Building an Inclusive and Diverse Tech Meetup

Andy Burgin
May 9, 2019 · 9 min read

The last two weeks has seen the return of Leeds Digital Festival, with almost 250 events hosted across the city. As part of the event and also as part of the community the monthly LeedsDevops meetup took place.

I’m very pleased to see recent praise on social media for the efforts made to make the LeedsDevops event more inclusive. I wanted to share with other meetup organisers, some of the things that are being tried to increase the diversity of the audience and make the event more inclusive. However, there’s still a long list of things to try and this is by no means a solved problem.

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Before I list the ideas, let’s have a bit of context. LeedsDevops is a tech meetup which has been running for 6 years with over 40 events. It was created to mirror the “format” of other tech meetups in Leeds, with 2 speakers, a generous sponsor and a free bar. It was promoted at the other tech meetups and became really popular. I could list an event on Meetup and Eventbrite and all 100+ spaces were snapped up within 5 hours, which is great? That means it’s a really successful meetup? But if you looked around the room at the meetup it used to be the same faces as the month before, and the month before that etc and the vast majority were people who presented as white men.

Why is that a problem ? The talks are first class, the discussion between the attendees is great. DevOps to me is fundamentally about creating a collaborative culture, knocking down walls and including everyone in the journey. So the male attendees of LeedsDevops are of course still welcome, but the event needs to be inclusive to all, bringing new ideas, perspectives, experiences. I really don’t want the meetup to become an echo chamber. Which is why I’ve been working hard to make the group more inclusive and reaching out to different groups to make it more diverse.

For a long time I’ve been interested in gender imbalance in the tech workforce in the North of England (especially when I was doing hiring in my day job), I’ve been to a number of conferences discussing the issues of “pipeline problem” vs “retention problem”, so when an open space discussion was held at DevOpsDays London in 2017 on “Diversity in DevOps”, I went along ready with my advice. The discussion wasn’t what I was expecting and I left the session feeling disappointed about the way underrepresented groups were being treated in “my” industry. Part of the problem (but not all of it) was that I (and those other privileged white men in the industry) were just not trying to be inclusive and therefore unconsciously exclusive. Since then I’ve made a number of changes to how I conduct myself in the work environment, but more importantly in the context of this article, how the LeedsDevops meetup can be made more diverse and inclusive.

I joined the organising team for DevOpsDays London for 2018. The team of volunteers are in many ways similar to me (we all work in tech, as engineers, delivery managers, product people etc) but in other ways very different (different backgrounds and life experiences). Since 2017 the London event has been trying to create a diverse, accessible and inclusive conference, inspired by events like alterConf and WordCamp London. The conference in September 2018 made me consider how many of the diversity and inclusivity ideas could be implemented at a local meetup, especially given the restrictions on time and cost (basically it’s just me).

So enough waffle and background. You have come here to find out what can be done to make a meetup more accessible. Here’s what has happened at LeedsDevops:

  1. Code of Conduct
    Does your meetup have one? You may think your meetup doesn’t need one because you and your attendees are all really nice, well think about it. If you’re not a super confident person how do you know you’ll be looked after? having a code of conduct sends out a clear message to the attendees (and potential attendees) that there are expectations on conduct — if you misbehave you are out .
    Do you make people agree to it when they sign up for an event? OK it’s a bit like a EULA and people may not read it but you’ve told them it’s there.
    Do you display it at the event? Do you reference it in an opening address? You can’t expect people to abide by it if it’s not given credibility or prominence.
    Do you gloss over it and make a bit of a joke about it — Meetups are meant to be fun, but this is the one time I’m deadly serious during the intro. I’ve heard tales of speakers at other meetups making a joke referring to the Code Of Conduct, that’s not cool.
    Do people know how to report a violation (and feel safe doing it)? tweeting is not a very good medium for that, make sure people know how.
    And the biggy — will you enforce it? How do you make everyone know you’re prepared to?
    At LeedsDevops we’ve had one reported violation which I took the decision to deal with after the event — that was a bad idea. Hopefully, there won’t be a next time, but I now have some ideas on dealing with problems in the future.
    I also desperately need to rewrite the code of conduct I use. I don’t think the current one details dealing with a reported problem properly so I’ll be reviewing for more ideas.
  2. Wording
    In all your tweets, event listings etc do you make sure the tone is non-masculine?
    I’ve seen events call themselves a “face-off” or a “battle” immediately making the event sound more like a wrestling match than a tech discussion. Degendering and using inclusive language is something I’ve been consciously trying to do for over a year.
  3. Venue
    Is your venue friendly to all? The upstairs room of a pub is a very different proposition to an event space at your local tech startup incubator, especially to someone who doesn’t normally go in pubs/bars.
    Is it accessible? Is there wheelchair access? Are the acoustics good? Is there a Public Address system (hearing aid induction loops etc)? Is the screen/projector correctly setup and clear? Is there a quiet space?
    At the last meetup we introduced a first timers area. This was a small room away from the main room so first time attendees didn’t have to walk into the big room on their own. It also doubled as a quiet space during the break if people wanted to get away from the noise or weren’t comfortable talking to people.
  4. Refreshments
    I’ve been to meetups where there are bottles of one brand of beer and some cans of coke. As a community we can do much better — especially if you don’t drink alcohol. A long time ago I stopped referring to the events “beer fridge” and start talking about refreshments. For the last meetup I made sure the range of non alcoholic drinks included fruit juice, some fizzy drinks (inc diet), water and a range of teas and coffees (yes we still had craft beers/ciders and wine too).
    I don’t do food at LeedsDevops I’ve seen the stress of other meetup organisers trying to supply the right quantity and mix of pizzas. There’s plenty of time before LeedsDevops to eat.
  5. Speakers
    So far in this article, I’ve spoken about gender diversity (remembering the gender isn’t binary) but the diversity picture is much broader than that. I’ve been cautious of doing any positive discrimination, I don’t want to invite someone to speak because of who/what they are, I want it to be on the merit of their talk (and I’m sure my speakers do too). Getting speakers for a meetup is hard, and I think until recently the diversity of the speakers at LeedsDevops had pretty much reflected that of the local tech industry (so not great). What I’ve done over the last year whilst building my network of speakers (usually by contact on LinkedIn and people I meet at conferences) is to try to make sure the gender balance of my network is more equal. So when I ask people if they would like to speak I have a more balanced pool. Therefore so far in 2019 the gender balance has been 50/50.
  6. Making Friends
    This is something I’ve been working on a lot. Not only have I offered to speak on DevOps related topics at the Leeds Ladies of Code and York Women in Tech, I’ve also asked them to promote the LeedsDevops meetup to their members and they have both been super supportive. When I list the tickets for a meetup I reserve a block of the tickets exclusively for these groups so they don’t have to be part of the ticket stampede. I also share similar details with some friends who have outreach into networks of marginalised groups in tech in the Leeds area.
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Not a “Beer and Pizza” meetup

