Ideas for inclusive conferences and events

I semi-regularly do a braindump of my ideas for running inclusive conferences, and I realised it would be useful to have it all written up in one place. Last week, I had a meeting with Lauren Couch, the head of Diversity and Inclusion at Wellcome, and she was kind enough to lend me the notes she wrote – this is the tidied-up version.

For better or for worse, conferences can be really important for career development. Sharing ideas, having conversations, meeting new people – if you can’t attend conferences, you miss out on a lot of these ooportunities. It’s important to open these events to as wide a range of people as possible, and make them feel welcome when they attend. It addresses a serious unfairness, and everyone benefits from having a wider diversity of people and ideas.

This is mostly based on my experience with small, community conferences in the European tech industry. Underrepresented groups in tech include women, people with disabilities, people on low income, people who don’t have European or US citizenship – and the suggestions reflect that. It definitely isn’t a complete list.

If you’re an event organiser, you can take these ideas to make your events more inclusive and accessible.

If you attend, speak at, or sponsor an event, you have power – you can ask for these accommodations where they don’t already exist. Be picky about where you choose to participate, and walk away from events that don’t meet your standards.

A few disclaimers

None of these are original ideas – this is a collection of other people’s ideas I’ve seen at conferences I’ve attended or followed online.

This post is just an outline, not a detailed implementation guide. Every item on this list could be an entire post on its own – and if somebody else has already written that, I’ve tried to link to it. There’s also a list of further reading links at the end.

I’ve helped organise PyCon UK for the last two years, and there’s heavy reference to it below – but most of these ideas predate my involvement.

Finally, don’t feel bad if you can’t do many of the suggestions on this list. I don’t know of a single conference that does everything here – even the ones I organise. This is aspirational, not a checklist. If you implement even one, that’s an improvement.

Contents

Have a code of conduct

A code of conduct sets the expectation and rules for your event. It tells people what sort of behaviour is acceptable, and how violations will be dealt with. This shows potential attendees that they should feel safe at your event, and if harassment or bullying does occur, it gives them a recourse.

Advertise it prominently – on your website, when buying tickets, in your introductory remarks. Make sure people know about it.

A code of conduct is only as good as its enforcement – so you have to follow through with it. Have a documented procedure for dealing with harassment, and stick to it.

Don’t be shy about calling out problems if they occur. At PyCon UK in 2016, if a CoC violation occurred, three things would happen:

This helps people see that you’re enforcing the CoC (and hopefully makes them feel more comfortable making a report, if they need to). It also serves as a counterpoint to people who say “this sort of behaviour doesn’t happen in our community” – unfortunately, it almost certainly does.

Ashe Dryden has written a very thorough Codes of Conduct 101 and FAQ, which I recommend reading. It has lots of detail about what makes a good CoC, and answers common questions and objections.

Pricing and financial assistance

Conferences tickets can be expensive, and that’s before you factor in travel or accommodation costs. You can do things to make your conference more affordable to attend.

Tiered ticket rates

Lots of conferences have attendees who are being sent by an employer, and companies tend to have deeper pockets – so you can charge higher prices for them.

At the other end, you’ll have people who are just starting in the industry, and don’t have corporate backing – or maybe even a salary.

I like PyCon UK’s ticket tiers this year:

If your tickets are being paid for by your employer, please select the Corporate rate.

If you are paying for your ticket out of your own pocket, please select the Individual rate.

If you are unwaged (for example in full-time education), please select the Unwaged rate.

I prefer these tiers to “early bird rates” because somebody can get the affordable prices at any time. Early bird tickets disproportionately help people who already know about the conference, and know when tickets go on sale – which is likely to be people who are repeat attendees.

Offer financial assistance and free tickets

Tickets aren’t the only cost of a conference – you also need to pay for travel, accommodation, food, and time away from work/home. Have a budget for financial assistance grants, so you can give people money towards those costs. This expands the pool of potential attendees. Include discounted or free tickets.

Allocating those funds can be a tricky question. Personally I’d prioritise contributors (speakers and volunteers), then first-time attendees, and I’d want it to help as many people as possible – but different events will have their own priorities.

