saturday, july 20, 2013
Last month I went to AdaCamp and learned a ton partly because the Ada Initiative runs it both as a place to discuss solving problems and as a testbed for better ways to hold conferences. Lots of conferences try to encourage a diverse group of participants and speakers, but making conferences better is specifically part of the Ada Initiative’s mission, and this was especially fun because a bunch of the participants were community organizers/managers/coordinators like me. Among topics such as running real-life meetups for open source projects and the ramifications of using gender-neutral usernames, we talked a lot about AdaCamp itself!
I’m in Portland for Community Leadership Summit this weekend, I’ll be at Defcon soon, and I’m going to XOXO in September, so I’ve been thinking about things AdaCamp did that I’d like to see more conference organizers consider. Of course I like the idea of making tech events better for women, but this stuff is especially interesting to me because worthwhile efforts to make a tech event more welcoming to women also make the event more welcoming to other non-majority types of people (for example, including women means not just including able-bodied women). It’s the magic of intersectionality! Some of these ideas are conveniently compiled on the page of resources for conference organizers on the Geek Feminism Wiki, but here’s my list too:
- If you have an application process, like AdaCamp and XOXO do, it’s great for the application to be as encouraging and inclusive as possible, with detail about how the conference is aiming for a crowd that is diverse in x and y and z ways. This is because an application process can discourage people who tend toward “impostor syndrome”: the feeling that you’re not cool enough for that conference, even if you’re actually the perfect attendee. At AdaCamp we talked about how this type of self-doubt is common in women who work in technical fields, and I imagine it’s also common among other kinds of non-majority people (or even simply people with anxiety issues). A conference missing those people would not be the best possible conference!
- Before the conference, providing a list of nearby low-cost hostels and hotels. I’ve seen some conferences listing nearby hotels, but a lot of AdaCamp attendees appreciated seeing the lowest-cost hostel options as well as the usual options.
- Giving people a choice of badge lanyards: green meaning “photographs always ok”, yellow meaning “ask before photographing”, and red meaning “photographs never ok”. This can help people feel more comfortable, especially if they’re concerned about photos getting online with nasty comments attached to them. Defcon recently switched from “no photos” to “photos OK”; I don’t know whether switching to color-coded lanyards would be respected or mocked there, but I wonder if the organizers have considered it.
- Laying blue tape on the floor to mark access paths where people shouldn’t stand or put chairs/bags; you can label them “walk and roll” (ha ha). This is especially useful for people using wheelchairs and other tools to move around, but it’s also great for people who don’t like being stuck in crowds (pretty much everyone).
- Being explicitly inclusive of people of all gender identities, including considering labeling all-gender bathrooms along with men-only bathrooms and women-only bathrooms. The AdaCamp organizers emailed the attendee group with a proposal: since the venue provided two sets of women’s bathrooms and two sets of men’s bathrooms, and the conference would have 200 women and 20 men, and some people prefer single-gender bathrooms and some prefer all-gender bathrooms, how about re-labeling one set of men’s bathrooms as all-gender bathrooms (with a sign asking people not to use the urinals)? People agreed, and it worked well. I’d also be happy with organizers asking attendees for permission to re-label some women’s bathrooms as all-gender at conferences that generate long lines for men’s bathrooms (nobody likes long lines).
- Setting up a dedicated “quiet room” with a rule against talking in that room; people can use the space to nap or work/relax quietly. This is helpful for anyone who wants a moment to escape from the relentless socializing of conferences, since not everyone always has a nearby hotel room. (And not a “chillout” lounge like DefCon has, which is supposed to be low-key but isn’t very relaxing — music mixing with the sounds of people trying to hire each other, bad efforts at flirting, and groans of sleep deprivation.)
- Having a series of 90 second (1 slide) lightning talks - I thought 90 seconds sounded impossibly short compared to normal 5 minute lightning talks, but it turned out to be great. It’s fun to see tiny windows into what people find important enough to share, and it almost feels like watching a game that tests people’s sense of timing. The rules excluded doing recruiting pitches or ads for commercial products, which helped keep things interesting. 90 seconds is also short enough that even inexperienced speakers can plan something without a lot of preparation, giving them confidence for future speaking. (I told AdaCamp how playing Nethack as a kid gave me a sense of familiar territory when I later encountered the command line, and I was delighted that people enjoyed my tiny speech.)
- For evening meals: creating a spreadsheet on Google Docs with a list of nearby restaurants, and inviting people to type in their names to create small groups for dining out. There can also be a spot for naming a theme for the group (such as “open source community building” or “feminist nonprofits”), to help people find a group to join. At AdaCamp, this was a pleasant way for even shy people to opt into meeting new friends; the spreadsheet limited each group to ten people to keep things reasonable.
I haven’t been to WisCon, but its “Universal Design” accessibility policies and details go into more depth than I learned about at AdaCamp…a mind-boggling level of depth.