seriously. I want to be respected for my own knowledge and achievements. That means competing under the same rules as everyone else. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t even see my name or face before deciding.

    Please, before you go any further with this plan, think about who you’re doing it for. Talk to them. Make sure this favor you’re offering is really what they want.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Firstly, I certainly agree that no-one should be invited to speak unless they’re good enough to do so. Not only that, but no-one should be made to feel that way. Yes, you should be respected for your knowledge and achievements – but at the moment I believe you (or certainly others – I know more about gender discrimination than other forms) aren’t competing under the same rules as others, due to continued discrimination which can be subtle in all kinds of ways. If we can get to the stage where it really is a level playing field to start with, I don’t believe something like this post would be necessary in the first place.

      So no, if someone doesn’t have the technical skills to give a talk, they shouldn’t be doing it – but I don’t think that’s actually the biggest problem. I believe that there’s a cycle of inviting speakers who are already known, and I also believe that in some tech minorities at least, there are larger hurdles to overcome (often due to persistent assumptions that they won’t be good enough) around encouraging people to display the skills they already have.

      I’m genuinely sorry that you disagree with my stance, but please don’t assume that I haven’t talked to others about it. I have – as well as reading what other minorities (in tech) are doing for themselves and what kind of initiative they support. As I said, I know rather more about gender discrimation than other forms, and I know that even within that area this approach is certainly not unanimously considered a good one, but it seems to be generally regarded positively.

      That said, I’m listening and if I ever find that the feedback I receive for this approach is more generally negative than positive, I will certainly change it. So please don’t stop giving that feedback :)

      Like

  11. Not only women are rare in the tech industry. Do not forget autistic people, who in spite of their extraordinary talents, are silently ignored by many companies. Would it be appropriate to avoid also conferences without autistic speakers?

    The second question: if you find that a particular conference doesn’t meet your diversity expectations and therefore you decline it, are you going to publicly name it?

    Like

    1. Good questions. For the first part, I don’t know much about the autistic spectrum, but I’m aware it’s a complex topic. I thought tech was over-represented compared with the general population in terms of autism, but I may well be entirely wrong. I also don’t know the impact of autism in terms of being comfortable with public speaking. If you have any good references around any of this, I’d be interested to learn more. I think avoiding conferences without autistic speakers would be difficult in terms of even knowing the level of representation. (Just like it would be hard to do so in terms of sexuality.)

      For the second question: I honestly don’t know yet. I suspect if I’m asked publicly (e.g. on Twitter) I’d gently refuse publicly as well, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to make an invitation public if it isn’t already.

      Like

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