Note: This guide was originally written for a New Zealand audience. If you’re not from New Zealand, you’ll need to substitute Māori and Pasifika with the underrepresented minorities in your area, such as First Nations or black technologists.
We want and need as many smart people as possible working in technology. This includes women and people from other communities, such as Māori, Pasifika, LGBTQI, and disabled groups. It especially includes women who belong to one or more of those communities. Our products, our companies and our teams are stronger when they are more inclusive. Right now, we’re doing a bad job of this.
Events in our industry are often unpleasant for women, sometimes to the point of being hostile.
If you’re running an event in the technology space (or any STEM area), you have a duty to our community to make your event as welcoming as possible to all of our community.
Some of you will already be doing a pretty good job. That’s awesome. There’s always room for improvement.
There’s no magic fix for this stuff, but you can take steps to gradually improve.
This needs to be something you want to do; a half-hearted attempt will normally fail. People can tell you don’t believe in what you’re doing, and this alienates attendees and potential attendees from diverse communities even more.
The earlier you start, the better the results, but even if it’s right before your event, there’s stuff you can do – just don’t expect that magical fix and be honest with your audience that you still have work to do.
There’s two aspects:
Both are important - if they don’t know you’ve changed, or can’t see a clear signal of your intent, attendees from underrepresented groups are likely to err on the side of caution and stay away. That’s not a judgement on you, or your event; it’s caution learned from lots of other experiences.
Communicating the changes also helps to transfer ownership of your event’s atmosphere and culture to your audience. It’s really important that they understand and back your changes, as they’re the ones whose actions will, in the end, shape how the event feels for attendees, and its ongoing success.
If you don’t already have a woman on your organising team, add one. Don’t just add them in a token role, either. They’ll help to bring perspectives you won’t see, and it’ll also send a clear message that your team cares about inclusivity.
This also applies to your staff and helps to make them approachable. This is covered in more detail further down.
Before you start, define what success looks like for your event. Set a long-term goal and a short-term goal.
This doesn’t have to be something you share externally, although it can be a good way of holding yourself accountable for improvement.
Understand the potential audience for your event:
Sometimes it can be hard to assess this data, but you may be able to get an indication of previous gender splits from t-shirt selections.
Check out this data from WikiNZ on diversity in tech occupations in NZ from the 2013 census.
You can download the source data to refine it more for your audience. As census data, it is, of course, self-categorised, so be aware of any biases that may arise, but it may be useful in helping you understand your potential audience.
Most communities are willing to help if you ask early in your process, whether that’s taking a look over your plans to see if there’s any obvious red-flags, or by helping you with outreach to access a more diverse speaker set.
Some of these people are asked for help a lot, and generally most organisers expect this to be free. Consider offering to recompense them in some way.
Pricing and ticketing is hard. Bottom line: you have to cover your costs. However, price is a huge barrier, not just with tickets, but for accommodation, transport, childcare, and more.
There are some creative ways you can make your event more accessible:
T-shirts are hugely popular event swag. They’re a walking advertisement for how much people love your event. However, they’re also really awful if not done well - poorly fitted shirts in inadequate size ranges exclude attendees.
Here’s some basics:
The Geek Feminism Wiki has a really great in-depth article on this - check it out (and send it to your designer).
Conferences are big events, and can be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes, arranging a partner event with a local organisation can be a great way to make your event more welcoming and help your attendees build a stronger network.
Some events that may work well:
If you want a diverse audience, you need to start with what you’re selling them. If you’re a conference, that’s your speakers.
Aim for a diverse line up, and not just gender diversity. Ideally, try for gender diversity that mirrors the real world, but also consider racial diversity, age diversity and other forms of diversity. Different perspectives are important, not just for appearances sake, but because they can truly add to your event, and make the experience richer for all attendees.
Be prepared for arguments from people who will tell you that you’re diluting your quality for the sake of appearance. These people are wrong.
You are broadening the pool of speakers you’re considering to counter the natural advantages white male speakers gain from existing networks. There are many, many talented speakers who are not white men. You’re doing your audience a favour by not looking at the same pool of speakers everyone else does.
What not to do: Release your all-white, all-male speaker line up, and when people call you out on your lack of diversity, approach a couple of women at the last minute, and then blame them when they turn you down.