Give people a way to contribute to free tickets

Financial assistance usually comes from sponsorship, but don’t discount the generosity of your other attendees.

Here’s a screenshot from the AlterConf London ticketing page:

There are seven tiers: Scholarship (free), Basic (£25), Friend, Supporter, Advocate, Patron and Super Friend. The tiers above Basic allow you to buy extra tickets, and the Super Friend tier is a freeform box.

You could buy a single ticket (or claim one of the free tickets), or if you were feeling generous, you could buy extra tickets, which went into the free ticket pool.

Similarly, at PyCon UK, we sell conference swag (t-shirts, hoodies, etc) through an online shop, the proceeds of which go directly to the financial assistance budget.

Inside the venue

Offer gender-neutral bathrooms

At tech conferences I’ve been to, there are lots of trans and non-binary people, who are often excluded or marginalised by gendered toilets. Modifying your venue to have some gender-neutral bathrooms is a nice way to make them feel included.

When AlterConf was still running, it was a staple of the conference tweets to see somebody take a photo of the gender-neutral bathroom signs (this is in Berlin):

One of the many signs of a great conference. #inclusivity #alterconf pic.twitter.com/cF7XPImBPg

If it’s not possible (for example, you’re sharing your conference space), remind your attendees not to challenge somebody else’s choice of bathroom. For example, here’s a sign from one of the Write The Docs conferences:

If you’re using this toilet and you think a person’s gender doesn’t match the sign on the door, follow these steps:

Don’t worry about it, they know better than you.

If your venue is large enough, the ideal is a mixture of gender-neutral and gendered bathrooms.

(I’ve done a bunch of thinking around gender-neutral and accessible bathrooms for a work project recently; I may write another post about it later.)

Provide baskets of free toiletries

Finding basic toiletries in a strange city or country can be difficult. Providing them directly in your bathrooms relieves a bit of that stress.

I first heard of this idea from Write The Docs, who were inspired by DjangoCon Europe. Here’s an excerpt from DjangoCon’s sponsor brochure:

Bathroom basket sponsor
We’ll provide baskets with basic medical, sanitary and similar supplies for free at the conference bathrooms.

This ensures that if somebody is caught out in the middle of the day, they don’t need to go far for help – or miss much of the conference.

Examples of what you might include: sanitary products, spray-on deodorant, sunscreen, toothbrushes.

Put the same products in all your bathrooms, including sanitary products – although the majority of people who get periods will probably use the women’s bathrooms, there may be people who get periods using the men’s and accessible bathrooms as well.

You probably can’t leave painkillers and medication in the bathrooms (where children can get them). Keep some on the registration desk, and people can ask for them if they need them.

Have a quiet room

Give people a space to take a break away from the bustle of the conference.

Networking and socialising is an important part of conferences, but it tires a lot of people out. Have a clearly-marked, designated space where people can sit quietly, not talk to anybody, and recover some of their energy. I wrote about the quiet room at PyCon UK in 2016, and sitting in the quiet room is how I’ve got through a number of other conferences.

The PyCon UK quiet room is usually the Cardiff City Council Chamber, which is a lovely space for sitting quietly. It’s also a good place to work and prepare slides. Photo by Mark Hawkins.

Offer a prayer room

Most events in the tech industry are secular, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t welcome delegates from different faith backgrounds.

If you have the space, a room dedicated for prayer would be a nice accommodation. Specify what equipment you provide, if any. (I’m sure I knew a conference offering this, but I can’t find a reference now.) If you don’t have enough rooms, pointers to local places of worship would also be useful.

Clear internal signage

Have dedicated, branded signage, with large and clear text. Help your attendees find their way around unfamiliar venues.

The branding makes it clear that the signs are for your event, and not the standard venue signage, or part of another event.

Good signage will save your volunteers from answering the same question repeatedly, and helps attendees who can’t find a volunteer, or who might feel awkward asking.

Make it easy to spot your volunteers

If somebody has a question, a concern, or a code of conduct violation to report, they need to find a volunteer, so make the volunteers easy to spot. Possible approaches include brightly coloured, branded t-shirts, or different lanyards from everyone else.

If you have places that are continuously staffed during conference hours (for example, the registration desk), make sure you tell people. It may not always be the most convenient, but it’s good to know that fallback exists.

