I don’t take speaking at conferences lightly. Firstly, it comes with a significant time commitment — on average it takes me over 90 hours to complete a talk (including transcript, slides and rehearsal). I allocate evenings and weekends to do so, sacrificing downtime. The goal is to deliver a high-quality presentation, not only packed with actionable information but also presented in an accessible and transparent manner. Quality isn’t something I will forfeit, so if I don’t have time, I won’t decide to give a talk in the first place.
Secondly, I strongly feel that standing up on a podium comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s incredibly easy to spread misconceptions and misleading data. Often, speakers are put on a pedestal and treated as the single source of truth, which makes me quite wary of what I say on stage.
I don’t sign up to the hero worship. I’m here to pass on knowledge and challenge the status quo.
The latter contributes heavily to which events I choose to participate in (both as a speaker and attendee). As a seasoned speaker and organiser, I hold myself and others accountable for progressing the tech community. I refuse to participate in white male dominated, exclusionary culture. I challenge you to do the same if you haven’t yet (especially if you are a part of the leading demographic).
Next time you’re considering attending or speaking at a conference, please consider the following prerequisites for saying “yes”.
Enforceable Code of Conduct
At this point, most of the events have caught up with the fact that Code of Conduct is a must have, no matter if they understand its importance or not. Code of Conduct adoption is simultaneously a great and a horrible thing. In the second scenario, it can become a dangerous safety false positive for underrepresented groups when not planned for acting on.
What I’m looking for: a prominent display (primary navigation and sections) of Code of Conduct in both Web and print (and by noticeable I don’t mean hidden deep inside a FAQ section or f*ck-knows-where). Contact details for organisers, enforcement and reporting guidelines are a must. Important contact numbers (such as police, medical emergency, etc.) should be listed as well. I can see straight through events that haven’t thought about it deeply at all if they cross-link to Conference Code of Conduct or copy-paste and call it done.
Diverse lineup of speakers
Now, often diversity is interpreted as a binary decision between two gender identities (male and female). Let me point out that’s a sweeping generalisation —diversity and inclusion are much more complicated than this. They compromise of ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, disabilities, sexual orientation amongst many others. Sadly, at this moment it’s wishful thinking to see genuine diversity and equal representation in conference line-ups.
What I’m looking for: at least 40% of speakers have to be women speaking on the subject of their expertise instead of being invited to present for the sake of adjusting the conference quotas. I want to see people of colour too. In an ideal scenario, I’d like to see as many gender identities, ethnical backgrounds, ages and races as possible.
Commitment to inclusion rarely manifests itself through Code of Conduct alone. It’s only a starting point for a bigger strategy. A big part of it is onboarding as many members of underrepresented groups as possible to challenge widely disproportionate demographics in the industry. One of the ways of doing so are free and subsidised passes.
What I’m looking for: a scholarship program with free tickets given out to individuals from underrepresented groups, who couldn’t attend otherwise.
No bad actors
There are no lists of known abusers despite public accounts of harassment in the venture capital and startup communities which often don’t apply to the conference circle. It’s insider knowledge of whisper networks and for many reasons, rightly so. It’s a difficult situation to be in as an organiser trying to validate lineup choices, but not an impossible one — reach far and wide to trusted, fellow curators for their perspective and listen out for reports from other invitees to your event.
What I’m looking for: organisers pro-actively ensuring not only the speakers but also masters of ceremony weren’t involved in Code of Conduct violation incidents in the past. If I notice someone I’ve heard about or witnessed abuse from first-hand, I cannot partake in this event.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive. It’s a small collection of, to me, obvious guideposts for speaking and event attendance. I strongly urge you to adopt your these (and your own) standards that will enable fostering a more inclusive industry. The more we say “no” to the status quo, the more change we will see.