Vicky Carmichael

Improving the tech event experience for marginalised people

This post starts with a caveat: there is no one-size-fits-all solution to making your tech event more inclusive to all marginalised people.

There are many interconnected and overlapping factors at play including race, gender identity, sexuality, income, education, disability and more.

The single best piece of advice I can give you if you want to improve your event experience for specific groups of people is to ask them about their experience, listen to what they have to say, and respond to their feedback.

That said, the aim of this post is to put forward some ideas of where to start in trying to make your tech events more inclusive, with some specific examples from Tito customers and across the tech industry.

A couple of quick definitions

  • Underrepresented — Where the makeup of a particular group isn’t reflective of the wider population that group inhabits. For example, around 39% of California’s population is Latinx. Yet among Silicon Valley tech companies, Latinxs make up just 6% of the workforce.
  • Marginalised — The idea that some groups are largely treated as insignificant or peripheral, usually because they are a minority within that space or field.

Why are we talking about this?

Honestly, the world doesn’t really need another well-intentioned white, able-bodied, cishet woman’s perspective on this subject. I would hope it’s obvious why it matters that we make every effort to address deeply ingrained systemic imbalances.

For some introductory reading, I recommend The Other Side of Diversity by Microsoft Engineering Manager Erica Joy. In this first-person account she speaks about being the only black woman in the team, how she spent many years suppressing her identity to make other people feel comfortable, and how this led to her losing a sense of her authentic self.

In closing she says:

“I am not my job. I am not my industry or its stereotypes. I am a black woman who happens to work in the tech industry. I don’t need to change to fit within my industry. My industry needs to change to make everyone feel included and accepted.”

I also recommend Unlocking the Invisible Elevator: Accessibility at Tech Conferences by Mozilla Bugmaster and frequent conference speaker Liz Henry. In it, she details her experience as a wheelchair user being assured by event organisers that “of course their venue is accessible” only for her to turn up and realise they haven’t thought about all the practicalities, and don’t seem to be open to her advice. Again, she calls for structural change as the solution, rather than addressing each case as an individual problem to be solved.

There are just two stories from two people. There are millions more to be heard. So how do we start to bring about change?

Hire and collaborate with people different to you

Is your organising committee or selection panel as diverse and representative as the speaker lineup you’d like to programme, or the audience you’d like to attract to your event? If not, that’s a problem.

If you want to make your event more accessible for people with disabilities, consult people living with disabilities. If you’re baffled as to why your events don’t attract more people of colour, ask people of colour to share their honest thoughts.

Two important notes on this point:

  1. The onus isn’t on marginalised people to solve your problems for you. And they certainly shouldn’t be expected to offer consultancy as a favour or for free. Pay people for their time and expertise.
  2. Resist the urge to get defensive at the feedback you receive. Believe what people tell you, even if it doesn’t match your own perception or indeed your intention. Be humble, listen, learn, and grow.

If you’re not sure who to approach or how to start the conversation, you could try researching and contacting advocacy groups working with marginalised people and ask them to point you in the right direction. Check out this awesome list, compiled by School of Code’s Bhish Patel.

Also check out the Diversify Tech site, a collection of resources for underrepresented people in tech, run by Software Engineer Veni Kunche. Their #ChangeTheRatio page features underrepresented people in tech looking for jobs, and there's also a job board where you can post career opportunities.

Set the tone

If your event doesn’t already have a Code of Conduct, that’s the first thing to fix. A CoC is not only a declaration that you are committed to providing an inclusive event experience. If executed well, it sets expectations for how attendees should behave and lets them know what will happen if they violate the code.

But rather than grab a cookie-cutter CoC template for your site, take inspiration from those who’ve gone a step beyond.

AlterConf, a now-ended conference which aimed to provide safe opportunities for marginalized people, included an etiquette guide on their site in addition to the CoC. This offered specific guidance for protecting the safety of yourself and others at the conference. It highlighted trigger/content warnings for talks, encouraged participants to excuse themselves from a session if they need do, and provided specific pointers for how to behave in a respectful way, including respecting people’s pronouns and not distracting service animals from their duties.

