Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Conference diversity discussions makes my kids be late from school

The topic of diversity in conferences lures me in and makes me pay the tax of time away from things I thought I would be focusing on. Sometimes I think someone needs to do it. More often I just can't help myself. To an extent that I forgot to send out my daughter to school on time this morning being intellectually engaged in thinking about this.

It should be a normal thing by now that one of the women will ask if a conference is low on women. The best of conferences work hard to encourage and reach out to more diverse set of speakers (not just women), but the worst conferences respond with questionable approaches.
I look around quite much, but just as I'm sure this conference had never heard of me (because I'm confident in passing "extensive screening" as they describe it on their pages), I had not heard of them. Now I have and know a place to not go to.

Personally I believe extensive screening would include both knowing your options (that would naturally lead to more women in the program) and knowing their contents - not just the latter.

With lists of hundreds and yet again hundreds of great female voices in tech and agile all around the internet, there's often something wrong when the end result is women not having been reached out and not on the program. This is organizer work, to work on their natural biases of connections. Saying there is not more of worthy female voices is another excuse. Today that could  be someone else's discussion.

Yesterday I suggested that for those who actively look for women (or great speakers), looking for paying work would provide better results. I got responses, for which three I feel I must address to get them off my chest.

Don't bite the hand that feeds you!

I am a conference speaker. 33 sessions of various sorts in 2015, and close to 20 booked for this year. Very few sessions that pay for my time, but just enough to afford this expensive hobby. My side business income goes completely to support other businesses (conferences) who don't pay expenses (nor fees). I'm taking my side business up a notch and starting to pay other women's travel through scholarships. I clearly can't change the conferences, but I can change things for the women like me.

Writing posts about diversity is deemed as biting the hand that feeds me. The conferences give me a platform to speak and I respect that. But using that platform does not include a promise of not saying that I disagree with their approach that I live by when I feel like it.

I can ask for more and better even from the best ones out there, like Agile Testing Days. And they are great in seeking solutions to get one step closer to where we should be if in any way possible.

Women don't self-promote - my fault I wasn't invited!

Whenever I talk with people about why I find easily a hundred new women to choose from for my conferences & meetups every year (and need only 20), I realize my approach is very different. I'm a woman who talks to women and men in conferences to find out their passion and experience. That information in many cases transforms into a great talk.

I just got an email a week back. A lady from Finland emailed me to tell she had accepted a speaking position at the local major commercial conference because the conference knew to contact her. They knew, because she was on my list of people who amazed me in the last  year that I forwarded to the organizers. She did not know this, as far as I know. She said in her email that she remembered a discussion she had with me last autumn on speaking and she had been thinking about it since. When asked, all she needed was to get to work on something she wanted. She asked my mentoring, which I happily commit to. Find you ambassador. Even better, recognize that is a service you could pay for. I do it only for those organizations I'm self-invested in seeing succeed for a deep, personal connection.

With this background, it feels weird being told that women need to self-promote better. That we should share stuff continuously. That we should be out there, not just in our work places. That's a tricky balance. I organize a lot. Most men take the platform I organize and just self-promote - smart prioritization or an inherent bias - who knows. I speak and write (share) a lot. But I also still test. Every day. I'm not a consultant selling myself - as in getting paid for that. Everyone sells themselves to some degree. I'm a tester, in love with a better world for software professionals and in particular success of the product I work with on a daily basis.

Whenever I hear something women don't do, I think of something women do do. When women stay focused on the success of their product in company, they are not visible outside as much. When women focus on being visible, they do a little less of something else. The balance is hard, but it is also something that there isn't one recipe for.

I've been told speakers fit a pattern. The pattern seems to identify that conference speakers are company evangelists or consultants selling their skills. The diversity I care for most isn't gender, it is to hear more voices of people who do this stuff for majority of their time. People who focus on doing, are not promoting. But they are ones with interesting questions and engaging discussions in conference after-hours who need to asked to speak / share. All genders. 

It's easy to get to a feeling of being an imposter. There's always something I have to do to be wanted ('If your job would be more interesting', 'If you would spend more time promoting yourself'). It's never what I do now, it's always something different. I've even heard I need to look different to fit the part. Enough crowd, all kinds of views and it's good to remember that feedback often tells you more about the giver than the receiver. It's not that I'm stalled, but I'm internally driven.

Speaking is self-promoting. It also (for me) comes from a place of deeply caring for people around me. I've failed and learned, I'm trying things. Dialog helps me improve and gives different things to different listeners.

I was speaking first, self-promoting actively later. So I will speak for speakers who start from just sharing to learn. My peers. People as shy to express their true thoughts as I was when I was younger.  People who need the encouragement from me that I got from the amazing people around me when I needed it.

Fixed amount of money and who deserves it?

The last bit I want to share on is the discussions I end up in with people assuming I have no sympathy for the organizing work. As serial organizer, I might not emphasize enough how hard a job that is and how that too - obviously - should be paid for. There's also a financial risk. The organizers pay the bills even when the participants don't buy the tickets. And scale of participation matters, a lot.

You should get paid for the hours you put in organizing a conference. Just like the speakers should be paid for the hours they put in speaking at your conference.

One full-time organizer is 150 hours / month. With one conference for the year, that's 1800 hours. And most have organizing teams.

If you then have a speaker, let's say it takes 80 hours to a talk with all necessary pieces (often more as you first use days on abstracts, submit & get rejected, try again, get accepted, organize all the travel related details, promote the conference for months in your channels, prep and practice the talk and travel and deliver it).  That's little compared to organizing.

But let's say you have 100 speakers. That is 8000 hours of free labour, and a much more relevant figure in comparison to the full-time organizer.

Do your math and find a way to split the money is all I'm saying. Keeping the organizer alive is in everyone's interest - organizer needs to be paid to do it again. Find a way of sharing the risk so that payments are conditional:
  • Pay (more) IF financially successful after covering running costs including organizer compensation
  • Pay (more) IF delivered session attracts lot of attendees
  • Pay (more) IF speaker promotion brings paying customers
Eventually, the problem seems to be that there just isn't enough money around to share in relation to how much work there is to get a conference running. And we're used to cheap conferences and speakers volunteering for practice / promotion reasons. But that could change.

When I told a speaker at European Testing Conference that we will be paying them - every one of them - for speaking, I remember his face and response. He looked at me, puzzled and said: "I don't speak at conferences to be paid, I speak to share and learn, and make my money elsewhere". I respect that. But not all of us do. My claim is that many women don't opt for speaking because of the financial reasons. 

Speakers and organizers are in a symbiotic relationship. Could we improve the win-win here? 

1 comment:

  1. I've just finished organizing an agile conference in Kraków. Paying speakers was scary, because the conference barely breaks even as it is. Paying for speaker time and travel was a 40,000 Euro risk. But I did it, and the result was that we got almost four times as many talk proposals as we had in previous years and most of the increase was proposals from women. We ended up with a speaker lineup that was 45% female. What's surprising, though, is that we also sold more tickets than ever before and got three times as many sponsors as last year, and ultimately earned a profit. When I've finished crunching all the numbers, I plan to write about how the process worked and to speculate about why it worked, so that other agile conference organizers might learn from my experiment.

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