Julie Pagano

Building a Diverse Speaker Lineup

I have been meaning to write up some actionable advice for conference organizers about building a diverse speaker lineup for ages. I am so sick of hearing conference organizers complain that it is impossible, that it will diminish the quality of their conference, or that people who want diverse lineups are bullies. Some recent whinging of this variety pushed me to finally put this together. I am sure my thoughts don’t cover everything, but hopefully this is a start.

Note: I was a conference organizer for two years, I have spoken at several conferences, and been an attendee at many, so I have experience with this from many angles.

What is Diversity?

When people talk about diversity at tech conferences, they often think about white women. Diversity is about more than that. The chart below provides some data about a variety of demographics and their representation among employed people in computer and information science. This should help you to start thinking about a variety of demographics and the intersections of those demographics.

chart of nsf data
Data from the NSF about employed people in computer and information science by sex, race, and ability. Several racial demographics aren’t listed here because their entry in the NSF document does not have numeric values. Other demographics are not represented because data is not collected about them.

Why is Diversity Important?

I am not going to spend a lot of time on this here. It has been covered to death elsewhere, but here are some bullet points about why I think it is important in this context.

Getting started

If you care about building a diverse conference, you need to start thinking about it early on and take it seriously. It very rarely works when you tack it on at the end as an afterthought.

One way to help build diversity into your process is to have a diverse group of organizers. When your organizers are homogeneous, you often forget about things that do not impact people in that group. A group of meat eaters might forget that conference attendees need vegetarian options. A group of able bodied people might forget that the venue should be accessible. A group of straight cis white men might not understand the need for a code of conduct. Diversity of thought is beneficial.

It is critical to identify areas where you are not experts. There are areas where you will need to do research, rely on the work of others, or ask for help. Identify these early and reach out for help when you need it. Most people want you to succeed and will try to help, but they are not psychics. You need to ask for help. Asking early is important because people are often busy and cannot immediately respond. Be sure to credit the people who help you. It is hard work, and it’s important that it is respected.

Conference Environment

The environment you create at your conference is important. Usually, people want to know that they will be safe and comfortable at an event before agreeing to speak there. This is something you need to think about before you start the process of finding speakers.

Code of Conduct

You should have a clear and actionable code of conduct or anti-harassment policy. This is one of the major things you do can to indicate that your conference will be a safe place for your speakers and other attendees. You should ideally have this in place before you start reaching out to speakers.

If you need additional details about the importance of code of conducts, I recommend reviewing Ashe Dryden’s code of conduct 101 and faq and the geek feminism wiki’s anti-harassment policy resources.

DO NOT try to create your own code of conduct from first principles. I have seen several conferences do this, and it usually ends in an ineffectual code of conduct that has the opposite of its intended effect. Stick with a variation of one of the codes that have been tested with real world issues and shown to be effective and trustworthy. Most of them are variants of the anti-harassment policy from the geek feminism wiki.

Not only should you have a code of conduct, but you need to be willing to act on it. Otherwise, it is just useless words on a page. A great way to indicate that you will do this is to have policies for enforcing the code of conduct. For example, PyCon has a code of conduct and documentation for attendee procedures and staff procedures for handling incidents. This helps attendees understand what to expect and helps organizers know what to do when incidents occur. The geek feminism wiki has resources on responding to reports.

Diversity Statement

Some conferences include a diversity statement to indicate their commitment to diversity.

Conference Activities

The activities help set the tone at your conference. Speakers often feel obligated to attend activities to interact with attendees. If your event has a heavy focus on drinking in dark, loud bars, this may not appeal to some of the demographics you are trying to attract. I know of several people that developed a bit of a drinking problem after frequenting the tech conference circuit with events like this. That is kind of messed up.

Our Culture of Change by Chris Williams is an example of how JSConf implemented some changes based on feedback about the drinking culture. An alternative that I have enjoyed at several events is a board game night.

Speaker Benefits

Another thing to think about before you start finding speakers is what benefits, if any, you will provide, so that you can be clear about them up front. Most tech conferences provide a free ticket to the event. All other benefits vary quite a lot. You should think about how the benefits you provide impact the people who are willing or able to speak at your events.

It can be useful to think about how expensive it will be for someone to speak at your event. Things like travel and accommodations add up quickly. For some people, this isn’t a problem because their employer pays for everything, but then you are selecting for those people.

Most conferences cannot afford to cover costs for all speakers. It can be useful to set aside a scholarship fund for speakers who cannot afford to attend on their own because they are not subsidized by an employer. If you do this, be clear that it exists and you want people to use it. Otherwise, people may not ask or even submit because they cannot afford to travel for your event.

