Conferences Speakers and “Making Room” for Other Voices

I've spoken professionally at conferences for 25 years. I enjoy it. And, several people—all men, so far—have suggested I should “make room” for other voices.

To me, that's a solution in search of a problem.

I ask them what problems they want to solve. They want speakers who are:

  • More diverse in gender
  • More diverse in color

I'm not sure what other diversities they're looking for. (No one has yet discussed diversity in approach or points of view.)

I asked these people if they could imagine three other alternatives that do not include me self-censoring my conference inclusion.

No, they didn't have any ideas. Well, I do.

Alternatives to Self-Censorship

Instead of my self-censorship, I suggested these alternatives, and I'm sure there are more possibilities:

  1. A point/counterpoint discussion/presentation with someone who disagrees with me. That person would—ideally—not be a white woman.
  2. Pairing with someone who doesn't look like me as a pair-presentation.
  3. I could mentor/coach other people who look for ways and places to speak.

One of these fine gentlemen said, “Oh, I didn't realize we had all these options.”

(The cynical part of me thinks he had one solution. With diversity of thought, he might have considered alternatives.)

I asked him if he could guarantee that any slot I didn't seek would be filled by a person of color or different gender.

No. He couldn't guarantee anything. I suggested that my withdrawal might mean he got more white men in the program.

“Oh,” he said.

Let me set a few facts straight.

  • Conferences don't always take my proposals.
  • I already limit my travels (and have before the virus), so I don't speak “everywhere.”
  • I am not a white man. (I am a white woman.) And, I too often speak where I am the only woman or one of three women and the 97 other speakers are men. (That might be a tiny exaggeration.)

I'm already a minority speaker. I have been in the minority my entire career. Do I enjoy certain privileges because of my color? Of course.

However, my self-censorship is a  zero-sum game. I'm supposed to “give up” something I enjoy, that I'm good at, and that people like? Spare me the finite games for speaking. We have alternatives.

How to Make Room for “Other Voices”

I see at least three perspectives for learning to include other voices. BTW, This is exactly the same problem as recruiting diverse people for your team.

If you're an organizer, determine how to expand your sources to find new speakers. If you always look in the same place, you'll always get the same people, or the same kind of people, or the same ideas. You might get lucky and find people with diverse perspectives. My experience is that you won't.

If you're a potential speaker, you have work to do:

  • Find different conferences and submit your sessions.
  • You might ask for coaching on your session proposals.
  • You might ask for coaching on your speaking.

Yes, as a potential speaker, you need to show conferences you can offer value.

If you're a potential attendee, you need to tell conferences that you want to see diverse people with diverse thinking.

I share the value that it's important to see a variety of faces on a conference website and at the conference. And, for me, it's just as important to see a variety of possible ideas. Especially in the agile community, I see a lot of the same-old, same-old. Maybe that's me being a bit of a curmudgeon.

I find value in many people with views I don't share. I like the way they offer me alternatives to how I think now.

I reject the idea that I need to limit my reach so others can succeed. We don't need to create zero-sum games for speaking. We can lift others up in many ways.

No one needs to self-censor to “make room” for other voices. That's a false choice and does everyone a disservice.

6 Replies to “Conferences Speakers and “Making Room” for Other Voices”

  1. __ “I could mentor/coach other people who look for ways and places to speak.”

    __ “I share the value that it’s important to see a variety of faces on a conference website and at the conference.”

    I wonder if there is actually a group of talented speakers, you or someone with relevant experience are coaching right now. A lot of raising talents may find this interesting!

    1. I’ve been shepherding experience report writers for a decade now (!!) I think. I’m finishing books now, and working to restart my online workshops. One of which will be the conference proposal workshop. I’ve been thinking about how to support the speaking part of that, too. The first part is getting into the conference! I guess I need to put this on my list. Thanks!

      1. I failed to mention in my first comment that your way of carrying yourself regarding similar requests are inspiring for other women (even from different ethnicities).

        I consider our way to deal with unexpected requests and situation not only a way to show who we really are, but also a way to grow to who we choose to be.

        1. Thank you. I love that idea, the “unexpected requests and situations” … help us to “grow to who we choose to be.” Yes! (Fist-pump over here.)

  2. Funny (and not in a ha-ha way) that this person who wanted you to self-censor to make room for other, “diverse” speakers had not thought this through to the end result of you self-censoring, nor to alternative ways to get the result he was after. I always jump on research when I am looking to achieve a goal and I guess I expect others to do the same, especially people putting together conferences meant to educate the attendees. It’s their job to vet (not censor) and seek out different points of view.

    –”I find value in many people with views I don’t share. I like the way they offer me alternatives to how I think now.”

    This is spot on. If I only talk with people who think like I do I quickly get into a stagnant rut.

    1. Yeah, his lack of options suggested to me that it’s a solution-masquerading-as-a-problem mindset. You and I don’t always agree, and that doesn’t matter. I learn from working and speaking with you—which is what counts to me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.