Improving diversity and inclusion at tech (and other) events

Over the years I’ve attended and organised various conferences, hackathons, and other events, and it’s been interesting to observe the ways in which each of them handle (or don’t handle) diversity.

This post is a collection of notes and pointers about the things I’ve noticed are some of the most important things to help increase diversity at events. When I say diversity, I’m largely referring to the diversity of the attendees at events. People from different walks of life, backgrounds, races, genders, abilities, etc.

Being inclusive at our events is important. If our events only have homogeneous attendees, the things they focus on will only be relevant to those attendees, and not useful to anybody else. As it turns out, not everybody is a neurotypical able-bodied heterosexual middle-class cisgender white male. Those of us who do fit or approximate this description often aren’t aware or appreciative of the issues experienced by anybody different from ourselves.

So, in no particular order, how do we improve diversity? This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there will be things I’ve missed, and perhaps some mistakes. Please check out the references section for more information. There’s also a summary at the end. (EDIT: The summary is also available as a lightning talk.)

Race

Be sensitive to and aware of non-white attendees. Ensure you call out racism in your code of conduct, and that you consider how you can be inclusive of and do outreach to various races and indigenous communities.

Accessibility

Have accessible venues. This means ensuring that all the important areas of your venue, including common areas, theatres, bathrooms and stages (speakers can have disabilities, too, and may have lots to say about them!) are wheelchair accessible.

If you think you may have people with visual or hearing disabilities at your events, consider a sign-language interpreter, or having a hearing-aid loop, so that these people can be involved in presentations too, and encourage presenters to be cognisant of this when making their slides (not assuming everybody can see what their slides say, for example).

Additionally, speakers should be mindful of using ableist language, or abusing terms like “OCD” to mean “fussy,” for example. Ensure your website is accessible for people with screen readers etc.

Dietary requirements

Ask for people’s dietary requirements upon registration for your event. You could have a set of check-boxes for things like vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, lactose free, FODMAP, etc. but regardless of whether or not you do this, you should include a dietary requirements free text field for people to explain the nuances of their situation; don’t assume they’ll fit into your boxes; people are complex.

Gender

There are more than 2 genders, and we want to be inclusive of them all. That means that beyond making our events more accessible to women, we should also be inclusive of trans, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming folks. This should include, wherever possible, gender neutral bathrooms.

If your event will have name badges, and you want to give attendees input into what goes onto their name badge, then instead of permitting a “Twitter handle” text box, have a “free badge text; use for Twitter handle, pronoun, GitHub profile, or whatever you like” field. The mention of pronoun here demonstrates to attendees that you acknowledge people’s pronouns may not match how they look (a femme presenting person may not use she/her/hers pronouns), and improves inclusion.

If you need to ask for gender ensure you allow a free-text field to specify their gender. Again, they may not fit in your boxes. Ask, though, why you are asking for gender? Identifying diversity (e.g. how many non-men do we have at this event) is a valid reason. An argument people have made in the past is that a free text field could result in: man, male, boy, masculine, guy, woman, girl, lady, female, trans man, trans woman, unspecified, etc. This is obviously a bit tricky to aggregate for statistics, so one option is to offer an auto-complete text field that auto-completes to “female” when the user starts typing “f” or other words, for example. This encourages users towards labels that make statistical aggregation easy for you, but lets them break out of your boxes if they wish, and type what they like.

Additionally, “unisex T-shirts” are not unisex. Unisex shirts are not designed properly to fit people with breasts or differently shaped chests. If you’re offering T-shirts, offer women’s cut shirts as well as unisex/men’s cut shirts. This may also mean thinking carefully about the design you print on your shirts to ensure the design looks good on people with larger chests, and that the design isn’t distorted etc. Consider subtle and unintentional use of gendered language, such as words like “guys.”

Names

Not everybody has a first name and a last name. Some have mononyms, other cultures display the family name first. When asking for people’s names on your registration form, have a single field for somebody’s full name. Don’t split it up. Ever. If you want a short or informal name (what we westerners may usually use a first name for), have an additional field for “informal form of address”, and explain this may be used for address in newsletters etc., so people have a context through which they can decide how to be addressed.

Socio-economics

Not everybody will be able to afford to come to your event. People from low socio-economic backgrounds may want to come, and have useful and interesting input and perspectives. We can’t afford to exclude these people. Offer grants or sponsorships to people who can’t afford to attend but wish to.

Childcare and youth programs

Some potential attendees will have children. Offer childcare or youth programs. Childcare is not hard to do, and demonstrates your desire to make your events family-friendly.

