Based in Portland, Oregon, Superopinionated is a blog by Courtneys Stanton. Their posts examine life through the lenses of addiction recovery, intersectional feminism, and mental illness.

How I Got 50% Women Speakers at My Tech Conference

Hi! In case we’ve never met, the elevator pitch for me goes something like: interactive media/videogames/project management/social justice/interior design/travel/semi-hatred of conferences. Like, *for real* I am not an enjoyer of conference content most of the time, despite going to several of them every year. I always end up sitting in a room listening to the same four straight white men agree with each other on some panel, and then I wander over to the expo floor where a person who doesn’t know anything about the product hands me a flyer and a pen Oh and if I’m *really* lucky, I’ll have paid over a thousand dollars in travel expenses and registration fees.

And so I put on my Ambition hat and decided that rather than complain on Twitter endlessly (well…in addition to, I guess), I should put together a conference for game developers, just to see if it was possible to make one that I would actually attend with enthusiasm. I ended up calling it No Show Conference, because it’s not about pageantry, glitz, or any of the “slick” stuff I see at a lot of conferences. Here, have a link: noshowconf.com

My Criteria:
– Not a bajillion dollars to register
– Don’t make attendees use vacation time just to show up
– Different entry fee/access level for hobbyists/newbies/students/broke friends
– Nothing included should be a waste of time, including the traditional expo hall
– Have an anti-harassment policy and train volunteers on enforcing it
– No panels

And then, because I am sneaky, I also had a secret agenda.

Unstated Criteria:
– Try to get as many women on stage as I possibly could

Since I was the one who made the conference up, I’ve got total control over setting price, etc, so all of my stated criteria have been very easy to enact so far. But getting women in the lineup at game conferences is seemingly difficult, given that so few events even have women speaking at all. I run a monthly networking group in Boston for women in the game industry and their allies, so I know the issue (at least locally) isn’t that there aren’t enough women with innovative, interesting things to say. What gives?

The easiest way I saw for getting more women on stage at the actual event was to get as many women to submit speaking proposals as possible. Selecting presentations was done without speaker information associated with the titles and pitches, so I wasn’t able to “reserve” spaces in the program for anyone based on aspects of their identity — and I wasn’t interested in that sort of reservation system for this event, anyway. It’s a come-one-come-all event for game industry professionals, so more than anything I wanted a really strong set of talks, even if that meant I ended up with, sigh, yet another roster of all dudes.

So! Getting women to submit content: easy? Um. When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

I promised mentoring, I promised practice sessions, I promised one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have spent hundreds of hours speaking at conferences. I emailed my Women in Games Boston group, I attended events and encouraged groups of women in person, I sought women out online, I met with women over coffee. I encouraged/begged them to consider translating the hours and hours I’d spent with them in the past talking about their careers, their specialties, their ideas, into a 45-minute presentation. I told them how much I respected their reputations and their ideas and that I’d be thrilled if they had the time or interest in submitting a talk.

Did every woman respond like that? No. But it was very much the minority situation, me promoting the conference and having a woman say, “oh, okay, does [concept] sound like a good fit?” and then them actually turning around and submitting a proposal. One or two women versus every single man who submitted content. (Also, while I have spoken either in person or online with every woman who submitted, several of the proposals submitted by men were guys I’d never met.)

We ended up getting 18 submissions (8 women, 10 men) for 10 planned slots. In between launching the conference and selecting talks, the keynote speaker I had lined up fell off the face of the planet, but super-conveniently for me, one of the submitted talks was a scorchingly good topic for a keynote, so kaboom, problem solved. Then, I couldn’t get the final selection list down to 10. I had 11 and they were all great, covering things I hadn’t seen presented elsewhere. So I reworked the conference schedule, made room for the extra presentation, and called it a win. What we’ve ended up with is a speaker lineup of 6 men and 6 women and *I swear that was not planned* but hey, it’s convenient for my thesis that you can put together a games conference for the industry at large and still get more than one token woman in your lineup.

Having a non-trivial number of women submitting presentations seems to have made it so that a non-trivial number of women are speaking at No Show Conference. Imagine that.

Huge giant HOWEVER: I came away from the process of promoting and recruiting potential speakers with a bitter, unwilling sympathy for event organizers who say, “there aren’t any women speaking because no women applied.” Like oh em gee y’all. I am hoping that this year’s conference is successful enough that I can make it an annual event, and that these months of cheerleading will have planted some idea seeds that I reap when it comes time to wave the pom poms and encourage speaker submissions next year. I’m hoping that the women speaking this year will in turn encourage other women to apply.

I’m hoping I run into fewer women who self-reject their ideas before I even get a chance to read them.

So hey, I was hoping to get some women on stage and it looks like that was achieved! Hooray! …Hooray? Wellll…while I am really, really pleased with our speaker lineup and our session content, I realize that this is not Nature’s Perfect Conference (yet). But I figured the only way to find new problems was to get some of these recurring, obvious ones out of the way. (And I didn’t even set out to tackle *all* of the obvious diversity problems, just the one I felt I’d be most likely to succeed at this time around.) It’ll be really cool when I, as a white person, figure out how to promote speaker submissions more/more effectively to people of color in my industry. Likewise with QUILTBAG game developers and thinker-types. I think I lucked out somewhat in our venue this year from an accessibility standpoint (ramps, elevators, handicap stalls in all the bathrooms), but I definitely wouldn’t claim that I’ve covered all the bases of accessibility for potential attendees (yet) Short version: I’m not perfect, neither is this event, but I am looking for ways to make it better and more open to all people working in games, both this year and in future years. And in the meantime, at least I’m putting on a conference where a version of myself from another dimension wouldn’t sit in the audience tweeting, “oh hey, a panel with a bunch of dudes on it, how novel.”

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