Addressing local conference diversity (or: Why I turned down a speaking gig)

Recently I submitted for a virtual one-day free conference; and my talk was accepted.

Ordinarily, this makes me pretty happy, my rejection rate is shockingly high (or maybe it’s normal and everyone’s rejection rate is shockingly high?), and it feels good to be able to talk about a subject I think is important and under-represented.

Speaking of under-represented, I sent an email after my acceptance to ask what the makeup of the conference was, specifically what the balance of white dudes vs everyone else was. Sadly, this being a regional conference that is going virtual, the makeup was around 20 white folks (I don’t know the gender makeup), and at most a handful of people of color.

Why did I ask what the make-up of the conference was? Well, I don’t really want to contribute to the imbalance. If there’s someone out there who can represent a different point of view and speak, I’d rather hear them speak . I’m not saying all white guys have the same point of view, but we are pretty much in the same ballpark, so to speak.

I’m not naming the conference because it’s irrelevant to the conversation; but the situation is top of mind.

And that left me with a choice, do I:

A) Demur, saying “I can’t speak at this conference because there’s an imbalance in speakers”
B) Speak at the conference, because the organizer stressed that there were few if any submissions from POC, and they didn’t have control over who submitted

Let me be clear in saying this, I’m not trying to virtue signal with this blog post. “Gosh, George is a good guy for demurring because the makeup of the speaker slate was too white and too male” sounds terrible and I’d probably groan and look the other way if another guy said that, and I’m a big fan of Matthew, chapter 6. In fact, writing about it seems like I’m looking for internet points when all I’m really looking for is to get some guidance and maybe start a conversation.

Our industry is too myopic. We see this every day in the technology outcomes. Social Media and apps inadvertently allowing stalkers to harass, AI targeting black people as more likely to commit crimes, Facial recognition software showing black people as monkeys, and there are lots of other examples. I had the opportunity to hear Kesha Williams speak at RevConf 2019 on these issues, and those examples stick with you (regrettably there is no video of that talk that I can find on the internet to share with you).

Put simply, Diverse teams build better software. But even if we had those diverse teams, who is doing the speaking at our conferences? All too often, it’s people like me, who have a rather privileged past and at best would contribute to that myopia.

I can’t do much about that on my own; and I do believe there are types of outreach that aren’t zero-sum; but speaking at a conference is still zero-sum. There are a finite number of slots for a given conference. If I get a slot, that means someone else doesn’t.

But what should we do in the case where I got a slot and no one else applied? Does the same thinking still hold?

I believe it does. Outside of myself and the organizer, I’m not sure anyone else would even know that not a lot of people signed up to speak at the conference. But those aren’t the optics. The optics aren’t the context, the optics are what gets put on a web page ‘speakers’ section and burned forever in the indexes of google. No one knows that I said ‘yes’ because there was no one to turn down, they only see me, 19 other white folks, and few people of color on the speakers page.

And what does that say? Depends on who you are. To some, it says pretty clearly that I was OK with the makeup of the conference, or that at best I was indifferent to it, and to others it’s business as usual, not worthy of mention.

Here’s why I’m bothered: It should always be remarkable and concerning when our events are mostly white guys in speaking slots. But it won’t be remarkable until we start remarking about it publicly. A lot of people of color have been talking about it for a long time; but outside of the largest conferences, I haven’t seen that discussion happen at a local level. It needs to happen at all levels.

Here’s where I’m asking for your opinion. I don’t have any good answers, but I hope we can figure something out as a community; whether that’s to cancel events where there’s not enough balance in the speaker list; or whether it’s to open CFPs sooner for events (this particular CFP was pitched 6 weeks before the event was slated to begin), or whether it’s to say, “Really? You see this as a problem? We’ve got software actively destroying people’s lives and you’re writing about speaking slots at a conference?”

I don’t have a good way to end this blog post, there’s no satisfying call to action because I don’t have any answers. All I can hope for you to do is think about what it says to you when your conference speaker slate is mostly white dudes; and what under-represented voices should be speaking at those events but aren’t, and whether the makeup of the speaker slate should affect whether an event happens.

2 thoughts on “Addressing local conference diversity (or: Why I turned down a speaking gig)”

  1. I believe you have to follow your core belief system. To thine own self be true, practice self-awareness. Learn and acknowledge your own biases, micro-aggressions and aggressions and positively address them. It took you a lifetime to acquire them and you have the rest of your lifetime to address them. Only then you can be true to others.

  2. If the slate of conference speakers is “mostly white dudes” because not enough “under-represented voices” applied, then I think there is nothing wrong with taking on the speaker engagement. You are possibly doing a disservice to the attendees if the result is that the conference does not fill all of its speaking slots. The dearth of speakers at the conference, therefore, make the conference less valuable.

    It would be like making sure every NBA team has 6 “white dudes” and 6 “black dudes”, just to make it racially balanced, but the team itself is not so good. Who wants to watch that kind of basketball? If the team is made up of 12 black players, but the team is superior to the racially-balanced team, then so be it. I prefer watching the team that plays well and I could care less what the race or skin color of the players is.

    The conference should, of course, do everything in its to power to ensure that “under-represented voices” have been given a fair shot at the speaking slots. For example, if two speakers are vying for one open spot and their topics are equally popular, then, sure, give the slot to the “under-represented voice”.

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