Andy Bruckschloegl, co-host and founder of the Bits & Pretzels founders festival, discusses how attitudes in the tech community need to change to help make tech conferences more diverse and inclusive
Each year the Bits & Pretzels founders festival in Munich chooses a theme to reflect the most important trend in the tech industry. This year me and my co-hosts Dr. Bernd Storm van’s Gravesanda and Felix Haas chose ‘diversity’. Enabling speakers to focus on how to improve inclusion and reducing sexism seemed like a no-brainer, both from a moral and economic perspective. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that this view was not shared by everyone.
We’ve been shocked by the push-back we’ve received from some VCs and entrepreneurs. A number wrote to us directly expressing disappointment that we had decided to address this issue. In some cases, the messengers argued that there wasn’t a diversity issue in tech, in other instances they believed that a tech conference wasn’t the appropriate place to talk about these challenges. Tech events are for sharing ideas, pitching products and networking, they argued.
Although we were initially disheartened by this response, its served to confirm that we’d picked the right theme. There is clearly a lot of denial in some quarters of the tech community that increasing diversity and tackling harassment and discrimination should be on the agenda. However, tech events can be one of the best engines of change. The bigger events bring together people from all over the world with different backgrounds, ambitions and ideas. How a tech conference presents itself is also a reflection of the industry and prevailing trends. The subjects that tech leaders address and debate can change minds and spur innovation.
It wasn’t so long ago that every tech stand had ‘booth babes’ and white ‘manels’ were the norm. Of course, regarding the latter, there is still plenty of work to do, and we’d be the first to admit that we need to do more to increase the plurality of our speaking line up. However, the situation is improving and this is a reflection of people within the tech community recognising the problem.
The risk, as showcased by the messages we received, is to believe that the problem is solved or that mainstream conferences shouldn’t focus on these challenges. Improving diversity clearly helps everybody. It brings more talent into the tech ecosystem, can improve company cultures, generate new ideas and improve products. I could go on, but the truth is, everyone knows it should happen and the reasons why.
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We can accept that to some people it seems crazy that in 2018 there is still a need to talk about diversity at a tech conference. We can also understand that for other people this isn’t a ‘fun’ topic and they would rather just hear about the latest applications of AI or self-driving cars. Unfortunately, there’s no hiding from the fact that this is a crucial issue that isn’t going to be wished away.
For our part, as festival organisers, we need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. This means pushing harder to diversify our line up, thinking differently about the topics we cover to appeal to more people in the tech community, and being more vigilant regarding the people we give a platform to. We want the attendees of our conferences to be as diverse as wider society.
We’ll know that we are in a better place when a diversity theme for a conference is criticised as ‘absurd’ and ‘unnecessary’, not by a minority of entitled white men, but by the majority of women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ members of the tech community. When they, and all the other marginalised groups, feel that this problem has been solved we’ll stop addressing it at our festival. In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of work left to do.