How Stephen Colbert helped us to achieve a female quota of 42% when organising a conference

Opening Circle ACCAU Melbourne 2017

The current female quota for all ticket holders for the Agile Coach Camp 2019 Melbourne, Australia, is 42%. We achieved that by selling exclusively 40% of all tickets to people who identify themselves as female. Here’s how we did that with the help of Stephen Colbert.

Context 1: The Conference

We, Chris Chan and I, attended the first Agile Coach Camp in Australia (ACCAU) in Sydney in 2014. We then organised the first ACCAU in Melbourne in 2015. After that, we organised three more in Melbourne each following year. A month ago, we started organising the 5th ACCAU Melbourne to be held in March 2019.

Each ACCAU Melbourne was limited to 50 attendees. We had 40 attendees in 2015 and have been sold out ever since. The tickets for ACCAU Melbourne 2019 were gone in 4 hours only.

Context 2: Agile Kids

My wife Victoria is part of the local Agile community, is in part an Agile coach and is currently an Agile delivery manager at SEEK. She has attended all ACCAUs in Melbourne and has also got a ticket for 2019. Our daughter Poppy was born in 2014 and accompanied us to all kinds of Agile events. She became a bit of a local celebrity in the Agile community (Hashtag #agilebaby on Twitter). She has been with us at all ACCAUs in Melbourne so far. Our son Milo was born in 2016 and was also part of ACCAU Melbourne 2017 and 2018.

I was co-hosting the conference and both of us, Victoria and I, wanted to participate in sessions as well. We had to figure out how to do that with our kids being around. When Poppy was a baby, we just carried her around wherever we went. Most of the time she was okay with that, and if we had to settle her, we left the room and sorted things out. Another Agile couple also brought their baby that year and they had a similar strategy. Overall, no big deal with babies at conferences. That was 2015.

Little Celebrities at ACCAU Melbourne 2015

In 2016, Poppy was now running around, so we asked a friend of ours to babysit at the conference. The other Agile couple also brought their kid again. We used a small room as a nursery, setting up portable cots for nap time and to have a room where the kids could play. Most of the times the babysitter was taking care of the kids. The parents could go see the kids at any time and did so throughout the day several times. It was a very relaxed environment and worked well.

Opening Circle with Kids at ACCAU 2016

For the next year 2017, my wife and I brought Agile baby v2.0 (our son Milo) and we ended up with three kids. We had a combination of the previous years, i.e. babies in sessions and a babysitter taking care of the toddlers, incl. a nursery.

Market Place with Kids at ACCAU 2017

2017 was also the year when the first attendees gave us this feedback: “Oh, you have your kids here? If I had known that, maybe I could’ve brought mine, too?” That made us think. Maybe we could offer a childcare service for ACCAU Melbourne?

We ran the numbers. Our wonderful venue sponsor Nintex has always been totally okay with us having our own kids at the event in the previous years. We asked them if they would be okay with a couple more kids. “Er, how many kids are we talking here?” they asked. “Don’t know yet. We’ll find out depending on who buys tickets. Probably only a few more.” We got the go ahead and started organising and announced childcare for ACCAU Melbourne 2018.

Context 3: Gender Equality

I consider myself a feminist, i.e. I’m all for gender equality. I was always interested in the ratio of males to females within the domains of IT and Agile. Hearing complaints of how few women speak at and attend conferences in these domains, I was always curious to learn about the reasons behind this. How could one change the environment (i.e. the conferences) so that more women would speak and attend? Organising a conference myself now gave me an opportunity to do something about this.

For example, the motherhood gap is considered to be one of the reasons for the gender pay gap. If by providing a childcare service, we enable only one additional parent to attend ACCAU Melbourne, we felt this would help to bridge the gender gap and therefore contribute to achieving gender equality.

Chris was immediately on board. We looked at ACCAU Melbourne’s women quota. For the first three years 2015-2017, the percentage of women was 23%, 31%, and 33%.

Percentage of Women at ACCAU Melbourne 2015-2017

By the way, here in Australia, women make up about 28% of the information technology workforce. So, our 33% in 2017 didn’t look so bad, especially with an upward trend that started with 23%.

Childcare service in 2018

Surely, with a childcare service for ACCAU Melbourne in 2018, we should be able to easily get a higher percentage, right?

Kids Area at ACCAU Melbourne 2018

Wrong. We dropped to 22% in 2018, a record low. We had 7 kids between 3 months and 7 years old. How could this be, after all we did? We hired an agency which sent two professional nannies. We had a nursery and created an additional playground with lots of toys in another part of the venue. One attendee thanked us and said she wouldn’t have been able to attend if it wasn’t for the childcare service. We also got lots of feedback from other attendees about the childcare service. They liked that we had the childcare service and how we organised it. And still, only 22%?! Frustrating.

