What can conferences to to attract more women speakers?

I've been speaking at conferences for a while and I regularly get asked to present. Obviously they are mostly interested in my terribly educational talks, but it's also because I'm a technical woman and there aren't many technical women speaking at conferences.

In my experience, conferences want to do the right thing; they want a diverse line up of speakers and to attract diverse attendees. This isn't as easy as it seems. Conferences are often Twitter-shamed for not having enough women speakers. When it gets to this point (and often before), conferences frequently ask me for advice on speakers they could invite and how to attract more women.

I do at this point have to roll my eyes somewhat though. It's an additional bit of workload that my male peers do not have to do: they are not asked to recommend suitable women speakers; they are not asked what a conference should be doing to improve diversity. And let's not forget that one of the reasons why I have made it to this point in our male industry is by having some combination of luck, selective blindness and an unusual attitude which means that I'm probably not qualified to speak on behalf of all the other women developers/speakers out there. Anyway, here's my version of stuff-that-I-can-think-of-that-might-help. This is not scientific. The following suggestions come from my experience as a) a speaker b) a programme committee member of QCon London, DevoxxUK and DevoxxUS and c) just a normal person who thinks about these things.

Have a Code of Conduct

Many many things have been written about this, I don't intend to rehash them. You need one, if you don't have one go and research this and put one in place.

you have to consider diversity right from the start

Consider Diversity as a Key, Cross-Cutting Concern of Your Conference

You couldn't have a conference without researching venues; without figuring out the catering; without doing analysis of costs. If you're serious about diversity, about improving the industry, or even just about not being attacked on Twitter, you have to consider diversity right from the start, and you have to consider it in the context of almost every other decision: Does the venue have step-free access? Can the caterers provide a range of non-alcoholic drinks rather than just the standard beers? Do the dates clash with some major religious festival? Or football event? (for example). Considering people with different needs, cultures, interests is something that you need to take seriously at every step. Diversity is not something you can just tack on at the last minute. This Is Hard. It helps if your organisers/program committee members are diverse, as others will think of things you have not.

Your Website and Marketing Material Should Represent the People You Want to Attract

Make sure that on your website and in your emails/tweets, photos of attendees and speakers represent the range of people you want to come. Don't just put up a handful of photos from last year's conference without looking very closely at who is, and who is not, shown in these photos. From a gender diversity point of view, my rule of thumb is that every photo should have at least one female-looking person visible in it, ideally closer to 50%. Other measures of diversity that may be visible in photos include race and age, but it can also be things like dress code - the first DevoxxUK attracted people with pink mohawks, goths, men/women in suits, as well as the usual tshirt-and-jeans brigade. It was wonderful! It's not just about photos, it's also logos/imagery and language. If you have characters, make sure they're not all men/masculine. If you have a theme, make sure i's open to all. I really loved Devoxx UK's League of Extraordinary Developers, it showed a range of diverse characters, not just gender and race but implied we're not all the same and we have different strengths and skills. Also check the language you use. There have been a number of studies that show that language in job adverts can subtly imply male vs female roles. But even easier than that, make sure you don't assume attendees will be a 'he' and don't use words like 'guys' - you may have seen this used in a gender neutral way but many people feel it is not gender neutral and implies 'men'.

Invite Women Speakers Early, and Personally

Women speakers are very much in demand. There are more conferences than women speakers, and we get booked up well in advance. If you want to ensure you have a decent proportion of women speakers, you need to reach out to us personally, early, and ideally offer us a guaranteed speaking slot. One of the conferences suffering from a lack of women speakers at the moment invited me with a standard email addressed to 'Dear madam'. I'm usually strict about replying to requests but I didn't take the time to reply to this one as they didn't take the time to customise their request to me.

You're going to need to invite a lot of women to stand a chance of having a diverse line-up

Find Women

Easy, right? Not so much. But please, don't just email the first woman speaker who comes to your mind and say 'please come and speak, and also if you could find us all the other women speakers we need that would be great too'. By all means ask for recommendations, from all speakers actually, it's freaking exhausting being a woman speaker because we do a lot of work in this area, connecting people up and pointing them in the right direction. But this is a numbers game - there aren't many women speakers and those that do this regularly are very in demand, you're going to need to invite a lot of women to stand a chance of having a diverse line up.

Provide Travel and Accommodation

Particularly if you're trying to attract/grow new speakers. You may not have budget to apply this to everyone, but if you really want to have diverse speakers you may need to set aside some budget to pay for them. In my first year of presenting I was doing it more or less on my own (vacation) time because I had a real job as a real developer, and I could only speak at conferences who would cover my costs. This is even more tricky for self employed people as they're also losing money by attending your conference. Be aware that not everyone a) is a professional advocate (and even when we are it's easier to say yes to a conference if our employer doesn't have to pay) b) is employed by a forward-thinking employer who is happy to let employees go to conferences or c) has paid vacation time they are willing/able to use. Be aware that for some people this cost might be more than just the cheapest flight and cheapest hotel for one person; one conference paid for me, my partner and my (at the time) one-year-old to travel halfway around the world so I could speak at the conference. I couldn't take that time away from my family so they brought the whole family, I would not have been able to speak there otherwise. If you want to improve your diversity you're going to need to consider these sorts of cases.

Be Open to Flexible Scheduling

I know, I really do, that your conference is really hard to schedule. Not just the actual dates, but who presents in which room at what time. This is super difficult, and most speakers understand this and will accept the vague 'your talk will be one of these three days' notice. Many speakers who are just starting will probably love to be there for the whole conference, I certainly did! But this is really hard for people who can't get the time off work or away from their family. When I started doing this, my work was peeved if I took three days off to travel to a conference. Now, I'm peeved if I take three days away from my family.

What would make my life easier is one of:

-Tell me my time slot as soon as possible. Oh, and do tell me. Most conferences don't bother, I have to check the schedule when it's posted on the website which is often only a couple of weeks before the conference.

-Allow me to suggest the best dates/times for me. I know it's not possible to accommodate everyone, but for those of us with difficult schedules and/or who want to limit time away from home/work, I would really like to be able to say 'I can only do this conference if I can talk Monday afternoon' and not sound like a diva.

Swag isn't Just for Boys

When I first started going to conferences I got really annoyed that all the free t-shirts were 'unisex', i.e. male. I don't really care about this any more because I'd like to wear clothes that I've actually chosen and paid for that actually fit me. But it does annoy a lot of women speakers and attendees, and it's always noticeable when a conference goes out of its way to have women's shapes and sizes. But don't make them a different colour/logo, this just says 'hey women, you're like a totally different species and we're going to make you stand out'. Doesn't matter that in 100% of the cases where I've had a different colour the men have been totally jealous of my much more attractive women's cut top, what matters is you don't want to make the minorities stand out even more than they already do. It's not just t-shirts either. For each bit of swag, think 'would I give this to my sister / gay friend / muslim co-worker?'. Not everyone at the conference is a beer-drinking, youngish, straight, white, single male. And even those who are can be offended by swag that stereotypes what they should be interested in.

In Summary

There are probably loads and loads of things I haven't mentioned. And it's possible that conference organisers could do all of these things and still not reach the numbers they want. But I can practically guarantee that if, as an organiser, you don't do any of these, you aren't going to get many women speakers at all. Please, read all of these items again, and for your next conference create a tick-list of all the things you're going to do, and all the things you need to check at each stage (like the imagery and language of your marketing material).


Trisha Gee is a coder/blogger/speaker, working for JetBrains.
https://trishagee.github.io/ @trisha_gee

Article adapted from Trisha's blog article of the same title.
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