Holding Conferences Accountable: Questions everyone should be asking

We have a problem

It’s not new, and it needs to change. If you look around at the conference landscape in the tech industry, even in 2017, you’ll be blinded by a sea of white and a lack of diversity, more than just race. This may be what tech conferences look like, but it isn’t even close to what the world looks like. There are small, practical steps we can take towards big change.


Whenever I’m asked to speak, I ask event organizers three simple, but important questions. Questions we should all ask.

  1. Will there be a clear, public, and enforced code of conduct or something similar at the event? Follow-up question: How is your team trained and prepared to respond to a violation of the code of conduct?
  2. What is your event doing to ensure the speaker lineup will be diverse?
  3. How do you pay your speakers?

These questions help me identify if an event is fair, a good fit, and allow me to become part of their broader team. These questions are also useful to attendees, sponsors, and event volunteers. Safe, inclusive, and ethically-run events are good for everyone. They promote a healthier learning and business environment.

A code of conduct

There’s been a lot of debate around codes of conduct and what they can accomplish. I am strongly in favour of them: it’s important to me that an event is not only considering the safety of audience, speakers, volunteers, sponsors, and staff, but that they’re doing it clearly and publicly.

Even the best-planned experience can be messy, but without established guidelines, the mess can take over. A clear, enforced code of conduct offers a framework to make decisions and extend compassion. It moves us beyond opinions and best intentions. It sets a framework where we agree to established and public guidelines that direct our decisions as a community. Without a public code of conduct, everyone is left guessing about what’s being done to create a safer environment and what happens when someone crosses boundaries.

Conference staff and volunteers must be trained and prepared. It’s harmful to have a code of conduct that event organizers aren’t prepared to enforce. It creates a false sense of safety and action. It’s a broken trust that will hurt people.

We should all feel safe to be part of an event, but that’s not always the case. As a community and as an industry, we’re making progress, but there’s still so much work to be done. Making a code of conduct part of an event’s ethos is a step in a better direction.

Here’s what we’ve posted about this. Please use any part of this to help your events:

Inclusive and diverse

“Diversity is not important. Diversity is reality.” — Malinda Lo

As a white cis male in tech, I tend to be the face of most tech conferences. This must change. Not only is it part of systemic racism preventing many groups from access to opportunities I take for granted, it also keeps our events from being truly great. We hear from a narrow perspective and those similar voices over and over and over.

When events continue to invite the same privileged groups in thought-leader roles on stage, it reinforces the myth that a particular group is the only capable group. When you see yourself represented on stage, or in TV, film, movies, comics… anywhere, it becomes easier to believe that your voice and experience matters and is worth sharing. That you and your life matter. If we don’t seek out diverse voices, we’re actively part of a system of oppression that perpetuates racism.

Events that tell you there aren’t any or enough experts from various diverse experiences are either ignorant or haven’t done the work of seeking those voices. This work isn’t easy and it doesn’t take shape over night, but it is completely possible and crucial. AND! It will make any event better. Seeing the world as it actually is, versus our strange and terrible tech bubble world, will help us learn, grow, design, create, write, and strategize for a better web. A better world.

At one of the events that our company runs, The Design & Content Conference, we messed up on this our first year and were called out publicly. Our 2015 line up was predominantly white (80%) and CIS. Getting called out was difficult, but it pushed us to do better. Here’s a quick summary of what that looked like.

A woman on Twitter zoomed in on the sea of white on the DCC 2015 speaker page. She’s since deleted her end of the conversation, but the gist was:

Her: Another white speaker lineup. Just what the world needs.
Us: You’re right to point that out. I’d love to chat about changing this.
Her: No thanks. Do better.

BUBBLE. BURST.

After a shitty first reaction (honestly, I was defensive. I thought we had already done so well.) and an overnight soak in the discomfort of being called out, we tackled the important work of doing better. It was a lesson in remembering that even the seemingly small choices we make can perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.

This moment helped us learn some valuable lessons so we could do better for future years. We established a diverse production team: a balanced group of various genders, orientations, ages, and races and ethnicities. We learned we needed to start with good representation so that our event would reflect this.

