14 tech speakers on stage: 10 male, 4 female and 1 ethnically identifiable speakers. Let’s talk about how that makes me feel.

I want to be clear that I love what I do and where I work. The often-harsh realities I look at below are not targeted specifically at the organization I work for, but it is merely a reflection of the industry as a whole. I’m grateful to work for a company where I can openly talk about these issues with my peers and encourage us to hold ourselves to higher standards. I wanted to write this article to not identify this already-common problem, but in search of solutions and work that can be done to overcome it.

 

This past year I attended two company retreats in Whistler and Orlando with over a thousand of my co-workers who I have now literally and figuratively climbed mountains with. These gatherings are a special time for our organization that deals with close to 50% remote workers and teams dispersed across the world. I can’t stress enough how much I love the people I work with and appreciate spending time with them. Having attended a few company retreats, I was all to familiar with that eager feeling to rekindle my passion for what I do and the affection I have for my colleagues.

I remember pouring into the morning plenaries on the first day in Whistler and looking for leadership, hope and honesty. Members of our management team storming the stage (some wearing their ‘Canadian’ lumberjack attire) talking about their enthusiasm for the work we were doing, while showing demo’s of cross-company products and telling real stories about how we’ve changed since we’ve last been together and frankly, where we had come up short in the past. We were told we were going to space and given some reasons as to how we were going to get there. It was cheesy, but sometimes cheesy isn’t bad. I listened eagerly and watched carefully. In these situations watching was always important to me.

I wrote down the name of everyone on stage and made myself an ad-hoc infographic of all the speakers. I have often talked about the importance of equal representation on stage and I wanted to know where we as an organization stood. By the end it looked like this:

14 speakers over 3.5 hours

10 male speakers, 4 female speakers

1 ethnically identifiable speaker

No speakers of African or Asian decent

A (very roughly) estimated 90% of speakers to whom English is a first language

I looked around at everyone present, which to my dismay didn’t reflect the leadership on stage. There was a diverse group present and while there were a considerably less number of females in the audience, there was definitely no shortage of identifiable ethnicities and multi-lingual speakers. As a visible woman of colour, I was frustrated that this was still prevalent in even the most forward-moving technology companies. As an individual, my diversity had always made us strong and given me a unique perspective. For my company, our ability to engage community leaders from around the world as both staff and volunteers was something I was proud of. Our work is built with the community at the center, who in turn furthers the mission and products at a global level. It’s these community members who we invite to join us on our retreats and are sitting in the audience. The stage I was looking at didn’t reflect them, our employees or myself and it was far from something that would make me proud.

I thought about that stage a lot in the proceeding month, sometimes even sharing my concern with my co-workers. Some of them understood my pain and frustration, while others seemed unaware to why I was so concerned.

After time had passed, we started preparing for our next meet up and I was hopeful for change in Orlando. Sure enough, there I sat with my notebook intently watching the stage and crowd. Here’s what the plenaries looked like on the first day:

10 speakers over 2 hours

8 male speakers, 2 female speakers

No ethnically identifiable speaker

No speakers of African or Asian decent

A (very roughly) estimated 90% of speakers to whom English is a first language

Just to be clear, there were plenaries on other days in Whistler and in Orlando but the emphasis at events, conferences and on stage is always given at the beginning. That is where you set the tone of who we are as a company. This is the one I’m always so eager to watch.

You might have seen this before. In fact, I’ve seen it many times both within my organization and in the industry. Like many others, I’ve provided feedback about it and wished individuals would consider the image they are putting in front of a stage compared to those sitting in the audience. So minorities like myself, didn’t feel like……… more of a minority; isolated and different than our leaders. Like we will never be the one’s on stage.

The numbers and information from both events stared back at me, haunting me. I began to get embarrassed when reviewing or even sharing them with others. In fact, it took me over 6 months to post how I felt about it since I first wrote it after our retreat in Whistler. I’m proud of where I work but conscious that we have a lot to learn as an organization, and I contemplated whether posting my thoughts would be constructive to the situation. But then I realized that I don’t talk about it with others, we won’t be able to work on solutions together.

I mentioned in the opening of this article that I wanted to push past the problem and focus on what can be done in these types of settings. Truthfully, I’m often not sure what to do. Two years ago I had the opportunity to plan the speaker line-up at a large Mozilla event and consciously planned for a speaker line-up that reflected the diverse audience. It was hard (why is this so hard?!) but I made it a priority and worked towards successfully obtaining my goals. While I kept thinking about that moment, I knew that it was small and I needed to think about how to create greater change. That’s when I realized that actual change takes times but there are still many steps along the way to help bring that change to fruition and communicate what change is happening.

Here are some ideas on where we can start:

  • Open and continue the conversation about the issue. Having discussions on how the stage does not reflect the audiences are healthy conversations we should be having with each other. We can start with small questions like, “what does a diverse stage mean to those attending?” The more I talk about it to others, the more they are opening their eyes when they attend events and conferences.
  • Challenge those planning stage activity to be more inclusive and aware of the audience that is present. This can be done in event feedback or emailing an individual or organization. Express this in a positive way, such as how the stage presence and the messages being conveyed can have a higher impact when it’s reflective of the audience.
  • Supporting diverse speakers to either start or continue sharing their story to audiences. If you’re a manager or executive, maybe it’s understanding that sometimes you don’t always have to be the person to share the story on stage and sharing that time with members of your team.
  • Sharing action steps with all parties. Did executive members of the organization notice the lack of diversity? Are they taking steps to prevent it happening in the future? This is the type of information that individuals should know and allows conversations to have a forward-facing approach.
  • Holding ourselves accountable. We can say we want to be better but who knows what that ever means, we need to set goals and hold ourselves accountable to achieving them.
  • Any more?

There are solutions and ideas that I know I am missing, some which might have even been discovered in previous conversations around the issue. If you know of where this conversation is taking place or ways to plug-in or other ideas please do share. I hope to make this an open conversation, where we can learn how to be better together.

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