Speaker diversity

June 29, 2022

I was really pleased to have a session accepted for the PASS Data Community Summit in Seattle this coming November. The acceptance email said that 516 individuals had submitted 863 sessions, so it was a real honour to have been selected. I’ve attended many PASS Summit events over the years, including the virtual ones in 2020 and 2021. My first was in 2010 when I delivered two sessions plus a lightning talk, and I delivered another two sessions plus a lightning talk and added a pre-conference seminar in 2011 – the year when I also got on stage during the closing keynote. I served as a PASS Board member for 2.5 years about ten years ago, and continue to tell people that the PASS Summit is worth attending.

The world seems to be on-edge at the moment. And I don’t really mean “at the moment”, because there has been a progression, and I don’t think we’re going back. I should say “now”. We have moved our consciousness to be more inclusive and more equitable. We understand better (not completely, but better than before) that people’s circumstances are often not just a result of their own actions, but because of things outside their influence, and because of the way society handles them. Privileged people like me – tall white English-speaking able-bodied cis-gendered straight men have an easier time of life. We play the game on the ‘easy’ setting. Not by choice, but just because society affords that to us. I’d like to think that one day everyone will be able to enjoy the same privilege. I doubt that will happen any time soon. The world is “on-edge” because addressing diversity seems to be strangely contentious. Many people who have privilege don’t want to give it up. Many others are happy to go along with the status quo (which is almost the same stance as the privileged trying to hold onto privilege). But the biggest opportunity for change is for privileged people (like me) to try to do something. (And I know I don’t always get it right. I’m trying. I want to keep improving in this.)

So when the speaker email came out, I replied by asking how the diversity was looking. I also accepted the invitation to speak. I was a little surprised by some of the things in the reply. And I want to make it clear that I am not trying to attack Red Gate (who have produced the event since 2021) for the numbers that have come through. They have explained their desire for diversity and I admire that. This post is to provide suggestions on where I think it falls down, not to criticise them for a lack of trying.

They told me:

“As of today, our speaker diversity for the 2022 Summit has already exceeded our original goal of 40%. Of those who’ve been selected to date, 62% responded to the voluntary diversity questions within the call for speakers:

  • 22% stated they were women or not male
  • 22% gave pronouns other than he/him
  • 18% reported a non-white race or ethnicity
  • 7% are located outside of North America and Europe
  • 4% reported a disability

“With some overlap (where the same speaker falls into more than one of those categories), 43% of the speakers who’ve been selected so far who completed the voluntary diversity survey belonged to one or more of those categories.”

I don’t know how many speakers were selected. I know there was a pool of 516. And I know from past events that they will have around 200 sessions, with many speakers giving two sessions. And there will be plenty from Microsoft employees that haven’t been decided yet. So let’s assume there have been 130 speakers chosen. Of those, 62% provided answers to the diversity questions. I don’t know whether the people who didn’t answer are more diverse or less diverse, so I’m going to assume the same. (I happen to think it’s probably less diverse, but obviously I can’t be sure.)

22% of 130 is about less than 30. That includes women and anyone else who specified they were non-male. Less than 30 women, and over 100 men. 78% men. Nearly four in every five speakers is male.

And I could say similar about the 82% white people, given 18% reported non-white race or ethnicity.

43% of the speakers belong to at least one of the categories listed, meaning 57% are white able-bodied men from North America or Europe. And I’m in the 43%, because I live in Australia.

To me, this doesn’t feel like diversity goals have been met. But again, this is not about attacking Red Gate. It’s good that they want to address this at all.

The people at Red Gate wrote an open letter this week to the community, in which they addressed the diversity. They describe four methods they are using to promote diversity.

  • Mentorship & encouragement
  • Speaker invitations
  • Anonymous submission review process
  • Engaging the power of the community towards continuous improvement

Three of these I’m fine with, and again, I really love that they are making concerted efforts to develop diversity. But “anonymous submission review process” is an interesting one, and I wrote some tweets about this. After all, for all the community engagement and mentoring / encouragement, the submission review process is still the gateway that needs to be passed through to become a speaker, unless someone has bypassed it by invitation (and if there are lots of people invited, that means the ones chosen by the review process must be even worse than 22% non-male).

Some of those tweets (but there were quite a lot)…

Selected sessions without knowing who has submitted them was an initiative introduced some years back because of a fear that the same names were being chosen year after year. By removing the names from submissions, the program committee was able to select the sessions that they thought were the best without being influenced to pick the big names. Let me emphasise – this was an initiative to try to help address issues. It’s well-intended. That’s a good thing.

