Posted 2017 November 17
I hadn’t intended to spend time this past week writing a blog post, but even with the new 280 character limit on Twitter, a Tweet Storm wouldn’t really do this topic justice.
When I glance over a conference lineup and every last speaker is a dude, I assume they aren't interested in hearing from the rest of us.😝 https://t.co/AjmwTwYeF1— Bridget Kromhout (@bridgetkromhout) November 11, 2017
As a small-conference organizer for the past few years, I’ve dealt with this question directly. For us, it’s not only gender; the issue is representation. I want to share our experience on how we make conscious efforts to have a representative speaker lineup and what’s required to do so.
I’ve told part of this story on the Mac Admins Podcast, but it bears repeating. When it became apparent that our one-off event could turn into an annual regional conference for Mac Admins, I went after the best Canadian speaker I knew of, because a Canadian conference should have Canadian speakers. So I arranged a coffee meeting with Andrina Kelly when I was visiting Toronto about six months before our conference date. We discussed possible presentation topics, timing (since the conference date wasn’t set yet), and financial logistics (more on that later). We left that meeting with a basis of an agreement that let us plan the rest of the conference. While gender representation was not top of mind when I asked her to speak (just her skill), I was becoming more aware of the need to include diverse voices in tech conferences; we made it a conscious part of our conference planning moving forward.
Representation is not just about how many women we have speaking, it is about ensuring that community members see themselves reflected in the people who are speaking. It’s also not a panacea — our conference attendees are still predominantly white and male. All we can do is persist with the things we believe in, provide a safe and welcoming environment (which includes a formal Code of Conduct), provide content relevant to our audience, and trust that the rest will follow.
I don’t say any of this in a boastful or judgemental way; we’re actually following the lead of others and are late to the game in some areas. I mention this simply because we consider a representative speaker roster and a Code of Conduct as “table stakes” — it is a minimum standard in 2017. It’s also not a limitation; we have great speakers every year. So how have we gone about doing this?
We started MacDeployment as a one-day conference, so it initially made no sense to put out a Call for Proposals (CFP). Now that we are a two-day, we’ve considered it, but with attendance around 50–70 people, curation still makes the most sense to us. That means we need to leverage whatever contacts we have to recruit quality speakers. Since I’m the person on our committee who has attended the most Mac Admin conferences, that means I’m the person doing the reaching out (even though that is a socially difficult thing for me to do). What seems like a lot more work has actually become one of our strengths. This became crystal clear to me during a panel discussion on diversity at our most recent conference. Meg Ciliberti was responding to a question regarding speaking at conferences. She mentioned that the reason she was presenting at this conference was, “because Anthony asked.” Could it really be that simple? Just ask?
Well, yes and no. No one wants to be the “token” anything. So if your sole motivation in approaching a particular speaker is to check the Diversity box, your success rate will be pretty low. You need to know what the person you are approaching might be able to bring to the table and how that fits your conference before you contact them. Your success rate will also be low if you are reactive rather than proactive — I am contacting people throughout the year, especially when I attend another conference and see someone who might be a fit for us. When I am trying to build a relationship — not just fill a hole in the roster — is when I have been most successful.
The fact that our conference doesn’t have a CFP means that we always have to have our “ground game” working. Being an active participant in the worldwide Mac Admins community is important in this regard. Not only does it make it so much easier to identify great people to approach, it also gives the people you approach some confidence to speak with you since they have at least a little idea of who you are (or can find out easily). Clearly, those principles apply regardless of the gender identity (or nationality or ethnicity…) of the person I’m approaching, but that’s also why they work.
Asking is an important part of the equation because most of the passive methods of booking speakers (like CFPs) do not generate representative results. Sometimes, we’re not hearing certain voices because the support to attend conferences, much less speak at them, is not there in their workplace; as “ask” might generate the trip to the boss’ office with our backing. Other times, it may be as simple as the person doesn’t think what they might have to share would be valuable to others when we know otherwise. Often, people suffer from Impostor Syndrome; when they’re in a minority position, that fear of being judged is escalated because they’ve experienced it — it’s based in reality. A trusted friend explained to me that women are deeply affected by Impostor Syndrome because they’ve been told for so long that they’re “not enough.” If you see an “established” woman speaker at a conference, expect that they had to work twice as hard, be twice as knowledgeable, to get to that point professionally. If we want more representative speaker rosters, understanding all of this will help us when we make our approach.
To be clear, the answer will not always be “yes” when you ask but it will not always be “no” either. The person may be available a future year; just offer to keep in touch. The person may need more time to process the idea, especially if Impostor Syndrome is entrenched; be patient and supportive. A CFP can certainly generate “new” speakers (it’s how I personally got my foot in the door), but even if our Conference adds a CFP, I don’t think we’ll stop approaching potential new voices and asking them to join us. It just seems like the most effective way to have a broader, representative spectrum of voices.
