On finding women speakers for New Game

by Darius Kazemi on August 25, 2011

in conferences,women_in_games

(Update Wed, Aug 31 2011: this post is hereby licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Feel free to share this content or adapt it in any non-commercial work as long as you attribute me as a source. See the license for more details.)

Setting goals

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m directing New Game, a conference about HTML5 game development. One of my goals for New Game was always to have a good gender balance in terms of speakers — namely, I was hoping for somewhere between 5 and 7 of our 12 speakers at my technical game dev conference to be women. Sounds like a pipe dream, but it was an early goal of mine. Because I’m not going to run a talk that isn’t good (regardless of gender of the speaker), I knew that I needed to make sure that I had a bunch of women apply in order for me to achieve my goals. (Note that my definition of “good” is not “has lots of speaking experience” — rather, I’m looking for awesome topics. I’m willing to give a new speaker a chance, otherwise I’m pulling from the ‘experienced speakers’ pool, which is, not suprisingly, mostly men. This rule applies to newbie male speakers too, though. It’s just good practice, IMO.)

Also, in case anyone bothers to just read the headline of this article: this is not about ‘affirmative action’ (or whatever you want to call it) in any way. This is about encouraging more women to apply to speak at New Game — what I tried this year, and what I might be able to try next year to allow this to happen. With more women applicants, I’ll have more awesome sessions led by women to choose from.

What I tried, and the results

While I put out the call for speakers through the normal channels, I also posted on the IGDA Women in Games mailing list encouraging people to apply. I personally reached out to 5 female HTML5 game devs I knew (or knew of) to apply to speak. I also reached out to women in tech that I knew who I suspected might be able to introduce me to women HTML5 game devs that I’d never met.

In the end we had 72 submissions. Of those, 5 (6.9%) were women, at least as far as I could tell by their names, and attempting to verify via their website or twitter account if they had a bio there. Of the 5 women who applied, 1 was one I invited personally, so I had 4 ‘organic’ applications; i.e., women who submitted just because they saw my posts through normal publicity channels. (I was tracking invitees from the WIG list, and I had no takers there.)

Of the 5 women who applied, 4 did not rate highly enough by our advisory board to get on the schedule. This is to be expected: with 10 slots (plus 2 invited keynotes) to fill out of 70 applicants, you’d expect 13% to make it into the top 10, which means either 0 or 1 talk out of a pool of 5 women, maybe 2 if you account for some serious variance in there.

So I was left with one female speaker to put on my schedule. I ended up with 2 male keynotes, 8 male speakers, and 1 female speaker. I ended up holding one slot because I really, really wanted to have at least 2 women speakers. I reached out to more women developers, people who I could be confident would do a good job, using as a guideline my best discretion as an experienced conference organizer and someone who’s attended and spoken at dozens of game dev conferences over the last decade. I’m currently finalizing the speaker for that last slot — assuming everything works out, we’ll have 2 women speakers on our roster of 12.

One other thing that I’m trying for the conference itself is that I’ve instituted an official New Game anti-harassment policy, which is an idea that I learned about from female developers I follow on Twitter. It seems like a good idea, not just for women, but for everyone. I figure that if I make the conference a safer place for women (and avoid talks that use sexist language and/or imagery), I might attract more women to attend next year, or at least avoid repelling women from attending in the future! The language I use in the policy is based on the excellent template available at the Geek Feminism Wiki. I encourage other conference directors to follow suit.

What can I do better next year?

So, 16.6% women speakers is not horrible — it (sadly) is closer to gender parity than many tech conferences out there, but I know I must have missed some steps here. What can I do next time to encourage more women to apply? What are some groups besides IGDA Women in Games that I can reach out to to promote the event? For that matter, how could I encourage more diversity overall? I’m not just trying to reach beyond male speakers — I’m trying to reach beyond the straight white male speaker (of which I am one) who typically dominates tech industry events.

Again, my goal is to have a more diverse group of people apply to speak at New Game next year. Consider me naive if you want, but I’m pretty sure that a diverse group of applicants will provide a diverse group of awesome talks that I can put on the schedule.

Creative Commons License
On finding women speakers for New Game by Darius Kazemi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at tinysubversions.com.