Look after your speakers

Compensate and pay expenses for your speakers

Preparing a conference talk is a lot of work. If you don’t pay your speakers, you’re restricting yourself to people who can afford to do that preparation without being paid. That excludes a lot of potential speakers.

Ideally, you should be compensating speakers for their preparation time, travel, accommodation, and time away from home. You probably want to throw in a free ticket as well, so they can hang around after their session is over.

Whatever your speaker package is (even if you can’t pay anything), be upfront about it in your call for proposals. If somebody can’t or won’t speak at your conference without compensation, it’s better to know that before they submit. Don’t waste time getting proposals that have to be withdrawn later.

(Python conferences are especially bad at this, and it’s something I feel acutely guilty about.)

Offer a mentoring programme

Speaking at a conference can be really intimidating, especially if you’re not used to public speaking. You might be nervous, or uncertain, or even attending a conference that isn’t held in your first language!

Offering a speaker mentoring programme can give those people a confidence boost. If somebody is new or nervous, pair them with an experienced speaker who can help them practice and prepare. It’s a great way to get more speakers from different backgrounds, and ensure you have speakers for many years to come!

I like the page on speaker mentoring for PyCon UK 2016. I particularly like that it’s not just practice, but you’re encouraged to ask for other types of help as well:

It could be any kind of help, for any kind of reason: anything from someone who can advise on whether your idea for a talk is a good one to someone who’ll be happy to hear you practise it; even someone who’ll agree to be the session chair for your talk at the event. You tell us what kind of help you’d like.

Run lightning talks/open mic sessions

Not everyone can or wants to prepare a full session – but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a chance to speak.

Lightning talks are short, quickfire talks – typically five minutes or less. Ususally you run a series of them back-to-back. They’re fun to watch because you get a variety of topics in a short space of time, and five minutes is long enough to say something interesting, without needing lots of preparation. And at least at conferences I’ve been to, the audience is very supportive and friendly. It’s a great venue for somebody to try speaking for the first time.

It’s important to make these talks a dedicated part of the schedule – for example, at PyCon US, there was a slot for lightning talks at the beginning and end of the day. I’ve seen a few events run them in the lunch break, when most people would rather have food and talk to people. Making it a timetabled event gets better attendance.

Last year, at PyCon UK, we experimented with the signup process. We had a lottery system with dedicated slots for new speakers. I expect we’ll run the same process this year.

Owen Campbell explaining lightning talks at PyCon UK 2017. Owen ran the lightning talks last year, and helped come up with the lottery system. You can see the two buckets for submitting talks in the picture. Photo by Mark Hawkins.

Be thoughtful with your speaker gifts

Buying gifts for your speakers is a nice gesture, and well-intentioned. Avoid common gifts that can be inadvertently insensitive:

Two possible alternatives:

I’m sure you can think of other ideas that have universal appeal. And whenever a conference does this, I see a flurry of goodwill and nice tweets about it.

Ask somebody’s name and pronouns before introducing them

If you’re chairing a session and need to introduce somebody, ask them:

Don’t try to guess and misgender somebody, or mangle their name. It’s rude, and jarring for the speaker as they’re about to go on stage.

Double demerit if your first language is English and you make a joke about the unpronouncability of a name.

Questions, not comments

The Q&A session can be a stressful part of any talk.

Make sure you have a chair on hand to ensure things go smoothly. If somebody starts “This isn’t a question, but a comment”, cut them off. Move straight on to the next question.

People have mixed feelings about the Q&A. Some speakers find them very helpful; others prefer to answer questions in the hallway after the session. I’ve started to see CfPs that let speakers choose if they want a Q&A, and I think that’s a good compromise.

Food and drink

Be explicit about dietary requirements

You should aim to accommodate all dietary requirements.

You can anticipate some common dietary requirements in advance. Here’s a set that probably covers 90%+ of attendees:

If you know you’ll be providing food for these requirements, say so upfront. Ask for dietary requirements when people buy their ticket, so you you can make the right amount, or know if you’ve forgotten something.

Make sure food is clearly labelled, both by category and ingredients.

