Strategies For Attracting More of the “Underrepresented” Onto the Conference Stage

Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Since technology now literately touches almost everyone and it is no longer the playground of just a few, it isn’t economically prudent to build products and services that don’t reflect the needs and desires of large portions of the population. So it makes sense that conference organizers are turning their focus and effort to ensuring that program content is inclusive and diverse. This post is meant to aid conference organizers in making sure the stage is a real option for anyone who’d like to take it.


Those who know me know that I’ve embraced my status as “underrepresented” in the tech world. For the first time, being a black female has opened doors for me that in any other industry I’d have to pry open to gain access. So I’m thankful for every opportunity I get to learn, connect, and travel because of who I am.

In my efforts to expose myself to as many of these experiences as possible, I’ve discovered that there are some assumptions being made on behalf of conference organizers which are often creating barriers to entry that they may not be aware of. These assumptions are:

  • They know us
  • They know what to do
  • They will figure it out

They know us

This assumption is rooted in conference organizer’s belief that the community knows about them already. And this may be so. Your conference may have a wonderful reputation, you may have people lining up every year waiting to attend or present, and you may have the data to prove your success. But what you don’t have is any relationship with the “underrepresented” communities which you’d like to attract.

Strategy

Conference organizers and supporting community members need to take intentional steps to build relationships within the communities they’d like to attract. Hold meet and greets, offer scholarships, sponsor some of their events. The point is to become a community ally, a group of individuals who are seen as trustworthy and committed. By building relationships within the communities you’d like to take the stage, you will be demonstrating your conference’s values while introducing it to the very communities you’d like it to serve.

They know what to do

This assumption is rooted in conference organizer’s belief that the CFP process is an easy one. Not long ago, there was a BIG conference organizer who took to social media to complain about submissions that didn’t follow their anonymous submission rules. Since I was sure that I was one of those who made that mistake, it didn’t feel good to be called out about it, even if no names were called. I felt shamed and was thankful that my presentation wasn’t selected.

Strategy

If there’s ANYTHING about your CFP process that’s different than the boilerplate…PLEASE PROVIDE CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS! Most people who’d like to speak, have their presentation details in a format which makes for easy “copy and paste”, just as most conference organizers create their CFPs. So unless something stands out, it may be missed.

Even then, make sure that you’ve made the effort to OVER explain your expectations. Use images and video whenever possible because remember, your goal is to attract to the stage those individuals who wouldn’t otherwise be there. Which means MEETING THEM WHERE THEY ARE.

As a educator, I know that if I keep seeing my students making the same mistakes, it’s time to change my approach. If your requirements are important, provide mentoring throughout the CFP process. This will ensure that proposals are completed in the appropriate format. But above all else, please DO NOT take to social media to complain because the very members of the “underrepresented” communities you are trying to attract are watching.

They will figure it out

This assumption is rooted in conference organizer’s belief that once they’ve accepted the “underrepresented” presentation, that their work is done. And this is far from the truth. In fact, if it’s important that these speakers are successful, then your work has just begun.

Strategy

Since I am new to the space and finding employment has been challenging, I ONLY apply to conferences that cover travel and accommodation expenses. So if your conference is able to offer this extra, please plan to make it a simple process. Please ASSUME that speakers who indicate that they need their expenses covered, mean just that…that they do not have the funds to attend without the conference’s help. Asking them to pay up front and wait to be reimbursed could seriously cause them a financial hardship. Plan ahead of time by setting funds aside to make travel and accommodations arrangements on these speakers behalf. Because after stating that they need financial assistance during the CFP process, no one really wants to go back and forth with conference organizers about this. As a person asking for assistance that was offered, it just doesn’t “feel right”. Either figure out how it’ll be paid on the speakers behalf or don’t offer it.

Also, make sure there are supports in place to help with presentation development, stage fright, and overall moral support. This experience should be as safe and nurturing as possible. Members of “underrepresented” communities are often discriminated against in their every day lives, so as an event that is actively seeking their participation, conference organizers must take extra steps to cultivate an atmosphere that is warm and welcoming.

The team at ScotlandJS did an amazing job with this. Not only did they have a code of conduct, which they strictly adhered to, they went out of their way to make sure that my first conference presentation, my first international travel, and my birthday was a special and celebrated occasion.

Side Note:

If you are interested in how to create a successful diversity program for your conference please reach out to Peter Aitken, organizer of ScotlandCSS and ScotlandJS.

In conclusion, I commend those conference organizers who understand the importance of diversity and inclusion and are thriving to make sure the their program content better reflects today’s population and sensitivities. I hope what I’ve shared can help you in creating an experience for which all parties will walk away happy and fulfilled.