Embracing Diversity at a Tech Conference: 3 years of experience from J On The Beach
As of today, part of our fundamental philosophy at J On The Beach is diversity. 3 years ago we started the conference, and since then we have learned our fair share on how to embrace and promote diversity at the event. Hopefully this blog will help other event organizers avoid our (sometimes painfully obvious) mistakes and you can learn from our successes.
It is also worth mentioning that we do know that there are still many things we can do to improve our event in terms of diversity and equality, so if you have any stories or suggestions, we are all ears.
Here we go!
Ctr C + Ctr V equals COC – 2016 Edition
So let’s go back to the end of 2015 when J On The Beach was a bright eyed baby. The event was the brainchild of several communities in Malaga, Spain (MalagaJUG, MalagaScalaDevelopers, DatabeersMLG and Yes We Tech) and with the economic support of Valo, a big data project owned by ITRS, we were able to get the thing off the ground!
As newbies, in our first edition of the event we did not consider the importance of making a serious point of having a minimum number of women on our panel of speakers, or even among our attendees for that matter. We were mostly focused on finding interesting topics and names so that we could offer a good event. Diversity was not prioritized the way it should have been.
For example, we knew we needed a code of conduct, so we joined the Berlin Code of Conduct which we think is great, and is the minimum a conference should have.
But that’s the problem. It is the minimum. Looking back, that decision now feels just like throwing a sticker on a laptop, wearing a protest t-shirt or just adding another section to fill our website. It was a very passive bandaid. Joining a code of conduct feels more like a commitment of good behaviour and political correctness rather than an active attitude, something that we want to ensure in this years’ event.
That first year, we also created a video inviting all women in IT to join the event. We even contacted Women In Tech communities via social networks, but in the end it was more of a whisper in the wind than a practical and effective strategy.
There were also different meetups organised by the different organising communities and one of them was one of our founding communities: Yes We Tech. Their meetup was centered on building an open space to talk about the situation of Women in Tech in different societies. This ended up being one of the most useful things we did and it was quite helpful to hear the opinions from many women speakers from different countries sharing their thoughts and experiences about the topic.
What is the difference from this success to our other failures? Active participation of influential and diverse voices.
The results of our first year for gender diversity were the following:
Women speakers: 10.4%
Women attendees: 13%
For a tech conference (a community rife with its own diversity issues) we considered this a success for our first year, though we knew there was more to be done. Especially because gender diversity is not the end-all-be-all.
We actually found ourselves in another unexpected, and to be honest embarrassing, situation that first year. We had two deaf-mute attendees that we could not accommodate properly. We failed to consider this and it put us in a seriously awkward place. We tried our best to scramble a solution.
We contacted several organisations to ask them for support with no success as well as contacting few sign translators. However, it was impossible for us to find 2-3 sign translators for the event from English to Sign Language in Malaga (Spain).
What is worse, those two people only asked for one thing in advance: the slides of the talks so they could follow them. To our horror, this was also impossible due to a time-honored practice of speakers in most events not sending material in advance.
This reminds me the following tweets from some speakers on twitter:
When they ask you for your slides in advance of your talk: pic.twitter.com/Ou0PqLBXNm
— Damon Jones (@nomadj1s) 3 de abril de 2018
I get a good chuckle when organizers ask for slides weeks before a conference. Like, unless it's an old talk, it's just not gonna happen. I can send you _something_ but there is zero guarantee it'll in any way resemble the final talk. pic.twitter.com/JbicYCzgYV
— Emily Freeman (@editingemily) 30 de marzo de 2018
But really, we cannot blame anyone but ourselves. The event needs to be able to accommodate stuff like this without a problem, and that falls on the organizers.
So this year, if we ask our speakers to send slides in advance, know it is because someone else might really need them.
Some baby steps – 2017 Edition
The next year we were eager to do better. We are a tech event, iterations and bug fixes are our thing. With more experience, we were feeling confident we could improve the ratio of women speakers at the event.
This time around we created an organizing committee with representatives from all different communities as well as some speakers from the first event who offered their help.
