How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference

Guest blogger Courtney Stanton explains how she organized a game developer conference with 50% women speakers. Stanton is a project manager for a video game company in Boston, and long-time feminist scourge of the computer game industry. With the online ticket sales to back it up, her work has been featured on GF several times. Follow her on Twitter at @q0rt.

Hi! In case we’ve never met, the elevator pitch for me goes something like: interactive media/videogames/project management/social justice/interior design/travel/semi-hatred of conferences. Like, *for real* I am not an enjoyer of conference content most of the time, despite going to several of them every year. I always end up sitting in a room listening to the same four straight white men agree with each other on some panel, and then I wander over to the expo floor where a person who doesn’t know anything about the product hands me a flyer and a pen Oh and if I’m *really* lucky, I’ll have paid over a thousand dollars in travel expenses and registration fees.

And so I put on my Ambition hat and decided that rather than complain on Twitter endlessly (well…in addition to, I guess), I should put together a conference for game developers, just to see if it was possible to make one that I would actually attend with enthusiasm. I ended up calling it No Show Conference, because it’s not about pageantry, glitz, or any of the “slick” stuff I see at a lot of conferences. Here, have a link:

My Criteria:
– Not a bajillion dollars to register
– Don’t make attendees use vacation time just to show up
– Different entry fee/access level for hobbyists/newbies/students/broke friends
– Nothing included should be a waste of time, including the traditional expo hall
– Have an anti-harassment policy and train volunteers on enforcing it
– No panels

And then, because I am sneaky, I also had a secret agenda.

Unstated Criteria:
– Try to get as many women on stage as I possibly could

Since I was the one who made the conference up, I’ve got total control over setting price, etc, so all of my stated criteria have been very easy to enact so far. But getting women in the lineup at game conferences is seemingly difficult, given that so few events even have women speaking at all. I run a monthly networking group in Boston for women in the game industry and their allies, so I know the issue (at least locally) isn’t that there aren’t enough women with innovative, interesting things to say. What gives?

The easiest way I saw for getting more women on stage at the actual event was to get as many women to submit speaking proposals as possible. Selecting presentations was done without speaker information associated with the titles and pitches, so I wasn’t able to “reserve” spaces in the program for anyone based on aspects of their identity — and I wasn’t interested in that sort of reservation system for this event, anyway. It’s a come-one-come-all event for game industry professionals, so more than anything I wanted a really strong set of talks, even if that meant I ended up with, sigh, yet another roster of all dudes.

So! Getting women to submit content: easy? Um. When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

I promised mentoring, I promised practice sessions, I promised one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have spent hundreds of hours speaking at conferences. I emailed my Women in Games Boston group, I attended events and encouraged groups of women in person, I sought women out online, I met with women over coffee. I encouraged/begged them to consider translating the hours and hours I’d spent with them in the past talking about their careers, their specialties, their ideas, into a 45-minute presentation. I told them how much I respected their reputations and their ideas and that I’d be thrilled if they had the time or interest in submitting a talk.

Did every woman respond like that? No. But it was very much the minority situation, me promoting the conference and having a woman say, “oh, okay, does [concept] sound like a good fit?” and then them actually turning around and submitting a proposal. One or two women versus every single man who submitted content. (Also, while I have spoken either in person or online with every woman who submitted, several of the proposals submitted by men were guys I’d never met.)

We ended up getting 18 submissions (8 women, 10 men) for 10 planned slots. In between launching the conference and selecting talks, the keynote speaker I had lined up fell off the face of the planet, but super-conveniently for me, one of the submitted talks was a scorchingly good topic for a keynote, so kaboom, problem solved. Then, I couldn’t get the final selection list down to 10. I had 11 and they were all great, covering things I hadn’t seen presented elsewhere. So I reworked the conference schedule, made room for the extra presentation, and called it a win. What we’ve ended up with is a speaker lineup of 6 men and 6 women and *I swear that was not planned* but hey, it’s convenient for my thesis that you can put together a games conference for the industry at large and still get more than one token woman in your lineup.

