Diversity in IT Conferences Needs to Improve

Disclaimer: These are my observations and are not be indicative of all situations.

Over the past several months I’ve been lucky to attend different conferences and user group meetings. These have been an interesting mix of “old” and “new” technologies, small shops, and huge corporations, and open as well as the legacy worlds of IT. Looking back on the events, two aspects struck me as significantly different after the fact.

1 – Diversity.

In all cases, old and new, there was generally a very good mixture of ethnic backgrounds at all the events. What was not as good was that there were distinct differences between the events in terms of gender, race, and surprisingly age diversity.

This is what I observed.

The bleeding edge, new technology events tended to have more women presenters, attendees and contributors. The new technology events also tend to be more racially integrated, but honestly, this isn’t much. The crowd is much younger overall.

The old-school, huge company events do have a decent mix of ethnic backgrounds. Female presenters and contributors are minimal and on the fringes. The racial mix is pretty non-existent. The group tends to be older age-wise overall as well.

Why?

I see two issues that cause this dichotomy. First, young people are drawn to “cool” new tech whereas older people tend to be more conservative and like the safety of the known. “…old dog, new tricks…” Second, the old-school events were, generally speaking, attended by larger corporations and few if any startups. Large companies tend to be more conservative and staid, smaller companies and startups tend to take more chances in product, process, and employment. Large companies have been around longer, so there is an aspect of historical inertia in employment and knowledge as well as people staying with the company longer (aging with the company).

The Solution?

This is a multifaceted problem. The root cause, to me, comes down to whom a company hires. All companies need to do a better job of hiring women and minorities. More importantly, all companies need to do a better job of training enough people they hire to the point that they aren’t token presenters or attendees. Companies need to do a better job of hiring people of various age groups, and more importantly, encouraging them to want to enter that work environment. The older need the young, the young need the older.

2 – Purpose

The second aspect that was different, was the overall purpose for the events. The new technology events were organized more as training and learning events across a wide variety of topics, both technical, business, as well as people-focused. The older events seem geared to marketing events that try to sell a story around a specific industry or problem set. The younger events seems to be more broad-based, the older ones laser-focused. Granted, there are always vendors and exceptions, but the difference in content tends to be drastically different.

Why?

I’m not sure. I think it comes down to historical inertia of the larger companies again and a business mentality of “If you’re learning and not selling, you’re wasting money and not being productive.”  Young companies want to be first, older companies tend to have more to lose if they are the first.

The Solution?

All companies need to do a better job of “indoctrinating” new employees to the cultures of conferences and user group meetings. Don’t just send tenured employees or sales reps to present or attend. Not all employees are in marketing or interested in marketing. A broad spectrum of topics makes the event more representative of your company and your customers. The event becomes more important, and more interesting.

Conclusion

Conferences  and conference attendees and presenters can always learn and improve by getting out of their comfort zone. If you go to a given conference, branch out and attend a conference that is totally unrelated to the one you always go to, even if its in a different industry.

Companies and user groups need to objectively look at the people that show up and ask, why aren’t others interested or showing up? Or, why do I keep seeing the same faces and presenters each year?  Once you determine what demographic is missing, make an effort to invite them in.

Diversity in conferences needs to improve. Not just racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, but also diversity in age, content and approach.

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