On Monday, March 12th, I participated in my fourth panel at SxSW 2012 titled: “Race: When to Hold it and When to Fold it.” The purpose of the panel was to change the conversation from “What can technology conferences do about diversity?” to “What can attendees do about diversity at technology conferences?” If you have a few minutes to spare, listen to the full panel via the link above.
In this post, I’d like to focus on why recommendations are a big part of diversifying conferences and how conference attendees (and speakers!) can help.
The (Echo) Chamber of Networks
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned using social media is that networks influence nearly everything a person does. Networks influence what we talk about, what we pay attention to, where we go, and who we recommend. Conference organizers have limited networks just like the rest of us. Because of this, they’ll only approach those that they readily know about. They may also try the Pie Chart of Diversity, which my co-panelist Scott Hanselman digs deeper into on his blog.
Both approaches can cause an echo chamber if the people approached run in similar circles. You end up inviting the choir to preach to themselves. That’s not the fault of the conference organizers, but they should have an awareness that allows them to check their networks and how much diversity they are surrounded by (see Scott’s post).
Here’s one way to get around that as an attendee: tell your network.
Tell A Friend or Your Network
It’s easy to write-off a conference when it doesn’t reflect your values or culture on the surface. This is the wrong way to handle the situation, especially if you found great benefit in attending the conference. My first suggestion to those looking to bring more diversity to an event or conference that they are not organizing is to tell your networks about the events that you see lacking in diversity.
When a conference attendee feels like they are the “token one” or alone at a conference, the first thing they should ask is ,”Did I invite my network?” Maybe it’s easier for you to branch out into new territory alone. Perhaps you were the only one in your network invited to attend the event. That doesn’t negate your responsibility to spread the word to your networks. So if your answer to the question above was ‘no’, then put up or zip it.
When you act on this responsibility something magical happens. You create a space for both networks to intersect in ways that diversify the color of the audience and the opinions that it collectively shares. You educate people and bring out a different side of them, making them more aware of what’s really going on around them right outside of their own networks. Sometimes, an introduction is the beginning to more.
So the next time you feel isolated or underrepresented at a conference, ask yourself, “What did I do to prevent this from happening? Did I invite my network?” If you don’t, now’s the time to start spreading the word on Facebook, Twitter, via email and other sites. Let your network know what’s going on! Motivate them to come out and get involved in a cool event with you. You’ll be thankful that you did and you won’t be alone.
I’d like to give a huge applause and cheer to my co-panelists, Adria Richards (Organizer), Latoya Peterson (Moderator), Anjuan Simmons and Scott Hanselman, for one of my favorite panels ever at SxSW. It was an honor to rock out and educate others with you all!