I’m always nervous when I speak at a conference or in front of a user group; but I also enjoy sharing my passion and excitement for things that I’ve learned, or new tools that I’ve discovered. That makes it particularly difficult for me to withdraw from a conference where I’ve already committed to speak, not giving just one talk, but two. But sometimes it is necessary to stand by my beliefs, despite the fact that it causes disruption to the conference organisers when they’ve already announced the schedule, and means that I can’t share my passion for coding with the attendees at that conference.
That’s the position that I found myself in barely a week ago.
Dresden is a lovely city that I last visited a year ago, so I was very pleased when I was accepted to speak at the PHPCE 2019 Conference there in October. I was more concerned though when I looked at the line-up of other speakers. There were a number of talks that I would enjoy listening too: some speakers that it would be good to see again, others that I follow on Twitter, but haven’t yet had an opportunity to meet before, and some I didn’t know at all… but the line-up was exclusively male. While I recognise that the balance of developers in our industry is still predominantly male, it’s very unusual that every single one of the 32 speakers for the conference was male.
I wasn’t the only person that had noticed either: a couple of the other speakers had as well, and we raised this concern with the conference organisers. Larry Garfield has already discussed this in a blog post explaining his reasons for withdrawal. After a further exchange of emails, and a few days later, I’ve come to the same conclusion; that I cannot accept the situation, and so I have also chosen to withdraw from the conference.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make, because I do enjoy sharing my coding passion; but having advocated for diversity at PHP developer conferences for the last several years, I have to follow my beliefs that diversity should be a cornerstone of the PHP developer community. Diversity matters more to me than speaking.
In portraying a wholly male speaker line-up, the organisers indicate that this conference is for men, even if that was not their intent. Many potential attendees, particularly those from minority groups, will look at that line-up and conclude that the conference is not for them. They aren’t just looking at the talk content; they are looking for role models, people like them, people to inspire them… and they don’t see that in a male-dominated line-up. And any technical conference such as PHPCE is much more than simply a sharing of technical ideas. It is an event for socialising, and for networking. And those potential ticket-buying attendees from minority groups will be dissuaded from buying tickets if they believe that the event is simply a gathering of men.
The reason given was that only one woman submitted a proposal from over 250 submissions. One reason for that could be that the line-up last year was almost all male as well, just one woman out of 39 speakers. That’s only 2.5%. Again, many potential women speakers will look at the previous year’s line-up and see just 1 out of 39, and conclude that it is a predominantly male conference, and not worth their time to submit. That will become even harder next year, when potential speakers look back at this year and see no women at all. There are some truly excellent and respected women speakers who can give talks on security, databases, front-end and back-end technologies, PHP, internals, development tools, privacy, etc and whose contribution would have enhanced the conference. If they aren’t submitting, then there is probably an underlying reason why they will not do so, a problem that needs to be addressed.
I’ve been involved in conference organisation myself, in speaker selection; and I know it isn’t easy making a selection that reflects the diversity that we have within the PHP development community: but we also have a duty as organisers to find that balance which reflects all groups within the industry, so that everybody feels they are among their peers when they attend, so that everybody attending can picture themselves on that stage next year. If we fail to do so, then we’re failing to inspire the next generation of developers and of speakers. And if that means outreach, and directly inviting individuals to speak, or at least to submit proposals, then that is what we should be doing; not simply relying on an open call for proposals to find that balance for us.
Following on from Larry’s withdrawal I had a further email exchange with the organisers, during which they offered to accept that one additional proposal that they had received from a woman. It’s somebody that I know, that I have heard speak before, and I know her to be a very confident and capable speaker with good technical knowledge to share. But that then puts a lot of pressure on the woman, knowingly being invited to speak after an all-male speaker list has already been announced, making her a “token” to diversity; and that isn’t a good thing either.
While I can help make suggestions and recommendations on how to address some of the problems for next year, or put the organisers in touch with those even better able to help out than me; I sadly cannot be a part of the conference this year.