Ways to make tech conferences more diverse

How to attract more women to tech conferences

Girl reaching out to the stars
Image by : 

Subscribe now

Get the highlights in your inbox every week.

One of the best emails to get before a conference you're psyched to attend is the one that outlines all the final details. It links to the final speakers' schedule, reminds you of important things like where to park and when to check-in, and of course, that email tells you about the fun parties. That email revs you up and organizes you for the conference to come.

So when I opened up the "final details" email for the recent All Things Open conference in Raleigh, I was expecting to see an outline of the typical who, what, when, where info. I wasn’t expecting the first item to be a reminder of the conference's anti/no harassment policy. But there it was—the first item on the list:

1. We want everyone to have a great time and we greatly value your attendance, however, be aware that we expect EVERYONE to abide by our anti/no harassment policy. In short, harassment of any type will not be tolerated for one second, and we will remove anyone guilty of it from the conference IMMEDIATELY and without a refund. Read the complete policy, as well as other terms, here - http://allthingsopen.org/terms.html.

Wow. As a woman who is certainly not down with harassment of any kind, my initial reaction was that of shock and gratitude.

Shock: Because I’ve never been to a tech conference that put an anti-harassment policy front and center like that. In fact, I'm not sure the other tech-related conferences I've attended even had such policies.

Gratitude: Because I love the idea of going the extra mile to ensure women and minorities feel comfortable at a male-dominated tech event.

The email also made me wonder if an anti-harrassment policy was even necessary. Turns out it is. Just look at this timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities, which includes incidents of inappropriate behavior at conferences. Even Tim O’Reilly has blogged about the problem, saying: “We’re voicing our strong, unequivocal support of appropriate behavior by all participants at technical events, including Oscon and other O’Reilly conferences.”

Anti-harassment policies at tech events can also have an awesome side effect. Conferences that take the extra step of encouraging a harassment-free environment can attract more women. That's what PyCon and DrupalCon organizers observed. Python Software Foundation Director Jessica McKellar joined Drupal core co-maintainer Angela Byron at the All Things Open conference to speak about "Women in Open Source," noting that anti-harassment policies combined with proactive outreach can bring more out more female participants.

Bringing more women to PyCon

McKellar explained that PyCon instituted its code of conduct to signal to attendees that inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated. As part of the code of conduct, McKellar said PyCon organizers also put together a financial aid program to make it easier to attract people, including women, who might not otherwise be able to attend.

PyCon also developed a pipeline of female speakers after a Python women group worked to help potential speakers prepare session proposals and offered advice on how to pitch their topics, McKellar said. As a result of these inclusive efforts, McKellar said a record 20 percent of the PyCon speakers and attendees were women this year.

Attracting women to DrupalCon

When Bryon attended the first DrupalCon in 2005, she was the only woman out of the 25 attendees. Two years later, women who attended DrupalCon sat down for the inaugural DrupalChix (now Women in Drupal) meeting. Together they created a public forum open to women and men, to create a safe space for women in Drupal to discuss gender issues, women in open source, and diversity in tech. By 2010, 20 percent of DrupalCon attendees were women, Byron said. These days, about 25 to 30 percent of speakers and attendees are women.

Ways to make tech conferences more diverse

So how can you attract more diverse speakers to your tech conference? Byron offered these tips:

  1. Only attend conferences that offer a code of conduct. Byron says this sends a message that you want conferences to be inclusive.

  2. Suggest and support diverse speakers. If you know a woman who would make a fantastic speaker, encourage her to send in a proposal or put her on the radar of the conference organizers. Companies should also proactively encourage and support their female employees to sign up to speak at events, Byron said.

  3. Speak up if a conference can do better. If you’re attending an event that needs more diversity, say so. Byron encourages attendees to share their feelings with event organizers. Companies can also sponsor diverse speakers, offering financial aid to make it easier for employees who need support to attend, she said.

If increasing diversity in open source is important to you, then take up McKellar on her call to action: Make one personal investment and one company investment in open source diversity this year.

Are you up for the challenge?

About the author

Ginny Hamilton - Ginny Hamilton was a community manager for EnterprisersProject.com, an online publication and community focused on how CIOs and IT leaders create business value through information technology. A former journalist, Ginny is passionate about local politics, journalism, technology, and social media. Follow her on Twitter for coverage of all those topics along with a healthy mix of cat...