Different events choose speakers using different methods. Generally, you’ll either be hand-picking speakers, or using a Call for Papers (CFP), or a combination of the two.
Before doing anything else, stop and go and read this by Sarah Milstein, who is doing this exceptionally well.
You probably didn’t click the link, so here’s the Cliff’s Notes:
Transparency is incredibly important. People respect honesty, and yet it’s one of the most frightening things to do when running an event or a business. Be honest if you haven’t done well at this in the past. Be honest about what you’re trying to do to get better, and about the mistakes you’ll make along the way (you’ll make them, we all do).
Important: Be up front about what, if any, pay or assistance speakers can expect, including flights, accommodation, childcare etc. Some speakers may not wish to take you up on these - it’s a great idea to offer the option of donating this back into a scholarship pool, for example.
In theory, hand-picking speakers should be easy, right? Write down a list of people you want. Make it half men, half women, and make sure it’s not all white folks. In reality, it’s always more complicated than that. People will always decline for myriad reasons, but here’s some things to consider:
This can be harder to get right than self-selection. You cannot simply assume that just because you’ve decided to make an effort that things will get better and that people will realise that. You might like to consider a mix of speaker selection (focussed on speakers from underrepresented groups) and a CFP to begin with.
The biggest mistake people make with a CFP is assuming people know as much about their event as they do, and that everyone will flock to speak at their event. There is a glaring problem with this approach: it means the people who respond to your event’s CFP will be fanboys: people who have attended before, who know the event inside and out and who represent your existing audience. They’re extremely unlikely to help you achieve your goal of broadening your speaker list.
You need to think about the barriers to application that potential speakers might face and address these in your CFP clearly and concisely. CFPs are like job applications - Women are less likely to apply unless they think they meet all the criteria - they’re socialised to be risk-averse. If the criteria are hidden, they’re a lot less likely to apply. Men are socialised to take risks.
If you’re running a CFP, you’ll need to work harder to get the word out that you’re looking for speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Here’s some things you can try:
Know any organisations supporting Māori, Pasifika, Queer, or Trans speakers in NZ? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add them to the list.
It’s also really important that your CFP is really great.
Make it clear what you are looking for and what criteria you will be using to assess applications.
Get someone who has never attended your conference to read your CFP. They don’t need to even work in the same industry. See if they understand what you’re looking for and can explain back to you in clear terms what they think you expect your applicants to do. If they can’t, you’ve still got some work to do.
Remember, submitting to a CFP can be a lot of work and can be daunting, especially for someone who has not spoken a lot. Respect their time and make your requirements clear. This will also save you time by improving the quality of applications.
Blind selection is a great technique to use to remove bias. Many biases we hold are implicit (in other words, we don’t even realise we have them).
In a blind selection process, all details for the submitting speakers are anonymised, and the speakers are assessed on their own merits.
!!Con shared the details of their anonymising process. This can be summarised as:
New Zealand is a colonised nation. At bare minimum, make an effort to incorporate Māori language into your welcomes, and ensure it’s pronounced correctly.
Ideally, you should invite the local tangata whenua to play a part in your event. You can expect to pay them for this service. These services may include:
If you’re not sure who the best person to contact is, speak to your local council and ask them for a recommendation.
Don’t leave this until the last minute!
The conference environment, from the venue, to food, to the atmosphere, is a huge factor in your event being welcoming to attendees from underrepresented groups. Some of this you can control, and some of it is behaviour/culture you need to encourage (and set an expectation for) from your attendees.
This can be a hard one, as there are many other factors to weigh in - everything from cost to availability and more.
When you’re assessing venues, here’s a checklist of things to consider which can impact on how welcoming your event is to diverse attendees.
This is incredibly important for attendees with non-binary gender identities.
You can add signs to existing bathrooms to reinforce that anyone who feels it is the right bathroom for them is welcome to use it.
Your venue needs to be accessible to people in wheelchairs, on crutches, or with other physical disabilities.
Many venues state that they are ‘accessible’, but the accessible route provides a degraded experience that is not communicated or factored into event planning. You need to:
For more tips, check out this excellent article.
