UIKonf, one of the largest and best-known independent iOS development conferences, has announced that all speakers in its 2019 edition will be female. This isn’t just random chance: the team have announced it’s their way “of raising awareness for the diversity problem while at the same time a celebration of all the women who follow their passion, muster up the courage to go on stage, and hold great talks despite the headwind they’re facing in our industry.”
As a regular conference speaker, I can testify to the fact that many conferences struggle to attract female speakers, despite using anonymous talk proposals or even specifically inviting particular women. So, I believe UIKonf’s move has the potential to cause serious, positive change in our community.
Although UIKonf has always had a diversity scholarship to support attendees from under-represented groups – last year offering 30 free tickets thanks to sponsorship from Mercedes Benz, for example – this year they are taking it one step further. Following a suggestion from Tobias Due Munk, the conference has opened up a special “Support Diversity Scholarship” ticket that’s helps fund diverse attendance without granting access to the conference. (Full disclosure: I bought one.)
Although the majority of responses seem to be overwhelmingly positive, some folks have argued this may be a bad move from UIKonf:
I don‘t think this is the right way of supporting diversity. I can see this rule having a positive impact on growing women in tech. At the same time since this is a big event with big responsibilities I also see this rule supporting the idea of sexism. Decisions based on gender.— Martin Lasek (@MartinLasek) January 31, 2019
removing the anonymous voting system to replace it with an opaque selection with the candidate pool artificially restricted to female gender does quite the opposite. it’s misguided / sloppy— meghan (@meghafon) January 31, 2019
Carola Nitz, one of UIKonf’s speakers from last year, had this to say: “Yes, I also think it’s a good idea, but at the same time I’m worried if we go to this “extreme” that it might have unexpected side effects. That is, in the fight for equality and inclusivity, it might well cause opponents to point to UIKonf as a reason for having an all-male conference.”
To find out more about UIKonf’s thinking behind this move, I sent some questions over to Sabine Geithner. Sabine is lead iOS developer at Mercedes Benz, and has been on the organizing team of UIKonf for five years now.
Hacking with Swift: What led to you make this year an all-female line up?
Sabine Geithner: Engin, Maxim and I have been organising UIKonf for 5 years in a row now. We are doing this in our free time and make so little money with it that most developers wouldn’t even get out of bed for this. We do it because it is a fun way to get out of our comfort zones and expand our horizons and abilities. We enjoy bringing people together and creating an event that keeps growing and connecting people. Every year we have been trying to find ways to make UIKonf better and more inclusive while at the same time enabling more people to take part in this event. When we kicked off UIKonf 2019, we realized that for the first time, we didn’t have as much change: we were going to be staying at the same venue and the same size, probably keeping the structure as is. So we were wondering what could make this UIKonf special.
When Maxim decided to leave us this year, we were left with a gap. Maxim had been the one who knew which speakers were currently “hot topic” in the conference scene. And he was the one communicating with them. When Engin took over this task, we decided to reach out to previous speakers and ask them about their suggestions for speakers to invite. We were surprised by the amount of suggestions, especially that there were so many great women with great topics and speaking skills. At the same time, we added two more women to the official organising team: Bianca and Julia creating a tech-conference-organizing-team where men (or in our case “man” / Engin) are in the minority. And so Engin dropped the idea: could we pull off an all female line-up?
We reached out to previous speakers and those we had already invited to see how they felt about our plan. One of our biggest concerns was and still is that the women we select will feel an even higher pressure to perform well on stage. But we decided to trust our audience to be welcoming and open-minded - as we have experienced them in previous years. After consulting everyone and getting mostly enthusiastic feedback, we decided to go ahead.
HWS: What kind of responses have you had so far?
SG: We anticipated a small backlash, but we accepted that possibility over the fact that we were not just doing something new while keeping the quality high, but also challenging the status-quo of underrepresentation of women on stage.
Most people have been welcoming and supportive of the idea of having this one-time event with only female-identifying speakers on stage. However, there will always be people who don’t see the point of diversity efforts, disagree with the methods or misunderstand the intentions. Some of this can be clarified with communication, and some if it we will just have to accept.
I think a lot of the frustration probably stems from the fact that our much-anticipated anonymous CfP will be paused for this year and people who have been looking forward to submitting their proposal (and maybe already put work into it) will have to wait for another year to do so. So yeah, we understand your frustration and are sorry we caused pain. But it’s still our conference, we are the curators, and we think it is right to have an all female line-up.
The most frequent negative argument is that having an all-female line-up has nothing to do with diversity. I think that’s a comment from people who probably don’t know UIKonf. We totally agree that 100% women does not equal diversity, that is why in all previous editions of UIKonf, we had a double-blind CfP through which we received great proposals from any gender. This helped us to reach a gender-ratio that was quite close to 50%. This year, we just decided to do something different.
Another argument is that inviting speakers just because they are female makes for a bad conference. I don’t know why people think that we will invite people solely based on their gender and even wonder if they associate “female speaker” with “bad content.” Pausing the CfP doesn’t mean we will invite speakers just for their gender. We are still looking at every speaker, the topics they cover and their ability to present on stage.
