How to Ensure a Diverse Tech Event

This is the companion post to the presentation I gave at SXSW Interactive on March 12, 2011.

The hashtag is #diverseevents. Search for tweets. Tweets on the whole series can also be found at #F15Diversity. Tag your posts. My slides are embedded below.

Also, Invisible Knapsack LOLcats.

It’s an honor and a privilege to present this topic at SXSW Interactive of all places. Not only is it highly relevant, SXSW is an example of an event that is doing a lot of things right.

That said, I noted a strange irony in the seriously broad range of panel topics alongside the heavy big-brand marketing presence.

Let’s also remind ourselves that most events are not only not nearly as big as SXSW, they are way smaller. A lot of the concepts still apply, but things involving costs may work very differently.

I spent less of my time on actual how-to and more on the concepts of representation and building awareness. The key words and phrases are inclusion, representation, and structural barriers to participation. It’s really hard to distill the concept of privilege and oppression down to a 12-minute presentation, much less further apply it to why various groups are or aren’t represented at tech conferences of all sizes. But it’s critical to the conversation, so I did my best.

I can give you pages of ideas for outreach, but if you aren’t aware of the social forces behind all of it and aren’t willing to truly re-think how you go about things then no progress can be made. A conference is a manufactured environment; it necessarily reflects the ideology of the creator. Understand that some may reject that framework in favor of their own or none at all.

As promised here are some further resources specifically addressing how to increase representation of marginalized groups at your tech event.


The following posts address the topic of representation at conferences. Each one of them has a bulleted list of tips and hints.

Carmen (Van Kerckhove) Sognonvi – Top 4 Mistakes Meeting Planners Avoid If They Want Diversity and Inclusion at Their Next Conference

Savvy meeting planners carefully sculpt both their advertising and their agendas to appeal to a culturally diverse population. But far too many planners still don’t understand the fundamentals of culturally-sensitive hosting.

Here, then, are the four biggest mistakes meeting planners should avoid, followed by their more appealing and appropriate counterparts.

Nicole Sullivan (aka Stubbornella) – Woman in technology

Usually I avoid topics like women in technology because (1) it is a can of worms, and (2) I can really only speak for myself. For the most part, I’d rather be seen as a person in technology than a woman, but this weekend the twitterverse erupted with opinions about Google sponsoring female students to attend JSConf. As a woman who is often the only-woman-in-the-room, I want people to know it isn’t always easy. I was a bit shocked by the blatant failure to empathize.

On the Big Web Show, I talked about being a women in a male dominated field (min 7:12). “I was a carpenter before I got into web stuff, so you guys can’t really compete with the carpenters, no matter how unruly you get.”

CV Harquail – Advocating for Inclusion: A roundup of ideas from post-TEDx636 roundtable

Create alternative conference spaces built on inclusion and diversity as a foundational principle

If you were designing, from the ground up, a scalable conference about ideas that embraced inclusion of women and men, and people of different cultures, races, abilities, and orientations, it would probably not look like TED….

An inclusive conference might include team presentations, interactive conversations, tummeling, unconferencing, and a whole range of learning and discussion strategies that are implicitly less hierarchical than having everyone watch the ‘sage on the stage’. It would not depend on the transmittal model of learning (where wisdom flows from the speaker to the passive, receptive audience) and involve more co-learning, facilitated discussions.

Conference spaces themselves would be designed to facilitate interaction, many modalities of learning, opportunities for reflection, and even opportunities for practicing new skills.

Danny Brown – Why Tech Already Has Women (And Why They’re Better Than Arrington)

Instead of supporting old structures for speaking — such as soliciting speaking submissions from chest beating male A-Listers — build an editorial mission for the conference, and seek out great male and female speakers beyond the comfortable and immediate social network.

Geoff Livingston – Mindfulness the Key to Finding Female Speakers

First, I co-organized the first BlogPotomac with Debbie Weil, and together we set the precedence for the event series. We mindfully decided that at least three of the seven speakers will be women. This seemed like the right thing to do, especially considering that there are more women in communications than men. We wanted to represent our stakeholders with a group of speakers that at least came close to matching our audience.

Each of the three BlogPotomacs had predetermined topic areas, and speakers were matched to the topics. In almost every instance there were natural choices that made sense. A couple of times the would-be speaker was not available. So we found someone else! In one case, I held the spot for two months until my networking yielded the speaker.

But I didn’t give up. And when men asked for speaking spots (women rarely solicited a speaking spot, in fact I cannot remember one), I said no. I did not want the loudest chest beater. I wanted quality lady speakers, was committed to achieving that result, and would not be distracted.

Geek Feminism – Ten tips for getting more women speakers (Everything in this post is gold.)

If you’re a conference organiser or on a papers committee, go out of your way to attend sessions by minority speakers. If you’re in a rush, you can even just pop in for a few minutes. I saw one of the OSCON folks doing this to great effect the other week: he asked me, “Is $woman a good speaker?” She’d spoken at many previous conferences, but he had no idea, so I suggested he go see her in action. He went off and was back in 5 minutes. “She’s great,” he said. Her confidence and speaking ability had impressed him in no time flat. And yet he’d never known about it before.

In some fields and at some conferences, you’ll notice that women tend to speak about community management, documentation, and social tech rather than programming, hardware, sysadmin, and other more technical subjects. If those women submitted two proposals, one “hard” and one “soft”, the soft one may have been chosen to provide balance and texture to the conference procedings. However, the effect is to type-cast women speakers, and a vicious cycle may begin to occur. See if you can break the cycle by accepting more hard talks from women, or soft talks from men.

Allyson Kapin – Where are the Women in Tech and Social Media?

While women need to be more aggressive in promoting themselves and submitting panel ideas, conference organizers need to do their part too and share the responsibility. So what can conferences can do diversify their panels? The key is to ramp up outreach and publicity and to target women in tech and social media and encourage submissions.

Reach out to groups such as the Anita Borg Institute, She’s Geeky, Women Who Tech, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women In Technology International, Women 2.0, Social Media Women of Color, The National Center for Women and IT and Girls In Tech and ask for suggestions of women speakers based on conference objectives and target audiences. Build a relationship with these organizations so that the communications pipeline is always open.

Allyson Kapin again – Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Playing the Blame Game

If you’re a conference organizer and someone declines a speaking invitation, ask for 3-4 suggestions of other women who would be a good fit. Likewise, if you’re invited to speak at a conference, but aren’t able to participate, recommend 3-4 good women speakers.


The following posts address people’s experiences as under-represented participants in tech conferences. All of these posts were written within the last two years. Some have happy endings. Some are clearly written out of frustration. Some fall into the “I can’t believe this shit is still happening” category which should tell you why we’re still having this conversation.

Prude or Professional? by Courtney Remes

Will Launch Be Just Another White Tech Guy Event?

Why Are New Media Conferences Lacking in Minorities?

gender and sex at gogaruco

Why technology, startup, entrepreneur, social media conference organizers cannot fix the lack diversity problem at their events.


If you have questions about the presentation, care to argue, have tips or experiences to share, or want to see what a longer version of this presentation would be like, please let me know either in the comments or privately via my contact form.