Having a non-trivial number of women submitting presentations seems to have made it so that a non-trivial number of women are speaking at No Show Conference. Imagine that.

Huge giant HOWEVER: I came away from the process of promoting and recruiting potential speakers with a bitter, unwilling sympathy for event organizers who say, “there aren’t any women speaking because no women applied.” Like oh em gee y’all. I am hoping that this year’s conference is successful enough that I can make it an annual event, and that these months of cheerleading will have planted some idea seeds that I reap when it comes time to wave the pom poms and encourage speaker submissions next year. I’m hoping that the women speaking this year will in turn encourage other women to apply.

I’m hoping I run into fewer women who self-reject their ideas before I even get a chance to read them.

So hey, I was hoping to get some women on stage and it looks like that was achieved! Hooray! …Hooray? Wellll…while I am really, really pleased with our speaker lineup and our session content, I realize that this is not Nature’s Perfect Conference (yet). But I figured the only way to find new problems was to get some of these recurring, obvious ones out of the way. (And I didn’t even set out to tackle *all* of the obvious diversity problems, just the one I felt I’d be most likely to succeed at this time around.) It’ll be really cool when I, as a white person, figure out how to promote speaker submissions more/more effectively to people of color in my industry. Likewise with QUILTBAG game developers and thinker-types. I think I lucked out somewhat in our venue this year from an accessibility standpoint (ramps, elevators, handicap stalls in all the bathrooms), but I definitely wouldn’t claim that I’ve covered all the bases of accessibility for potential attendees (yet) Short version: I’m not perfect, neither is this event, but I am looking for ways to make it better and more open to all people working in games, both this year and in future years. And in the meantime, at least I’m putting on a conference where a version of myself from another dimension wouldn’t sit in the audience tweeting, “oh hey, a panel with a bunch of dudes on it, how novel.”

14 thoughts on “How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference

  1. 2ndnin

    Out of curiosity how much effort overall (hrs/submission) did you put in to get the men / women to submit a proposal and go over their presentations?

  2. Beth

    I know one thing that helps me is when conference calls have more structure to them. I often don’t know where to start when the request is “tell us what you want to talk about that is relevant to us”. Even better is when the conference provides an example of previous successful presentations, so I can know that I’m conforming to what they expect. I haven’t done this very much, so mostly I feel very lost if left to my own devices.
    Part of it may also be that I very seldom consider myself a part of that “us”, so I’m trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes and figure out if some imagined audience would be interested in whatever topic comes to mind. I imagine it would be easier if I felt like I firmly belonged in some community or another.
    I’m also cognizant of the “everything looks like a nail” problem: right now I’m super-excited about APIs, and so I tend to bite back my first impulse to propose an API-related topic to everyone and try to think of something else.
    I should probably stop self-censoring and let other people decide they aren’t interested, especially if the alternative is not submitting anything.

    1. Lisa

      Ooh, giant “this” on the self-censoring! If you’re excited about APIs, then your talk about APIs will be exciting – enthusiasm is contagious. The conference organizers are perfectly capable of selecting for appropriate – but if you don’t submit it, they won’t have the opportunity to select it! I’m trying very hard to retrain myself along these exact same lines… Where do we get this silly idea that we shouldn’t talk about what we’re excited about just because not everyone else is excited about it? Argh.

    2. Julia

      I agree that it’s very hard to feel belonging to the tech communities. Young white male developers have a magic abilities to make every event as being about *themselves*. I go to events unrelated to high tech (such as movie meetups) and those are much more “belonging”; although you sometimes have people showing off, but it’s much more of an exception.

      It would probably help to get more women speakers at conferences and groups, if they are invited on a principle “this is an interesting article of yours, can you speak about it?”, rather then “we’re a cool conference with many smart guys, do you have anything to add to it?”.