Susan August 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm

This would be an opportune time to suggest taking the diversity survey. http://tinyurl.com/gamedevsnapshot

Kitt August 25, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Another option is to talk to the women (and men, actually) who submitted talks and see if there are changes that could be made to their talks to make them relevant/interesting/appropriate. John Foliot did this a bit with Open Web Camp, with success; and I’ve had conference organizers request changes to my talk proposals to make them more applicable to the conference audience. With a new conference, speakers have nothing to check against such as talks from previous years, making it hard to know if a talk’s complexity level is appropriate when submitting a proposal. I know I struggled a bit when submitting mine. ;)

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 9:20 am

We did in fact have discussions with people whose presentations were “on the line”, being close but not quite there in terms of making the cut, including another one of the five female applicants. And we did change a few talk proposals. For the record, I did really like your talks, but they landed in the top 30% rather than the top 10-20%, so they weren’t in the range where we were reaching out to people. I do realize that we didn’t give the greatest guidelines for talk submissions — as you pointed out, this is a new conference so it’s equally hard for *us* to know what we want from speakers! I think next year it’ll be a lot more cut and dry, and frankly, better organized.

Jonathan Snook August 25, 2011 at 7:48 pm

What criteria did the advisory board use to determine whether a talk was acceptable or not?

On the surface, it looks like you did a lot of things right. However, I wonder if other factors were involved that could skew things. Were there any women on the advisory board? Were the members of the board aware of the gender of the person associated with any particular talks? Could advisory board biases have undone whatever work you did to get women to submit a talk? Did you make it clear what the criteria was for a talk to be chosen?

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 9:47 am

What criteria did the advisory board use to determine whether a talk was acceptable or not?

It came down to: is the talk content appropriate for what we were aiming for with New Game; is the speaker capable of giving an in-depth talk (we’re not doing introductory sessions at New Game); are we over-representating a particular company (with 12 slots, we can’t have 3 from Company X or it starts to look like a sales pitch from them).

Were there any women on the advisory board?

No. There should have been. This will change next year.

Were the members of the board aware of the gender of the person associated with any particular talks? Could advisory board biases have undone whatever work you did to get women to submit a talk?

The advisors were aware to the extent that they could see an applicant’s name or check out their (optional) links to relevant projects and portfolios. I suppose it’s not out of the question there could have been some bias on the advisory board, though I did pick people for the advisory board who I felt understand diversity issues.

Did you make it clear what the criteria was for a talk to be chosen?

I tried my best. There’s definitely room for improvement, as this is the first year of the conference so I’m not even able to use last year as a guideline. Next year I will have more time to prep for New Game, and with that, more time to prep for advisory and submissions.

Thanks for the suggestions and questions. Keep ‘em coming.

Sheri Rubin August 26, 2011 at 3:57 am


Did you also reach out to groups like WIGI to promote your call for speakers?

Do you need intros to Belinda and crew?


Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 9:42 am

Yeah, I’m not plugged in to WIGI at all. That’d be great.

Kristen Bornemann August 26, 2011 at 4:30 am

Unfortunately, HTML5 is fairly new tech. Even though most social games studios are trending this way, most of the work being done is either experimental (i.e. work done the best devs in the studio to prototype) or by acquiring html5 experienced startups. When you’re pulling for people from those two areas, you’re going to have a larger discrepancy in women/men than the games industry as a whole.
Likely next year when the tech is more fleshed out and widely used then you’ll have an easier time getting women. Good luck!

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 7:05 am

The reason you got so few submissions from women is that you expected them to apply themselves. It’s a widely known gender difference that women apply much more rarely than men. Unfortunately, if you want more female speakers, you’re gonna have to do the hard work yourself and invite them.

Disclaimer: I’m not implying that it’s a good way to go. I wish women were more confident and applied as much as men do. However, the sad reality is that they don’t.

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

Well, as I said in my post, I did reach out to women and invite them personally to apply, and I reached out to women in tech for suggestions of other women they’d recommend I invite to apply. Only 2 of the 5 women I invited actually took me up on the invitation. I’m planning to keep a running list over the next year of more women I plan to invite personally to apply.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 9:28 am

Also, it’s really sad in a number of different ways if women need an anti-harassment policy to speak or attend a conference. I’m a woman, and I feel that guidelines such as “Booth staff (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes, or otherwise create a sexualized environment.” unnecessarily restrict basic freedoms and introduce an unnatural, over-sanitized environment.

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 9:53 am

I’m running a professional conference, not a convention: if it wouldn’t fly in an office environment, it has no place at New Game.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 3:59 pm

There are many “sexualized” outfits that easily pass in an office environment. Especially in our industry, where people don’t really care what you’re wearing as long as you’re good at what you do. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I find that the whole anti-harassment policy, while written with good intentions, ends up being sexist towards male attendees, and treats them like sexual predators that can’t control their urges. As a result, it ends up being sexist against women as well, treating them like fragile flowers that need protection.

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm

As I mention in my other reply, I don’t say anything about male or female in my policy. I’m male and I have been sexually harassed by women in the past. Having a policy like this in place makes *me* feel more comfortable. (Furthermore the policy covers any kind of harassment at all, including but not limited to sexual harassment. If someone’s making racist remarks, I can and will remove them from my conference per the rules outlined in the policy.)

