On Conferences and Quotas: A Conference Organizer's Perspective

As many of you know, I am a co-chair of UXCamp Ottawa, Canada's largest user experience community conference. I've been asked numerous times how I feel about being a woman who runs a conference that is male-dominated. So I thought I would write down my response once and for all.

I don't believe in quotas. I believe in equal opportunities.

I run an annual conference that generally seems to have a highly male roster of speakers. But it's not for lack of trying.

Our goal when we set out to create the lineup for each event is to find speakers who are "doing something interesting this year" - we want to find the best speakers this year for our event. That way we can keep the topics timely for the conference audience. We don't want to bring in someone who was really great 10 years ago but hasn't done anything relevant since. So we're definitely selective with the people that we invite; we're picky, but we don't discriminate. Especially on gender.

In fact I can say with confidence that we almost equally solicit female and male speakers.

So why doesn't our roster reflect that?

Usually, it comes down to scheduling. Schedules don't always align and that's usually a significant factor in a speaker's decision to join us. We've invited plenty of female speakers who turned us down due to scheduling issues. Same goes for the male speakers. Which leaves us heading back to our speaker wish list (yes, we have one and it's in a spreadsheet :) to cross their name off and find another person to invite.

We have a policy though: if a female turns us down we're not necessarily going to try to replace her with another female. We're going to try to replace her with another expert on that topic who is doing something interesting in that field right now. Because that's what makes for an interesting conference.

We fully don't care the replacement's gender; we care about their work, their presentation skills and their ability to inspire the community we work so hard to gather once a year for an event they can really sink their teeth into.

No, we don't set gender quotas.
We set an awesomeness quota.
And the gender that awesomeness comes in, is irrelevant.

Yes, there needs to be more equal representation of genders on rosters at conferences. But the most we can do is continue to offer an equal opportunity to our industry's stars (and up-and-comers!) But at the end of the day, we will always pursue awesomeness over gender-based numbers.

We hope our community can support that. And to date, they have.

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