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This is BS: How and why "inclusive" conferences are screwing up (starting from the top)

lavieencode profile image Nicole Archambault Updated on ・9 min read

This past week, I received an email from Andrea Delgado-Olsen, a good friend of mine who brought me to one of my close-knit tech families, Native American Women in Computing. I am a mixed-race woman. I am Black, Native American (Wampanoag/Pokanoket), disabled, autistic woman.

Virtually every aspect of my existence makes me invisible in tech. According to Stack Overflow's reports... the number is <1%, but probably closer to <0.1% once you factor in all my intersections.

Being pretty light-skinned gives me a lot of privilege. But I still face a lot of issues getting noticed, and making my own spaces where they don't already exist.

My openness and willingness to share my experiences has drawn a pretty significant following that I love deeply. And I'm dedicated to getting marginalized groups like myself what they need to succeed and thrive in the industry. Without asking, or even demanding... we'll almost certainly be overlooked.

But the email she sent me was a link to the Tech Intersections conference Call for Speakers, and she suggested we apply if we could attend.

She included some very favorable notes about the event, emphasizing that it was very inclusive and dedicated to womxn of color and other marginalized groups. So I was excited to have a new speaker opportunity to peep.

I'd heard great things about Tech Intersections, and told Andrea that I'd been interested since last year's Grace Hopper, when we discussed my desire to break into public speaking. Good, inclusive conferences are hard to find.

So, I checked out the CFP page:

Screenshot of Tech Intersections CFP, which reads: Do you have something to share with other womxn like yourself? Tech Intersections is an affordable conference for the womxn of color most underrepresented in tech to come together and learn from each other’s successes, challenges, and experiences. More than 200 people attended each of the past two conferences. The next conference will be on Saturday, January 25, 2020, in Oakland, California. Talks will take place in Mills College’s Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business, which is wheelchair accessible and has gender-neutral bathrooms. We are committed to meeting the needs of speakers with disabilities, including providing ASL interpreters. Free childcare is available to all attendees. We are unable to pay speakers or cover their travel expenses, but speakers may attend for free.

It was so beautiful up until that final sentence. And I imagine they put that at the end of a big paragraph, and not on its own line for a very intentional reason.

At first, I was heartbroken.
And then... I was heated.

Covered expenses is the first thing I, and many marginalized groups, look at when considering a conference to speak at. I know that, and I'm new to the conference speaking arena. Because it's my lived experience.

So I took to Twitter to start the discussion, and want to pose it to DEV community folks as well. :)

Why this is 10000% NOT OKAY

There are so many conferences out there nowadays, and they all want to tout how inclusive they are.

Externally, they may even seem inclusive. With everything positive I've read and heard about Tech Intersections, for example, I was sold on the idea that the speaker lineup would be people who desperately needed to tell their stories, and connect with people in tech.

This connection, and a sense of truly being part of a community that reflects your person, is incredibly important.

This is something that the majority in tech will never understand. So you just have to check the data, and trust us when we say that we're absolutely not getting what we need in this industry.

I had no idea that Native American Women in Computing was even a thing, until I attended Grace Hopper for the first time. I had to fundraise then, too, as it was before I landed my first dev job and had run out of unemployment from my previous job.

Currently, I'm on disability. I live with Bipolar 2 disorder. It causes my mood and energy to fluctuate even on medication—which is NOT a cure-all.

I could remain on disability for the rest of my life if I wanted to. But I fight every day instead. That fight is exactly why I need to be in front of others: to teach them to fight as well.

My messages clearly inspire others, because I have the most loving, supportive audience that I watch becoming better versions of themselves every day. And they tell me that I've played a major part in that transformation... just by sharing my own struggles, and how I've overcome them.

What the fuck am I supposed to do when I can't afford to SPEAK at a conference? I already didn't want to even bother, or put in the time.