But I think it just means that the sessions that get chosen are the ones created by the people who are well-practised at creating sessions. The same names year after year.

And strangely, the criteria that is being used to select the sessions – the abstracts – aren’t generally used to advertise the conference or even consulted much by attendees at a conference, and they could be changed after the speakers have been selected. I hear about abstracts being dismissed because of spelling or grammatical errors (even because of people not using a ‘z’ in ‘optimise’, which is purely a translation error), which inadvertently favours people for whom American-English is their first language.

I think (and I’ve told this to people involved in discussions with Red Gate) that the the speaker pool should be chosen almost independently of the session abstracts. The specialisation areas of speakers could be a consideration, but also their speaking experience, their ability to draw a crowd, their expertise, and their diversity – satisfying the commercial side of the event with the need to reflect the diverse nature of the community. A mix of new blood and old blood can be selected, while ensuring strong coverage of specialisation and a balanced group of individuals. After creating a draft pool of speakers, the abstracts can be considered, and changes can still be made. Topics that aren’t covered could result in changes to the selected speakers, but could also be addressed by asking the selected speakers if they could create a session on that topic. If no one has submitted a session about database corruption, and the organisers want this covered, the speakers who often talk about this could be approached to see if they wouldn’t mind – regardless of whether or not they submitted a talk on that. That should already be the case, if topics are not covered by the 863 (this year) sessions submitted.

And despite tweeting that it’s reasonable to remove the names, I don’t even think it’s a good idea – reasonable, but not my preferred option. I think it’s better to see the names, so that the selection committee can consciously include or exclude a person who has been a speaker every year for the last five conferences. Make the decisions on an individual basis. This also helps address cases where people are known to be contentious and should maybe excluded, or at least flagged for further discussion.

Anonymous means equality, right? It’s that thing of refusing to do favourites. But we end up with the age-old image (and I don’t know who created it originally) comparing equality with equity, showing people who want to see over a fence to watch a baseball game. By trying to do ‘fair’, the people who get selected are the ones who are already ahead, and the diversity drops off even more.

A cartoon demonstrating equality vs equity, showing that people who are under-privileged may need more support than others to have the same opportunity in life.

I simply don’t think speaker selection should be anonymous, because it makes selection harder for many people.

I realise that hand-selecting people might not seem fair. I appreciate that. But a selection committee can still use a variety of metrics in coming up with their list. If they need big-name tech-celeb types, they can pick some of those. If they want a good portion of people who are in multiple diversity categories (intersectionality), they can pick some of those. It doesn’t make it less fair. If you want to grow your profile or become a better presenter, so that you are more likely to get selected for a big conference, do that! Speak at events that will take you. Write a blog. Answer questions. Become known for your expertise. It’s not less fair to use this as one of the criteria for selection. I argue it would be less fair to ignore someone’s profile.

How can you make sure the voices from different demographics are heard if people’s diversity is completely ignored when selecting speakers through the normal channels? I don’t think you can.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to be writing about all this as a white able-bodied male. Remember, I count in a diverse category because I live in Australia. On a speaker page, I look like I have the same lack of diversity as the 57% who aren’t in a diverse category.

And so I have written to the organisers to ask that my speaking spot be given to someone in a more diverse demographic than myself. I apologise to anyone who was looking forward to seeing me in Seattle. I was looking forward to going too, but feel it would be awkward now.

I have also offered to provide mentoring to help. I already mentor some people in their journeys to be better presenters (mostly from diverse demographics), and am willing to take on more of this. I had submitted a pre-conference seminar about presenting – it didn’t get selected, but I am more than willing to help use that content to help people step up.

I don’t know who will be given my spot, and I’m not going to ask. I will trust Red Gate to choose someone appropriate. It’s none of my business, to be honest. I know I should not have accepted the spot and then be pulling out so soon afterwards. I hope they have time to react.

I apologise. But I hope that by giving up my spot, the diversity may increase. I don’t need to be a speaker at the PASS Summit this year. I will try to speak again in the future. I will continue to cheer for community efforts. But hopefully my spot can be taken from someone who is not a white man.