Put it in the Budget
I’m going to let you in on some conference organizer secrets regarding speakers — OK, they’re not really secrets, they’re simply opaque to those who have never spoken at a Mac Admins conference. Community speakers at Mac Admin conferences don’t get paid. They are, however, generally offered one or more of the following (listed from most common to least common, in my experience):
- Free registration (often including the same meals as registrants);
- Speaker “swag” (sometimes exactly the same as registrants, sometimes not);
- One or more nights hotel accommodation;
- Meals not covered by registration (sometimes a formal “Speakers’ Dinner”, sometimes a per diem or other reimbursement);
- Ground transportation in the conference city (either provided or reimbursed);
- Transportation (usually flights) to and from the conference city (either paid up front or reimbursed);
The most generous plan of which I am aware is where speakers travelling very long distances are provided a stipend intended to cover all expenses. Still, they are not receiving money to speak. Our conference’s original plan was to bring in one or two speakers per year and pay their expenses to come. When MacDevOps YVR in Vancouver started up and scheduled themselves adjacent to our conference, we partnered with them to share a speaker and the resulting expenses, benefitting both events. However, a strange thing began to happen: speakers we approached would ask their employer to fund travel to our conference and would often get a positive response. This is in no small part because that is the norm in our community: you travel to the conference at your own expense. This generosity allowed us to have our largest and most diverse (representative) speaker panel ever in 2017, since we used those savings to bring in more people.
Our plan has evolved into this philosophy: we offer to take care of all of our community speakers from the moment they arrive in Calgary to the moment they leave: ground transportation (sometimes a ride in a committee member’s car), meals, hotel accommodation, conference registration, and even some very modest swag (mostly artisan chocolate). We then have an additional amount in the budget for speaker travel, what I would describe as 1.5 speakers (one at our expense, one shared with MacDevOps YVR). I fully understand by revealing this that I am opening our conference up to the possibility of all speakers asking for travel funding. That’s fine. We’re going to spend that money in a way guided by our goals of having a representative group of speakers that advance our local Mac Admins community.
If you’ve ever attended MacDeployment, you’ll know we are one of the least expensive conferences around, both because of our origin story and out of necessity (depressed economic conditions). Yet, we have consistently managed to put money in the budget to help speakers get here. So I circle back to the Tweet that originally got me going on this post. If you’re running a conference and want to ensure a diverse / representative speaker pool, you need to put your money where your intentions are. At our scale, that’s probably $20 per registration fee or recruiting a couple more sponsors. It’s arguably cheaper when you scale up to three-digit attendance figures. Putting out a CFP and hoping for the best is currently insufficient to make that happen. Put it in the budget.
What Speakers Can Do
That’s probably where this post would have ended had I not read a response to Bridget’s Tweet from Arek Dreyer:
When I see that, I think about how each speaker could have said, “I think I’ll pass this year if it’s only men on stage.” And yet the last conference I presented at had only one woman speaker.— Arek Dreyer (@arekdreyer) November 11, 2017
I have actually attempted this: I made my acceptance at a particular conference conditional on the presence of female speakers. I found that the main problem with that plan was that I have no power. No one cares whether I will be speaking at a conference or not; you come to my sessions because I’m offering particular content of interest (or it’s a single track conference), not because I am the developer of X or the author of a particular book/blog or even that my sessions are always entertaining and fun. My name on the speaker roster is not going to sell a single ticket. So the response I got back from a conference organizer was that they were making a concerted effort in this regard, had allocated budget towards this, but were not willing to make my acceptance contingent on the success of their efforts. In this case, I took them at their word and decided to accept, offering whatever assistance I could with regards to speaker contacts — they were doing all the things I recommend in this post, albeit somewhat reactively. I’m still not certain that was the right decision, but at least I used what little power I had to engage in a conversation on the issue.
Yes, I completely get the irony of this: in an effort to support people who often find themselves on the wrong side of a power imbalance, I experienced it myself. It was uncomfortable. I wish I was stronger. In the future, perhaps I will be. Until then, I will do what I can to develop more strength and more empathy.
Hopefully, others will take the experiences I have shared here to make our Mac Admins conferences and community stronger through representation of diverse voices. And if you decide to take a stand as a conference organizer, a speaker, or even as an attendee, then I wish you the power to carry that out.
Special thanks to all the Mac Admin friends who generously agreed to proof the content of this post. It is so much better than it would have been without your input. I am very grateful.
Updated 2017-11-19 to fix incorrect year reference (2016 instead of 2017).
 One of the side effects of being a small conference in an area that is still in an economic slump is that we can’t afford to do things like record and post videos of sessions. This gives us an unintended advantage when approaching new speakers in that we can say that we are a good place to start, since all their perceived mistakes won’t be recorded for posterity. [Return to main text]
 That is particularly important for those crossing international borders to speak, as those people would have to get work permits and the like otherwise. [Return to main text]
 We have corporate speakers which don’t fall under this plan, but they still get registration and swag. [Return to main text]
 One other representative group I should mention are all the consultants/entrepreneurs of our community. I am thrilled to see these people at conferences, but I am also aware that, if I approach them to speak, I might be asking them to travel to one more conference than they budgeted for that year. That’s money directly out of their pocket. This is another reason why we have a speaker travel budget. [Return to main text]