I was talking to a female engineer turned product manager last week about her experience as one of the few women at a hackathon. While she didn't experience anything particularly negative, she still didn't feel particularly welcome. When you're one of only a few people who look like you in a place, if the event is a free-for-all, it's tough to break into new groups and connect with strangers. That's when I realized that there's a lot more that goes into making various groups feel included than just inviting them.
Specifically, there are some event organizers that go out of their way to make everyone in a room feel comfortable. At Brooklyn Beta, for example, there was a speaker that I thought really muddled through their presentation. It was awkward at best. I kept checking Twitter to see if I was the only one that felt that way (and maybe I was) but there wasn't even a peep. It blew my mind. I've seen better presentations get ripped to shreds with snark on Twitter, yet there wasn't even a peep.
Because the organizers set the tone early. When they introduced the speakers they paid extra attention to mention when speakers were nervous, or apprehensive, or when they didn't come out to speak that often. The said that DNA of the conference was to be welcoming and supportive and immediately set expectations for what was and wasn't done there. In the face of that, it felt completely inappropriate to comment negatively. (I mean, it should feel that way anyway, but that's not always the case.)
There are other ways of making people feel supported. At the New York Tech Meetup, you're encouraged to speak with the people sitting around you. No matter who you are, if you attend, someone is going to speak with you. What if, at the hackathon this woman had attended, the organizers had just said, "And now is the time for introducing yourself to the person next to you." Even better, what if there was a requirement on your team to bring a stranger onto your team?
Alcohol also plays a big part to making people feel included or excluded. First, and we don't talk about this too often, but not everyone drinks. If it feels like the key participating socially in an event is drinking, you're going to get people who aren't going to feel like it's ok to join in. I don't drink at all, and it never stops me from coming out and going to bars, but I've definitely heard from others that's not an environment they like being in.
Secondarily, people sometimes (often) say ridiculous things when they drink--and it gets them into situations where they feel like the point of being there is to make friends or make dates. Put a bunch of twenty somethings in a bar, liquor them up, and dim the lights, and you don't exactly create the right environment for making one of the five women in the room feel like they're going to get taken seriously
So what if you came up with a serious of rules.
Sometimes, I go to an event and they announce that they follow Chatham House rules on what is sharable:
"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."
This way, everyone knows what the deal is.
What if we had a serious of rules where the event could announce beforehand and during that "We're following the Rules of Inclusion". What would they be? How could they change the environment to make everyone feel welcome.
I'd suggest a few things:
- From the beginning, the event will be marketed to in some way to give diverse groups of people the opportunity to participate--which might include sending it out to certain groups ahead of the onslaught of young white dude mailing lists. In my mind, this is different than just counting. It's being a little more thoughtful than first come, first serve, but stopping short of quotas.
- Have attendees agree to a code of conduct around respect of speakers and fellow attendees, and announce what that code is--and extend it to social media participation.
- Clearly identify who the organizers of the event are, and suggest that if anyone feels uncomfortable in any way, or even if they just want help being introduced to people, that they can reach out to those people. Maybe they could be wearing event t-shirts or something.
- Create a networking opportunity that doesn't involve alcohol or is more conscious of the environment. Perhaps picking venues that aren't just bars, but that might have separate sections--tables meant for discussion or something. Maybe the speakers will be sitting in a certain area that is better lit, quieter, etc. People might tend to act up less around speakers--so in a way you'd be creating a kind of safe area without making people feel like it's the "boring area".
What else would an event need to work off the the "Rules of Inclusion"?