  3. Katie Cunningham

    Another thing that can help is a list of topics people might want to see. Some women take themselves out of the running because they think no one wants to hear about design, or their framework, or whatever else they might have expertise in.

    It also can be a great place to get an idea for a talk. I have no issue submitting talks… but I have four or five that I can give even at my most jet-lagged.

    Also, I wrote about this for meet-ups on my blog:

    Getting more women to your meetup

    Perhaps some of those approaches could work as well?

  4. jesshibb

    I plan a small (but awesome!) new media & technology conference in Maryland each year. This February was our fifth annual event. 75% of attendees were female, and 11 out of 15 presenters were women. The topic of social media and technology in the workplace isn’t quite as male-dominated as game development, but our first conference didn’t feature as many female presenters. It wasn’t a conscious effort to recruit more women to speak, but once we realized our audience demographics, we were much more interested in making sure that promotional materials for presenter applications and event registration showed photos of women. Not sure if this is related specifically to gender, but our female presenters consistently receive higher scores than our male presenters. Audiences respond better to people who look like them and have similar backgrounds/experiences.

  5. mae

    Selecting presentations was done without speaker information associated with the titles and pitches, so I wasn’t able to “reserve” spaces in the program for anyone based on aspects of their identity — and I wasn’t interested in that sort of reservation system for this event, anyway.

    For me, this is the primary key. I’d submit if I had any reasonable assurance that merit would trump gender when it came to selection. When that assurance isn’t there, I don’t submit. And that’s because I suspect there’s a pile for men and a pile for “girls”, and only one gets in, as a token. I don’t want to be a token, and for the men who may be reading this and don’t understand why, here’s why: In every tech gathering that’s predominantly men, there’s always some percentage of misogynists. And non-misogynist guys don’t often confront the misogynist ones. So what happens is the dicks treat you like shit, the other guys tacitly sanction it by not rocking the boat, and the effect is that you, as the lone female, have won the great honor of being the conference’s whipping girl. No human volunteers for abuse. This is why women don’t submit.

    But if women knew that the selection was actually merit based, and that they had a shot at being one of multiple women chosen, and therefore a shot at NOT being the whipping girl, they’d be more likely to submit. And when more women submit, more women are likely to be chosen. And if more women are likely to be chosen, more women are likely to submit. Identity-blind submissions creates a loop of positive change that grows as it feeds on itself. If it were to become standard, the industry could really be revolutionized.

  6. Tim

    Great Story. One comment though: “…four straight white men…” How do you know?

  7. Sarah Schacht

    I run into the same challenges organizing Open Gov West, and have hit 50/50 representation or higher with the gov 2.0/tech/citizen engagement community.

    Two combined tactics have significantly increased our number of female applicants:

    1) Tireless outreach to other networks to promote speaking opportunities, particularly women’s associations/lists.
    2) Using the, “seriously, ladies, I only have three out of 50 applications from women?!?!” line. (Which was true at one point.) This tactic got shockingly high results, where within a week, I got 10 more, then 20 more, etc. Women were more compelled by the call-out than encouragement.

    Sadly, women respond more to ideas that we have to step-it-up that that we’re already awesome enough.

  8. Frances

    Really fascinating. I particularly like that you didn’t have to resort to picking women over men to get your numbers even, despite the initial cajoling you had to do, since the selection was somewhat anonymised.

    Ordinarily, my bone with this sort of thing is the idea of positive-discrimination – I’ll never get on stage if there’s even a hint that I’m there to fulfil some sort of equality quota.

    I’ve seen various pieces of research that show, in general, women do underestimate their own ability and are likely to down-play their skills, despite their actual competence, more than men – so this seems to fit well with that hypothesis.

    Great work! Thanks for sharing.

  9. John Wilker

    1. kudos, that’s an awesome accomplishment.
    2. I’m curious if you think this approach scales to say 40 or 50 speakers. Would the same level of effort you put in to get 6 make sense for 20-25 spots?

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