A Public Request for More Inclusive Conferences in 2012
Every so often I have the good fortune to be asked to speak at a variety of tech conferences. It's rewarding and exciting work, but it also means I attend quite a few conferences throughout the year.
Now unless you’ve avoided all Tech-related news, commentary and discussions over the past few months, you’ve no doubt noticed that the subject of racial and gender discrimination in our industry has come up with increasing frequency. In a recent TechCrunch article, Eric Ries points out how this discrimination can occur through no individual’s fault, but through being part of a system:
Wherever selection processes have been studied scientifically, errors have been found. These errors are called “implicit bias” in the research literature, which causes a lot of confusion, because the word “bias” connotes malevolence. But let’s leave that connotation behind – we’re entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers, for goodness’ sake. We can talk about bias like grownups.
And what the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy for systems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system. And when those systems are examined scientifically, they can be reformed to reduce their bias.
The whole piece is an important and informative read, but one relevant takeaway here is that we can adjust what kind of cultures we create (and tolerate) through simple measures. For conference organizers, one such measure that helps is a Code of Conduct policy.
Earlier this year, while I did not have the chance to attend it myself, I was very pleased to see such a policy on the Github CodeConf website (scroll to the Fine Print section). While these kinds of policies or statements are commonplace in many other industries, they are rare in the fields of technology and internet—sectors where the gender imbalance in particular is hurting the most.
Conferences play an important part in crafting the culture of an industry: attendees bring home more than just new knowledge; they bring home an impression of a large number of fellow industry professionals. If the behaviors of those conference goers exhibit an unwelcoming atmosphere toward women or minorities, those demographics take home a discouragement over being part of the industry.
For 2011, almost half of all reported incidents on the Geek Feminism wiki happened at a tech conference of some sort. I know many conference organizers, including several who organized conferences where an incident happened, and I know that all of them are well-intentioned people who work hard at ensuring a welcoming environment. So this is not a criticism; rather, it is a suggestion that would help their existing efforts—possibly by a lot.
With the 2012 conference season starting soon, now is the right time for all those new conference websites to prominently include a code of conduct policy. Github’s CodeConf policy is a great example, stressing the need especially for speakers to be aware of these concerns.
A simple, three or four-paragraph statement of this kind can have a profound impact, even just on a psychological level, by making people think twice about their content and behavior. It raises awareness and costs virtually nothing.
I hope to see many tech conference websites feature such a policy next year, especially those that I’m set to speak at. I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of us genuinely welcomes diversity in both speakers and audiences; so let’s be more pronounced about it. It will help.