I never meant to become an activist. I swear. It was an accident.
And yet here I am, celebrating my one year anniversary of leading the Diversity Outreach Speaker Training working group in the WordPress Community team. We are causing waves in the number of women and other underrepresented groups who are stepping up to become speakers at WordPress Meetups, WordCamps, and events. Pretty cool, right?
How did this happen?
Let’s start this story with how I got into WordPress. Back in 2011, I was looking for a practicum placement for the New Media Design and Web Development college program I was in in Vancouver, BC. We had touched on WordPress only briefly in class. I was curious about it, so I got a Practicum placement working on a higher education website that was built in WordPress. (It was in BuddyPress, even! Ooh. Aah.) As a thank you, my practicum advisor bought me a ticket to WordCamp Vancouver 2011: Developer’s Edition. That event was the start of my love affair with WordPress and I began taking on freelancing gigs. I’ve been a WordPress solopreneur for most of the time since.
The following year my practicum advisor, who had become a client, was creating the first ever BuddyCamp for BuddyPress. He asked me to be on his organizing team. (Side note: I was especially excited to moderate a panel with Matt Mullenweg and other big names on it!) I was noticed and I was invited to be on the core organizing team for the next year’s WordCamp Vancouver by the lead organizer. I was thrilled. It was quite an honour!
This is where the real story begins… after an important disclaimer.
Disclaimer: For simplicity in this story, I’ll be using the terms women and men, though in reality gender is not a simple binary and is actually a wide spectrum of different identities.
The Real Beginning
There were three of us—myself and two men—and it was our first time any of us were organizing a WordCamp. We were having dinner in one of our apartments and we had 40 speaker applications spread out before us. The plan was to pick 14 to speak. It was hard. They were all really good.
The lead organizer grabbed 6 out of the 7 that came from the women and said, “Well, we are accepting all of these.”
At this point I didn’t know that not many women were applying to speak at tech conferences at the time.
So I was the one saying, “Wait, wait. Who cares what gender they are? Let’s go through them and pick based on the topics that would fit the conference’s flow.”
They both said that the 6 of the women’s pitches were really good, fit with the flow, and frankly, we needed to accept as many as we could or we’d get called out. (This is embarrassing to say now, but that was the conversation back in 2013.)
Here’s how it went down:
After we accepted the six, two of the women dropped out for family emergencies. (Guess how many men dropped out for family emergencies?) Also we had added a third speakers’ track. Now there were only 4 women out of 28 speakers. Only 1 in 7. That is 14%, my friends. That is not great.
So not great, in fact, that we did get called out. People did talk about it, question us about it, and even wrote blog posts about it.
So when later that year I went to WordCamp San Francisco—the biggest WordCamp at the time (before there was a WordCamp US)—I took the opportunity to chat with other organizers at a WordCamp organizer brunch.
I found out that many of the organizers had trouble getting enough women presenters.
I was surprised to find that we actually had a high number of women applicants in comparison to others, as many of them had zero! They were asking me how we got such a high number. They all said they would happily accept more if only more would apply.
So then I needed to know, why was this happening? Why weren’t we getting more women applicants? I started researching, reading, and talking to people.
Though this issue is complex, one thing that came up over and over was that when we would ask the question, “Hey, will you speak at my conference?” we would get two answers:
- “What would I talk about?”
- “I’m not an expert on anything. I don’t know enough about anything to give a talk on it.”
That’s when the idea happened.
As it goes, the idea happened while I was at a feminist blanket-fort slumber party. Yes, you heard right. And as one does at all feminist blanket-fort slumber parties, we talked about feminist issues.
When I brought up my issue about the responses we were getting, one of the ladies said, “Why don’t you get them in a room and have them brainstorm topics?”
And that was it. That set me on the path.
I became the lead of a small group creating a workshop in Vancouver. In one of the exercises, we invited the participants to brainstorm ideas and show them that they have literally a hundred ideas. (Then the biggest problem becomes picking one. :) )
In our first iteration, we covered:
- Why it matters that women (added later: diverse groups) are in the front of the room
- The myths of what it takes to be the speaker at the front of the room (aka beating impostor syndrome)
- Different speaking formats, especially story-telling
- Finding and refining a topic
- Tips to becoming a better speaker
- Practising leveling up speaking in front of the group throughout the afternoon
Other cities across North America got wind of our workshop and started running it as well, and they added their own material.
Our own participants wanted more support, so the next year we added material created from the other cities as well as generated more of our own:
- Coming up with a great title
- Writing a pitch that is more likely to get accepted
- Writing a bio
- Creating an outline
- Creating better slides
We did it! In 2014—in only one year since we started—we had 50% women speakers and 3 times the number of women applicants! Not only that, but it was a Developer’s Edition. It’s more challenging it is to find women developers in general, let alone those who will step up to speak.
Impressive as that is, the reason I am truly passionate about this work is because of what happened next:
- Some of the women who did our workshop and started publicly speaking stepped up to be leaders in our community and created new things for us. For example, a couple of them created a new Meetup track with a User focus.
- A handful of others became WordCamp organizers. One year Vancouver had an almost all-female organizing team – 5 out of 6!
- It also influenced local businesses. One local business owner loved what one of the women speakers said so much that he hired her immediately. She was the first woman developer on the team, and soon after she became the Senior Developer.
It is results like these that ignited my passion. I’ve now seen time and again what happens when different kinds of folks speak in the front of the room. More kinds of people feel welcome in the community. The speakers and the new community members bring new ideas and new passions that help to make the technology we are creating more inclusive as well as generate new ideas that benefit everyone.
This workshop has been so successful, with typical results of 40-60% women speakers at WordCamps, that the WordPress Community Team asked me to promote it and train it for women and all diverse groups around the world. We created the Diversity Outreach Speaker Training working group. I started creating and leading it in late 2017.
Thanks to our group, our workshop has been run in 17 cities so far this year, 32 have been trained to run it, and 53 have expressed interest in 24 countries. Incredible!
I love this work so much that I’m now looking at how to do this for a living. I’m proud of how the human diversity represented on the stage adds value not only to the brand but also in the long-term will lead to the creation of a better product. I’m inspired by seeing the communities change as a result of the new voices and new ideas at the WordPress events.
“Jill’s leadership in the development and growth of the Diversity Outreach Speaker Training initiative has had a positive, measurable impact on WordPress community events worldwide. When WordPress events are more diverse, the WordPress project gets more diverse — which makes WordPress better for more people.”
– Andrea Middleton, Community organizer on the WordPress open source project
I’m exploring sponsorships, giving conference and corporate trainings, and looking at other options so that I can be an Accidental Activist full-time and make a bigger impact. Imagine a world where more kinds of people are speaking up. That’s a world I’m excited to see.
More info and please let us know if you use it or would like help using it: https://tiny.cc/wpdiversity
Diversity Outreach Speaker Training Team—Join us! https://make.wordpress.org/community/2017/11/13/call-for-volunteers-diversity-outreach-speaker-training/
How to build a diverse speaker roster: https://make.wordpress.org/community/handbook/wordcamp-organizer/planning-details/speakers/building-a-diverse-speaker-roster/