Diversity in Tech conferences: The speaker and sponsor perspective

A look at the lack of diversity in tech conferences from the perspective of a regular speaker and sponsor.

This post is in collaboration with my esteemed fellow speakers and friends, Lena and Emna, who have shared beautifully in their posts within this series:

If you prefer to listen, the three of us also discussed this topic on The Tester's Table podcast.

Much like Lena and Emna, I am exhausted by what feels like a sisyphean struggle to ensure diversity in conference speakers. I’ve been speaking regularly since 2018 and I don’t remember a single year since I started that I haven’t encountered at least one man-only and or white-only speaking lineup. As someone committed to DEI, it’s disheartening — and as a gender minority, it is exhausting.

Diversity in context

Something I hear more often than I care to think about is how important “diversity of thought” is. And please know, at a surface level, I agree, diversity of thought is critical to building good software. It’s also valuable when looking to bring multiple perspectives to a conference. Sadly, diversity of thought has become a substitute for actual diversity by organizers. Even worse, the diversity of thought presented is typically just small variations of opinions brought to you by a homogenous group of people with the same background and life experiences.

Actual diversity of thought requires diversity of background and life experience. Examples of which are first generation immigrant families, diversity in level of education, diversity in family income in childhood, diversity in family structures, and regional differences. If you’re seeing a trend here, you’re right, our childhood and teen years are the most formative in terms of shaping your thinking and mindset.

More than diversity of thought

As I’ve mentioned, diversity of thought just isn’t enough. We need to ensure diversity in race, gender, queerness, gender presentation, disability, and neurodivergence. This is not about checking a box or earning a gold star, this is about equity and ensuring that people can see “what’s possible.” Consider the voices that had the most influence on you early in your career. Did they have similar backgrounds to you? Have similar interests to you? Did they sound like you? Did they look like you? I’m sure you can see where I’m going — we can’t be something we can’t see. So if you’ve never seen a woman or a Black person or a queer person or a disabled person on a conference stage and you are a Black person, a queer person, a woman, or a disabled person, how do you envision your future? 

And before anyone says it, the speakers you select should still be exceptional. There is no need to lower standards to ensure diversity, there are phenomenal non-white, non-man, disabled, queer, and neurodivergent speakers. 

Diversity matters to speakers

As a speaker, I don’t want to be your diversity checkbox. Being the lone or one of two non-man speakers at a conference lets me know how little you as an organizing committee value diversity. And for both myself and attendees this has the opposite effect of what you likely think. As opposed to feeling valued, I feel tokenized and question if my content truly appealed to you or if I was just the first person you thought of to check the box.

Diversity needs to go deeper than just your speaker line up. Your organizing committee should reflect meaningful and intentional diversity as well. At the most basic level, if I —  as someone who identifies as a gender minority — find myself in a room of all men selected by a committee of all men, I don’t necessarily know that I am safe in that room. And while I only submit to conferences with a comprehensive code of conduct, there’s no way for me to know if the code of conduct will be enforced.

Take this one step further, when I’m at an event as a speaker, I am at least somewhat responsible for the wellbeing of the attendees. If I —  someone with notoriety and a following — feel unsure of my safety, imagine how unsafe someone who does not have a connected community to reach out to likely feels.

The bottom line for myself as a speaker is this: when I speak at your conference, your conference and what you value casts a reflection on me. I have to feel confident that your event reflects my values and doesn’t violate them.

Diversity matters to sponsors

I’ve worked for a number of companies that sponsored conferences and staffed the event booth on many occasions. For those of you who have never done so, please indulge me in some backstage baseball for a moment. Sponsoring a conference is an expensive endeavor for most companies. A small event will likely have sponsor packages starting around $2,000 and going up to as much as $15,000. A large conference often has their lowest level sponsorship package starting around $6,000 and can range up into the $20,000 or more price point. Each event offers different options at each price point and requires different levels of engagement from their sponsors. The funds a conference acquires from sponsorships sold helps to offset the cost of the conference in most cases.

In addition to the cost of sponsoring, there’s also the cost of travel, food, and accommodation for your booth staff, the time and expense in planning for the event, and the cost of swag, supplies, backdrops, prizes, and other materials. In short, businesses make a huge financial, emotional, and physical investment in sponsoring an event. 

There’s an old adage “you vote with your dollars,” when a company sponsors a conference, they’re putting resources behind it and their reputation on the line with the organizers. In this new age of focus on corporate responsibility, it’s critical for a company’s values to be reflected by the event. Imagine making this kind of investment and sending your team, only to have the conference trend on LinkedIn for a lack of diversity and have your company’s logo on the conference’s front page.

A final thought

Conferences that lack meaningful diversity are a risk for speakers, a risk for sponsors, and they’re even a risk to attendees. Whether you’re a speaker, sponsor, or attendee, it’s critical that you vote with your dollars and select events to participate in that reflect your values and provide a welcoming environment for all. 

Writing this series of articles was prompted by an encounter Lena, Emna, and myself  had with an event organizer who defended his event that had almost exclusively white, man speakers. The organizer’s reaction to feedback was defensiveness and none of the conversations yielded beneficial results for anyone involved. Being called out, called in, or being offered feedback is rarely a comfortable situation and in many cases (as was the likely case with this organizer) challenges deeply held personal beliefs. Below I’ve included resources that you may find valuable if you ever find yourself in these kinds of challenging conversations in the future.

Interested in diving deeper? Listen to Jenna, Emna, and Lena discuss this topic on The Tester's Table podcast.

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