Women In Tech

Isn’t it time community speakers were all treated reasonably and equally by organizers?

TL; DR Yes

Let me tell you about the second-worst conference experience I’ve ever had as a speaker. The worst experience happened a few years ago and it is at the foot of the post so you will have to read down – note, it does have a trigger warning.

Speakers from diverse backgrounds want equality not preferential treatment

Let me explain a scenario and let me make it clear that I’m not asking for preferential treatment. I’m asking to be treated the same. Anyway, I was attended to speak at the Europe Collaboration Summit in November 2021 on 30th November at 13.40 in a room called Major League SharePoint, expecting to speak on a topic called CuRious about R and Power BI.

Much to my surprise, two hours before I was due to present, an audience member contacted me to say that my session had been pulled. I had written to the organizers about my accommodation on 24th October, stating that (quote from email) ‘I will go home on Tuesday 30th November after the session. There are a lot of delays at the airport because of COVID so I thought it best to come out on Sunday so I can go through any procedures that they require at the airport.’ So it is fairly clear that I’m traveling and flying, right? They booked my hotel so they were perfectly aware, and they acknowledged the email

On the morning of Tuesday 30th November at 11am, I found out from an audience member that my session had been pulled and postponed to Wednesday 1st December – after my plane was scheduled to take me back home again, and as per the email on 24th October which the organizers acknowledged and answered on 27th October 2021.

I contacted the organizers right away at 11:14am on 30th December, stating that (quote from email I sent when I found out, just over two hours before I was due to start): ‘I’ve just been notified that my session time has been changed at the last minute to tomorrow? The original timetable, which I checked before I sent out my newsletter to my followers, had 30th November at 1.40pm on the schedule at the time. It’s just been changed to tomorrow and I am leaving today. I’m sorry but I am leaving today and the last-minute change to my session scheduling has come too late for me to try and get a hotel room for tonight and change the schedule. I am not sure how to repair the situation other than to offer to do a recording for you at some point. I wish I’d been notified earlier – I booked my flights ages ago and, as someone coming from the outside of Germany to speak at your event, this isn’t easy for me to change.’ I got a bewildering email back that wasn’t even addressed to me so I have not had a real apology directed to me; it was directed towards someone who worked at GOOGLE and half of the email was about Google as a vendor and nothing to do with me.

Let’s recap for a moment: so, I gave up my time for free, an audience member told me about the session cancellation and reschedule until after I’d left, and basically, I was sitting in Germany for two whole days, away from home, and didn’t get the chance to speak.

So I asked myself the question: what could have possibly replaced me? What was so urgent that it had to be pulled at such a late point? What exceptional circumstance could lead to this happening?

Well, here’s the kicker, people……

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The scheduled room was EMPTY during my slot and nothing was rearranged to go into the slot. Here’s the actual website, and here is the snip of the slot where I should have been. There are sessions either side of my slot in that room, which was ‘Major League Sharepoint, but not during mine. I could have spoken in that slot, but, for some reason, my session was pulled and postponed to a time that the organizers knew I’d left. You can see from the snip and the site that the slot is fairly empty with other rooms free at the same time.

If they didn’t want me to speak, they could have told me before I made travel arrangements. Why pull my session and replace it with an empty room? You can see that the ‘Major League Sharepoint’ room is occupied for 50 minutes by another session, ending at 12:30. In my slot, at 13.40, the room is empty. If you care to look at the Agenda, you can see that ‘Major League Sharepoint’ room had another session in it from 14.45 onwards for 50 minutes. So there was no immediate and urgent reason to pull my session that was operational or due to another commitment in the Major League SharePoint room at that time. The organizers introduced a gap rather than let me speak. I’ve spoken to a maximum of 9 million viewers on the BBC news; I can handle a community event easily as a speaker.

Here is the agenda and you can see that my room is empty in that slot:

I took to Twitter where the organizers said that ‘The organizers reserve the right to make changes to the event program without prior announcement.’ YIKES. What it should really say is something like ‘The organizers reserve the right to make changes to the event program without prior announcement and we won’t tell the speakers and we won’t tell the audience’ You assume that a change would be made reluctantly and outside of their control. No; my session was pulled and not replaced with anything at an event where people paid to attend, I was not told, and kicked to a place where they were already told that I was going home. All I was asking was that I should be treated reasonably. This did not happen to anyone else and I have had no explanation. I could have accepted it if there was some explanation and a different session at that time, but neither thing happened.

