On Thursday 27th September, I held an Unconference at Microsoft Ignite which was aimed at Diversity and Inclusion. I was incredibly lucky to be supported by the Diversity and Inclusion initiative by Microsoft, who have put it at front-and-centre of everything that they do. Although it is only one event, I was told that my event had the highest proportion of male attendees at the event. I had 80 people turn up in the end, and I was too busy facilitating the conference to take a note for myself but I was pleased that everyone turned out to join us. I want to say thank you to everyone who attended.
Introducing Collaboration through an Unconference
The Unconference really means that people can engage, connect and share themselves rather than having a speaker talk to them. It’s collaborative and energetic, with a free-form fluid style. There are lots of different ways to implement it, and you can find more information on how to prepare an Unconference for yourself here.
To encourage participation, I didn’t want to use a traditional top-down lecture session and I wanted to have a collaborative, open, honest and innovative event that meant people would have a great time meeting other attendees, plus engage with each other. Ignite is a large event at 30,000 people and it is very easy to get lost, and not talk to anyone all week. Unconferences are a more relevant, engaging, and interactive event format.
It also means that there is room for the introvert, the extrovert, or for people who don’t feel that they have got anything to say. Feeling ‘idealess’ is horrible and it’s important for people to learn about diversity, so I wanted to create a space for people who felt awkward about contributing as well as those who were happy to take centre stage. Ultimately, I wanted people to feel as if they could be themselves.
How did I do it? Here are some practical takeaways for you to try at your own events. I learned from Jackson Katz, a prominent Diversity speaker who gives a message which resonates strongly with me. I have put Jackson Katz’ Ted Talk here because he gives very strong messages about gender violence. As a survivor, it was initially very important to me that a gentleman spoke out, because people will listen to him in a way that they won’t listen to me, and I’d like to thank Jackson Katz for his work. Katz posits that the language of diversity can mean that white men get erased from a conversation that fundamentally includes them, too.
Diversity can be perceived as a women’s issue that some good men help out with. We need to change that.
Diversity impacts everyone and it is the only thing that we have in common. By focusing on women, it can mean that men get an excuse not to listen. The gentlemen who take the excuse not to listen are the ones that we want to reach.
Ensure your Abstract is aimed at Everyone: Not just Women
My title was called: Diversity and Inclusion: Why is it important, and what can we do about it? The abstract went as follows:
For people who want to build careers and manage teams, it is crucial to understand diversity and how it impacts your organization. Increasing the role of women in technology has a direct impact on the women working in hi-tech, but the effects can go far beyond that. How do female tech workers influence innovation and product development? How do men benefit from having more women working in technology? Can the presence of women in tech affect a company’s profit? Join a lively discussion on diversity, and hear proactive steps that individuals and companies can take in order to make diversity and inclusion part of the organizational DNA.
Be Inclusive – and that means men, too
I talked about being proactive, and what we could do. I believed that this language would speak to men and women alike. Speaking with men, they often ask what they can do to help and they want proactive prescriptive steps. They can sometimes feel that they can’t help in any diversity scenario since they don’t know what to do, or how to start. By putting this in the abstract, my intuition was borne out by having so many men turn up by making them feel included. I was helping them by giving them something actionable that they could do, and making diversity accessible through steps and sequences and patterns to follow.
Don’t make it into a Pity Party
Some WIT panels can turn into a pity party where we talk about how terrible everything is, and that’s the only topic on show. I have had some awful experiences and I am not meek in sharing them. However, I don’t feel I need to rail on about it, because that can make people feel that’s all I can talk about when, in fact, I talk about technology and successful projects and solutions instead. So try to be balanced; Explain why it’s important, but also make sure that the topics cover solutions, too.
Topics we covered
We focused on women in technology, and the conversations naturally moved onto issues of colour, and particularly issues for women of colour. Since it was an Unconference, the topics move along naturally and it was great to see that the attendees took the Unconference idea to heart, and they ran with it. The summary was as follows:
At work, we should take a risk in getting to know and work beside people who are outside of our groups. This means right from the recruitment steps, and organizations can ‘screen in’ candidates rather than ‘screen out’ – for example, by giving room and doing a second run through CVs for evidence of soft skills.
We should also give support, and build people up; not tear them down. Women can view each other as competitors, and we need to create a safe culture and honestly support each other. Teach often, and teach early.
Some people suggested books to read, and here are a few. Click on the book to go to Amazon:
I recommend the Invisible Man since it is incredibly powerful; it is an American classic, actually.
I haven’t read Whistling Vivaldi but it is my Audible audiobook this month.
Things I’d change for next time
I needed a scribe who would take notes for the Unconference. A scribe would have helped to keep note of the ideas.
I would have loved an artist to draw up the ideas as we went. One of my keynotes (held at a private, invite-only industry event held by a partner organization of Data Relish) actually had an artist, and he drew my keynote speech as we went along. It was amazing!
I believe that the Unconference seems to really work for Diversity and Inclusion topics, and the session feedback so far has been awesome. If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment and I’ll be glad to hear from you.