Diversity in Tech at Copenhagen Context

Putting together a good conference program is hard. Ensuring the topics are relevant and attracting talented speakers that people want to hear is only further complicated by the commercial aspects of covering costs and turning a profit for the organizers. Striking the right balance between diversity of topics as well as underrepresented communities while seeking the best speakers presents difficult choices for every selection committee.

I’ve written before about how little of my life experiences has been down to things I can control, like effort and hard work and the rest has just been dumb luck and privilege. So when I first read the following tweet it triggered a reaction in me which isn’t entirely helpful. My feelings of  “poor baby” were the first to hit me – here we go again, another “white guy” complaining about some fictitious “lowering of the bar” to meet some conference diversity target.

Now that reaction isn’t entirely fair, but frankly neither is the system, and I also feel that this idea that the “best” talks are what’s represented at conferences is just BS. As a veteran attendee, speaker, and selection committee member at many, many tech conferences, I can assure you that in my experience and opinion, bias and preference plays a great deal in who you see on that stage. So while I might agree with the sentiment in principle, I don’t believe it is always possible in practice.

As well, even some of the best diversity programs are failing, so unless you see this issue as just politically correct cosmetics and not one of social responsibility or sound business sense, increased inclusion of women and minorities is more than justified.

In light of this, and at the request of people in the testing community asking for increased transparency in how “leaders” address issues, I thought it would be helpful to share an experience report about the selection committee of Copenhagen Context. The committee was made up of folks who I have both a great deal of respect and in some form or another have had personal/professional relationships – Paul Holland was the program chair the other two members were Maria Kedemo and Duncan Nisbet. (All of whom have reviewed and agreed to this post, despite it being my personal thoughts…)

From our very first meeting, the topic of representation of women and minorities was discussed, including this great reference guide for women speakers from Katrina Clokie. We did not set a target for how many women and people of color we wanted in the program, but I am sure we all had expectations dependent on the submissions. And that brings me to another point that is vitally important to this discussion.

From a gender perspective, 32% of the submission were women, so we were already starting from a smaller pool and why programs like SpeakEasy are so vital to our business. I am a firm believer in the power of seeing positive examples that people can draw inspiration from, emulate, copy, whatever it takes to see for themselves that they can do it too. I’ve heard of similar submission sizes from many of my colleagues and to me, that’s why we need to keep pushing and getting more folks on stage that represent all of us.

The only hard target we set was for the two keynotes, and I was already been asked to present one of them, we all agreed the other slot should be a woman. We sent letters to eight women we either knew already, had seen speak, or had reputations for being voices in our industry we wanted to amplify. I also volunteered to give up my keynote slot if any of the submissions would round out the program better than mine. This process, as well as the track talks/workshops, was run “blind” meaning, all names and identifying marks would be removed and again, as I was already a keynote and was managing the notifications I recused myself from the first round.

After the other keynote was picked – the totally awesome Nancy Kelln –  we got started on plowing through the track sessions and workshops. After the first round was completed we had multiple meetings to discuss the submissions individually and re-rank them based on that feedback. As the program shaped up and hard decisions had to made on who got the limited slots available, the topic of diversity came more into focus. Personally, I am unabashedly inclined to give preferential treatment to new speakers and underrepresented communities, so having a balanced committee was the right approach, as it could easily swing to the other extreme.

Copenhagen Context is also a SpeakEasy conference, so there was guaranteed space for a new speaker who was being mentored through their program. That being said, we did struggle with getting submissions from them and I don’t know if it came down to timing, location, or something else, but in the end we were successful in finding someone through their program to join the conference.

To the credit of my peers on the committee, there was some fantastic discussion around selection bias, quality of talks, opportunities for new speakers, and NOT selecting people because of their gender, etc. A great lesson for me was hearing Maria talk about feeling you were selected entirely due to your “status” and how that could undermine confidence. It brought into sharp focus another aspect of my privilege as a “white guy in tech”, in that although I could understand the perspective I really couldn’t empathize having been insulated from any negative repercussions of successfully being selected!

All said and done, I am very proud of the program we put together and even more so of the process of getting there. I feel strongly in the principle of a “hand up” and not a “hand out” and that we have a long way to go before everyone is treated and represented equally. I also believe that, although they are commercial ventures, it is the responsibility of conferences to have a social conscience and that we should be giving our money to organizations that recognize those two principles are not at odds. Because of that, I am completely comfortable with limiting/rejecting speakers on gender/race and think the good it accomplishes far outweigh the occasional bruised ego.

But then again, that’s just like, my opinion…