The CfP enabled us to be gender-blind, it gave the audience the power to create a list of topics of their choice and it helped us discover great unknown speakers. For UIKonf 2019, we still want to invite new faces onto the stage, so if you are a female-identifying human or know great women (cis/trans/non-binary) who should speak at UIKonf, send your proposals and suggestions to Engin (firstname.lastname@example.org).
HWS: Do you think this change might affect the people who attend your event?
SG: Yes, absolutely. From what I heard when talking to female developers, a lot of women are not attending conferences because they either feel in the minority, not included and therefore not comfortable or because there are too few women on stage. This of course is leading to a vicious cycle.
I’m also excited to see more women giving technical talks. If the line-up is mixed, women are often opting to talk about soft-skills. This is unfortunate, because it leaves the impression that women are less technical even though they definitely are not. In this way, having an all female line-up might inspire other women at future UIKonfs and other conferences to submit technical talks.
We have already secured some really great female role-models to talk at UIKonf and I really think this could be a great trigger for other women to join the event as an attendee. I also shared our blogpost in women groups to encourage some newbies to send us their proposals. I am super optimistic that this will make UIKonf even more diverse and will hopefully have a lasting effect on the gender-distribution of our conference attendees.
At the same time, it’s possible that some people who disagree with the format decide not to take part. That is OK, it is their right to do so and we accept that. If someone already purchased a ticket and changed their mind about their attendance, we are happy to issue a refund.
Last but not least, by showing that there are many great women speakers out there, we hope to inspire other tech conferences to improve the diversity of their line-up as well.
HWS: What advice would you give to other conferences who struggle with getting an inclusive speaker line up?
SG: Have women in your organising team. It’s easier to reach out to women’s groups if you are a woman than if you are a man (as sad as that is). And you have more credibility to be willing to change the status quo when your team reflects the diversity you want to achieve. At the same time it may open your eyes to your conference's short-comings when it comes to inclusiveness.
Build trusting relationships with women’s groups in your area (and worldwide) and use their newsletters and social media channels to spread the word about your CfP. Many people from underrepresented groups self-select out of submitting a proposal. You need to go out of your way to make sure you encourage submissions from them. What goes into the funnel, comes out at the end.
Ask previous speakers about recommendations. Speakers usually get around a lot and will have met other great speakers or work with other great potential speakers.
Check your own prejudice.
Hacking with Swift: Why do you think some conferences struggle to find an inclusive speaker line up?
Kaya Thomas: I think many conferences struggle to find inclusive line ups through both lack of trying & lack of networking. Often times conferences invite the same folks to speak over and over & if those networks are homogenous it’s hard for newcomers from other backgrounds to feel welcomed.
Kate Castellano: I think the struggle is a mix of elements. The first one is that most conference organisers are themselves not a diverse group, so there are no different perspectives that can point out the different ways they can make not only the lineup but the conference more inclusive, and as a speaker, that is also an important reason why I decide to join/speak at a conference or not.
Second, we still follow a certain pattern on how a speaker should look or speak in order to be successful. Because this way of presenting has made some speakers famous, most conferences believe that the only way they can attract people to pay for the tickets, is if they have those big names attached to it.
And third, it is laziness. Most of the time I hear organisers excuse themselves saying that they approached some women and they got rejected, and that is where they stopped and pat themselves on the back saying they tried. If you really want to have a more diverse panel, there are so many resources out there (twitter lists, websites, online spreadsheets) that can point you out to amazing speakers, and if you still believe you can’t find one, approach an organisation that is working towards making tech a more inclusive place, they will be able to provide the contacts of some potential speakers.
HWS: What do you think will be different about having an all-female speaker line up?
Kaya: I hope other women out there who are thinking about starting to give talks are inspired by it and feel encouraged that there are conference organizers who want to welcome and support them. I recently went to a conference called Tech Intersections, which was a conference for women of color in computing. All the speakers were women of color and the environment felt so empowering and safe. I’m hoping for similar vibes of solidarity and support at UIKonf!
Kate: I am a firm believer that representation matters. For someone who is in the audience, the opportunity to connect to a speaker not only because of the topic they are presenting but because they can see themselves represented, it can make a massive difference. I really hope this will encourage more people to share their stories and believe that there is an audience out there that will listen to them.
HWS: What impact do you think this will have on our community?
Kaya: I think having a line-up of all women is a call to action for all the conferences out there to do better. It’s obvious that there are plenty of technical women who can speak on a variety of topics, so there is no excuse for having a line up of all men.
Kate: One of the things I hope will happen is that more people will see themselves represented and will be encouraged to apply and tell their stories. I’m hoping that the result is that we will have more diverse faces and different perspectives in the community. But I’m sure of one thing: this edition will set a precedent. Now conferences won’t use the “we couldn’t find women for our lineup” excuse, because people will reference that UIKonf did it!
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Paul Hudson is the creator of Hacking with Swift, the most comprehensive series of Swift books in the world. He's also the editor of Swift Developer News, the maintainer of the Swift Knowledge Base, and Mario Kart world champion. OK, so that last part isn't true. If you're curious you can learn more here.