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A post by my colleague Trisha Gee on attracting more female speakers to conferences raised yet another debate on Twitter. One of the aspects people were discussing could generally be summed up in the following statement

“If a speaker that identifies as male, and one that identifies as female, have the exact same knowledge, why should we discard the first in favour of the latter?”

Makes sense right? If two people have the exact same knowledge, and assuming the first one has submitted a talk, why should we go out of our way to try and find another person of a different gender to cover the topic or potentially discriminate against the first one in favour of the second? Many would consider that to fall under positive discrimination (see poll results).

The speaker’s experience

If we were to invite people to conferences to gives talk exclusively based on their knowledge, then the above could potentially constitute positive discrimination. The reality however is that many conferences aren’t inviting individuals just because they are knowledgable about a specific topic. Many speakers get invites because of their line of work, their background, how they use some technology, how they interact with it. In essence their experience in addition to their expertise.

This is an aspect that time and time again I’ve seen people openly talk about when selecting speakers, and nobody has ever considered it inappropriate. In fact, as someone that dedicates much of their time to Developer Advocacy, this is an aspect we have to always take into account. Having experience on the topics we speak on is fundamentally important, otherwise we’d be pundits and nothing more.

The diversity experience

If we accept that the experience a speaker brings not only adds value to a talk but is also a key factor, and we also accept that different people have different experiences, then why when it comes to diversity in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and other aspects, do we play the “positive discrimination” card? Or do we truly believe that everyone has the exact same experience in the world independently of their background and social environment?

When we have two people that on technical merit are 100% equal (which again, is usually not the case), and one of them is from an under-represented group, then it not only provides this person an opportunity which in itself can enrich their lives, but it also enriches other people’s lives in hearing about their knowledge in then context of their experiences.

The repeat speaker

Finally, I’d also like to point out another issue that takes place in the conference world. If you look at every other conference, you often see the same speakers over and over again, talking about the same topics, over and over again. While it is understandable that conferences want to attract certain speakers, because after all, that’s one of the main selling points of an event, this also tends to lead to a “boy’s club”, which is especially even more present in some conferences that do not have an open call for papers but are invite only.

I know that I myself am part of the problem and that is why for the past several years I have tried to avoid going to the same conferences year after year. And this is something that those of us that speak frequently at conferences should keep in mind. Every time we speak at a conference, we’re taking the place from someone else. At to be clear, I’m not saying that we should stop speaking, but I find alternating is one way to try and work towards improving the situation.

As I said recently, as developers and professionals in IT, we have a role in shaping the future. Let’s make sure that this future is inclusive of everyone and give people a platform to express this.