Withdrawal from Speaking at PHPCE 2019

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.

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27 Responses to Withdrawal from Speaking at PHPCE 2019

  1. Jennifer Larssen says:

    “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.”

    Thanks for showing your true misogyny by thinking you know how women think. I’m a female PHP developer and was looking forward to this conference. But hey, ‘social justice’ is more important than people, of all different races and genders, coming together to attend a conference who all share the same passion: PHP.

    Shame on you, Mark. Shame on you!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ursula Clarke says:

      I absolutely would not apply to speak at a conference like this solely because of the speaker lineup.
      The two times I went to a PHPUK conference I had sexist remarks, then no wish to go back. The first time I went to PHPUK, a developer was asking what I was doing there, when he found out I was a developer he was like, oh, you don’t look like a developer, I thought you were a designer. Presumably because I’m a woman.
      There’s a real problem in the community.


  2. Onirio says:

    Thank you for your post and your attitude Mark. For decades, the IT community and events has been dominated by the white-male-only model, making it unattractive to other audiences. Diversity will not come just by wishful thinking, it needs focused work to make other audiences feel welcome. For many communities, being women-friendly or minority-friendly has been an active goal for years, meaning there is a lot of thought and effort dedicated to skewing the community demographics towards inclusiveness – it does not “just happen”.

    While I am sad to hear that the event was eventually cancelled, I hope that all the discussions generated around the topic will help make future organisers more sensitive to the issue. There may come a time where gender and race truly does not matter, but we’re a long way from there yet, and need a lot of active effort to reach it.


  3. Ubuku Nebeke says:

    I’ve attended both the 2017 and 2018 PHPCE conferences (Poland, Prague) and enjoyed my time there which is why I really wanted to go to the 2019 conference. It’s a shame that people like yourself have to ruin nice things because you think that putting an political agenda over an event like this is a ‘good thing’. I still don’t understand how you thought this was a good idea.

    Anyway, I’ll hope to see you next year at another PHP CE conference once it’s become more ‘diverse’ or something.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Margo (TS) says:

    This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

    What about organising an appropriate conference yourself? Serious suggestion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Baker says:

      I have been involved in conference organisation before (twice now), including speaker selection, and I know how hard it can be to create a balanced and diverse speaker line-up. It isn’t something that just happens by chance: you can’t simply let nature take its course and hope for the best. Yet there are many conferences that do succeed, because they make that extra effort. There are community groups and even individuals that are willing to help conference organisers if approached in an appropriate, respectful manner, as long as the conference organisers are genuine in their desire to learn and improve.


    • Mark Baker says:

      And in answer to your suggestion, I am actually thinking about it, an idea that I discussed with a few people last year when (ironically) I was attending a conference in Dresden, one that did have a more balanced speaker line-up… so perhaps it is time to look at making that idea a reality


  5. Maniek says:

    Ok, so it looks like you prefer to publish the comments where people call you “faggot”, but you won’t publish my comment where i gave you reasonable explanation why you are simply wrong. But yeah, why admit anything when you can choose to “crucify” yourself in the name of ‘afflicted minority’. I could say the comments you published are so diverse!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Baker says:

      First of all, I am under no obligation to approve any comments made; secondly, I have approved a very small number that reflect the nature of the vast majority of negative comments; and thirdly, you might be surprised to know that I haven’t actually deleted your comments, even though I have deleted all the others that I haven’t approved.

      As to your statistics: the link that you referenced (https://blog.revolutionanalytics.com/2016/06/programmers-gender.html) doesn’t attempt to count the number of women that work within programming and development, but rather those that contributed 3 years ago to the most popular open source projects. This in itself is skewed (witness ReactGate), and the approach used to calculate the statistics is also skewed as described in the article itself, and in the comments to that article: “__Now, these data need to be taken with a grain of salt.__ The main issue is numbers: fewer than 100 programmers per language are identified as “top programmers” via this method, and sometimes significantly fewer (just 45 top C++ contributors were identified). Part of the reason for this is that not all programmers use their face as an avatar; those that used a symbol, logo or cartoon were not counted. Furthermore, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a disparity in the rate at which women use their own face as an avatar compared to men, which would add bias to the above results in addition to the variability from the small numbers. Finally, the gender determination is based on an algorithm which classifies faces as only male or female, and isn’t guaranteed to match the gender identity of the programmer (or their avatar).”

      A more accurate source of data would be the Women in Digital Scoreboard, which is not only more up-to-date (June 2019), but also broken down by European countries. You can find full details at https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/women-ict together with information about how the statistics were gathered.

      Rather than the 3% figure that you use in your script which gives a 35% and 41% chance of no women speakers at a conference event, I’ve used the WiD figure of 16.6% for Germany (Dresden is a German city after all). Using your script, this gives a a percentage chance typically in the range 0.0% and 0.8% of no female speakers, based on your random selection, with an average of 5 women in a 32 speaker line-up. It’s very difficult to reconcile that with the reality of the line-up which was initially published.

      But diversity isn’t just about gender either, that’s simply a convenient measure because it’s fairly easy to assess at a glance. A conference should be inclusive for all aspects of a diverse community. This is not purely a focus on gender, it’s just that gender is normally very visible, with a much higher proportional split across genders, and as such can serve as a good indicator. If conference organisers have made the effort to try and be welcoming and inclusive over gender (and this can be seen reflected in the speaker line-up), then there is a good chance (though not guaranteed) that they have made efforts to make the conference welcoming and inclusive for other minority groups. Conversely, if they have made no effort to address gender imbalance, then they probably haven’t given any consideration to other minority groups. Conference organisers have to find that balance which reflects all groups within the industry, so that everybody feels they are among their peers when they attend, and isn’t made to feel uncomfortable.


  6. Antisoy says:

    You are absolutely pathetic. There is literally nothing more to say. A true NPC for the modern age. People like you didn’t really exist in this industry 20 years ago and your running it into the ground with your pearl-clutching and soy-powered virtue signalling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • John Chrysostom says:

      It is not as if Mr Baker forced the conference to shut down. The organizers of the conference aborted their mission because they couldn’t endure two negatively worded blog-posts and a handful of disapproving Twitter comments.


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