The next thought I had was flashing back to a Twitter discussion I had opened up earlier this summer, where I attempted to pull people in from:

  • the companies who sponsor these conferences
  • the conference organizers
  • and the speakers... who basically make the conference exist

It wasn't the most productive conversation, as I probably could have brought it on here and had a lot more quality discussion. But that's likely for another post entirely.

I had to crowdfund $2300 this summer to raise funds to speak at 2 conferences (JS and Friends and Abstractions II). I had to pay my own bills at the same time. On disability, ain't none of this easy.

UH HELLO, CONFERENCE ORGANIZERS: THIS IS YOUR TYPICAL EXPERIENCE OF SOMEONE ON DISABILITY, OR EVEN NOT ON DISABILITY.

If we even can work/get a job, life is really fucking hard. I am in the process of doing another crowdfunding attempt, which is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Just asking for help.

Being afraid of being called a mooch, or having my entire life picked apart. (Fortunately, absolutely nobody has done that yet. I surround myself by good people.)

If these conference organizers, and not just with Tech Intersections specifically, are so inclusive... why the hell are they so detached from the actual experiences of these marginalized groups?

Are you not listening to what we're saying? (These days) I'm a lot more open than most marginalized people when it comes to speaking up for what I need. It wasn't always that way.

Now, I write, I podcast, and I hold difficult conversations on social media. I'm transparent; an open book. I need to be, because piecing together my entire weird existence has been reliant on learning from others.

All I know is that I can't live another moment not being myself, existing silently... and slowly dying inside.

If you like my writing style, you'll love my talks. I'm still finding my groove, but I have awesome mentorship and am determined to get better at my delivery. But I'm a natural storyteller, and I've received so much positive feedback (and opportunities to grow) based on my two talks already!

I got questions for y'all

I know I need to be at Tech Intersecions, and other conferences. But I also understand that there's levels to this issue. This is an entire-ass discussion that needs to happen. I'll break my questions down by the group I'm addressing.

Companies who sponsor these conferences

How do you evaluate whether or not a conference is inclusive?

Twilio had a really good document I need to link here (note to self) after I post.

TL;DR, they laid out a framework for what they look for in terms of conference inclusivity. It was super thorough, I'll update this with the link and post it in the comments as well. :)

You should have a concrete evaluation plan, AND if they're not eligible for sponsorship, you should be prepared to give feedback to conference organizers on what they missed.

Is conference sponsorship (as in confs that aren't your own) a part of your larger D&I business approach? If not, why not?

If this all sounds foreign to you, you may already have a problem. If you have a solid D&I plan, you should be committed to the tech community at large. If you have a stable enough business—no matter how small—and haven't even considered sponsoring an external tech conference, you need to change that ASAP. You have a responsibility to give back to the community, because you probably built your business on the backs of these marginalized folks.

As a quick aside—if you claim you didn't build your business on the backs of marginalized groups—like you got an all-white team or something—then that will obviously definitely skew your perspective and priorities, too. Just evaluate your shit and figure out how to support the people with ACTION that you supposedly support in WORDS.)

Do you actively seek out conferences to sponsor, or just wait until they come to you?

This is kind of tied into my last question. I hear a lot from conference organizers like "waaaah we didn't get sponsorship", but when I ask them specifically what companies they reached out to, they stop responding or probably mute me.

So, do you have any initiative in place to actively support inclusive conferences?

You know you'll be able to get the benefits of sponsorship, and maybe even a talk slot or two—but are you reaching out to those conferences, or always making them come to you? I think we could normalize this within D&I roles.

Oh, also, your company will gain a quick reputation of being an Ally in Action.

Conference organizers

What were you thinking??

Nobody forced you to launch your conference at gunpoint. You made that decision yourselves.

So why would you launch an event that you KNEW wasn't inclusive, if you supposedly have a commitment to diversity and inclusion?

You could have taken the time to seek enough sponsorship and do this right... but you didn't. We're used to this, I assure you. But swear to glob, I can't imagine what you were ALL thinking if it was a consensus.

A single person should NOT be making decisions regarding inclusivity, this is how you end up here.