Check if they can provide for dietary requirements in an acceptable way. This means:
Does anything in your venue preclude you from catering to Deaf attendees? Ideally, you need to be able to:
Does the venue have room to support extra facilities like:
Offering on-site childcare is becoming increasingly common. It makes your event a lot more accessible if you can offer to look after kids, especially under 5’s, while talks are on.
As far as we can establish, NZ Childcare Centre Legislation doesn’t apply to one-off crèches*, but you’ll want to make sure you’ve got adequate supervision and have health and safety covered.
Services that may help:
If you don’t have a crèche, you should at minimum have an area where breastfeeding women can comfortably feed their infants, and state the availability of this on your website. Conferences are an excellent way for women who are currently out of the workforce to keep up, and welcoming infants makes a huge difference to their attendance.
*We’re not lawyers, so do check with one of them.
It’s really important to consider the impact of alcohol at both your event, and accompanying events, such as after parties.
Many events fail to adequately cater to the many people who do not drink, offering only plain sodas and orange juice.
These are some of the people you’ll exclude by focussing your event around alcohol:
To make your event more welcoming:
Consider restricting the amount of alcohol available. I know we expect everyone to be adults, but the reality proves some people can’t be. Offering a number of drinks tokens to attendees instead of a straight open bar caters for those who will drink reasonably as well as curtailing excess.
In addition to considering how you choose to serve alcohol, remember that for most people, your afterparty is still work-related. They’re primarily there to meet interesting people and talk to them about cool things. You want them to plot amazing projects they’ll collaborate on until the small hours of the morning and leave inspired.
The quickest way to kill this is to have the music up too loud. It’s a small difference between ‘pleasant background’ and ‘I don’t want to be here shouty shouty party’ levels. Go for the first one.
Your team are an incredibly important part of how welcoming your event is. You should aim for your team on the day to be representative of your intended audience - in other words, you want a diverse team, as well as a diverse audience.
It’s super important for attendees to be able to easily find your team. It’s a good idea to provide your team with event t-shirts to wear. However, it’s really important that you cater for ALL shapes and sizes when doing this, and that you communicate this requirement in advance.
If you can’t cater for all sizes, provide an alternative - give a lot of notice of the colour, and consider providing a budget for staff who cannot be catered for to find something suitable in that colour, for example.
Your staff should all be trained on the basics, including:
This section shamelessly borrows from the excellent folks at the Geek Feminism Wiki
For some people, a code of conduct is a bit of a swear word. Many people have the illusion that the purpose of a code of conduct is to prevent any instance of bad behaviour at the event.
Some people also believe that if they have never had an issue reported at their event, they do not need a code of conduct, and to have one implies the event has problems.
A code of conduct does neither of these things. It exists to:
Having a code of conduct doesn’t guarantee good behaviour, but it tells people you care, and that they can come to you with a problem and trust you to deal with it appropriately.
There are many example code of conducts and anti-harassment policies available. We recommend starting with the Geek Feminism wiki’s example policy, which has a CC-zero licence, meaning you can use and adapt it as you wish.
If you’re new to this, it can be a good idea to stick pretty close to the original. However, there are some excellent examples of conferences adapting the policy language to their own personal brand - check out Kiwicon’s example.
It’s not a great idea to completely roll your own. It’s tempting to just go with ‘Be nice’, but unfortunately, most people’s definition of ‘nice’ is pretty varied, and doesn’t align with your own or that of marginalised people in your community. ‘Be nice’ is really hard to enforce when things go wrong, and doesn’t give people who’ve been burned before a lot of confidence.
Once you’ve written it, you need to display it. Here’s some ideas of where you might like to put it:
At the beginning of your (undoubtedly excellent) event, you’ll probably be welcoming your attendees and setting the scene for your conference. It’s really important to discuss your code of conduct at this time. You need to:
Fortunately, many times you will not have any incidents that need to be managed. However, in the event of one occurring, in order for a code of conduct to be effective, your team needs to know how to implement it.
Crisis management is only effective if staff know exactly how to handle reports. Otherwise, the situation may inadvertently be escalated.
In general, you should designate a person/people as the official code of conduct points. These people should not be the main event organisers, as the organisers will typically be too busy with main event details to manage the initial report.
