Stop making conferences shitty for other people

We just wrapped up DevOpsDays Seattle. It was awesome. We had a bunch of truly engaging and informative talks. We also had one talk that really pissed me off.

I want to be clear here… I’m not upset with the speaker, or the content of the talk. I’m upset with the idiots who made the talk necessary.

The talk was given by Soo Choi, in it she talked about some of her experiences as a woman speaker at conferences. Men following her back to her room… finding out the room number and calling in the middle of the night… the list goes on. In what universe could anyone think any of that is ok!?

The talk was recorded and it will be posted after a bit of post-production, but I couldn’t wait for that to rant about it. I’ll post a link here when it’s ready.

I should admit that I feel like a hypocrite even writing this, because I’ve been guilty of “pissed off white guy” syndrome a few times when I didn’t get selected for “the thing”. I’ve seen talks that weren’t good and assumed they got selected because they aren’t white males. I’m sure that’s happened, but you know what? I’ve given talks that sucked where I was probably selected because I am a white male.

It’s not just speakers who feel shitty

I was standing in our sponsor booth at a large conference a couple years ago with a female colleague. An executive from one of the other sponsors walked over because he had heard some of his customers also use our tools. He wanted to learn more about what we do. Totally reasonable so far.

He faced directly at me, and asked a question. My colleague then answered it. Then he asked me another question, and she answered it again. And then a third…

This time I stopped him and said “you know, you might just want to ask her directly. That’s Suzie Prince, our Head of Product”. He got a bit of a blank expression on his face, asked Suzie another question or two, and then walked off.

The worst part? He probably didn’t have any particular feelings about the interaction later, but Suzie had assumed she said or did something at the beginning to put him off and that’s why he was talking to me. She was basically blaming herself for him being an ass.

If you choose your booth staff based on what they look like, you’re being shitty

There are a lot of trade shows where spokesmodels, both male and female, are the norm. When you hire these people you are causing the problem. People who know me know I am very careful using the word “cause”. This isn’t correlation, you’re making it shitty.

“I just asked them out”

It’s not a dating mixer. I don’t care if you think your approach to someone was totally innocent. People at an event shouldn’t have to worry about your motive for speaking with them. Everyone should be able to expect conversations to be aligned with the goals of the conference.

Getting asked out and saying no is uncomfortable for both sides around 100% of the time. Just don’t.

The good news, it (should be) easy to fix

Here’s a thought… just don’t be shitty. I heard a Code of Conduct introduction once where the speaker said something like “if someone tells you you’re stepping on their foot, just move”. It costs you nothing to be supportive of people and treat them all the same. It costs under-represented people a lot when you aren’t.

I asked Suzie and Soo to look at this before posting it of course, and Soo made a great point… Changing this behavior is a heavy flag to carry. We can all help the people most affected by this helping carry it.

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