Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A problem-solving approach to finding women speakers from @SarahM

(Editor's note: Sarah Milstein is the author of The Twitter Book and has been a general manager for several high-tech conferences. She also is a great friend of this blog. Based on her  firsthand experience with the difficulties of finding women speakers, she published this problem-solving approach to the issue on her own blog. I knew I had to reprint it here to continue and expand our discussion on this important topic, and it appears with her permission. She's addressing people in the tech world, but her thoughts apply to any industry. Please leave comments below.)

Ok, so you love tech, or some aspect of it, and you decide to throw a conference to gather like-minded tech-lovers and people who want to learn from them. Maybe you want to make money from your event, maybe not--whatever. Maybe you’re doing this on your own, or maybe you’re working with an organization—again, whatever. You secure a space, you invite people to speak, you throw open registration. It feels good.

And then people start to point out that nearly all of your speakers are men. Or perhaps 100% of your speakers are men. Even if your event has a focus on women, somebody might mention that nearly all of your speakers are white

Now, you don't want to appear sexist or racist (bonus points if you don’t want to be sexist or racist). So you take a look at how you arrived at your speaker roster, and you realize that no women applied to speak, and you can't think of a single black programmer or CEO to invite. Thank god--it's not really your fault that white guys are over-represented on your program! You pretty much had no choice!

I’ve employed that tempting, crappy logic myself, and I’ve got a secret to share: Getting women and other under-represented groups to speak at your tech event is hard. Now here's something to think about: So?
You didn't get into tech because you hate solving problems. Indeed, having a "hard problem" to solve is considered an enticement in job descriptions for engineers, designers and tech businesspeople.

Which is where this conference thing gets interesting. Rather than throw up your hands and say it’s the nature of the business, you can embrace this challenge. You can read about what other people have done in this realm, and you can apply your considerable problem-solving skills to come up with new solutions that will benefit us all.

Of course, you can try to ignore the problem. You cannot, however, claim to have tried but failed ("the call for speakers was open, but no women applied") or pretend that the issue is intractable ("there aren't any black programmers or CEOs") and expect everyone to accept that. Think about it like test-driven development. When your test of the login form fails, you don’t delete the test. You fix the code.

For test-driven conference development, consider these three tests necessary as you create your program: 1) Are the speakers good communicators? 2) Are they going to cover topics relevant to your audience? 3) Do they reflect your community—beyond the people you know personally—or even have the potential to enhance your community? Either all of your tests pass or you find, debug, and fix the failing ones; you don't want women who give lousy presentations.

Here are some bugs you’re likely to encounter:
  • When you brainstorm speakers, you don’t come up with any women or people of color who are knowledgeable about your topics.
  • You want prominent people on the stage, and you can’t think of any women or people of color who are big names. Except maybe Sheryl Sandberg, and you don’t know how to reach her anyway.
  • You have a call for proposals or a call for speakers, and very few or no women or people of color apply.
  • Your call for proposals allows folks to suggest panels, and none of the suggested panelists are women or people of color.
  • You invite some women, and they all say no.
  • You get some women and people of color on the program, and then they all cancel.
  • The bigger your event, the harder it will be to acheive any sort of parity.
By now you’re probably wondering why, given all these bugs, you should care whether you appear sexist or racist. I've talked about that before; many others have done it better. What I'm really interested in today is new approaches that you--because you're smart and resourceful and creative--will come up with for solving these problems. 

So this isn’t a post about how you tackle the issue or even why you should; this is a post challenging you to try. I will readily acknowledge that your initial approaches will likely be imperfect and slow and socially uncomfortable. That's why this is a hard problem. I’m excited to hear your solutions.
A few notes on comments:
1) I’m interested in a good conversation on this topic, and I welcome opinionated comments on this post. Seeing, however, as the internet tends to draw vile comments on sex and race, I should mention that I will edit or delete hateful and phobic comments, personal attacks on me or other commenters, off-topic threads (including assholic comments on this comments policy) and things that strike me as trolling. If you dislike that approach, comment on any of the 80 billion other sites that welcome diversity of obnoxiousness. 
2)  Remember, this is not a post about why speaker diversity is important. That’s not a debate we’re entertaining today, so save those comments for another time (or for 4chan or whatever).

(And I agree with Sarah's comments on comments. Having said that, please do weigh in.)