You should assign a room as a safe room where anyone in distress or who wants to discuss a confidential code of conduct-related manner can be taken. This room might also double as a first-aid room, but should not be your general “quiet room”, as privacy is important. Ideally, it should be separate from the main/busy conference area, and have minimal windows, or curtained windows.
All reports of any nature should be collated and recorded in a single, central location. This enables you to identify patterns that you might otherwise miss at a large or busy event if they’ve been reported to separate people. This includes presentation issues, things noticed on social media, things observed by your team, and complaints made by attendees or speakers.
Presentations or similar events should not be stopped for one-time gaffes or minor problems, although a member of conference staff should speak to the presenter afterward. You, or a staff member, may like to acknowledge the issue at the conclusion of the talk. This can be as simple as “I’m sorry for the inappropriate comment in that presentation. I’d like to remind everyone of our code of conduct”.
However, staff should take immediate action to politely and calmly stop any presentation or event that repeatedly or seriously violates the anti-harassment policy. For example, simply say “I’m sorry, this presentation cannot be continued at the present time” with no further explanation. You may later choose to issue a statement, either verbally or in writing about the incident.
You should also try to assign a person to watch all talks and also the conference hashtags and Twitter feeds. This person is responsible for monitoring talks and Twitter for potential issues, and ensuring any concerns raised are promptly responded to. The role of this person is not to enter into discussions on whether the conduct was right or wrong, merely to acknowledge any complaints and ensure they are immediately escalated to the official code of conduct point for investigation.
Make sure this person understands that their job is not to get defensive.
“Thanks for letting us know. We’ll follow this up.”
Anyone in your team must be able to take a report from a conference attendee. Reports must be taken for all incidents, regardless of the level of details the complainant is able to provide (including not being able to identify offending parties)
This report should:
When taking a report, your team member should:
Important: You should never demand proof from the victim, engage in any form of victim-blaming behaviour (such as implying they were leading them on, or were too drunk), or advise the victim that you must hear ‘both sides of the story’. Don’t judge the victim for what has happened.
Once the report has been taken, your team member should:
Important: Do not pressure the reporter to take any action if they do not want to do it. Respect the reporter’s privacy by not sharing unnecessary details with others, especially individuals who were not involved with the situation or non-staff members.
Every member of your team has ownership for conference safety and should feel confident issuing warnings to attendees, presenters, or other staff members for inappropriate behaviour.
All verbal warnings should also be reported to a central location as soon as possible, typically via text message or email.
A report should be made of any breaches of the code of conduct, whether they are reported by attendees, or a result of verbal warnings issued by staff for observed behaviour.
Reports should include as much of the following as possible:
Either you or your representative(s) will be responsible for managing the reported incidents. Before the event, you need to decide what courses of action can take for breaches. These can include:
Generally, it is not recommended to facilitate a face-to-face apology in any form. This may:
Your team should sit down before the event and agree what the appropriate courses of action are. These should be recorded in a table/chart that is easily available on the day.
You’ll never be able to cover all potential outcomes, but having some guidelines in place will help to ensure you feel confident you’re making the right decision and that you are backed by your team.
You can choose to come up with creative ways to manage minor infractions, or to help prevent infractions from occuring.
Example: Kiwicon, a security/hacker conference, has sparkly hula hoops to hang around the waist of people who make minor infractions (as well as a warning). These serve as a clear visual indicator that the person may not be safe, as well as providing a physical barrier to getting too close to another person. Attendees can also request to have a hoop if they feel they aren’t very good at understanding personal space.
Note: Techniques such as this are not recommended for anything more than a minor infraction.
If you have an incident at the event, you may need to complete some post-incident response management. Think of this like an outage post-mortem. Not every incident will warrant this, however high-profile incidents (removal of speakers, incidents that caused social media outcry) will likely benefit from this.
Generally this will cover:
Important: Public responses should be anonymised to protect the identities of the parties involved. The purpose of this report is to give you a chance to reflect and to reassure your community that you take your responsibilities seriously.
If you ejected a speaker or a sponsor, you’ll likely need to follow up with them directly in writing.
Don’t do this on the day, or even the day after. Give yourself a couple of days to get some sleep and calm down.
Then, calmly email them a brief explanation about why you took the action you did. Include a link to your code of conduct.
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