For allergies like nut- and gluten-free, it’s helpful to have details about the kitchen, if possible. For example, “This was prepared in a nut-free kitchen” vs “This wasn’t prepared in a nut-free kitchen, but separate utensils and surfaces were used”. For some people, that difference matters.

You may need to remind non-vegetarians not to eat all the vegetarian food, so the vegetarians don’t go hungry! Separate queues for different types of food, or taking people’s food orders in advance, can both help with this.

Provide non-alcoholic, low-caffeine and low-sugar drinks

The tech industry has a problem with alcohol. There’s a bit fo a drinking culture. Lots of events assume that everybody attending drinks alcohol, and will be comfortable drinking alcohol at the event. That excludes people (like me!) who don’t want to drink.

Similarly, not everybody wants to drink caffeinated or sugary drinks, so you should find alternatives for them as well.

You should have an equal number of alternatives, and make them equally visible. If you have a wide variety of alcohol drinks, and a token fruit juice, there’s scope for improvement.

Ernest W. Durbin III did a Twitter survey about drinks at conferences, and their article includes suggestions for good alternatives. They’ve also got links to other articles with more discussion of food and drink at conferences.

Parents/guardians with young children

Having young children can make conferences very difficult – they require full-time care, which means you’re either taking them around the conference (so you may have to leave talks or conversations in a hurry), or you need somebody else to provide childcare. Neither are easy or convenient.

Two of the youngest attendees at PyCon UK 2017 – taking advantage of the free crèche. Photo by Mark Hawkins.

Run a free crèche

I’ve seen conferences (AlterConf, XOXO, PyCon UK) that run a free crèche for attendees. You sign up in advance of the event, and then the conference hires registered and qualified childminders to look after children during conference hours. Parents have time to focus on the conference, and they know their kids are being looked after safely.

Be clear about which parts of the conference you can bring kids to (talks, dinner, after-party, etc.).

Nursing/baby care room

Breastfeeding should be destigmatised, and acceptable in all conference spaces – including in talks and at mealtimes.

Some people will prefer to breastfeed in private, so you should have a clean, quiet, private room for them. The room needs a table and a chair, and electricity and a fridge are nice to have as well. (This should be different to the quiet room mentioned above.)

Support for disabilities

Live captioning in talks

Hire a stenographer to provide real-time captioning on talks, which can be displayed on screens alongside the speaker. It helps people who are hard-of-hearing or non-native speakers, and it’s a useful tool for your other attendees too – if their focus drifts, it’s a way to catch up.

To support the captioners, ask speakers for specialist/technical terms in advance. They can be programmed into the stenographer’s keyboards, so you get more accurate transcriptions.

I first saw this at PyCon UK 2016, but I’ve also seen it at AlterConf and Coed:Ethics, and heard of it at other conferences.

One of the stenographers at PyCon UK 2017. They use a special keyboard to keep up with the speakers, and can hit over 250 wpm. Photo by Mark Hawkins.

Sign language interpreters

Similar to closed captioning – sign language interpreters can help attendees who are hard-of-hearing.

This is less useful to a general audience, as most people aren’t fluent in sign language. At PyCon UK, we only provide BSL interpreters upon request (for free), whereas we always provide live captioning.

Use microphones and hearing loops

A lot of venues will have audio induction loops (it’s required by law in the UK) – provide microphones for anybody speaking, and connect them to the hearing loop.

Remind your speakers to use the microphone, even if they can project their voice – it makes it much easier for people using the hearing loop. If you have a Q&A, use a roving microphone or repeat questions into the microphone as well.

Don’t tap or blow into the microphone – the sudden noise can be painful to anybody using a hearing aid, as the sound goes straight to their ears.

Look after service animals in your venue

Allow service animals throughout your venues. And here’s a new idea to me, from this year’s GitHub Universe:

Fresh water, treats, and an onsite relief area for service or therapy dogs

Preferred seating for people with vision/mobility issues

Have reserved seating near the front of the audience for people who have vision problems, so they’ll have a clear view of the screen. (I think I saw these at AlterConf, but I can’t find a reference.)

