Can’t find women to speak at your conference? You’re not looking for them.

Maigen Thomas
Aug 27 · 7 min read
ChickTech founder Janice Levenhagen speaks at the 2018 ACT-W Portland Conference

Promptly at 8am, a Google alert arrives in my inbox.

I get these emails when something new pops up on the internet that contains both of these search terms: “call for proposals” and “conference.”

I try to keep an eye out for speaking opportunities, so I get these emails when something new pops up on the internet that contains both of these search terms: “call for proposals” and “conference.” Today’s email had only one link:

php Central Europe Conference Canceled Due to Lack of Speaker Diversity.

Yikes.

I knew what I would find when I clicked through.

After phpCE had boasted a “rich and diverse lineup,” the published schedule was criticized for including zero women, while several speakers were given two sessions apiece.

ngl, it’s an impressive use of hashtags.

The article continues, pointing out that the same issue held true for the 2018 php Central Europe Conference, as well. I checked out the speaker lineup for last year, and …

kudos to you if you found the one female speaker on the lineup

Yeah, that’s an incredibly high density of male speakers.

  • Are there women in Europe? yes
  • Are there women who code in Europe? yes
  • Are there women who are php developers in Europe? undoubtedly

Seems weird to not be able to find more than one.

Unfortunately, the organizers took this on the chin and it seems like the situation went poorly. The conference has been canceled, and I’m both sad and disappointed for everyone involved — the attendees, the speakers, the people who spoke up about what they believe in, anyone on twitter who got caught in crossfire, and yes, I’m sad for the organizers, as well.

phpce 2019 has been canceled

More people are aware of their privilege and are taking steps to improve diversity, inclusivity and equity in the tech industry.

Larry Garfield “decided to decline to speak at PHP.CE this year and wanted to explain why, in the hopes that other conference organizers take note.”

In his own blog post, Mark Baker shared similar sentiments. Both men have been involved in conference planning and speaker selection, and recognize the importance of selecting speakers that are representative of the diversity in the development community.

Mark had a particularly eloquent statement: “we also have a duty as [conference] organisers to find that balance which reflects all groups within the industry, so that everybody feels they are among their peers when they attend, so that everybody attending can picture themselves on that stage next year. If we fail to do so, then we’re failing to inspire the next generation of developers and of speakers.(emphasis mine -Maigen)

Companies are starting recognize that diversity impacts your business.

I work for Gartner, Inc. as a UX/UI Engineer. Gartner is “the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company.”

That’s a really boring way to talk about how awesome we are, but the long version is even more dry. In short: we are trusted to advise the top tech companies because we do the ‘deep dive’ research, and we bring the receipts.

I started in March of this year, and in my first week we had an All Hands meeting. The information shared there is proprietary and confidential, but I can tell you the biggest takeaway I had:

Diversity Impacts Revenue.*

One of Gartner’s flagship products is neither singular, nor a physical product. We put on world-class conferences, summits, and symposia. “Targeted to your priorities, Gartner events offer a highly efficient way to stay current while advancing your key initiatives and critical skill sets.”

I can’t divulge specific numbers because they are internal and confidential, but there were three companies highlighted specifically. These companies were featured in our All Hands meeting because they challenged us to put our proverbial money where our mouth is — literally.

These companies represent a revenue impact that ranges from $80,000 to $330,000 per year.

I am paraphrasing from memory, but I understood that these amounts represent the money companies spend as sponsors or exhibitors at our conferences and explicitly indicated that it was because of the diverse representation on our stages and at our events.

phpCE + diversity + business + conferences

How are all of these things related?

Well, simply put, the lack of diversity at phpCE conference resulted in a financial loss.

instead of reaching out to women in tech, the conference team canceled the event.

These all bringing me to my salient point:

Diversity is your duty.

As a conference organizer, your duty is to your attendees.

If you cannot — or will not — serve the interests of your attendees, you have no business running a conference.

I have been involved in eight ACT-W (Advancing the Careers of Technical Women and Allies) Conferences over the last five years. I’ve been the Speaker Manager for both the largest local conference (Portland, 2018) and the latest National (2019) conference. Both events had over 50 speakers, and both events were incredibly diverse.

The speaker lineups were incredibly diverse because I was intentional about diversity.

Here are a few stats:

Out of the speakers who chose to answer the question, 51% identify as part of an under-served or under-represented minority.
9% of 2019 speakers recently graduated from high school or college.
We had presenters with a variety of speaking experience at the 2019 ACT-W National Conference
All 3 Keynote Speakers were women. In fact, we had no submissions from men that indicated they wanted to be considered for a Keynote role.
92% of 2019 ACT-W National Conference speakers identified as women. 4% identified as non-binary. 4% identified as men.

One thing I want to point out is that I’m a volunteer.

There was no financial or personal gain in making the conference more diverse and representative of our audience — that’s simply my duty as the speaker manager on the conference planning committee.

I’m willing to bet we sold more tickets because of our speaker lineup, though.

How was I intentional about diversity? Here’s what I did:

  • I activated my social media network to drum up submissions from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) by using #BlackTechTwitter, #BlackTechPipeline and #POCinTech
  • The CFP submission date got secretly extended a couple of times. We didn’t have as many submissions as I wanted, and I was actively still reaching out to individual people to encourage them to submit a proposal up to the deadline.
  • I reached out to complete strangers to ask them to fill out the CFP. There are many people on my timeline who have shared something they were excited about in tech. Many of them have never thought they could present about it, but I believe that their passion is what makes them an engaging presenter. (spoiler alert: I was right)
  • I offered the speaker session to a person of color over a white person when we had two (or more) submissions on similar topics. I always asked clarifying questions and then followed a short decision tree to determine which person would be offered a session.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are important to me personally. It matters to me that the future leaders in tech are sitting in the audience at conferences like this one and hundreds of others every year around the world. They deserve to see themselves represented at tech conferences, because diverse experiences and viewpoints are what drive technology advances.

I worked to include diverse voices in the 2019 ACT-W National Conference because I know it matters to our community and to the tech industry at large.

If you can’t find women and BIPOC to speak at your conference, you’re not looking for them.


I have not gone back to review data from 2018 because it wasn’t nearly as well-organized as 2019, but I will do so for a future article.


*Diversity Impacts Revenue. Here are a few more resources:

“Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

— McKinsey & Company

“Companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue due to innovation. This finding is huge for tech companies, start-ups, and industry where innovation is the key to growth.”

Forbes, see also Boston Consulting Group

See what the Peterson Institute for International Economics found about the profitability of gender diversity. Harvard Business Review covers how and where diversity drives financial performance.

Maigen Thomas

Written by

UX Engineer, Accountability Coach, Speaker, Author. Idea Machine. Passionate about helping women in tech feel successful.

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