Plenty of conference CoCs include details of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and what may lead to participants being ejected from the conference. But I like how #causeascene’s Code of Conduct also details behaviours that are expected and requested of all conference community members, including participating in an authentic and active way, and attempting collaboration before conflict.

We’ve talked in detail before about the Code of Conduct for Admission, our own conference, and welcome you to take a look if you need inspiration or if you’re introducing a CoC for the first time at your event. In it, we take inspiration from events like Write/Speak/Code in explicitly stating that we prioritise marginalised people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. This means we reserve the right not to act on complaints regarding “reversisms”, reasonable communication of boundaries, and criticising oppressive behaviours.

Open your conference up to underrepresented groups

Many events (though not all) find that, with a bit of dedication, they can program a diverse and representative lineup of speakers. But their audience remains frustratingly homogenous.

Part of that is due to the homogeneity of the wider context in which the event operates. For instance, if the majority of tech leads in your area are white men, your conference for tech leads is likely to attract a lot of white, male participants, and traditional marketing efforts may not reach other groups.

One way to counter this is to proactively encourage participation from underrepresented groups through offering diversity or opportunity tickets and/or scholarships. Typically these are free or heavily discounted tickets, and may also include travel and accommodation expenses.

There’s no one way to run a scholarship program or to “get it right”, but I wanted to highlight the approach taken by JSConf EU and CSSConf EU. Now in its fourth year, their Scholarship Program provides individuals from underrepresented groups with support to attend either conference.

JSConf EU 2019
Image description: Screenshot of JSConf EU's 2019 website.

As their site explains: “Anyone from an underrepresented group in tech is invited to apply for a scholarship. We especially invite and welcome Black, Indigenous & People of Color, QTIBIPOC (queer, trans, black, and indigenous people of color)/LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and people facing economic or social hardships”.

In 2018, they were able to give away 80 tickets with the support of sponsors, and other attendees purchasing special “Diversity Support Tickets”.

Application to the program is via a short online form, and submissions are anonymised. They are then voted on by a jury of four people across two rounds. The scholarship page includes a list of answers to commonly asked questions about eligibility and the application process.

In addition to offering free tickets to individuals from underrepresented groups in tech and those facing economic or social hardship, The Lead Developer conference also offers to pair scholars with volunteer guides—an experienced member of the community to help you get the most out of attending the event.

If you’re already running a scholarship program or offering diversity tickets and you’re struggling to get the word out about it and attract submissions, there are a couple of things you can try:

  • Reach out to special interest groups working with underrepresented groups and ask them to share the details and link to your scholarship page.
  • Submit your event to dedicated listing sites and Twitter feeds such as the previously mentioned Diversify Tech’s tech conference scholarships page, and Diversity Tickets, a platform to help conference organisers manage their diversity tickets and offer underrepresented groups in tech a platform to find events they can apply for.

Improve accessibility

A commitment to accessibility should go beyond making sure your venue has wheelchair ramps and an induction loop. Not all disabilities are physical or visible. For more insight into this topic, check out our interview with the Invisible Disabilities Association here

As the W3 Web Accessibility Initiative site puts it:

“Basically, be aware that some of your audience might not be able to see well or at all, hear well or at all, move well or at all, speak well or at all, or understand information presented in some ways well or at all.”

In this section, we offer a non-exhaustive checklist of questions to ask yourself throughout the conference organising process, with links to valuable resources. 

Your website

The A11y Project has a Web Accessibility Checklist to help ensure your website meets the needs of users with different accessibility requirements. It includes pointers like:

  • Adding ARIA Landmarks to outline the regions on the page to help assistive technology (AT) users orient themselves.
  • Declaring the language attribute to help screen readers read out the text with the correct pronunciation.
  • Adding alt text to describe the content of links and images.
  • Optimising forms by grouping related form elements.
  • Providing text alternatives for audio files and real-time transcripts for video content.
  • Testing colour contrast for different types of colour blindness.

They also link to some resources for testing your site and simulating the experience of a user with a disability.

Your location and venue

You chosen location is crucial in setting the tone for your event. You might have the wonderful idea of hosting your conference in some remote setting, such as on an island or up a mountain for a wow factor that will set you apart from your competitors. But doing so may inadvertently exclude people with disabilities if you don’t give this some careful thought.