There was not a specific target number to reach but we all tried to get as many women as possible and we tried to give them as much visibility as we could with great cooperation all around.
My Crew pic.twitter.com/Z9z5oK6Bvn
— Caitie McCaffrey (@caitie) 6 de marzo de 2017
With much more time than the previous edition, we were able to properly execute a diffusion strategy with Women in IT communities on social networks. Instead of whispering into the wind, this time we were getting relevant. We were able to get a few to promote our event and encourage women to send papers to our CFP.
But here is what happened. Our gender diversity results actually didn’t change significantly.
The ratio of women speakers was 27% (up from 10.4% the previous year), but our attendee ratio fell. In 2016 we pulled in 13% female attendees, but this year we only scraped by with 9.8%.
So what went wrong?
We did the only thing we could do: go to the data.
We had another meetup called “Who is J? ” organised by Yes We Tech where Carmel Hassan analysed the data collected at J On The Beach. After that, we discovered that we crucially needed to get not only our sponsors’ involvement, but also company participation when it comes to promoting gender diversity at the conference to get more female attendees.
So what’s up next?
Taking it seriously – 2018 Edition
This year the event changed dramatically in terms of organization and communities. The organisation of this year’s event is mainly run by Yes We Tech (are you surprised? we aren’t).
This shift in putting a diversity-driven community in charge means that we can take a distinctive approach from the top down to make the participation of women and other minorities in the event more prominent and meaningful.
The first thing we did was to focus on ONLY bringing in some of the best women speakers and talent we could get our hands on within the first month.
This month was totally involved. We spent 30 days sending emails to more than 30 women that were spot on for our event. Interestingly enough we learned that it is usually much more difficult to get answers from women than men speakers - since they seem to be busier and carry more responsibilities as per their responses - so the task was pretty challenging.
After a month we were a bit disappointed from the low response from women speakers so we decided to extend our focused effort to another month and half.
At the same time we received some interest from male speakers that we accepted but that did not stop us from continuing to seek more women. Our goal was to have a 50-50 split on gender diversity with our speakers.
Still, we did not give up inviting more women and we also contacted new women communities from other countries that sent us applications to speak in our event. Interestingly, women networks gave us a great chance to find potential speakers:
Julia is a wizard with a lot of things, including sharing her shine with others!!! she helped me get a speaking slot at @JOTB2018 because I told her I wanted to speak more. this is legit👇👇👇 https://t.co/h8Ij8D00FG
— amy nguyen (@amyngyn) 6 de febrero de 2018
Yes, it has been very difficult but we have raised the number of speakers from 27% to 39%. Though not the 50% we hoped for, we are still pleased with the increase in ratio.
And remember that code of conduct? Well, we decided we need our own. So Yes We Tech took the initiative to create one that encompasses everything we are trying to accomplish at J On The Beach. This year all volunteers, organizations, and sponsors have committed to follow this code of conduct.
We also made it a point to require all attendees to follow the Yes We Tech Code of Conduct at the time of purchasing their tickets. And we even decided to run our own diversity programme!
We also contacted Kyle Kingsbury and asked him if he wouldn’t be ruined by us referring his diversity programme https://aphyr.com/diversity but his budget was already too low for this year. However he encouraged us to have our own programme and he said he was going to add J On the Beach to his page…
Hey Kyle, we are still waiting ;)
In addition, we didn’t want to make the same mistake as last year thinking that attendee numbers would sort themselves out. This time we actively decided to improve the numbers by (sternly & unyieldingly) encouraging our sponsors to provide at least 30% of their tickets to their women employees.
The results? 13.23%. It is better than last year, but it is still a disappointing number.
We know we can still do more and better things for people with functional diversity and other minorities as well as increasing our CFP policy and rate of approval. Some of our speakers have already shared suggestions that we can use for future conferences.
Focusing on diversity in the organisation committee has made us think and react to something that is mandatory for these kind of events: care about diversity and what equality really means.
This goal is part of JOTB identity already, and we’ll continue making all our efforts to bring the most diverse people with the most diverse experiences to the most diverse industry.
J On The Beach Organising Committee