Newbies

Going to a new event can be scary. Include details on your event’s website that are easy to find and explain what to expect for your event, possibly offering a contact of whom additional questions can be asked. Once at your event, ensure that newbies are overtly welcomed, and that contempt culture is discouraged.

Code of Conduct

Have a code of conduct. There are plenty of great CoCs available (some of which I’ve mentioned in below in the references) off which you could base yours. It should include consequences for breaches, and details for who to contact if people feel unsafe or need to report an incident.

Summary

Additional references and further reading

See Carina C. Zona’s talk called “Schemas for the real world” for information on how to ask for information from users without squeezing them into boxes into which they don’t feel they fit. Check out the Django Community Code of Conduct, the Hopper Fund’s guide to improving conference diversity, the Geek Feminism anti-harassment policy, and the anti-harassment policy developed by the Ada Initiative.

Regarding inclusive language, the Australian National LGBTI Health Alliance has an excellent guide to inclusive sex and gender diverse language. Feel free to extrapolate the guidelines for size, ability, education and ethnicity. The Australian Network on Disabilities also has a guide to inclusive language you might want to look at.

 

Appropriation of “Spoon Theory”

In recent times, I’ve occasionally referred to how many “spoons” I have at my disposal. This mostly comes up for me in a context of interacting with other people socially, usually either in the context of going to an event where I’m meeting new people, or having a discussion with people (either in person or online) on something on which we disagree. As an introvert who attempts to avoid or avert conflict, these interactions often require a lot of energy or courage for me to participate, so often I’ll say “I don’t have the spoons for meeting new people today.”

I was recently reflecting on the origin of spoon theory, and went to re-read the original blog post of the person who coined “spoons” as a term. This person has Lupis, and physically can only do a finite number of things in a day, often less than are strictly necessary to live a life equivalent to an abled person.

This made me realise that my use of “spoons” isn’t the same as its original intended purpose, and caused me to reconsider whether using the term was devaluing it for those with disabilities like Lupis. It turns out I’m not the first person to consider this. Geek Feminism wiki says: “disabled people have asked that the ‘spoons’ terminology not be appropriated by abled people.”

OK, so I’ve learned something new. I will make an effort from here onwards to stop using “spoons” to refer to my social anxiety or discomfort, and start hunting for alternative terms I can use. Possibly simply saying I don’t have the “energy” or “impetus” is good enough (though I’m open to suggestions for alternatives).

I hope this post serves to inform others of the potential appropriation of “spoons,”, and causes people to question whether the term can rightfully be applied to their situation.

EDIT: I did not write this post to tell people whether or not they are allowed to refer to their “spoons.” I leave that up to each individual. The main purpose of this post, I think, is to acknowledge Spoon Theory’s origins, and be mindful of our use of it, to avoid cheapening its value. There’s no easy solution, and it’s not a clear cut case; it’s just an interesting consideration.

Wasting privilege

I’m a middle-class, cisgender, white, male living in the 21st century. This affords me a non-trivial amount of privilege. I was reminded of this tonight as I had “Call the Midwife” S04E03 on in the background and I listened to how the English landlords refused lodgings to the Irish, and how homosexuality was treated with oestrogen tablets, with unpleasant side-effects. Despite being a fictional show, I don’t doubt it reasonably accurately reflects the reality of mid-20th century England, and it made me extremely uncomfortable, but also glad that I life in a time and place where I’m not directly affected by this sort of thing.

I subsequently saw the following:

And read Rosie’s blog post in the referenced tweet, which really reinforced my middle-class-ness, hitting particularly close to home because it referenced the GovHack Red Carpet awards in which I was involved last year. Rosie’s post also references the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union Conference from Tuesday, one of the sessions of which I caught the tail end of a video stream of, and was appalled by the circumstances the speakers have to endure.

Having now started to feel bad about the fact that I have spent a significant amount of time wasting my privilege  by not using it to help people less fortunate than me, I’m letting this serve as a reminder that we should be always evaluating where we decide to focus our efforts to maximise value while still bringing us joy and satisfaction.

I am passionate about plenty of social justice issues, from queer and trans discrimination, to feminism, to openness and transparency, and I’m only starting to see the tip of the iceberg on issues of unemployment, poverty, class, and racism. I need to remind myself that I can’t efficiently give my time to all of these causes, but I can carefully pick my battles, and do my best to make a positive impact, while listening to and amplifying the voices of those I’m trying to help.