Diversity at OggCamp

Important note: This is a personal blog post on my personal blog. While I was largely responsible for the organisation of this year’s OggCamp, there is no formal organisation called “OggCamp”, and this post is intended to communicate my personal thoughts on these issues, not those of anyone else involved in past, present or future OggCamp events. At this point there are no plans regarding an OggCamp in 2015, as to where it will be, who will organise it, when or even whether it will happen.

OggCamp 14 took place this weekend in Oxford.  Shortly before the event, Twitter user @zenaynay mentioned that she would be keeping a tally of how many non-male and non-white attendees were at the event.  I was interested to see what she found, and today looked over her timeline from the weekend to find the comments posted below (with her permission), which I felt warranted a considered response.

Before I continue, I feel I should point out that I’m a middle-class white male living in the UK and working in the IT industry, which means I have no first-hand experience of what it’s like to be part of an under-represented minority in my everyday life. This means that when talking about these issues I fear that I may come across as patronising, insensitive, or otherwise offensive. However, to avoid discussing these issues on that basis would be to say that improving diversity is the sole responsibility of the under-represented, which won’t get us anywhere.

To summarise @zenaynay’s observations, she found that while there were a lot of white women (WW) at the event, there were almost no people of colour (POC) in general or women of colour (WOC) in particular, other then herself. In addition, the vast majority of the speakers at the event were men. As a result, she felt out of place, and as though she wasn’t part of the culture of the event.

This is a problem for me, as I want OggCamp to be an inclusive place for everyone. We have done a better job than other tech and open source-related conferences I’ve been to at attracting women and children, although we have made no specific effort to ensure this. To realise that we’re still excluding a group of potential attendees is disappointing, but I choose to take the criticism as an opportunity to make future events even better rather than a reason that this event was unsuccessful.

Personally, I’m more concerned with the content of the talks being diverse and interesting than the people that give them, but I also understand that members of a diverse audience may feel out of place watching a homogenous group of speakers to which they feel they dont belong, and may therefore be put off attending the event in the first place.  This isn’t a situation I’m happy with.

One point of @zenaynay’s observations that I don’t agree with is the assertion that the organisers use the unconference model of the event to get us off the hook regarding speaker diversity. This isn’t the case. From my point of view, one reason why we use the unconference model is that it gives OggCamp the energy and dynamic atmosphere that makes the event unique. The second (and probably main) reason why is that arranging a 3-track 2-day conference schedule is serious amount of work, and we simply don’t have the resources to do it.

We do have a small number of scheduled speakers each year, which is usually made up of people who I can think to ask. This is, of course, limited by the people that I know about, and then further by those who respond to me.  I dont think this has ever resulted in us having an all white-male schedule, but they have certainly been in the majority. If we had the capacity to manage the process, an open call for papers may be a useful device for getting a more diverse line-up of speakers.

As for diversity among unconference speakers, I’d like to hear from existing non-white-male attendees as to why they don’t tend to offer talks. It’s not necessary to indicate your gender, race, or age when submitting a talk to be voted on, so I can’t imagine that attendees use those metrics to decide which talks to watch.  However, there’s clearly something we’re missing here that’s putting people off.

Finally, we come to what I see as the most important issue, which underpins all of this: the diversity of attendees. More diverse attendees means a more diverse pool of speakers to draw on for the unconference, and a more diverse and inclusive culture to bring future attendees into, hopefully allowing them to feel more comfortable.
I don’t know for sure how people hear about and decide to come to OggCamp, but I suspect that it was initially members of the LugRadio community, plus listeners to the UUPC and Linux Outlaws podcasts, and then word of mouth spread from there. For whatever reason, this word of mouth didn’t spread to many people of colour.

Perhaps, therefore, what we need for OggCamp is more widespread marketing. The easiest way to market the event (and therefore the one I focused on this year) is to speak to previous attendees on social media, which is obviously never going to increase diversity. Knowing where and how to promote the event to make it visible to attendees who don’t necessarily fit the existing “mould” which we’ve apparently developed could be a big step in the right direction.

Another step in the right direction may be to adopt a formal code of conduct (CoC).  It’s not something we’ve ever felt the need to introduce before, but I was made aware this year of someone who was put off attending by the lack of a CoC.  Codifying and honouring our intention to make the event safe and welcoming for everyone may help encourage those who worry that they might not be welcome, to attend.

I’ve mentioned to several people this year that I’d like to increase the involvement of the community in the organisation of OggCamp by creating a permanent online discussion forum (web forum, mailing list or whatever). If we go ahead with this and you’re interested in helping OggCamp become more diverse, I’d encourage you to get involved in the discussion. Follow @OggCamp on Twitter and we’ll keep you posted as plans are developed.