Seek a topic, not a gender

Natalie Warnert

Women in Agile and its members frequently receive requests to recommend female speakers because apparently they are hard to find. While I appreciate the effort and attention to gender parity, I feel like asking for female speakers is the wrong approach. It feels more about a quota than caring about the quality and the expertise of the speakers themselves. As a conference organizer I wouldn’t want to get called out for not having enough diverse speakers on a panel, but as a speaker I also don’t want to feel that the token reason I was chosen was because of my gender. Conferences need to challenge themselves to consider what their outcome is for a more diverse lineup of speakers, not just diversity for diversity’s sake.

This blind recommendation approach to seeking female speakers, however well intentioned, is not the best or most sustainable approach. Female speakers are not hard to find. They are out there, prevalent, and speaking at local meet ups, regional gatherings and at large conferences. In the conferences I’ve attended recently, I’ve seen as many as 60 percent female with about 30-35 percent being the average (increased in the last 5 years from 20-25 percent). I’m not saying this is good enough or we should stop seeking out diversity, but a blind quota is not the way. Conferences can be better allies and achieve more diversity by asking for what topics they are looking for, making clearer submission guidelines, offering travel compensation (at minimum), and marketing more broadly for speakers, particularly keynotes.

When I am asked to recommend a speaker (regardless of gender) I first ask what topic they are looking for. That is much more relevant to my recommendation than the gender of the speaker I may recommend (thought it likely will be a woman because I know a lot of great ones). This helps speakers to promote their brand and expertise in something they’re truly polished in for an audience and conference that is looking for just that niche. It’s a win-win!

Sometimes the argument is that women just don’t submit, regardless of the topic. A symptom of this is the black hole that conference submission systems can be. They have gotten better over the years, but many still feel like a secret club where things go in and only rejections come out. To help the entire agile conference community make these more transparent, explain clearly what each section is looking for (e.g. more information for the reviewers = give me an outline with time stamps for your presentation), post a sample submission that is great, allow reviewers to leave feedback to help submitters refine their ideas. Think about doing blind submissions with no names to avoid any inherent bias (it does exist). Yes, this is more work but the results are much higher quality and submission numbers and diversity increase. Imposter syndrome is real, so let’s take some of the risk out to increase the ideas that flow in.

Compensation is difficult for smaller conferences, but not impossible. Even offering just a small travel stipend (hotel night and a flight voucher) makes a huge difference. My primary thesis research showed that the second most common reason women are less involved in the agile community than men (in regards to speaking, blogging, etc.) is that their companies do not offer financial support to do so. There are many sponsors that would be willing to sponsor travel to increase diversity or maybe knock down your keynote or catering fees a bit to help with this – we know it costs money! Regardless of what you do, Women in Agile encourages speaker fee transparency from the start of the submission process so submitters can make an informed decision before they submit (if you are uncomfortable posting what you’re paying that’s an indicator that there may not be enough inclusion – hard truth).

Finally, market more broadly for more diverse speakers. Don’t use the usual channels exclusively. Twitter is great but try your local meetups too (I guarantee you have them). Post on LinkedIn groups, ask to use our Women in Agile reach for the topics you are looking for or utilize our Launching New Voices program to help develop new speakers through pairing them with mentors. Don’t just keep going back to your friends and the same voices as that isn’t helping increase diversity of ideas and voices.

Female speakers are prevalent and want to be recognized and sought out because of their talent, passion, and expertise. Make that apparent in your requests and try new things when trying to increase diversity of thought and ideas. Last but certainly not least, ensure your conference has a posted code of conduct that all participants agree to. This may seem small, but it goes a long way to show all participants that their safety is important. Myself and many others will not speak at conferences that do not have a code of conduct. You are welcome to start with ours.


Want more information? Have thoughts? Reach out to us at impact@womeninagile.org.

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