Conference organization is improving every year, and we're learning more especially about how to make women welcome and comfortable. Some aspects are more obvious than others. We hope this collection of resources both creates more conferences that are welcoming to women, and saves conference organizers time and energy. The templates and policies are written primarily by the Ada Initiative.
The big picture
Many geek communities have a culture that is unwelcoming to women much more than men. Conferences are assumed to reflect the overall culture, and what other conferences are like. Even if your conference is already a wonderful welcoming place for women, you have to communicate that publicly or women will assume your conference is just like the others. So tell people about what makes your conference different, and check out more ways to become even more different.
Everything in one place: Attendee information booklet template
Remembering all the information to put in an attendee booklet is hard enough, and We've written a template that includes the usual conference information (maps, schedule, etc.) and non-obvious additions that help women feel more welcome. See the conference booklet template here.
No one likes rules and policies and other bureaucracy. A small conference with hand-picked attendees may not need many guidelines, but as conferences grow beyond around one hundred people, it's statistically almost impossible that everyone will have the same behavior standards as you, the organizers. Policies may seem annoying, but they pay off in preventing bad press either from incidents or from how the organizers responded to incidents. This collection of policies are all based on actual, real problems we've seen at more than one conference.
The first step in creating a safe welcoming environment for women is to adopt a specific, public, enforceable anti-harassment policy. If you're wondering why this is needed, check out this description of real-world problems at multiple conferences. Anti-harassment policies cover much more than women, of course, and make the conference more enjoyable for everyone. Secret policies, policies that are not specific, and policies that are difficult to enforce are not effective. We have thoroughly documented all steps of implementing an anti-harassment policy on the policy resources page, starting from how to encourage a conference to adopt a policy to step-by-step guidelines on responding to incidents.
You've seen them before: the people who seem to spend the entire conference taking photos. It's weird for everyone to have silent photographers lurking around the edges of conversations and focusing on "candid" or long-distance shots taken without the knowledge of the subjects.
What you may not know is that women are especially likely to be subjected to harassing or non-consensual photography, sometimes followed by nasty online comments and editing of photos to add injuries, sexualize the photo, or otherwise threaten the subject of the photo. Here is one example of harassing photography at a conference. As a result, some women do not attend conferences at all if photography is unrestricted.
A good middle ground is to have a photography and recording policy that allows people to specify one of: photography always okay, photography only with explicit verbal consent, photography never okay and don't ask. For the photographers' convenience, these categories should be indicated by a visual marking visible from a distance. One excellent solution is different colored badge lanyards - e.g., red for no, yellow for ask, green for yes. Lanyards, unlike badges, are visible from all directions.
Here is a sample photography/recording policy.
Not all conferences will want this kind of policy, but conferences which are attempting to encourage frank and controversial discussion will have a better chance if they require anonymity when publicly quoting or sharing people's opinions.
Here is one version of a reporting/blogging/social media policy.
BOFs/unconference sessions/group participation guidelines
Group discussion guidelines
Group discussion sessions are quite popular at tech conferences, and make up the majority of most unconferences. However, it only takes one person dominating the conversation to turn a group discussion into a one-person lecture. Women are especially likely to be interrupted, ignored, or have credit for their ideas reassigned to a man. A reminder of good discussion etiquette often noticeably improves the quality of discussion and attendee happiness for everyone. Here are our group discussion guidelines.
Discussion role suggestions
Group discussions or meetings that accomplish their goals and make participants happy with the outcome often have people who serve in the following roles:
- Gatekeeper (makes sure everyone gets a chance to speak)
- Note taker
We created some printable cards with the description of each role on them. Put one set in each discussion area and ask people to pick a role before each session (this suggestion is in the booklet template).