You engaged in performative allyship promoting an inclusive conference, but don't walk the talk when it comes to money. 🤷🏽‍♀️ That's all it comes down to.

Just admit your (hopefully not intentional) oversight to the marginalized tech community, and we can move forward with the conversation from there to work toward a solution.

And you know that it's not inclusive, for all the perspective I've given you above.

You could probably grow, if talented, budding speakers could just get there. If your tickets are affordable, that's obviously good and all, but at what cost?

How does it make you feel to know the very people you want speaking at your conference look at your CFP and think "I can't afford it"?

Self-explanatory. You probably never thought about that perspective. If you had, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Marginalized speakers in particular

Do you know how to fight for what you deserve?

You hold the power here, and I want you to know that. It took me quite a while to recognize that, and I think that may be how conferences want new speakers to act.

I've been told to speak for free to get "exposure". This is an absolute dogwhistle term, and I guarantee you the people who are telling you that are in an awesome place financially. You need to ignore them.

I'm probably going to do a separate post on this though, but what you need to know is: there are people out here who will help inspire you to fight for yourself.

I had to bounce back and forth between emails with both confs I just spoke at. Negotiating. It was stressful. It made me not want to speak at times.

We don't deserve that stress. We deserve better, and I want you to know that in your heart.

Do you know the value of your experience, knowledge, and time?

I wrestled with this one a LOT, because I come from a background of low self-esteem and a shit ton of emotional abuse. As a result, I'm recovering from feeling like I didn't deserve anything good, and negative experience everything I had, I deserved.

But, I've been facing these thoughts and attempting to rewire my brain in therapy for years now, and my thinking is beginning to change. I now understand that if I stay too embarrassed to speak up for what I need... I'm never going to get out of this seemingly hopeless disability situation.

Some love and advice to my fellow marginalized speakers (esp new ones)

My experience is valuable, no matter how messy it is. And so is yours.

Building up the bravery to tell your story takes time, and a lot of energy.

If you don't natively have that bravery—as most of us don't—a lot of people assume they can't get up on that stage. But that's not true. We're here to support you, I promise.

GET PAID FOR YOUR TIME. I cannot stress this enough. Marginalized groups are already underpaid and taken advantage of.

There is a LOT of time involved in preparing a conference talk. I had no idea how much, and I still felt like my presentations were pretty jerky. I move fast, too. I can't imagine how others do it.

Let me give you that little boost to your self-esteem today and tell you that your time is DESERVING of payment.

I have a major scarcity mindset that I'm still working to overcome, but there are white dudes out there making like 5 figures an hour and that makes me mad when I just had to spend more than hour of my own time writing this up.

COMPANIES—AND AS A RESULT, CONFERENCE ORGANIZERS—CAN AFFORD US.

Don't accept no for an answer.

Keep fighting and speaking up. Otherwise this shit aingone change.

And hit me up on Twitter @lavie_encode.

I love you, and I want to see you do great things.

✊🏽❤️

Discussion

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danjconn profile image
Dan Conn

My personal opinion is when you are creating an event and you are charging for tickets, and that money isn't going to a charity, then you should be paying the people contributing to make that event a success. End of.

Thanks for sharing.

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ssimontis profile image
Scott Simontis

Nicole, thank you for opening my eyes to a lot of things. I have never even considered inclusivity at conferences, mainly because I have had so little exposure to them. I went to Ignite two years ago because my company paid for it, otherwise there was no way in hell I would have been able to go (I was taking the bus to the exhibit center and eating Ramen when I got home, $5000 for a week pass? LOL. except it's not funny when you're pinching money that hard not to overdraft).

I didn't realize that speakers are often paid. In the case of Ignite, all of the speakers were either Microsoft vendors, Microsoft partners, or vendors, so I assumed MS sponsored all of the speakers, and that even if they didn't, you're probably making a comfortable living selling your microservice-based container vaporware on the cloud as a Microsoft Gold partner.

