Have you ever gone to a tech conference and realized that the majority of the speakers look the same? Perhaps you’ve even witnessed a lineup that was lacking diversity completely.
I’m on that list. I’m most definitely not comfortable with that line up at all, nor is my company.
I hadnt even looked at any of it since accepting.
I’ve just emailed them to cancel my attendance, thank you for bringing this to attention.
— Richard Bradshaw (@FriendlyTester) April 10, 2018
It’s not just you. The disparity of women and minorities in tech is often reflected in speaking lineups at testing conferences. However, it’s not necessarily because there are none interested; it often comes down to other factors.
That’s why we talked to Speak Easy Co-Founder Fiona Charles to tell us a little bit more about some of the obstacles underrepresented groups face, how mentorship can provide the support and encouragement they need to get accepted to their first conference, and how conference organizers can provide more opportunities for diverse speakers.
Q: How does Speak Easy work?
A: We’re a volunteer organization that matches aspiring speakers with mentors who are themselves experienced speakers. We don’t dictate the interactions; we don’t tell our mentors how to mentor. Most of the time speakers are very generous with their time and have good ideas for getting started.
That’s a philosophically important statement about Speak Easy — we believe in context, partnership, and in working out the relationship to understand what the aspiring speaker needs.
Some people need help structuring a coherent talk and practicing it, some people need help understanding they have something to say. There are other things, too, like writing proposals, so they get help on all kinds of things depending on what they’re looking for in a mentor.
Q: What is Speak Easy’s mission?
A: We exist primarily to promote gender diversity at tech conferences. That’s how we started — Anne Marie [Charrett] and I were at a speaker event and looked around the room and said, “Where are all the women?” So we decided we wanted to do something about that, and that’s how Speak Easy started.
It doesn’t mean we don’t help men as well. Really it’s to help women, underrepresented groups, and new speakers to help them get into testing conferences.
Q: Why do you think there’s a lack of diversity at these conferences to start with?
A: One reason is that the tech industry is lacking gender balance, but another is role models.
The more women you have on a platform, the more you’re going to see. If you have four keynotes and none of them are women, you’re going to get fewer women wanting to come to conferences and fewer women thinking they could speak at one.
It’s about seeing people that look like you doing interesting things and feeling welcome because they are being given prominence at a conference, and I think that’s true whether that’s gender, racial diversity, ableism, or any other underrepresented group. So for us, it’s about helping women and new speakers understand that they are welcome and working with conferences to make sure they are welcome.
Q: What do you think conference organizers can do to attract more diverse speakers?
A: They can work with us to attract new speakers, which is a big part of our mission because it can be intimidating standing up at a conferences speaking. But they can also do other things to make people feel welcome.
Codes of conduct are very important. They’re symbolic in the sense the Code of Conduct says something about what the conference organizers believe in, and if used properly, it ensures you have a respectful atmosphere for diverse participation.
I think that it’s also incumbent on conference organizers to make an effort to invite more diversity, to actually go out and invite more women, more POC, more people who are disabled or in another minority group, to ensure they have a diverse platform.
Q: What’s the benefit for conferences to feature new speakers?
A: It’s really important to have new voices. I’ve done a lot of speaking, but how many times do people really want to hear me?
You want people who are engaged in the industry, who are discovering new things themselves and coming up with new ideas. We need to keep our ideas fresh, and different points of view are going to help that. Even if they might not have a different view on a testing topic, there could be a new perspective on how you operate in the workplace.
Q: What’s the benefit for new speakers in terms of professional development?
A: One is that if you speak at a conference, you get in for free. There’s a whole question there around paying to speak because if you have to travel, your expenses might not be covered. There are conferences that do pay for travel and those that do not, but speaking is certainly one way to get yourself into a conference without having to pay.
In terms of speaking, it really depends on where you want to go with your career, but I think speaking at a conference is a way to build your own confidence in your abilities. Certainly, someone who is confident in expressing their ideas and expressing them well is going to have an advantage in the workplace, whatever they’re doing. It’s a way of getting affirmation that your ideas are valuable.
A: Why should testing conferences consider covering speaker expenses? How does this encourage speaker diversity?
Q: It’s the speakers who make the conference happen. You can’t put a conference on without speakers.
When I started there was an idea that you had to pay your dues — you pay to speak because it helps you get started, and then after awhile, you wouldn’t have to because people would invite you and pay your expenses. But that’s a tough way to start.
It needs to be easier for new speakers to get started, and I think it can be particularly difficult for women to justify the expense of conferences for sociological reasons.
It also affects people from other countries. Someone from North America may be able to afford to speak at a conference in North America, but for people in other countries who may not be making the same, it’s different paying for those expenses and traveling from another country.
Q: What do you look for in mentor volunteers? On the other hand, what can someone do to be a good mentee?
A: Mentors should have the experience of speaking at multiple conferences because different conferences present different opportunities, and the more you do it, the more you add to your toolbox to help other people.
Mentees should, of course, listen to what the mentor has to say. You don’t have to take it as gospel — think about what will work for you. That’s kind of the difference between mentoring and coaching, which is a distinction that doesn’t always get drawn.
When I’ve mentored someone as a test manager, I’ve expected them to approach me first. I think a big part of the mentoring relationship is that it’s the person being mentored calling the shots.
You need to be proactive. You may not know all the questions you want to ask, but you need to be the one that takes the initiative to approach the mentor and start developing an idea of what it is that you need and what it is you’re going to do to come up with an engaging talk.
Q: Why should new speakers apply through the Speak Easy program?
A: We have an impressive list of experienced speakers as mentors, but also because we engage with conferences to form a partnership. Each conference we partner with will reserve at least one spot for our speakers, so you have a much better chance of getting your proposal accepted if you go through us.
Q: What’s your advice for new speakers?
A: Have a clear story and present your own experience; don’t speak from theory. Speak from ‘we tried this and that’s how it worked out for us’. Talk about things that didn’t go well in addition to things that did. People are very interested in hearing about other peoples’ experiences, and stories will help to make the learnings stick.