Conference diversity from an organiser’s perspective

Putting together a diverse line-up is much easier said than done, but difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

We organise a lot of conferences at Clearleft (dConstruct, UX London, Responsive Day Out, Ampersand). The conferences we’ve run over the past ten years reflect our passions — design, user experience, accessibility, universality, typography.

In the Western hemisphere, the digital design industry we represent, and are a part of, is mostly populated by young white men. As a conference organiser it is all too easy to replicate that bias on stage. At Clearleft we know we have a responsibility to the industry to help redress the balance, and that means putting together diverse line-ups at our conferences. This is much easier said than done, but difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

We recognise that we also have a responsibility to the attendees who have decided to spend their time and money at our events. We need to attract people to the conference, and put on a good show of exciting, interesting and engaging speakers.

Nina Stössinger at Ampersand. Photo: Ben Mitchell

I am the curator of the Ampersand web typography conference, being held this November in Brighton, UK and now in its fifth edition. Ampersand provides a melting pot of web design, development, font design and typography. It could be argued that women are even less represented in the type industry than in web design, so each year I have my work cut out.

This year I was determined to get a better mix of male and female speakers. I was hoping to achieve at least parity. I fell just slightly short of that, with four of the nine speakers being women.

In my defence as a conference organiser, putting together a good and diverse conference line-up is a surprisingly difficult and complicated thing. Oddly, if the whole point of a conference is to only have women speakers, then the job becomes easier, or certainly more clear cut.

For Ampersand, the whole purpose is to put on an excellent day dedicated to typography on the web. First of all, that means knowledgeable speakers, capable of delivering in front of 400 people. A good conference should have a curated line-up covering the topics required with not too much overlap, and a sequence of talks that flows well through the day. Such a conference also needs to include well known speakers which will attract paying attendees and sponsors.

In terms of diversity, there is not just a gender imbalance to address, there are racial and geographic imbalances too. I also try to look closer to home for speakers, as Brits and other Europeans are often under-represented at UK conferences. Finally, it is always good to include some first-time speakers if they have a good story to tell — even the most experienced speakers needed to get a break at some point.

Those are the practicalities and the criteria of choosing speakers, but how do you turn that into a compelling line-up — a conference people will want to attend and enjoy?

My approach to achieving a diverse and engaging roster of speakers is to look first to the under-represented groups (women, for example) and identify capable speakers with the topics I want to see talked about. Their under-representation in the industry means that, by its very nature, that pool of potential speakers is small, and not everyone I approach is able to attend.

That leaves more spots in the line-up to be filled, at which point I turn to more widely represented groups. That’s no bad thing — there are talks from this group of people which I really want to see and will make great additions to the narrative of the conference.

All in all, for this year’s Ampersand, I’ve ended up with a really good sequence of topics presented by a mixture of men, women, Brits, ‘continental’ Europeans, Chinese, Americans, highly experienced and first time speakers. All of whom were chosen on merit to create what I believe to be a diverse, coherent, fascinating and engaging line-up of speakers. I’ll let you be the judge of that.