On Going to Conferences

I really like white men who are aged between 35 and 45. In fact, I like them much so that I live with one and number many of them among my best friends. They’re great, some of them are brilliant, visionary practitioners, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m having a downer on them. But – and this may come as a shock to some of you – they aren’t the only people in the world, and they certainly aren’t the only people who work in design or technology.

I know – right?

There are young people, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds – all sorts of crazy stuff is going on in work places all over the country and, more shockingly, all around the Old Street area that either doesn’t include or isn’t the sole preserve of this fairly small group of people. And the thing is that everyone knows that except for some people who organise conferences.

Now, I’ve organised quite a few events and I know how easy it is to ask your friends to do stuff. For a start, your friends are your friends because they’re brilliant. They’re your friends because they’re the best people you know. So it seems quite tempting to think, “I’m going to organise an event and just ask my friends, or people like my friends, to speak, because they are all totally awesome and everyone else will think so too.”


Well, no. Not right. Or at least, not for me.

I’ve stopped buying tickets to things that are just talks by long lists of guys with one-syllable names. And that’s a shame, because lots of these guys with one-syllable names are completely brilliant, and I want to hear what they have to say. But I don’t only want to hear what they have to say. Obviously I could deal with this myself by going to a wide range of events, but – frankly – who has the time? I say “hurray for established practitioners who happen to be men, but they aren’t everyone in the world who’s doing interesting stuff, so please can we stop pretending that they are.”

Lots of stuff is changing, and I feel that technology events are, slowly, becoming more equal. Or at least, I feel that people in my bit of Twitter who talk about them are aware of the need for equality – but then, of course, I’m friends with people like me, so they would think that. So it’s quite a shock when I see a brilliant looking conference* that I really want to go to and I scroll down the list of speakers and there they are, one after another, man man man man, and then I think – no. I’m not going to go to that. Obviously sexism is only one part of the equality jigsaw, but it’s the part I’m most interested in and affected by. And one of the reasons I won’t go is because it feels as if the vision of the event as a whole will be limited. Clearly I don’t think that all men in the same age bracket think the same thing (I mean, duh) but it may very well mean that whoever has organised the event hasn’t fished very far outside of their immediate pool, and – in my experience – that will make it, in totality, an ultimately less interesting event.

This post is a knee-jerk reaction to seeing it happen again – and again. I’ve been having this debate for so long now that I actually find it quite boring, and can’t really believe I’m having to say the same things again. And lots of other people are saying them as well.

At Caper, we’re working with some partners to do something longer-term about this, which we’ll be announcing later in the year (and please, get in touch if you’re interested in partnering or funding something in this area), and after Playful last year, Greg Povey started a directory of women speakers that people can add their names to if they’re interested in speaking. But in the meantime, I’m going to continue being baffled and confused by this sort of thing, but – more powerfully, I hope – I’m also going to vote with my money and my attention, and stop attending events that don’t even attempt some level of diversity.

*Updated: I was linking to a specific event, but I’ve taken that out, for the sake of even-handedness, as this applies to a lot of events and singling one out seemed unfair.


9 thoughts on “On Going to Conferences

  1. Thanks for writing this post. It is very interesting to know why people do not go to conferences. But, in fact, it is a problem that there (seem?) not many women in tech. fields (afaik for print/layout/web). As a conference organiser (small event in Germany) I searched long time for women but only found two speaker who want to speak and know technology in depth. Also, the call for papers seem to only have attracted men. So, if you have advice how to find these people (remark I am in a non-English field), I would be very happy. Also about other than white-people. I just don’t know many of them… and I think that is the biggest problem for conference organizers.

  2. As an interesting point, didn’t the She Says event at Google Campus pull in loads of female audience members and only a few male audience members? I recall someone saying how weird that was. But I could be wrong.

    This goes to prove that one-sided conferences, from a gender POV, are an issue regardless of a male or female bias. Mixed is best.

    This is all grist for your mill.

    I’m keen to learn from clever and interesting people, regardless of gender. It’s one reason why I value Twitter and other platforms from which I can myriad views and take what I want from it. Playful had a real mix of speakers – gender-wise as well as background and skill-base – but I’m not sure I can say the same for other conferences I’ve been to. And the more technical the subject matter, the more male bias I tend to see.

    I don’t have the answers, but you raise many important points in your (hasty) blog post. I sincerely hope someone with a better brain than I can work out how to make any conference gender neutral (as it were).

  3. Hello Rachel,

    While I agree with your general point, The Design of Understanding isn’t a fair target. The full line-up for 2013 hasn’t been announced yet and I’m certain you’ll see plenty of women when it is. I was invited to speak in the conference’s first year and last year had a relatively balanced selection of speakers: http://www.thedesignofunderstanding.com/2012-speakers.html

    In fact, I’m always impressed by the way Max unites people from completely different domains, rather than just assembling the usual suspects.

    1. Thank you.

      I didn’t want to target one event so sorry if it looked that way; it was just a catalyst. I think the problem for me is that, without the context that you’re bringing, I wouldn’t know anything more than what’s published on the web site, so I guess I’d say it would be
      brilliant if the things you’re saying were reflected in the comms.

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