I’ve helped to organize conferences, for years, for events that are twice the size of the European Collaboration Summit. So I know about last-minute changes. I know that it is really tough to organize and execute. But this situation isn’t one of those accidents that you have to deal with. With all the cancellations that they had due to pandemic travel, they would have had problems filling vacant slots at the last minute – not pulling a session where the speaker actually turned up to present and then replace it with nothing, particularly with so many last-minute COVID cancellations

I’m in good health – despite what you may have been told

If there was some operational issue that prevented the session from going ahead – fine. But as you have seen, it was simply pulled and postponed. The audience was not told either, because attendees kept emailing me to tell me that they wished me good health and they heard I’d taken ill. Absolutely NOT TRUE. I’m in great health. I have not contracted COVID.

The NHS contacted me to ask me to participate in a research study because I seem to have developed antibodies to the virus. THAT’s how healthy I am. Please be reassured that I have not taken ill; apparently, the organizers told this to the audience, and some of them were concerned enough to contact me privately and directly. I do appreciate the audience’s concern and I am sorry that people were alarmed in that way.

I’m no longer an MVP, and the organizers knew that story about my problems with being bullied by peers, culminating in my handing back the award in total disgust over how some members of the community and some Microsoft staff had handled my complaints when one made a rape joke. Boy, do I feel really stupid. I feel like a complete idiot for allowing myself to be set up to fail again. I left the MVP Program after years of bullying and I should never have stuck around that long. On reflecting, I just should not have kept the commitment to the European Collaboration Summit I’d made when I was an MVP, but, for some stupid reason, I thought that people would rise above this old news but obviously not.

I’ll be interested in your comments. Some tech community efforts try to encourage new speakers but you have to treat new speakers well; they see when you don’t treat other speakers well and they go off and join other tech communities and do other things. They don’t have to give your time to you. Examples of this treatment towards me are the ones that people remember; they negate some of the good efforts that people are trying to do. Nobody wants to be treated like this and then ignored afterward. You rely on community people to give up their time and their experience and share their wisdom.

Oh, and advance warning, Collab Summit team; FYR I don’t work for Google so you might want to talk to the Google person you thought that you were sending the email to. I’m publicly blogging since I didn’t hear from you and you’ve had your chances.

The worst experience I’d ever had

In case you are interested, the worst conference experience didn’t happen at Collab Summit. To be clear, this happened at another event in the UK that involved having my right breast grabbed and squeezed – really hard – very unexpectedly by a male attendee who thanked me for my session at a conference at an event where I was speaking. I got up and walked out, physically bruised and emotionally shattered. More about that another time, but if you are asking yourself if it made a difference that it really hurt, the answer is no, not really; I just want people to know that harassment can hurt physically as well as emotionally. Also, female speakers are not immune to being harassed and it is probably even worse for female attendees because it takes some bloody cheek to go up to a female speaker and grab a secondary sexual organ like that. So when I try to speak at conferences, I am not coming in cold – it takes me a lot of guts to speak at a conference and I’m disappointed that organizers do not recognize the effort and cost.

This is partly why I speak out about equality, diversity, and inclusion – I have to, in order to get a glimpse of being treated equally. When women go to conferences, it can be a really shitty experience. Organizers need to understand that, when we apply, we are taking a risk over our well-being and I’d like them to respect that. This is where women and non-binary people do not have the same starting block as everyone else; we have to jump over so much to get to your event. Don’t make it harder.

5 thoughts on “Isn’t it time community speakers were all treated reasonably and equally by organizers?”

    1. Thank you for your support! If organizers are not able to sort themselves out, then I believe that sponsors need to step up to the plate and make sure that there are genuine efforts to ensure that the event is definitely treating everyone reasonably and equally from start to finish. I feel very singled out by this behaviour and there was no need for any of it.

    2. That is horrifying. I’m very sorry you have to go through that Jen. You’ve been a huge part of the community for years and it’s heartbreaking to hear this. Unfortunately this seems to be a systemic issue, from organizers to sponsors. Kudos to you for sticking up for the right thing!

      #respect

      1. Thank you for your support, Chris! You are perfectly right. If community event organizers won’t step up to the plate to behave better, then sponsors will have to perform that function.

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