I'm speaking at my first event in three weeks, at Atlanta Code Camp. I was happy to see that our keynote speaker will be speaking about diversity and inclusion in the community. I will be speaking about a gadget I made with TensorFlow Lite at 9:45 AM if anyone is going to be there :D

I admire your courage for having the courage and vulnerability to openly accept, embrace and share your identity with others. I still don't know what's wrong with me...we've limited it down to some combination of possible autism, borderline personality disorder, and Bipolar I/II (depending on who you ask). The stigma has gotten better, but it's still there. And it creates some awkward moments at work when you have to take a week off because you tried to end your own life and needed to cool off in the psych ward and have to find some way to casually dismiss how you fractured your spine in the process (massive seizure).

I was just happy that I got accepted and that I get to talk about something I love. I think I get in for free, but anxious me already bought a ticket in case I didn't get accepted or something went wrong. You have given me a lot to think about, thank you and please keep on fighting!

I'd also like to mention that my inbox is always open if anyone ever needs to talk about anything, whatever it may be. If not me, please talk to someone if you are struggling. It's a dark and lonely place when your disorders take control and you feel completely alone. Sometimes all you can do is exist for a 24 hour period and that is a tremendous victory.

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lavie_encode profile image
Nicole Archambault

Transparency is contagious. :) Thank YOU for having the bravery to share your experience and perspective.

The loneliness is deep from all angles. Then you have people telling you, literally, that you're being too hard on the organizers of an event that they already screwed up with in terms of their model.

It's so easy to see why we face so many problems existing in tech. Everyone wants to think the hardest shit is applying and coming up with the money. The struggle is being able to exist and have your experience be considered valid.

Hugs! Be sure to hit me up on Twitter, I never shut up about mental illness and standing up for marginalized groups. ❤️

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deanius profile image
Dean Radcliffe

It’s easy to have all the answers when you don’t have to run the balance sheet for a conference. I agree on paper that it should be how you describe, but the odds are pretty stacked against new/smaller conferences succeeding, and since that’s who you’re calling out, how do you know what their reality really is?

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lavie_encode profile image
Nicole Archambault

And they're assuming what our (marginalized groups') reality is. We need to be able to get professional development to build our careers, where we're already at a great disadvantage.

And they're the ones voluntarily running an event. An event that they need speakers for in order to even hold the event.

Really, don't even think about blaming speakers or marginalized groups for making conference organizers' lives difficult. If your balance sheet doesn't shake out, don't hold the event.

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lavie_encode profile image
Nicole Archambault

And this isn't about "having all the answers". If you read what I wrote, it's a DISCUSSION that needs to be had in order to fix something broken.

Half the issue is organizers not even being willing to recognize that there's a problem. And those backing up conference organizers' decision to hold a non-inclusive event they don't NEED to hold.

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deanius profile image
Dean Radcliffe

Of course, there are more reasons to pay speakers than not, provide daycare for parents, mental health services, etc.. but if there are not the dollars or hours to do it, you’d have this opt-in event turn into one that does not happen at all? That seems to shut a lot of people out as well.. Seems a bit hostile to new stuff that may grow in future versions.

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Jimmy Utterström

You are absolutely right. Thank you for taking your time to write this. I was very surprised when I first learnt about how very common it is that conferences take advantage of their speakers and offers payment in "exposure". And, as you wrote, the issue of course grows even larger and more concerning if an event is supposed to be "inclusive" and promote diversity. I believe there's a very very large group of potentially awesome speakers that are immediately excluded by "we are unable to pay speakers [...]".

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eli profile image
Eli Bierman

Thanks for sharing your story. I love the questions, great discussion starter. I think this might be the Twilio post (if it's not, this one is great too):

twilio.com/blog/encoding-diversity...

Such a bold move to reach out to speakers to travel and speak for free before securing sponsorship. Like it's harder to reach out to somebody in a marketing department whose job it is to sponsor events than it is to ask somebody for free labor? It doesn't make sense.

As a standout positive example, Saron Yitbarek even managed to provide free childcare at her Codeland Conference. She talked about it on the Hanselminutes podcast: