Diversity at Tech Conferences

I wasn’t going to write about this because, honestly, I don’t want to get in the middle of a flame war but I do think it is important so here I go anyway.

Recently I was contacted by a reporter for the Omaha World Herald for an article about the lack of women presenters at Nebraska Code Camp. I’d only briefly heard of the matter and honestly didn’t pay too much attention because I was having a very busy week at work and a somewhat busy week at home. I’d never heard of Nebraska Code Camp before, even though it is a tech conference which has been held in Lincoln for the past 4 years. I attended this year’s conference on Saturday, mostly to go to the Open Nebraska event, but I did get to take in a few sessions.

Ross Nelson recently posted a brief account of what happened with a  link to a short poll on how to improve tech diversity. Read the links he provides for background info.

I agree with Rebecca Stavick when she says “an apology on behalf of NCC to say ‘sorry, we screwed up, but we’re working to make it right next year’ would go a long way.” What I have been seeing instead are a series of defensive posts, tweets, and comments that don’t exactly make me eager to submit to be a presenter next year.

I totally get that this is a volunteer effort and that time is limited. I really do. I am a lazy person at heart and recognize the tremendous effort that these guys put into this event. All the more reason to just take a step back, do a little bit of research about what to do differently (it really won’t take that long!), and try to do better next year. That’s it. No need to make a last minute rush to get some women speakers or hastily throw together a women in tech panel (I wasn’t at the panel, but I have heard several reports that make me glad I wasn’t there). Achieving diversity at conferences is ultimately a result of wanting and publicly stating a desire for diversity, and then taking a few steps to achieve it.

Unfortunately, one of the conference organizers has made it clear that diversity is not a priority for him:

“Ultimately, it’s not for us to lead the charge in getting more women speakers at tech conferences. That needs to come from within women in technology. We mustn’t do anything to hinder that movement, and we must continue to provide the equal and open opportunity for all, but we can’t drive people to speak. …

We want to have the very best conference we can – and content is king. We’re not doing this to be a vehicle for any sort of social agenda. That said, and like I’ve said before, we are completely open to a more diverse speaker base, and have encouraged diversity. It’s just not the top priority, and never will be. We can’t force this change to happen as a conference, but we’re certainly willing to accommodate it. This means we need to have women who are willing to step up and answer a call for speakers without having to be personally invited or pursued.”

I feel zero responsibility to help any conference up their diversity. I wish these guys the best of luck with their conference in the future, but it just doesn’t seem like the place for me as it stands, especially given the many other conferences I can attend that understand that diversity doesn’t just happen.

I hope they change their minds, though, because diversity is important and I’d like this to be a welcoming event that I could attend, present at, and/or recommend to people. I’m not just talking about gender diversity here–all kinds of diversity are important. The reason why isn’t what you think. It’s not about being fair or some kind of self esteem thing. It’s that a diversity of voices builds better things. Without it you’re talking in an echo chamber, which is limiting and leads to limited ideas.

I think this paper “The Importance of Diversity in Engineering” by William A. Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering sums it up nicely:

“The whole argument in a nutshell is this. It hinges on the notion that engineering is a profoundly creative profession—not the stereotype, I know, but something I believe deeply. The psychological literature tells us that creativity is not something that just happens. It is the result of making unexpected connections between things we already know. Hence, creativity depends on our life experiences. Without diversity, the life experiences we bring to an engineering problem are limited. As a consequence, we may not find the best engineering solution. We may not find the elegant engineering solution.”

If one did want to make one’s event more diverse, there have been lots of helpful suggestions on how to improve. Megan Hunt’s Facebook post had a bunch of suggestions, and Ashe Dryden’s post Increasing Diversity at Your Conference is a fabulous overview of what to consider.

In the end, it is up to event creators to decide for themselves what kinds of events they want to build, just like it is up to me to decide what events what events I want to attend.

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