What haven’t I done yet (there really is so much still to do):

  1. No Speaker Questions
    I’m seriously thinking of doing this. When an audience question is great, it’s brilliant, when it’s not, it’s awful. I also hate people “sharing an opinion” or blatant mansplaining. The organiser of LeedsJS Luke Bonaccorsi has a great article on this
  2. Non Evening Events
    For some people, evening events are a no no, I’ve thought about doing a weekend event, preferably with childcare facilities but I would need to discuss how this would work logistically with speakers and the venue. I could also look at lunchtime or morning events, but I don’t feel the ROI for speakers and attendees would be great for a 1 hour meetup. I need to think about alternative formats such as an informal get together over coffee.
  3. Booze Free
    I’m hearing a lot of feedback about how people don’t want to attend events where there is alcohol on offer. I know the LeedsJS meetup removed booze and haven’t seen any noticeable drop off in engagement and some of the members go to the bar afterwards if they want a drink — one to consider.
  4. Pronouns
    At DevOpsDays London we distributed pronoun badges and asked that everyone used them. I don’t at present do name badges at LeedsDevops but if I do in the future I’d encourage all to state their pronouns. The aim is to make your pronouns visible and the fact they might be different from others is just how it is.
  5. Gender Neutral Loos
    Obviously dependent on the venue (are they for the exclusive use of the event ?), but making them, gender neutral sends a supportive message to those that don’t identify as male or female.
  6. More Outreach
    In this article I’ve focused a lot on gender, but of course diversity is far more than that. I’m hoping to do more outreach over the year to the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities (and beyond). That’s not to say we don’t have folk from those communities already speak or attend LeedsDevops, but it’s on the to-do list.

So I bet you’re thinking it all sounds great, but how has that affected attendee numbers/demographic? What’s the ROI? Show me the facts? As you’d expect I don’t profile the attendees. It’s really none of my business people’s race, origin, religion, sexuality, disabilities nor their gender. But I have conducted some quick head counts based on assumed gender (which is a terrible metric and flawed in many, many ways, highlighting many of my male biases), but it acts as a guide. At meetups in 2018 I noted that the male vs non-male ration was at some meetups as low as 3%. However our last meetup with 2 women speaking saw that hit a high of 14%. This does of course raise all sorts of questions considering that diversity isn’t just about gender, I do wonder for a tech meetup in Leeds in 2019 what “good” should look like? Logic would say 50%, but even the most diverse tech employers in the north have a 30% ratio in their workforce? I’ve no idea what realistic is.

Whatever good does look like, I know we’re not there yet. So I’m seeing the effort I’m putting in as an investment and it may be a year before the meetup demonstrates the true return on that effort. There is still a lot to do.

Just some closing words. I’ve considered the things I’ve done from two perspectives:

  1. Outreach to encourage a more diverse group of attendees.
  2. Inclusivity to make sure that the diverse group feel they belong at the meetup, alongside the current attendees.

I’d also add although I’ve explained all this as work and effort, this is what I’ve chosen to do. This is not a burden and neither are the people, be they past, present or future attendees/speakers of LeedsDevops.

Finally if you really want to see inclusion in action at a tech conference come along to DevOpsDays London in September, I’ve learnt so much from the team.

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