Divya Manian

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Diversity in Conferences

I have resisted the urge to contribute my thoughts every time drama around women and minorities in technology occurs. I thought instead I would share with you some of the actions I have taken in various roles to try to make diversity more visible in conferences around web technology.

As a Conference Organizer

It was only when I took responsibility of selecting speakers for W3Conf that I realised how many of my first choices were just names I had heard of. It became very clear that merit played almost no part in the speaker selection: visibility did.

I also noticed my initial reluctance to choose first-time speakers as I didn’t want my conference to “fail” (I am guessing this is fairly a common concern), and hence tried to select popular speakers. This does help drive some registrations from those who want to see such speakers in person. But then again, having only 1 or 2 of them would suffice.

If you are looking for these popular speakers to promote your event and boost the registrations through such promotions, you can forget that. Unless each speaker tirelessly blogs, tweets, and talks about your event at regular intervals, the impact of them talking about your event is fairly minimal. If this was a reason for you to choose only popular speakers, then you should probably try another tactic.

Many conference organizers also fear having speakers who are boring or who might get stage fright and hence are very cautious in only chosing those who have proven themselves worthy as speakers. For W3Conf, I was confident that getting speakers who were interesting and worked on interesting projects was more important than their ability to speak or present.

I was very happy to see this was validated as the passion of each of the speakers came across as a far more compelling force than their articulation or their ability to punctuate their words with pauses.

Where to find these people?

I am very lucky to be in a place (metaphorically and physically) that puts me in touch with interesting people on a fairly regular basis without even trying to find them. Even then, I blanked when I was starting with who to select for the speakers for W3Conf.

One of the tricks I employed was to find an acknowledged expert in a field I was looking for a speaker in, and trawl the list of people they follow. I followed links to open-source projects and then reached out to them via email or Twitter.

I also asked people I trusted for names of people who were not well known but worked on interesting projects.

What about diversity?

It was always at the back of my mind to make this conference as diverse as possible. I didn’t set out wanting to tick off a quota, but rather having a healthy mix of people from various backgrounds working on interesting stuff.

What about quotas for conferences?

I have come across conference organizers having a check list (“we hope to have 2 women speakers in our conference”). While it would be a good success metric, I do not think having it as the only factor helps anyone. People who are requested to speak at conferences in that manner get disgusted at being token speakers.

If you are a conference organizer, don’t reach out to people suggesting they have been contacted only because you are obligated to fill your quota.

What about reverse call for speakers?

The idea looks great at first glance, but I am afraid the same challenge of only recalling popular names that had impressed the conference organizers would manifest itself even more significantly in the audience. Most of them wouldn’t know which speaker would be worth listening to because they would have even less of an opportunity to come across people working on interesting projects. I also think one of the primary reasons people attend conferences is to find out about what interesting projects exist.

As a Speaker

Over the last two years I have given more than 20 talks, which has given me some level of visibility/name recognition in web technology. This means I get asked to speak many times at conferences most of which I have to decline because of work schedule conflicts.

I also know from my experience how much effort it is to select speakers, so I always ask the organizers if they would like some suggestions on who would be good speakers for their conference. Almost always they welcome suggestions and I send a list of those who I think should be heard from more. Invariably they are a mix of people who are less-prominent, but do exceptional work. Diversity is at the heart of such lists.

As an Employee of a Company that Sponsors Events

I work at Adobe which sponsors many events. I am also in a position to recommend events to sponsor. I try to recommend relevant events that may not be prominent but work on having as many people as possible from diverse backgrounds to attend or speak. They may or may not have charters that state their commitment to diversity, but nevertheless their actions speak louder than words.

I am also trying to push for sponsorships of events that show clear commitment to diversity in their speakers and/or attendance profiles. One thing I have learnt over the course of working at American companies is your views are most often heard, and while immediate actions may not be possible, the more people who strongly present the case, the earlier shifts can happen. So, if you think you are a mere cog in the wheel of a large corporation, think again. You have more power than you think.

It always helps when reaching out to the people who actually sponsor events at your company to make a strong case based on facts instead of complaining about the lack of diversity in sponsored events of the past.

If you find yourself in one of these roles, and want to showcase the diversity in our web world, please do try out these and let me know how they worked for you.