Signaling a commitment to diversity
One first step to diversifying a conference is creating a diversity statement for your organization that is specific and contains concrete actions. Saying “diversity is important” is vague and doesn’t include the possibility that the organization itself has a problem. A strong diversity statement contains both values and concrete actions that encourage practices which are inclusive of people from different backgrounds.
“We are committed to treating each other in a respectful manner.”
“We encourage people to express differing opinions in an open and honest manner.”
“We are committed to having a conference with speakers from marginalized groups.”
These principles, of course, need to be backed up with actions which support them.
Diversifying Speaker Pool
There are many ways to diversify the people who are in your speaker pool. The goal of a diverse speaker pool is to include the voices of people who are members of marginalized groups. These groups include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability, citizenship status, and age.
Pro-active outreach to marginalized communities is necessary to build and maintain a diverse pool of speakers. By creating ongoing relationships with diverse groups, your organization is demonstrating an ongoing commitment to diversity and change.
Start by finding special interest groups in your field. Generally you can find these affinity groups by asking around and searching for information online.
When reaching out to marginalized communities be sure to do so early and often. Contact groups with personalized messages that explain your organization is interested in hearing from new speakers particularly those from marginalized groups. Put in place methods to encourage and support new speakers. If your event doesn’t have a history of diversity, there is no reason for people from marginalized groups to expect that they will be selected for inclusion or that they will be treated respectfully. Be sure you can articulate what you offer to the people you are asking to speak.
Many studies have shown that unconscious bias is pervasive and inevitably favors white men. It’s important to take steps to actively disrupt biased There are a variety of methods to actively disrupt bias.
One method is to use “blind selection” of speakers. To use this method you have speakers submit written materials that have identifying information removed. The goal is to select speakers without taking into consideration the person’s social identity.
When a speaker pool reaches broadly across many communities, the distribution of selected speakers is extremely unlikely to be all white guys. It’s possible that white guys won’t be the majority of speakers and that’s OK. In fact it’s fantastic.
Make sure that your organization uses inclusive language. This means using gender neutral language, limiting use of jargon and making broad generalizations about groups of people. The goal is to make sure what you say includes the everyone in the audience.
For example, instead of saying “hi guys” or “hello ladies and gentlemen” try saying “hi folks” or “hello everyone.”
Codes Of Conduct And Effective Enforcement
There is no way to include everyone in your event. If your event includes people who make other attendees uncomfortable and unsafe, the people they target will not enjoy attending. The choice is between explicit exclusion of harassers or the implicit exclusion of the people they target. An Anti-Harassment Policy or Code of Conduct is the first step in choosing explicit exclusion of harassers so that everyone else can enjoy your event. The Geek Feminism has excellent information about composing a new policy.
An Anti-Harassment policy or Code of Conduct serves as a signalling mechanism, telling people who have the experience of being targeted in the past that they will not be expected to tolerate harassment when it happens. It also discouraging anyone who would largely attend your conference just to make it less pleasant for other attendees, which is a net win. The lack of any policy will send the signal that if someone targets an attendee there will be no remedy. This is a depressingly common experience; it is useful to indicate that your event intends to be different.
However, harassment will happen anyway, especially at conferences without a history of enforcing their policy. The policy is a necessary piece of an system to address harassing behavior, but it is only one piece. It needs to be accompanied by an effective reporting and enforcement mechanism to carry weight.
Your policy is a promise about how your event will handle specific situations. The Geek Feminism Wiki has advice on preparing to follow through on that promise, with recommendations for before, during and after the event. Additionally, consider reaching out to a local organizations that offers training in handling sexual harassment. For example, some conventions in the Boston area collaborated with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to train their staff and volunteers.
In addition to enforcing the policy, it is helpful to publicize the expectations widely, especially in the space where the event is happening. Examples from other events include prominently featuring a link on your event's website, including the policy on your registration forms, printing it in your programs, putting it on giant banners in the entryway or talking about it during the opening session. It is also great to make the people responsible for enforcing the policy visible with shirts, buttons, hats, ribbons or some other form of obviously advertising who to talk to. It is good to make it easy to report, even for things that don't unambiguously violate the policy, since less-overt harassment can often be part of a pattern of behavior or the early stages of escalating harassment. Events can also encourage bystander solidarity through programs like The Backup Ribbon Project. These obvious reminders can discourage harassers while empowering their targets by constantly reminding attendees of the event's standards.
Being transparent about how your selection processes work increases the amount of diverse candidates who will apply to be speakers. Transparency increases accountability by allowing everyone to see that processes reflect the stated goals and values of the organization.
Transparency also helps deflect derailing tactics such as accusations of a quota system or selecting unqualified candidates who meet diversity goals.
An ideal convention space is usable by as many people as possible and barriers are clearly articulated. Gathering detailed information about spaces as early as possible makes it easier to identify and overcome potential barriers. Creating good signage with information and maps are important to help people find their way around the event.
Find out the locations of restrooms and their gender designations. Check on the location of wheelchair accessible toilets, family bathrooms, and single use private bathrooms.
Gender designated bathrooms can be uncomfortable and unsafe for a variety reasons. Designating a restroom as gender neutral helps to alleviate these problems
Consider providing real-time captioning services for attendies who have difficulty hearing or with attention.
Don’t assume a venue is accessible to handicapped people or take “ADA compliant” as meaning a space is accessible in an equitable or practical way.
Elevators for wheelchair users can be hard to find, non-functional or otherwise useable. If possible do an onsite visit and ask to see the elevators. Ask hotel staff to demonstrate how to use the elevator. For example if the elevator requires a key where is it located and how can attendees get the key. If the elevator isn’t working then find a way to ensure it will be functional when your event is held.
If the only elevator is a freight elevator make sure to mention that both on your event site and on maps.
Make sure to post multiple signs with maps that show the location of restrooms, elevators and ramps.
The big secret
The secret is that there is no secret. Ultimately a conference needs to put in the work needed to create and maintain diversity in their organization and in the people they select to speak at events.
The best practice is to make diversity a priority from the beginning rather than having it be an add on at the end. Diversity is necessary and normal. When making decisions ask how do these decisions affect our goal of creating and maintaining diversity?