phpCE, a central European PHP conference that was previously scheduled for October 4-6, has been cancelled due to a public fiasco resulting from a lack of gender diversity in the speaker lineup. The event, previously known as PHPCon Poland, was set to be held in Dresden, Germany, after the concept changed last year to rotate host cities and include a larger region of the PHP community.
After phpCE had boasted a “rich and diverse lineup,” the published schedule was criticized for including zero women, while several speakers were given two sessions apiece. The 2018 event had a similar lack of diversity among speakers. CFP Land founder Karl Hughes’ tweet precipitated a flood of critical feedback.
This year’s @phpce_eu conference seems to have gone with the “White Males Only” conference lineup 😬
Shame. It’s 2019, we can do better.
— Karl L Hughes (@KarlLHughes) July 17, 2019
Organizers received the public criticisms as an attack, a response that disappointed many who were previously considering attending the event. Speakers started to withdraw from the conference and ticket sales dried up, as organizers demonstrated an unwillingness to do further diversity outreach beyond their initial call for proposals.
Mark Baker, one of the speakers who decided to cancel his engagement, said organizers attempted to persuade him not to withdraw by offering to put the sole female speaker applicant on the schedule. Baker said he was uncomfortable, as that would put “a lot of pressure on the woman, knowingly being invited to speak after an all-male speaker list has already been announced, making her a ‘token’ to diversity.”
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, because I do enjoy sharing my coding passion; but having advocated for diversity at PHP developer conferences for the last several years, I have to follow my beliefs that diversity should be a cornerstone of the PHP developer community,” Baker said. “Diversity matters more to me than speaking.”
Larry Garfield (@crell), who is active in the Drupal community, reported that he also tried to work with phpCE’s organizers to diversify the lineup before being forced by his personal convictions to withdraw.
“I messaged the organizers, asking them to drop some of our double-sessions in favor of more female participation,” Garfield said. “We also offered to work with them to figure out ways to reduce the cost of bringing us in (a number of us were transatlantic, and Dresden is not the cheapest city to get to) so they could afford to cover more speakers.
“Unfortunately, the organizers indicated they were not open to such an arrangement. According to them, they had only a single woman submit a session proposal this year despite having women present in previous years, and hers was a repeat from a local conference last year. They were also firm that the Call For Papers was done and over and they’re not open to reaching out to new people now. Sadly, from what the organizers told me, they actively don’t want to do outreach.”
A situation that has gone this far is often irreparable once it reaches the point of becoming an international debacle. If a diverse speaker selection hasn’t been established before the schedule announcement goes out, backpedaling to arrive at inclusion inevitably sends a signal to potential attendees that this might not be a welcoming event.
Due to the way it was handled, phpCE’s cancellation became a spectacular failure of inclusion that played out in a public way over the past several weeks. phpCE’s organizers remained defensive in their replies to critics on social media, clinging instead to what the community has deemed to be an outmoded and ineffective approach to organizing more diverse events.
D&I is okay as long as it means the equalization of chances. If you place D&I in a stronger position than substantive content of the agenda, you destroy the event. The “prioritize” sounds exactly in that way.
— Dariusz Grzesista (@DarGrze) July 18, 2019
phpCE did not publish a post regarding why the event was cancelled but rather cited several blog posts and exchanges on social media as factors in the decision.
How WordPress Is Equipping Event Organizers to Create more Diverse Speaker Lineups
Many organizers of large tech events are making proactive attempts at getting more diverse speakers and the web is full of countless resources from those who have shared their processes and tips on the topic. In the WordPress world specifically, the Community team has created a Diversity Speaker Training Workshop to help meetup and WordCamp organizers cultivate better representation from different groups in their communities.
This particular workshop, which was created by Jill Binder and sponsored by Automattic, has produced positive results in 55 WordPress communities in 26 different countries.
“All of the communities that held this workshop experienced a real change in the speaker roster for their annual conferences; many of their WordCamps went from having 10% women speakers to having 50% or more women speakers in less than a year,” community organizer Andrea Middleton said. “In 2017, Seattle had 60% women speakers and in 2018, Vancouver had 63%.” Organizers of large events like WordCamp US and WordCamp Miami have also created more diverse lineups in recent years with their own proactive strategies.
— WordCamp Miami (@wordcampmiami) March 17, 2019
The Diversity Speaker Training Workshop seems to be particularly effective because it focuses on actively creating and equipping future speakers in a more organic way at the local level. Any WordPress event organizers who feel they have no options for increasing the diversity of their events can get help from the Community team. Relying on the call for speakers to deliver a diverse lineup is not always the most effective strategy. In many cases, it takes a great deal of work to bring in diverse speakers, but the Community Team has worked for years to pioneer new resources that help organizers succeed in these efforts.