Percentage of Women at ACCAU Melbourne 2015-2018

We couldn’t come up with an explanation. Maybe it’s just an outlier? We still like our childcare service, and we will offer it again in 2019. 8 kids have been signed up already. But maybe we should try something else? Something in addition to the childcare service?

Stephen Colbert’s writer’s room

I read about Stephen Colbert’s approach to hiring for diversity and the importance of a background check in the last couple of months. Stephen Colbert is the host of The Late Show, one of those typical late night talk shows in the US.  When his show started in 2015, the next presidential election was still more than a year away.

The Washington Post complained wrote about Colbert’s writer’s room and his guests: “Of the 19 writers for the show, two are women. Of Colbert’s eight guests in the first week, two … were women.“ Three years later. The US has seen a fundamental political shift. Racism and sexism dominate the headlines, and Colbert had second thoughts about the diversity of his writer’s room. Here’s his train of thought:

I had been very frustrated at the old show, about my inability to find diverse candidates for the show. And it was late in that show that I came to realize that it was my naiveté thinking that … the usual process would get you the unusual room.

We would say, you know, it’s very important, we want writers of color, we want women, and you would get 150 packets and there would be eight women. And we’re like, ‘God, that’s so frustrating.’ Until I said, ‘No, only women’—then I got 87 women. And I thought, ‘Where were these people before?’ And that was sort of the realization of my naiveté, that it’s not enough to say you want it, you have to go to the not-ordinary step.

She/her tickets for 2019

What if we put aside a certain amount of tickets for women only? That’s what we did. We wanted to try it out, as an experiment. We didn’t dare to go for 50%, because that step seemed too big. 40% seemed better. It was more than our record high of 33%, and it was significantly better than our last year’s result of 22%.

We organised the ticket sale for the ACCAUs in Melbourne with Eventbrite. We created two ticket categories, one labelled “she/her”, the other “they/them”. We put up 20 tickets in the she/her category, which is 40% of all tickets, and 30 tickets in the they/them category. These are the descriptions of the categories:

Agile Coach Camp Participant – she/her — If you identify as a woman, please grab one of these tickets. If these tickets are gone, please grab one of the “they/them” tickets.

Agile Coach Camp Participant – they/them — If you don’t identify as a woman (men, this would be—amongst others—you!), then grab one of the “they/them” tickets. If you identify as a woman and there are no “she/her” tickets left, then please grab one of these tickets.

We talked about making this fool-proof. What if a man grabs one of the she/her tickets? What if people don’t understand which ticket they should go for? We asked a couple of people, men and women, to read our event and ticket descriptions. They all did fine. That gave us enough confidence to just go with it.

We also talked about the scenario that we might not get enough women at all. It could look like 30 they/them tickets sold (all men!) and 20 she/her tickets left, with a waiting list of dozens of men… However, we thought that this was not very likely. Two reasons: One, we were sold out in the previous year within 2 days. Since we open ticket sales in December, and the event is in March, we would have 3 months time to attract women to this event. Challenge accepted! Two, in the previous year, we had a waiting list of more than 30 people at times. Most of the people on the waiting list were women. So, in fact, we had had enough women already the year before, they just weren’t evenly distributed between the attendee list and the waiting list.

There was also a chance that we would end up with more than 40% women with our approach. If we sell out all she/her tickets and have they/them tickets left, women can still buy they/them tickets. We thought we’d be okay with that.

We talked about the challenge of how we’d measure the outcome of the experiment. How would we know that people who identified as female actually bought she/her tickets? Maybe people who didn’t identify as female bought them by mistake and then what? So we asked for the buyer’s gender during the buying process, just to have one more check. Yes, if people want to screw with us, they can (and a few did). But hey, we trust in the overall goodness of people, especially in the local Agile community. It’ll be alright, mate!

Experiment Outcome

We sold out in only 4 hours. Of our 50 tickets, 21 were bought by women, 28 were bought by men, 1 was bought by other. That’s a women quota of 42%.

Percentage of Women at ACCAU Melbourne 2015-2019

3 people who recorded their gender as not female bought she/her tickets. One of them wrote us an email immediately afterwards, apologising for making a mistake and asking us to change his ticket to a they/them ticket.

The she/her tickets were sold out before the they/them tickets. 4 people who said their gender was female bought they/them tickets after the she/her tickets were sold out.

Until the event starts

Usually, there are about 5-10 people who drop out over the next 3 months, and people from the waiting list will be offered tickets. We plan to release tickets for the waiting list manually. For every person with a specific gender that drops out, we release a ticket for the next person on the waiting list with the same gender. That way, we think we can maintain the women quota.

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About Bernd Schiffer

Bernd Schiffer is consultant, trainer and coach for Agile Software Development in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about him on his personal homepage, have a look at his company Bold Mover, or contact him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING or LinkedIn.

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