Invited Speakers

One way to target speakers is through invites. Great speakers are in low numbers and high demand. By the time you open a CFP, they may be booked up for the season. Inviting a select number of speakers early in the process can ensure they will be available to speak at your event.

Invited speakers are often announced before or during a call for proposals. If your invited speakers are homogeneous, this can send a message and discourage some people from submitting to the CFP. On the flip side, a diverse set of invited speakers can set a tone that your conference is welcoming and encourage more people to submit.

Call for Proposals (CFP)

The CFP is where many conferences find the majority of their speakers. The CFP should be clear about what types of talks and content you are looking for (and sometimes what you want to avoid). This helps people figure out if the conference is a good fit for them and worthwhile to spend time writing a proposal for.

It is helpful to provide clear information about things like the conference review process, timelines for the CFP and talk selection, length of speaking slots, and speaker benefits.

It can be beneficial to remove identifying information (e.g. name, gender) from proposals during early rounds of review to minimize issues related to unconscious bias.

It is important to note that a CFP is not enough by itself. Unfortunately, many conferences stop there. In my Speaker Support of Awesomeness talk, I refer to this as the “Field of Dreams” approach to a conference proposal. This approach tends to lead to homogeneous speaker lineups because without outreach and support, the CFP will reach a limited audience.

Field of Dreams Conference call for speakers. If you build it, they will come. Field of Dreams Conference call for speakers. NOPE.

Outreach

Outreach is probably the most critical way to build a diverse speaker lineup and also the most overlooked. It doesn’t matter if you have a great conference or a nice CFP or a blinded proposal process or any number of other features if the people you want to speak at your conference do not know about it.

You need to do outreach. You need to do a lot of it, and you need to start doing it early. A lot of people only attend a few conferences a year, so the sooner you get them interested in your conference, the better.

When it comes to outreach for diversity, you need to do it right. Tokenizing people through your outreach is often a turnoff. Few people are excited about submitting to your conference when your outreach is essentially, “Where the ladies at? We need ladies!”

Group Outreach

One form of outreach is contacting groups that can help spread the word about your event to their members/followers/demographics/etc. Some examples include:

Note: I would love to fill out this section with a nice long list of groups to reach out to. I’d love some suggestions on that front.

Individual Outreach

Group outreach often isn’t enough by itself. Not everyone is on twitter or follows these groups. Even if they are, they may not respond to that sort of outreach. Individual outreach is more work, but it often has better results.

Individual outreach requires a little bit of research. You want to find people that are a good fit for your conference and send them individualized messages encouraging them to submit to your CFP. Maybe something like one of the following.

Your work on <project relevant to conf> is awesome. It would be great to have you submit a talk about that or something else relevant to our CFP.

We would be excited to have you submit to the <conf name> CFP. Your experience with <topic relevant to the conference> is a great fit for what we’re looking for.

Again, do not tokenize the people you are contacting. Very few people are going to respond well to something like.

We don’t have enough of <demographic> at our conference. You’re a <demographic>. You should submit.

This is about finding people from underrepresented groups that are a good fit for your conference, but might not find out about your conference or submit to it on their own. This is not about collecting random people from a demographic to fill some token slot, so the mean people on the internet don’t yell at you.

Support

In addition to doing outreach, you can support people interested in speaking at your events to help them get involved. This is especially useful when targeting newer speakers.

One example that I have seen is organizers running google hangouts to chat with people about their ideas for the CFP. I have also seen individual organizers willing to chat or email with people about their ideas. A little support or feedback from an organizer or volunteer can help encourage someone to submit or help them adjust their idea to be a better fit for the event.

Another example is conferences that do a feedback cycle with their proposals. They will do reviews and provide feedback to some proposals that need a little work, but could still be a good fit. This feedback cycle gives people a chance to improve and has led to some ultimately amazing talks that wouldn’t have been accepted without that feedback.

Check out my speaker support of awesomeness talk for more suggestions for supporting new speakers.

Some Examples

Below are some example conferences with diverse lineups that I have heard positive things about time and time again over the past few years. As far as I can tell from the feedback, these conferences have improved overall in quality as they improved their diversity.

Note: I would love to add some other good examples to this list. Let me know if you want to nominate any conferences.

Conclusion

Organizing a conference is hard work. Nobody is denying that. Working on making your conference diverse should be part of that work. I just gave you some insight into how you can do that. If you don’t want to do the hard work, you may receive criticism or people may not want to attend your event. That’s not bullying. That is holding you accountable for failing to do your job well. Work hard and avoid falling into the trap of the homogeneous conference lineup.