I’d encourage you to read the post linked above, but to summarize how it should work:

  1. Own “We have a diversity problem and are part of systemic racism”.
  2. Recruit and pay a diverse speaker selection team. No one should have to work for free and being willing to spend money is one way we show how valuable we believe this team is.
  3. Listen to your team. None of this works if you talk over people and continue to make all the decisions. Everyone must have an equal voice at the table.
“It meant a lot to me that Steve and Shannon asked me to be a part of the speaker selection team this year. As a relatively new designer, I didn’t feel qualified, because I don’t know the who’s who of this world that I so recently entered, but as I reflected on that, it began to feel even more important to me that I accept their invitation. We can get caught up in the cult of celebrity, of who’s winning awards, being published, featured in well-respected blogs, and forget that in the amplification of some voices, others without access to the same resources can be forgotten.
“When I think about the power of technology, and the massive influence that the tech industry has, I want to believe that it will used for good, to help build, develop and support a more loving and safe world for all folks. Part of that is normalizing diversity of all folks” — Stevie Nguyen

If you’re going to spend your time, money, effort to attend, sponsor, volunteer, or speak at an event, it should be an event that is working hard to ensure that new and diverse perspectives are represented. Again, this is good for everyone. Good for learning when we hear from different perspectives and experiences and good for business in that we understand a little better the world our products exist in.

I often hear that it shouldn’t be about race or gender, but about having the best speaker for a topic. But our current experts are often considered experts because we’ve heard from them over and over. We haven’t dug in to recognize other experts in our industry or given them the same opportunities. We also believe that “best” is this neutral thing. But the idea of “good” is culturally constructed. It’s time to take a different approach to looking at who’s the “best” speaker. Speakers who are experts, but also speakers who come with different experiences and perspectives. We need to consider what it means to learn from diverse perspectives.

“We live in a world of many cultures, experiences, and languages. We can interact with people we’ve never met before through tiny computers we carry in our pockets or wear on our wrists. We live in a reality where we can choose to come into contact with almost anyone from anywhere at any hour of the day. This isn’t the future, this is now.
“But when we privilege one type of culture or experience above others, we not only limit ourselves, we deprive ourselves of a richer understanding of and appreciation for difference. We, directly or indirectly, support fear and distrust, simply because we choose not to challenge ourselves to grow, to do better, and to embrace this reality. When we step up, we grow stronger, more connected, and more aware of our place in the whole.” — Cecily Walker

How do you pay your speakers?

“Speaking at an event for exposure is not a fair form of compensation” — Steve Fisher

Could you imagine a client asking you to create a design or strategy for their organization and demanding you do it for free? Something they will use and potentially profit from? Okay, sadly, many of us can imagine that, but it’s a terrible way to do business. It’s also not a sustainable situation. If you’re going to give your time and expertise to an event, you should be compensated. It’s a lot of work to pull together and deliver a great talk or workshop and exposure is not compensation.

Compensation can and will be different from one event to another, and that’s okay. But everyone should be able to say that they felt like they were treated fairly. A not-for-profit community event may only be able to cover some costs like travel and accommodation. If that event is meaningful to you and you feel that compensation is fair, go for it. But if it’s a for-profit event, at minimum they should have a budget for speaker travel, accommodation, and a speaker fee. Otherwise they’re asking you to lose money so they can profit from your expertise and time.

Again, everyone should feel like they are being treated fairly and some events will be able to pay more than others. If you can’t come to an agreement it’s totally okay, and normal business practice, to walk away. Don’t feel bad about that.

This is relevant to more than just speakers. Would you want to do business with an organization that doesn’t treat their contractors fairly? Would you want to sponsor an event that was using the money you’ve given them for unfair business practices? How would you feel if you discovered an event you volunteered for was taking advantage of people? Where we spend our resources matters. It helps shape the future.

Holding events accountable

It is fair and good to hold events accountable. The events we produce are so much better when we are challenged to do better. The three questions above, and questions like them, can help all of us do better. Asking questions like these over and over will help improve the quality of events throughout the tech industry.

If you run an event, I’d encourage you to make the answers to these questions open and easy to find. It’s better for your audience, the growth of our organizations, and the events in our industry.

I believe in this

If you are an event organizer, I will happily jump on Skype with you and your team to talk through this. If you’re serious about doing the hard work, send me an email to set up a time. This is a service I am volunteering to help teams where I can. I believe we can change the landscape of events in the tech industry. We’re better together.


Just the beginning

I believe that diversity on the stage is a start, but as soon as we achieve it, we have to then set our sights higher, toward inclusion.

“I code switch to feel heard. I follow the “rules”, instilled long ago from immigrant parents: speak softly, laugh often but not too much, do everything you can to make the other parties as comfortable as possible. Those I work with know me, but they may not actually know me.
“This conference made me feel like I had a seat at the table and was conscientious contributor to this field that I love. The diversity of opinions, thoughts, presenters and voices made me feel more than just welcomed. It made me feel at home. This conference best represents an inclusive and bright future. This conference best represents what I want my industry to look like. This conference best represent me.”
 — Geoffrey Daniel
“But I’d rather we begin to move past merely talking about diversity, and begin to focus our efforts on inclusion. Instead of just inviting others to be in the room, when we work toward inclusion, we are saying that we are committed to collaboration, openness, and active participation from all people.” — Cecily Walker