On the topic of female speakers at conferences (again, sorry)

In the past two years, a LOT has changed for the better and the more diverse in the design community (talking about my turf – communication design, typography, type – but most of my points below are applicable more broadly). I have not forgotten why we founded Alphabettes and while bro culture, mansplaining and the general tendency to regard non-male-non-white people not as highly did not go away entirely, discussions, awareness and action have improved in most European and American countries.

Nevertheless, I was reminded today by the random example of two Russian conferences and a related discussion thread that that’s not universally the case across the globe. One of the conferences had no female speakers, and the other only one among a line-up of 13. But where the conference took place is actually not important. It only gives me the opportunity to talk about some of the most common excuses we hear when bringing up poor diversity:

Women are afraid to talk in public

That may be true for some if your industry and region doesn’t yet have an established body of female speakers that could serve as role models and advisors to those freaked out by the thought. But there are also many who are not afraid. Rather than shrugging and blaming those who declined, why not change something about your event structure and add more differently sized speaking slots? A 15 or 20 minute talk doesn’t sound as horrifying as a 45 or 60 minute one, a smaller crowd not as scary as a 1000-people hall. Or start with even shorter Pecha-Kucha-style talks. Most would probably agree to a short, more informal presentation or a smaller audience and it’s a good way to give new people a chance to get some experience. Everyone can survive seven minutes on stage! Or add a discussion round on the topic you want to cover and do it interview-style – much less scary compared to standing on a stage by yourself. (But please make the topic something else than “women in/on xxx”.) Encouragement from you and giving someone a chance will go a long way, plus it can snowball into more people feeling encouraged and less afraid.

Most of the women we asked declined

or more specifically today:

Most women declined because they had (vacation) plans with family

To the latter I can only reply: when did you ask? Did you plan your event sufficiently ahead of time when not most people already made their holiday plans? Maybe a conference in August is going to always be tricky in that regard? You all know it’s much easier for dudes to take off to a conference and leave their family at home than for the ladies. Whether you regard this as fair is up to you, but you could try to accommodate the fact by giving women enough time to plan ahead, or maybe even offering some help. Would they be allowed to bring their kid? (Adobe MAX for instance does not allow children on the venue, not even on the hallway or courtyard!) Did you ever consider organizing child care at your conference? Maybe the demand wasn’t there up to now because women with kids were never able to attend because they didn’t have child care. (This should also be communicated way ahead of time and not only last minute.)

More broadly: If people decline your invitation, did you make it attractive enough to come speak at your event? Are you paying a speakers fee, or only travel and lodging? How many nights, just one? Direct flights or only the absolute cheapest ticket? Ground transportation to/from station/port? Private hotel room or hostel dorm? I can’t blame anyone not ready to put up with anything just to speak at an event for free, sinking hours into preparations and sacrificing billable work hours/days.

If you are a call-for-papers event and you see that significantly fewer women apply, reach out to them directly or post the call on respective fora and encourage them to submit something. Offer advice on how to write a convincing conference proposal. Blind selection may also help because none of us is free of unconscious bias and preferring friends and people we know over strangers.

We’re not going by gender but by who is best for a given topic

I used to say this, too, and still would. But I know so many fantastic women in my field now that they automatically make up a healthy quota – if not the majority – of people who come to my mind for a given topic. It all depends on who / how many you know, who you are looking (up) to, what you are reading, what bubble you follow on Twitter. If all your friends and idols are guys, you can only choose “the best” from that pool of what you know, but man, you are missing OUT!

Admittedly, it’s hard to get a broader, more encompassing overview in an instance, but that’s what all the resources and the friendly communities out there are for. They can recommend someone and pass on contacts. Personal recommendations from conference and/or industry veterans may be more useful than just going by databases. Our Alphabettes contact form is always open!

There are no women who can talk on this topic

That’s mostly the same dilemma: if you don’t know many different people in a field, not many women may come to your mind 1, 2, 3. Some really technical or specialized areas may indeed not have as many qualified women in it (yet), but that should be a reason for us to encourage and promote any female interested in the field. Get more creative than just defaulting to the ever same guys. Maybe the topic can be reframed a little? Maybe a team of two can talk about it? Maybe a workshops on the topic could give more people the chance to enter the field?

Organizers not having a good overview over the industry and the old “but we need a big name to sell tickets” are also how the ever same “rock stars” are invited to events which brings me to …

I’m writing this all out of selfish reasons. I gave 14 talks in 13 different cities last year (all while having a full-time teaching job and a freelance business). I’m trying to cut down on this but not because I’m tired of the idea of conferences or travel but because I am tired of seeing and hearing the ever same people, including me. Although June is one of the most busy months for me, I’ll still try to attend Typographics in NYC again because they are making an effort to bring new faces on stage (and for several years with a 50/50 female/male ratio, still unmatched by others).

It’s also a lot of work and energy we put into community work while neglecting our own projects, discussing with conference organizers and the Twitterati, suggesting people, building resources, sending around CFPs, pushing the up-and-coming to talk and write, advising on the involved how-to’s, and just generally keeping an eye on you guys out there. Could you maybe all help us with this a little, please? Everyone should ask who else is invited when they get an invitation to a conference and I wish men would stop being complicit in the game: we should decline to speak at events if they don’t have a minimum of 30% female participants (or just more from the whole pool of diverse non-Kaukasian humans in general).

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