Have reserved areas for people with wheelchairs. At AlterConf, there were aisle spaces marked out in blue tape for wheelchair users, so they could sit in the audience with their friends. Often wheelchair spaces are near the back, away from everybody else – having them inline is better.

Provide detail about “wheelchair accessibility”

It’s not enough to say a venue is “wheelchair accessible”, because wheelchairs come in different shapes and sizes. Provide detail such as:

Encourage speakers to think about accessibility in their slides

Some simple rules can make slides much easier for everyone to read:

Posting slides online, or having printed copies, can also be useful for people who struggle to read from a projector.

Remind able-bodied attendees not to interfere

Basic etiquette includes:

If your attendees aren’t familiar with these rules, a reminder might be helpful.

Have sufficient breaks between sessions

Particularly in a large venue, it can be difficult for people to get around quickly. Maybe you have a wheelchair, or a child, or a foot injury, or you’re just talking to somebody about the session that just finished.

Make sure you plan sufficient breaks between session. People won’t be rushing around the building to get to talks, and your speakers will be less distracted by late arrivals.

Getting to the venue

Travel instructions

For anything but the smallest events, you’ll have attendees who aren’t local.

Provide instructions about how to get to the venue, especially if it’s non-obvious (for example, does Google Maps take you to the wrong street?). Where are the nearest public transport links?

Bonus points if you provide information about wheelchair friendly routes to the venue – your attendees don’t magically appear at your front door.

Advice on good accommodation

If you run a conference in the same place for several years, you’ll get an idea of where the good accommodation is – which hostels are friendly, which hotel is above a noisy bar, and so on. Tell people in advance – they’ll have a better night’s sleep, and enjoy your conference more! You may also be able to negotiate preferential rates for your attendees.

Last year at PyCon UK, we had a block booking at a local hostel (Mrs. Potts). Lots of people had a good stay there, we were able to solve several sudden accommodation snafus with minimal stress, and we’re recommending it to our attendees again this year.

Local information: shops, restaurants, pharmacies

There’s a good chance at least one of your organisers knows the local area, and your attendees don’t. So tell them what’s available – what’s good near the venue?

This could be shops, places to eat, local attractions, where to get emergency medication, that sort of thing. Help them not be stranded in a strange city when the conference finishes for the day.

Offer visa invitation letters for people coming from overseas

If you have international attendees, you may have somebody who needs a visa to come to the conference.

Writing a letter to say somebody is attending or speaking at your conference is a useful service, and may help their visa application. (Sadly, it’s not guaranteed.) Be upfront that this is something you can offer, and tell people how to ask for an invitation letter.

Respond to requests promptly – bureaucracy and visa applications move slowly.

I’ve been doing the visa invitation letters for PyCon UK – email me if you’d like our letter template.

Badges, lanyards and photography

Be clear about how names are used

Names are complicated, and you can’t be sure what name somebody wants to put on their badge – so ask!

The name field should be a single, free text field – no “first name, last name”, or other assumptions about the structure of names.

I’ve seen people put all sorts of names on their badges – nicknames, wallet names, maiden names, or even the online handle – whatever will help people recognise them. When you ask for the name, be very clear about how you’ll use it: “This is the name that will appear on your conference badge”.

You may need wallet names for other purposes – for example, at AlterConf Berlin, you needed legal ID to get through reception. I don’t have the exact wording, but I saw tweets from people: the signup was very explicit that this name was only used for checking ID, and wouldn’t appear on badges.

Don’t put people’s details in an attendee list without permission

I went to an academic conference last year, and was surprised when my welcome pack included a list of attendees – names, email addresses, and affiliated institutions.

I don’t mind giving out my email address, but I was never asked about it. Other people are less comfortable handing out details, so this list should really be opt in. Ask people if they want to be on the attendee list; don’t assume. (Or even better, don’t have one at all!)

Use coloured lanyards to let people opt out of photographs

Not everybody likes having their photograph taken, and you should make it easy for people to opt out.

Approaches like “talk to an organiser” or “put a sticker on your badge” don’t really work – they scale badly, and if you take a picture of a crowd, it’s hard to see if anybody has the badge sticker.

