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Are your diversity and inclusion efforts working?

Image: Three people sitting on a bench in front of a wall of photographs of people. Source: Pixabay

When it comes to conferences, maybe not.

I’ll admit this post was prompted by yet another conference rejection. I started thinking about my experience with academic conferences and the things I’ve noticed in design and content conferences since I left academia. Both share some really serious barriers to access for marginalized and underrepresented folks. There are things we in industry can do to increase access to conferences, and thus the career-advancing exposure they provide.

Who gets exposure?

Exposure is a tricky thing, isn’t it? We are told to give our labor away for free in the name of “exposure,” because exposure is what gets you known. It helps get you more work if you’re a freelancer, it helps get you accepted to conferences, and it helps get you jobs.

The problem is that exposure currently only works for people who can afford to give away labor for free and/or who already have the exposure to… get more exposure. So, people who are already established and people who already have enough wealth to “pay to play” are afforded the opportunities to get the exposure they need to advance their careers.

If this seems like a cyclical problem, that’s because it is. Who is most likely to have a fancy title that makes conference organizers think you’re an expert? Who is most likely to work for a Big Tech Company that will woo and impress the organizers?

Underrepresented and marginalized voices need exposure to get the cultural capital needed to get noticed by conference organizers.

These are the folks who are still less likely to carry the institutional affiliation and/or titles needed to be taken seriously at tech conferences.

You know what this means for your panels, right?

Do you really want fresh voices?

I keep seeing calls for proposals (CFPs) that say they want diverse panels with fresh voices, but I keep seeing the same people featured over and over again at these conferences.

I get it, you need to sell those $1000+ tickets, and Famous People draw ticket sales.

We come back to the exposure thing.

When an unknown submits a proposal for your CFP when you say you want fresh voices, you pick the Famous People like always, but then offer the unknown a 10–20% discount coupon for tickets, that’s not really helping your diversity and inclusion efforts.

Why not? Because people at the margins don’t always have the money to spend on even a discounted ticket. They want exposure, but can’t afford it. So, say I want to go to Big Conference in San Francisco. I submit a proposal and get rejected, but ho! I was offered a 20% discount on tickets!

Let’s price this out with some fake numbers (based on prices I’ve seen).

  • Ticket for conference: $1200–20% = $960
  • Round-trip ticket to SFO: $400 (basic economy on well-known airline)
  • Hotel: $150/night x 3 nights = $450
  • Meals: $40/day (eating cheaply/grabbing free food where possible) = $120
  • Total: $1930

Do you have $1930 laying around for a trip?* I don’t. Right now, I’m a freelancer who spent years making barely enough to get by during grad school. So as much as I want to attend that conference, I won’t. I don’t have an institution to pay my way, and the tax deduction doesn’t help me when the bills come around.

*Let’s also not argue about those numbers above — they are fictional, and could be higher or lower depending on the location, conference, or whether the attendee has any disabilities that need accommodation.

Why does this matter?

Marginalized and underrepresented voices need to be lifted up and given a chance to contribute to the conversation. Wouldn’t you want to learn about accessibility from someone who experiences what it’s like when a product is inaccessible? Wouldn’t you want to learn about how to make an inclusive voice UI from someone for whom the majority of voice assistants don’t work? Don’t we say, over and over again, “We are not our users”?

When we obsess over affiliation, everyone loses. We know what the big tech companies’ reputations are for hiring diversely. Just because someone is affiliated with a big name doesn’t mean they have better insights than the independent/freelancer or early career person.

This is one thing I think academia gets right in its conferencing. It is just as common, in linguistics anyway, to see grad students and early career researchers presenting in the same panel, at the same prestigious conference, as Famous Tenured Scholars.

Many of the same financial and disability-related barriers exist, but you are as likely to be accepted to speak at an academic conference as a grad student at a state school as an ivy league tenured professor, provided the abstracts and topics are equal quality.

What can we do about it?

One thing that is done in academia that could be worth trying at industry conferences is blind review. When submitting a proposal to an academic conference, you must remove all affiliation from your abstract/proposal, including metadata on your PDF or word document. The stripped document then goes to committee for a yes/no decision.

This isn’t a perfect method, and often, especially in small fields, you can tell whose research it is based on the topic or angle the person is taking. You aren’t allowed to present the exact same talk at more than one conference, though, so that helps a little.

In industry, people take their talks on tour, so this would be a lot more difficult to deal with. We also often want to aim to not have one group overrepresented, so blind review could possibly give you a non-diverse panel of speakers, depending on who submits proposals. One way to mitigate this is to have an initial cull using blind review.

Say you have 40 speaker slots and 200 proposals. Do an initial blind review, cut the proposals down to, say 80, and then attach names/info to the proposals to cut down to the 40 slots you need to fill.

Another thing we can do? Stop obsessing over affiliation. Who cares if your speakers work for Big Tech Company? We should be caring about ideas.

Oh, and requiring video? That’s fine, but how biased do you think you are toward those who send you videos from previous conference talks? Make sure everyone does a video at home or in a non-conference environment.

Offer stipends! A lot of places are doing this now, and it’s fantastic! If you can afford to help out with more than the ticket price, that will be really attractive for people who may not have submitted a proposal before.

Final thoughts

I get that the balance between new and diverse voices and selling tickets is a tough line to walk. At some point, though, more effort needs to be made to truly make conferences inclusive and diverse.

The more people without Big Name affiliation or fancy titles get accepted to speak, the more diverse your panels will be, and the more successful your diversity and inclusion efforts will be.