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hugo Kornelis

    Good post, Rob, and a good discussion to have.
    A huge underlying problem, that no conference organizer can solve in a vacuum, is of course that the submission pool is insanely non-diverse. To give an exaggerated example, let’s say you receive 800 submissions, 700 from white men, 40 from non-white men, 40 from white women, and 20 from non-white women. Even if you would pick literally all diverse submissions regardless of quality or whether it matches the preferred content distribution, you STILL have 60 women and 140 men; you STILL have 60 non-whites and 140 whites.
    I truly hope the real numbers are not THAT extreme. But I also truly hope that no major conference will blindly accept all submissions from any diverse speaker. Because, frankly, some of the diverse speakers are just as terrible as some of the non-diverse speakers. And all those people should simply get a lot more practice at smaller events, and perhaps coaching, before they are ready for the larger events.

    A submission pool with low diversity means that, indeed, doing blind selections will result in a similar low diversity in the accepted sessions. But I am not sure if your suggestion to do non-blind picks would be better, There is a list of names in our community that are considered to be “good”. Many on the selection committee will pick any session that has one of those names as the speaker. And when I think of who are on that list, I see lots of white men, and very few who are not.
    How about we strip the name but leave the diversity information? Would that help? Well, I am sure that *some* on the selection committee would try to include more people with a diverse background in their process. But, call me cynical if you wish, I am not at all convinced that there would also be people on that same committee that would actually favour non-diverse submissions. Both conscious and subconscious bias are a realty that we have to admit to when we really want to solve this issue.

    Now I do not want to nag only. As I was reading your post I had an idea for a new selection process that might perhaps yield better results. It is a lot more time consuming, and probably only usable for large conferences. And I don’t *KNOW* that it will be better. It’s just a thought. (Also note that the numbers below are just an example and should probably be tweaked).

    1. Give the people on the program committee only the abstracts of one of the minority groups (e.g. non-whites). Go through a full selection process. Use this to fill the first 25 slots.
    2. Next, give the PC only the abstracts of the next minority group (e.g. women, of course excluding those that were already chosen, but still including non-white women that were not selected in the first round), and repeat the process to fill another 25 slots.
    3. Repeat this once more for e.g. speakers not originating from USA or Europe, though here (given the reality that travel restrictions and cost will always impact this group) perhaps a lower number of sessions is warranted, let’s say 20.
    4. Finally, a last iteration of the process to give 10 speaking slots to groups that actually are a small minority in the real world: transgenders, people with disablities, perhaps more groups I am overlooking now.
    5. At this point, there are 80 slots assigned to diverse speakers, still based on a solid process that tries to filter for quality and good content. The remaining 50 slots (stealing the 130 assumption from your post) can now be selected from one last iteration of the standard selection process that includes ALL abstracts that have not been selected yet: all those from a diverse speaker that were skipped before, and all those from a non-diverse speaker.
    6. Session selection is not made public until the full process has been completed, and nobody is told during which iteration they were selected. A woman of colour could have gotten her slot in one of the first two priority rounds, or in the final round, and because nobody knows there’s low chance of her thinking (or being accused) that she was ‘only selected to meet a target’.
    7. During each of the selection phases, the people selecting do not know which phase they are in and the abstracts they get are anonymized. They just get a bunch of abstracts and the request to pick the best ones.
    8. The process is documented so that speakers know, when submitting already, that answering the optional diversity questions will increase their chances. I hope this will increase the percentage of speakers who provide this information.
    9. To prevent abuse (e.g. a white man indicating he is a non-white woman on his submissions), anyone found to be dishonest in their diversity questions will be banned for life from that conference.

    I’m sure there are lots of issues and problems with this idea too. But even so, I still want to put this suggestion in the pool of ideas to consider when thinking about how conferences can work towards higher diversity in their speaker pool

    1. Rob Farley

      Thanks Hugo

      I hope the pool of potential speakers is not as skewed as you suggest. I’m aware of at least one strong female speaker who was rejected this year, so I’m confident they could’ve done better. And the same occurs for other conferences. I think data has strong female representation (compared to other IT disciplines), and a lot higher than 22% could be achievable with a change in method. I know there are a number of options being considered, and I will point some of those people at your suggestions.

      I appreciate that if the skew in the potential speakers is higher than the skew in the chosen speakers, the range in quality between the demographics could seem to be a factor. But I think the quality in diverse communities is generally higher than in less diverse ones, because they have to fight harder than us privileged. So I don’t think it really is a concern.


    1. Rob Farley

      They’re a good two cents. 🙂

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