So you want more women at your tech event? Say it out loud.

This is Part 3 of an ongoing series called So you want more women at your tech event?

One of the biggest mistakes I see conference organizers make is not making a public statement on gender equality. It’s a very small thing to do, but the effect can be huge.

I had been meaning to write this post earlier, but in August it’s easy to get sidelined by the summer weather. And I was looking for a good example. Luckily, yesterday I was sent a link to the Diversity Statement for PyCon 2012, the largest annual conference for the Python programming language.

The PyCon statement is a great example and I encourage you to go read it.

Many people think that it’s sufficient to aim for gender equality quietly. But it’s not. There is a big difference between what people, including yourself, think about your event (consciously and unconsciously) and the public statements you issue in your event’s name.

What will making a public statement do?

Think of it as an invitation. If you see a lack of diversity at your event or in your community, making a public statement that women are welcome and that their presence is important, is a bit like extending an invitation.

Think of it as a set of guidelines for organizers. Tech events are often run by volunteers, and when they aren’t they often still rely on a small army of volunteers to get everything done. By having a public statement, you are effectively setting the minimum standard of welcoming behaviour that the entire team is expected to support.

Think of it as a way to set the tone for attendees. Everyone know that one guy*, the guy who is obnoxious, or socially inept who won’t think twice before making an off-colour joke. By making a public statement, you discourage that sort of behaviour by the people who would make such jokes. But you also encourage friendly policing by peers, which is likely to be more effective in the long run at making women feel truly welcome.

(*The term “guy” here is intended to be gender-neutral.)

What should the statement look like?

In order to be effective it should be prominently displayed. It should be on your Web site, linked to from your About page, on your press packets, etc. It should be referenced in your call to speakers and probably for sponsors as well. (As an added bonus many sponsors will consider that a selling point because it will make your event seem more professional but also it may be a better marketing environment for your sponsors’ products.)

An example of the type of statement that you might add to your call for speakers is as follows. This is taken from the job offer description of all CBC job postings:

CBC/Radio-Canada is committed to reflecting the country’s diversity within its workforce andencourages applications from people of any wealth of cultures, linguistic and ethnoculturalcommunities, gender, sexual orientations, ages, religions and those with different abilities.

Your statement should clearly identify which groups you want to welcome. It should use language that is respectful, inclusive and appropriate. It should be written in a serious tone. If in doubt, have someone from the group you want to welcome review it and offer suggestions.

You can also invite people to send in suggestions on how to improve the statement and make that invitation part of the statement itself. Generally speaking, the fact that women’s inclusion is treated seriously, and that input is welcome, will encourage people to improve on your statement, even if your initial document isn’t perfect.

However, I recommend not allowing comments on the web page where the statement is posted, unless you intend to moderate them very strictly.

As an example of how this can go wrong, I’d like to point you to Tim O’Reilly’s recent announcement that OSCON will have an official policy against sexual harassment. (The link was down as I posted this so you may want to see the cached version).

After this was posted, most people were publicly supportive. Many offered suggestions for fine-tuning the statement. Some offered a respectful disagreement.

But if you look at what was posted in response to O’Reilly’s statement on Google+, where comments are unmoderated, you’ll instead see some really nasty, bitter responses. If, as a woman, this is your first introduction to the crowd that attends OSCON, or if you think that it is, this will be very uninviting.

You will encounter resistance

It is important to remember that even though a majority of people (men and women) think that including women is a good thing, there will be some who are against making even the smallest changes to encourage women’s participation. Some will be your attendees. Some will be your co-organizers. Some might be potential sponsors.

Another reason for issuing a public statement welcoming women is to identify who will offer resistance. It will be easier to see who is attempting to derail your efforts. Though frustrating, this will help you.

And know that if you don’t make a statement, that those who resist your efforts to improve the status quo, who don’t welcome women at your event, who make excuses, who argue that change isn’t really necessary, who treat women poorly when they do attend, however few and however in the minority, those people will be the ones making an unofficial, but de facto statement about how welcome women are at your event.

Ability to apply this strategy to other marginalized groups: high.

Want more? 14 more blog posts on getting more women at your tech event will be coming up. Stay tuned.

Have a better idea? That’s what the comments are for. Contribute to the discussion.

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