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Increasing diversity at tech conferences: why it’s important and how we can do it

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Diversity in the tech sector is a widely discussed – and often controversial – topic. Recognising the scale of the issue, a number of multi-national tech companies including Google and Netflix have openly stated that they are trying to do better and increasing numbers of companies are releasing their diversity numbers as standard.

Yet still, the gender divide in the UK tech sector stands at around 72:28 (opens in new tab) male to female, according to a recent skills audit by independent trade association Manchester Digital, and minority groups are also known to be under-represented. 

While diversity is an issue that plagues multiple sectors, the tech sector is one which struggles more than most. Unfortunate, considering the ongoing skills shortage in the sector which will only exacerbate the problem, plus the fact it’s proven that diverse workforces are actually more productive than non-diverse ones.

A knock-on effect of this is the lack of diversity at tech events, conferences, and on speaker panels – something which, again, many in the industry are working hard to change.

This year we’re running our annual Camp Digital event as an ‘Upfront’ event – an initiative launched by Lauren Currie, one of Elle’s ’30 women under 30’, created to encourage more diversity at events by inviting attendees to share a stage with keynote speakers so they can experience what being up on stage at a large event is like.

However, despite trying to make continuous improvements, we’re not under any false impressions that events in the sector, including our own, are as diverse as they could and should be. Saying this, it is something we strive to improve on as we organise our event each year.

So, with all that said, just how can tech conference organisers start to tackle the diversity issue and work towards ensuring that one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK’s economy is inclusive to all?

1. Make diversity a collective issue

Unfortunately, diversity and inclusion often comes as a secondary consideration - a “tick box” exercise. However, tech event organisers must realise that increasing speaker, and attendee, diversity will actually make conversations much richer and more diverse. Therefore, it’s important that organisations consider it from the outset, rather than half-way into planning events just because they feel required to.

We know that people from under-represented groups can be reluctant to apply for speaker slots, but just encouraging them from a distance shouldn’t be as far as the effort goes. We need to be actively reaching out to under-represented groups – going to them rather than them coming to us. Often, people from these groups feel underqualified to take up a speaker slot or play a part in a panel discussion, for example, so it’s our job to tell them otherwise.

The widely-cited phenomenon “imposter syndrome” – where high achieving individuals have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud” – is common amongst women, and countless research has proved that women are more likely to undervalue and undersell themselves at work. The wording of how speakers are targeted can be crucial here – rather than reaching out for “experts” to join a panel, how about asking for those that can provide “advice”, “knowledge” or insight on a certain topic?

We’re pleased that almost half of our speakers for this year’s Camp Digital are female, including all three of our keynote addresses. However, we know this could be more and although we have encouraged ethnic diversity in previous events, our BAME representation is poor this year. That’s why, as explained earlier, this year our Camp Digital event is an Upfront (opens in new tab)conference - it’s vital that the sector takes actions rather than just words to make events in the sector more diverse.

2. Expand your network 

Seek advice from a pool of people from the tech community on their thoughts around how diversity can be increased. This includes talking to those from the demographics you are trying to attract around their pain points with events like yours, and what would make them more attracted to attending or speaking at them. We always welcome feedback around our conferences and speaker panels and take it on board if the industry says we need to do better. 

As part of this, tech companies should welcome suggestions on more diverse speakers. If organisations only speak to the people they already know, it will be extremely difficult to build a diverse speaker panel. Teaming up with specialist groups – women in tech groups, for example – to spread the word that you are looking for speakers will be beneficial.

Asking them to tweet a link to your event or speaker programme is great, but ultimately, playing the long game by developing relationships with leaders in these networks will be extremely beneficial. 

Not-for-profit digital trade body, Manchester Digital, also advocates this approach and suggests engaging with ambassadors in the community for the groups that you particularly want to interact with. They mention the hundreds of available meetups, groups and individual champions who can help, and remind us that everyone is working towards the same goal. The organisation also suggests the option of offering training bursaries or training to under-represented groups – something that has worked for them in the past.

3. Make your event accessible to all 

There may be talented people and possible future speakers who can’t attend your event on certain occasions due to other commitments, illness, or even a lack of funds. It’s therefore important for organisers to consider using multiple channels to communicate lessons from the day – such as web feeds, videos and live social media updates. Organisers might also want to offer free tickets to members of groups that they would really like to see at events.

It’s also important that accessibility to physical events is considered to ensure those have specific access needs can attend events with no issues. Small things, like ensuring there are lifts in the building for those who can’t use stairs and making sure signage at the event is suitable for those with visual impairments, can make a significant difference.

4. Strive for continuous improvement

Creating a truly diverse event takes a lot of work and organisers will understand that it won’t happen over the space of one conference. However, organisers should look to continually improve year on year, perhaps by setting quotas, or actively doing more each year to encourage a more diverse speaker list. Keep track of your progress every year and it’s worth remembering that it will take a strong leadership team to ensure diversity and inclusion continues to be a priority.

There’s no quick and easy way to solve the tech sector’s diversity issue, but it’s an issue that can longer be ignored. The scale of the issue is large and I hope this article can keep conversations going and encourage the development of more initiatives to promote inclusion and diversity at conferences and the wider tech sector. Conferences are a great way to share ideas and start conversations in the dynamic tech sector – but a diverse speaker and attendee list is vital to do this. It’s also important that any diversity initiatives are encouraged to live beyond the event, through pledges or follow-up sessions.

And ultimately, as Manchester Digital reminds us: “Diversity is something that people are really passionate about and it’s an emotive subject. It’s important to highlight where there are problems, but also to remember that most people are trying to do the right thing. Don’t admonish people – encourage and offer solutions.”

Hilary Stephenson, managing director of digital user experience agency, Sigma (opens in new tab)
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Hilary Stephenson is the founder and MD of North West digital user experience (UX) design agency Sigma, having set up the business 11 years ago.