I’ve seen conferences that use coloured lanyards to show whether you want to appear in photographs. A couple of policies I like:

The key is having a bright colour that means “no photos please”. It stands out in a crowd, and makes it clear if you’ve accidentally snapped somebody who ddin’t want their picture taken.

The three colours of lanyard at PyCon UK 2017. Yellow if you didn’t want to appear in photographs, blue if you were happy to appear in photographs, red if you were an organiser or volunteer. Photo by me.

Allow people to put pronouns on their badges

I know people who like to write pronouns on their badges, to avoid being misgendered. (This is mostly, but not exclusively, trans and non-binary friends, whose appearance doesn’t match common expectations for their gender.)

You can do this in a number of ways:

You shouldn’t force people to write pronouns on their badges (that has different problems) – but give them the option if they want to.

Colour communication badges

This is a way for somebody to show how comfortable they are socialising. Not everybody enjoys talking to strangers, and this gives them a way to opt out without feeling awkward.

Here’s an implementation of the system at AlterConf Berlin:

Each attendee receives three cards included with their name badge and holder. […] The colored cards can be slipped behind the name badge in the holder so they’re visible to other attendees.

A green card with a triangle means that the wearer wants people to come up and talk to them. Yellow, with a circle, means they want only people they know to approach them, and red, with a square, means that they want to be left alone. In each case, the person wearing the badge may still approach people they want to talk to, but if someone is wearing a yellow or red badge, they generally want to keep being approached to a minimum.

Note the use of shapes, so this works for colourblind attendees as well.

The system was developed by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. I haven’t seen it at many conferences yet, but I think it’s a nice idea.

Newcomers

One of the great parts of regular conferences is having a chance to see people you don’t see anywhere else – for example, I have friends I only see when I’m at PyCon UK. But there’s a risk a conference can get a clique-y feel – everybody who’s been before knows each other, and you feel left out if you’re new and don’t know anybody. If you want your conference to grow, it’s important to make newcomers feel as welcome as the old timers.

Run specific sessions for first timers

For several years, Write The Docs conferences have run a “Welcome Wagon” – there’s a dedicated session for meeting other first-time attendees, tours of the venue, and a bunch of information about how the conference works. The Welcome Wagon for this year’s Prague conference has lots of advice and suggestions about how to get the most from the conference.

Although a lot of that page is Prague or Write The Docs-specific, the questions apply to any conference – you could write answers for your event.

Publish a glossary of terms

If they run for a long time, conferences develop fun traditions and in-jokes. That’s okay, but consider publishing a glossary of these terms, so somebody who’s new doesn’t feel confused or left out (here’s an example from DjangoCon Europe 2016).

If you’re a regular attendee, meet new people

If you’re the person who’s attends the same conference regularly, take some time to break out of your bubble and meet newcomers. Here are two approaches I like:

At PyCon UK last year, there was a #social channel in the conference Slack. If a group of people were going out for the evening, and had room for a few more, they’d post it in this channel – and people would take up that invitation.

Putting it into practice

I hope these ideas are useful, and you can use them to make your events more inclusive.

As I said at the start – don’t feel bad if there are suggestions here that you can’t do. I’ve never seen a conference that implements all of these, or even most of them. Some of this is expensive (either in time or money), and you can’t do it all. Consider it a list of suggestions, not absolute requirements.

Just do your best – some improvements are better than no improvements. Anything you can do to make your event more inclusive is a worthwhile thing to do.

This list is almost certainly incomplete, and reflects the conferences I’m most interested in. You’ll have other ideas I haven’t thought of – I’d love to hear about them. Maybe they’ll appear in a future version!

Here’s a useful rule of thumb: explicit is better than implicit. The more you think about this, and the more detail you provide, the easier it is for somebody to decide if they’ll feel welcome at your event. And if you’ve clearly thought about it already, it’s easier for somebody to ask for an accommodation you haven’t thought of – because they’re more likely to get a positive response. Even saying you can’t provide an accommodation is more useful than an empty page.

Now go plan an awesome conference!

Further reading

This list is based on the work of a number of conferences, including:

Each of them publish pages with accessibility and inclusion information. They’re all worth reading, and I’d hold up any of them as a good example of conferences trying to be more inclusive.

Here’s a list of some of the other articles I read while preparing this piece: