Should Tech Conferences Be More Inclusive?

Spoiler alert — The answer is yes. Tech conferences should be more inclusive. Let me take you through all the things you didn’t even know you were getting wrong…

I’ve been to a lot of tech conferences over the past couple of years but at the moment I’m organising my first. It’s been a learning experience already (and the conference isn’t even until September) and I’ve asked a lot of people for advice on how to create the right kind of environment. I thought it would be pretty easy — I’ve organised “stuff” before. Holidays, parties, large scale technology programmes etc etc. But, let me tell you, creating an inclusive environment is more effort than it first seems, and there are some very important aspects that many events neglect to the detriment of their community.

We go to conferences to learn from each other and hear different perspectives. Trying to do that in a room where everyone is the same diminishes that opportunity to learn. We often talk about diversity, but that’s not the whole story. We need to talk about inclusivity instead. Diversity is what happens when you get inclusivity right.

“Inclusivity is an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, such as those with physical or learning disabilities, or racial and sexual minorities.”

For me it’s about making the effort to create an environment where everyone feels safe to be themselves and where everyone is welcomed equally.

To ensure everyone is welcomed equally you need to go further than just a code of conduct, so I’m going to talk about some of the things I’ve learnt and why we need to do better in technology to make our events more inclusive.

Code Of Conduct

  • A code of conduct is a must have; not only that but it must be enforced by the organisers. It’s very rare that bad behaviour gets reported, but reporting it needs to be encouraged. Organisers can do very little about an incident if it’s not reported at the time. Organisers need to take all code of conduct violations seriously and when necessary act to ensure delegates feel safe.
  • There are loads of examples online that you can use or adapt to your specific event. Here is everything you need. (Thanks Ashe Dryden!!)

A Representative Line-up

  • A representative and diverse line-up of speakers is also a non-negotiable requirement. If an individual chooses to attend an event and is confronted by a line-up of “experts” that are all from a single demographic that they themselves don’t belong to, they are less likely to feel they belong at that event. Imposter syndrome affects us all sometimes, but we can do a hell of a lot to make it better! It’s hard in an industry that is dominated by one demographic but there are plenty of minority speakers out there; it just takes more effort to find them.
  • As an aside, I also don’t think that speakers from underrepresented groups should feel obliged to comment on what it’s like to be part of an underrepresented group. For example women in technology don’t always want to be asked about what it’s like to be a woman in technology. It’s up to them if they want to talk about that.
  • To ensure a diverse line-up you need to do outreach. Plain and simple. If you leave it up to fate, CFP (call for proposals) submissions skew towards the majority and that’s not what you want. Do your research and talk to folks from minority groups who you would like to hear from.
  • TheLeadDev does a great job of this. Meri Williams, co-curator of that conference, has shared her advice on how to broaden your CFP responses here.
  • After that I personally feel that the submissions should be anonymised and then rated by a diverse panel or committee. This creates your shortlist which is then developed into a schedule. You could do a 100% curated event but that will always exclude new voices who have not spoken at conferences before. In my opinion this approach provides a good balance between rating talks based on merit and addressing the need to provide a diverse line-up.

Accessibility

  • The whole event (including socials) should be step free and wheelchair accessible. If you want to create an event where everyone feels equally welcome there should be no spaces which are inaccessible to any delegate.
  • For deaf or hard of hearing people, facilities like live transcribing, sign language interpreters and hearing loops are a necessity. Be sure to provide them.
  • You should also ensure there are non-flimsy chairs including some without arms, for heavier/wider people.
  • Make it clear on the website that you are doing these things to improve accessibility. This will encourage people to think again about attending, where previously they might have dismissed it as an option.
  • Jenny Wong has done an incredible job of this at WordCamp London. You can find Jenny’s slides from FOSDEM on this subject here.

Food and Drink

  • Food should include options for vegetarians, vegans, halal, kosher, gluten free etc. Cultural, religious and ethical differences affect these decisions for individuals and for many it’s non-negotiable (you cannot ask a vegan to eat meat). Therefore it should be non-negotiable for you too. If you want everyone to feel welcome, and if your budget allows, I think catering for everyone is the best option. If budget doesn’t allow it’s better to find a few things that satisfy most requirements (Note: gluten free vegan food will likely be acceptable to almost everyone).
  • Think again about the role of alcohol in your social events. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t drink alcohol — medical conditions and treatments, mental health, religion, pregnancy and breastfeeding to name a few. Your social events should be fun for everyone not just those who want to drink.
  • Breaking news: Fun can be had without alcohol! Why not have a selection of activities at your social to ensure everyone can get involved? For example board games, bowling or lego?
  • Getting drunk can lead to inappropriate behaviour. I have been guilty of having one too many in the past (it’s easily done when you feel like you’re hanging out with old friends) but it’s when the roles were reversed I realised what a problem it could potentially be. I’m quite sure that the guy that followed me around at a conference last summer wouldn’t have behaved like that without the influence of alcohol.

Respect differences and make effort to welcome minorities

  • You need to respect all religious traditions. Try not to schedule your event during Eid or other religious festivals for example. If your venue is large enough set aside one room as a prayer room or mixed religion room.
  • Gender neutral bathrooms help non-binary and trans people feel more comfortable. For many of us this doesn’t even cross our minds, but for those who do worry about it this can be a massive source of stress. By having a gender neutral bathroom, or making all bathrooms gender neutral, you help ensure everyone feels welcome in your technical community. This may require exclusive hire of the venue so you can implement your own signage.
  • Not all of us are great at networking and whilst the listening part of the day can be educational and enlightening the in between bits can be daunting for many of the more introverted people in your community. Provide a quiet space for people to take a time-out. Even I (and if you know me you will be surprised by this) need a few minutes to myself to recharge. Conferences are amazing and exhausting in equal measure.

Folks with Children

  • When childcare is provided on site it removes a barrier for folks with children to attend. This is especially important at weekends, but also should be considered on weekdays for families with young children. Events and conferences can be as much for the kids as the adults if the right facilities are provided.

I hope by now I’ve convinced you that diversity and inclusivity require a lot more effort than putting some women on stage (although you do need to do that too). Some events are going in the right direction with free tickets for women or diversity scholarships. This is a great start but without making inclusivity your priority you are just throwing money at the problem. Why would a Muslim person want to attend your event for free if none of the food served is halal? How can a single mother take you up on that free ticket if she knows finding childcare will be difficult or expensive?

Here’s the other thing, an inclusive environment benefits everyone. Some of our differences are easy to spot, but those hidden beneath the surface are just as important. When we create a space where everyone is welcome, we invite diversity in. We create a space where we can learn more from each other and where we can all feel like we belong.


Which leads me back to the conference I’m organising. DevOpsDays London plans on doing all of the above. We aspire to run one of the most inclusive DevOpsDays ever; however, DevOpsDays is a community event run by volunteers and relies on support from sponsors for every aspect of the event.

Many of the initiatives I’ve listed above don’t come for free and we need sponsors to make this happen. If your organisation cares about these issues please speak to the people with the money and send them our way!

We are also giving away diversity tickets through local communities in London and will announcing how to apply for these shortly. In the meantime follow us on Twitter for more updates or get in touch if you would like more information.

Finally…

Massive shout out to my educators on this subject: Jenny Wong, Ashe Dryden, Bob Walker and Meri Williams.