The following checklist offers some pointers for questions to ask yourself when selecting a venue:

  • Is there accessible public transport nearby (ideally within 500 metres)?
  • If your venue offers self-parking, do they have clearly signposted, reserved, accessible parking spaces?
  • Are external routes to the venue accessible to attendees with walking aids, wheelchairs and mobility scooters?
  • Can all attendees use the same entrance? If not, is the accessible entrance clearly signposted and does it offer the same quality of event experience?
  • Is the height of the registration desk suitable for wheelchair users?
  • Can spaces on different floors be reached by ramp and/or elevator? Can these be used independently or do you need to have someone on hand to help? Are elevator buttons at the right height for wheelchair users?
  • Do signs and elevator buttons include Braille labels?
  • Do all external and indoor doors in use by attendees during the event have disabled access?
  • Are there accessible toilets on the same floor as your conference sessions?
  • Are your catering and break spaces accessible? Do you have seating for people who cannot stand for long periods or to eat?
  • Is your stage accessible for speakers who may have restricted mobility?
  • What are the emergency evacuation procedures and what provisions are in place for people with restricted mobility?
  • Are there visual cues or alternative emergency devices for deaf or hard of hearing attendees for when the emergency or fire alarm goes off?
  • Does your session space have an induction loop? If not, can you hire a provider?
  • Have you asked these same questions of any other spaces you’ll be using for the event (e.g. speaker dinner, after party)?

If a disabled attendee needs to bring a personal assistant with them, the assistant’s ticket should be free, and reserved seating should be made available so that they are able to sit together. Make it clear on your website that service animals are welcome at your event, and advise your team on the proper etiquette for interacting with a working animal.

You may want to consider also providing remote participation opportunities for people with disabilities, those who can’t or don’t wish to travel, or people who find crowds challenging. But this should be in addition to making your event accessible for people attending in person, rather than as a replacement.

Your speakers’ presentations

Work with speakers to ensure their talks and slides are accessible. There is an excellent resource on the Web Accessibility Initiative site offering advice including:

  • Offering material in accessible formats and providing it ahead of time if requested, to participants, interpreters and captioners.
  • Adding captions to audio.
  • Making text and visuals legible from the back of the room by choosing easy-to-read fonts, making it large enough and choosing colours that contrast each other effectively.
  • Speaking clearly and using simple language to get your point across.
  • Repeating audience member’s questions before answering them, if the person asking the question doesn’t have a microphone.

If your conference will feature live coding, encourage developers to display their code as largely as possible and to describe their actions in detail. As author of Accessibility Wins blog, Marcy Sutton, explains: “without saying aloud what's happening on the screen, blind and low vision folks can't follow along.”

Consider offering real-time captioning for talks—sometimes called Computer Assisted Real-time Translation (CART). This will not only benefit many attendees with hearing or cognitive disabilities, but also people for whom the session language is not their mother tongue. Many CART providers will allow you to provide a link to the real-time transcription, which users can view on their own device and customise the look and feel of to their requirements.

If you offer a sign language interpreter, ensure the lighting is good enough for them to be seen.

Make this a priority

If improving event experience for marginalised people is a top priority for your event, here are some more ideas of places to start, with real-life examples for inspiration (or in one case as a cautionary tale), in no particular order:

  • Encourage people to get in touch and ask questions, and make every effort to accommodate their requests. JSConf EU does a beautiful job of this on their Accessibility page, explaining that “if you couldn’t buy an early bird ticket because your accessibility question couldn’t be resolved in time”, they’ll honour the discounted price.
  • Pay speakers for their time, as well as covering their costs. If you want a representative lineup, you need to remove as many barriers to participation as possible. And definitely don’t say you can’t pay but you can offer “experience, audience and publicity”, when you’re secretly paying other higher profile speakers.

  • Offer support to new and experienced speakers if you want to encourage increased participation. ng-conf does this in lots of ways, including helping people polish their CFP submissions during public “office hours” sessions, offering professional speaker training, and slide reviews. They also offer to supply personalised feedback to people whose talks haven’t been accepted, so that they stand a better chance of being selected in the future.

