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June 19, 2012


Number one fix: ask people to be on your speaker recruiting team who are not white males. It's amazing how much that can change the picture.

Some events manage to solve this bug - meaning others can too.

I'm a founder of @MinneWebCon in the Twin Cities, and from day one we never had a problem getting female speakers. Two reasons, I suspect: we've always had women on our planning committee, and the web community has many women who, in our experience, are just as eager to present as men.

In fact, I'm especially proud that 50% of MinneWebCon's keynote speakers have been women! And while the planning committee can take credit for this, I still don't think it had to work hard to achieve it. There's plenty of well-known web experts who are women. (just check our keynote list on our web site)

As for racial diversity? Yes, that is indeed more tricky. For whatever reason, the web and tech community is predominantly white. We've been somewhat successful in making MinneWebCon more diverse than just from a gender angle, but I admit that additional strategies are needed for this. Strategies that help affirm that the barriers to entry in tech are remarkably low: no matter what background you have, or financial status, anyone can dig into the web starting at a public library where the computers are free. And WordPress is free. And numerous SDKs and frameworks are free. It's all there, waiting to be crafted into new products and services.

All it requires is initiative and the desire to build something new.

It's a matter of changing perspective, so maybe getting more women involved in the recruiting process would be easier.

Thanks for the comments, folks. No question, having women and people of color on your program committee or advisory board helps. In my experience, it's not a cure-all, however. You need additional, structural and systematic pieces in place (not to mention an unwavering commitment to debugging this problem).

@Klayon. It's great that your event has had a lot of women speakers. In terms of race, I'll note that you've shifted the conversation from what conference organizers can do to what potential speakers can do--and you've suggested it's a matter of initiative on the potential speakers' part. In this post, I'm interested in the organizer side of it. A common bug is that women and other under-represented groups often don't act like white men w/r/t conference speaking. They don't apply as often to speak, and they're less prominent in the public eye generally. So whether they have the technical chops or not, if your system relies on a call for speakers or on knowing potential speakers or on knowing of potential speakers, you're not going to find those speakers unless you change the way you look--or unless they change the way they behave, which is not a factor you can control.

I would add that suggesting initiative is all it takes grossly discounts context. And context is something you can alter.

More @MinneWebCon feedback here! I'm the conference director (taking over from @Klayon), a woman, and super proud of what we've accomplished so far in our speaker rates, though our committee is always looking to be more inclusive and represent the diversity of all kinds in the tech community.

As a woman, I feel more inclined to look at tech conferences that I hear other women advocate for personally. If another woman can tell me about a positive experience they had speaking at or attending a conference, that will move the conference up in my mind as something to consider. I've also been warned away from certain groups or events because they weren't friendly towards women; I'd rather know ahead of time before walking into some kind of den of glares or people who doubt my ability because I'm a woman. Happily, these instances have been few and far between for me; the majority of the men I've worked with in the local tech field have been accepting, professional, and great guys, who also want to see more women presenting at and attending tech events.

As a conference organizer with an interest in attracting diversity, I try to get out in the community as much as I can to spread the word about MinneWebCon, especially to other groups of women (as I am a woman that participates in those groups). The Twin Cities have a chapter of Girls in Tech that runs an annual She's Geeky conference, which MWC sponsors, and I've attended and talked with other women about the conference and presenting in general. I think that organizers, male or female, need to reach out to communities that they want to hear more from, and be present in sponsoring and supporting under-represented groups in the field. If there are groups that I can't participate in directly (say, if there was a group for just African-American programmers, and, being white, I wouldn't be a part of that), that sponsorship time or money is a great way for conferences or organizers to say to those groups, "What you're doing is fantastic, you're valuable to our community, and we want to help out."

All of this involves unpacking and understanding privilege, both my own and that of others, and working with that in mind.

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Amanda, and for bringing up privilege. It's so much part of the dynamics here, but, by nature, among the hardest parts to identify and address.

Sponsorships are idea I don't hear too often. I'd love to know: when you do them, what kinds of things do you ask for in return, other than a banner, to raise awareness of your event and your interest in new speakers?

I've often tried to pair our sponsorships with a physical presence, either by myself or other committee members, so we can follow up with people and talk more about the conference at the actual event. In the past, this has worked where the event leader will give the sponsor shout out and then point out to the crowd who I am, so people can track me down later on if they want to talk.

We've also had take-aways, like little postcards advertising the conference, and our keynotes (if we're getting close to conference time and have announced them). These are either good to have on the reg table for an event for people to pick up, or for swag bags.

We'll also do reciprocal trades of social media or email shout outs; people who follow MinneWebCon locally might want to know about other events, so we can point them there.

Thanks so much for the specifics, Amanda. Totally useful and interesting.

Perhaps try the direct approach? (A little woo-ing never hurts...) The Executive Women's Forum (EWF) has the top leaders in info security, privacy, and risk management and has hundreds of members. They include some of the most sought-after and highly-rated speakers on both technology and leadership. And, they are all women.

Hey Sarah!

I LOVE speaking at conferences :) Check out my speaker page http://femgineer.com/speaking-engagements/ and let me know if you'd be interested in having me help you out.

Have a lovely day :)


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