  • Use gender-inclusive language on your website, in your marketing, and when communicating with conference participants. This graphic from QMUNITY offers some suggested swaps, such as “folks” over “guys”, when addressing a group.

    non gendered language

  • If your event is catered, make an effort to accommodate people’s dietary requirements, be they religious, ethical, or due to an allergy or intolerance. Ask your attendees to submit this information on your event registration form (Tito customers can use Data Collection for this). Make sure food options are clearly labelled at the event, and check that catering staff are able to answer allergen-related questions.

  • If you can offer childcare, it will open up your conference to parents who might not otherwise be able to attend. For advice on how to implement this, check out the AdaCamp Toolkit. They also offer pointers for other ways you can make your event more inclusive to parents, such as providing a “nursing room to accommodate nursing babies staying with their parent”.
  • Provide pronoun identifier labels. In an event where people will likely be making regular introductions, these can be a useful visual aid. To save you the time of designing them yourself, you can download a .pdf template from YupGup on Medium.

  • Seek consent from people before you take their photo. In addition to being best practice from a data protection perspective, it will also help make some of your attendees feel safer if they know their photo won’t suddenly appear online. Again, you can ask people’s preference on your registration form, and you can use different coloured lanyards as a signifier for who has and hasn’t consented to having their picture taken. And of course, make sure to communicate this clearly to your photographer(s) and videographer(s).

  • Offer t-shirts in a variety of fits and sizes. You may also want to give some thought to how you’re describing them, and how your words might be interpreted. Could “men’s” and “women’s” be replaced with “straight-cut” and “fitted”, for instance? As Terence Eden points out in this short post on the topic, it can be tricky to balance being inclusive with being widely understood, but “language choice matters. The words we choose to use have an impact.”
  • Include content warnings where sessions contain sensitive material that may cause distress for some participants. Data Scientist Reshama Shaikh’s detailed retrospective on Write/Speak/Code explains that “emails…sent the day prior to any talks that were deemed “potentially triggering content.” Examples include topics of self-help, mental health, disability and others…prepared us as well as being a general acknowledgment that many of the topics, including those of career development, could trigger difficult feelings”. The whole post is a great read with tons of practical ideas.

  • Have alcohol free options and spaces at your event and after party. There are lots of reasons why your attendees may not want to drink or be around other people who are drinking, including moral or religious grounds, or previous negative experiences of being around drunk people. As regular conference speaker Rachel Andrew says, “making drinks the center of social events can also tend to exclude people who don’t choose to be 'one of the guys.'” In addition to serving non-alcoholic beverages for those who don’t wish to drink, is there a space where you can organise something fun to take place, where alcohol can’t be brought?
  • Designate a room or a space as a quiet/resting area, where people can go to find some calm—to read, snooze, reflect or just sit. This space should be comfortable and ideally a no-talking zone, so that people can mentally recharge and recover without feeling the burden of interacting with others. In addition to having a chill out space for this purpose, AngularConnect conference offers mindfulness and yoga as a means of relaxation.
  • As an event organiser, you usually have a choice about which vendors you’ll work with. So this is a great opportunity to support businesses who align with your goals. For example, XOXO festival “prioritizes working with women and minority-owned businesses and vendors who prioritize diversity and representation in their teams.”

There may be some ideas here that don’t work for your particular event, and there will most certainly be ideas we’ve missed. We welcome your suggestions and stories, and we’d love to hear what’s worked for you as an organiser, and how you’ve been made to feel included as an attendee.

It’s an ongoing process

There were a few diversity-focused and highly inclusive events which sadly closed their doors in recent years, including AdaCamp, Ela Conf and AlterConf. So that means the rest of the tech event space has a responsibility to pick up the slack.

I want to close with a tweet from 2014 that I think perfectly expresses my feelings about this:

Step 2 won’t be deliberate of course, but inevitably it’ll happen, and these are the learning moments. Don’t just be open to feedback, actively seek it out. Be transparent about the process, own your mistakes when they happen, and commit to doing better.

Change for the better isn’t just possible, it’s critical.