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

You’re right, I guess I was getting carried away by your remark in your blog post that it’s mostly women that requested it. Also, I can’t imagine men being bothered by other men in banana hammocks (lol), so I don’t get why women would be bothered by the female equivalent of that (although it’s kinda bad taste, for both genders).

By the way, I’ve been to many conferences, and I’ve never been harassed in any way (or my harassment threshold might just be high, so I didn’t consider things as harassment that other women might, dunno), so perhaps I’m just failing to see why it’s needed from my personal experience. It just seems quite common-sense to me, and the fact that we need to have a policy that explicitly enforces common sense is kinda sad.

Beth August 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I agree, there’s a huge difference between a game conference (which is targeted towards fans) and a game developer conference. Developer conferences imo shouldn’t include sexualized female ‘booth staff’ as it is unprofessional. Yes, sex sells, but we’re trying to have a conference, not sell games to ourselves…

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Why are you assuming that “sexualized booth staff” has to be female? :)

Ah, the assumptions…

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Actually Lea, you’ve hit the nail on the head here: my anti-harassment policy doesn’t mention anything about gender. I want to avoid sexualized booth staff of any nature. Note that I’m not putting restrictions on what conference attendees wear. It’s simply people who are working the show that are required to have professional attire by industry standards. But no men in banana hammocks selling HTML5 game engines allowed.

Sheri Rubin August 26, 2011 at 5:28 pm

(This is a response to this whole thread and Lea’s last post but Darius’s blog has a thread limit to everyone but Darius. :>)

Having worked/volunteered in a male-dominated industry for over 15 years I’ve seen and heard (and unfortunately felt) a lot. My tolerance is probably higher than it should be too.

That being said, I remember walking through the expo floor of GDC one year and seeing a “booth babe” in a skin tight not very much there dress and animal print body paint letting men come up and pull lollipops out of her cleavage with their mouths and get pictures of this done.

Having seen that, I can totally see why some women would feel totally uncomfortable around that type of behavior (I was just flabbergasted it was happening at all)and it reinforces the wrong kind of behavior with those who were “hunting for candy”.

Having a gender-neural anti-harassment policy is just a good thing to have bar none.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Wow, that’s certainly bad taste. But it wouldn’t make me uncomfortable, I’d probably just find it ridiculous. Every time I hear about women letting things like that make them uncomfortable, I wonder “Why don’t men ever get uncomfortable around something equivalent for their gender?”. Maybe the road to true equality isn’t to forbid things like that, but to not let them make us uncomfortable (and to get them to be more gender balanced. You want a playboy rabbit girl? Have the male equivalent as well).
That’s generally speaking of course, not about conferences in particular. I’ve never seen something like that in a conference, and I find it utterly pointless (do people, especially geeks who are usually above average intelligence, really buy stuff that are promoted like that?)

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:37 pm

s/rabbit/bunny (editing would be useful)

Courtney Stanton August 26, 2011 at 5:43 pm

The idea that it is a woman’s job to not “let” sexist actions “get to her” as a response to sexism is not effective or appropriate. It is not the job of people being harassed to suck it up, ignore it, be silent about it, or just take it. It is the job of professional event organizers to explicitly create professional, safe spaces for the people buying tickets to their events. That’s what Darius is doing.

Just because you don’t find something to be sexist does not mean that it isn’t sexist. Just because you as one woman don’t find a behavior to be harassing, upsetting, unprofessional, or inappropriate doesn’t mean that other women cannot identify a behavior that way. Your personal experience is not an effective litmus test for judging the experiences of others.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm

I think you misunderstood. I wasn’t talking about sexist remarks, groping(!) or any other sexist actions directed towards a specific individual or a group. I completely agree with those being forbidden (heck, I hate them as much as you do), although I’m still not sure if we need a policy for it, as it’s already covered by laws in most countries. But I wouldn’t object to one, for sure. It enforces equal treatment.

The only thing I find kind of weird is being bothered just because a person in a sexualized outfit is present. That’s the only thing I’ve been discussing/questioning.

Courtney Stanton August 26, 2011 at 5:37 pm

This is a great example of why booth babes are problematic — when businesses are sexualizing the bodies of one gender in order to sell their products, it becomes very difficult for professional attendees of that gender to feel like their bodies are not also being considered sale-able.

It’s not a matter of “sluts need to cover their slutty bodies up” or regulating what attendees feel comfortable wearing while representing themselves amongst their peers. It’s that when a the body of a woman is used as a promotional tactic, the bodies of other women at the event no longer exist in a safe, non-sexualized space. And every attendee deserves to navigate a professional event without being sexualized by other attendees.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Nailed it. It sounded to me exactly like “sluts need to cover their slutty bodies up”.

I suspect that women might feel like that, because booth babes are only female, so it promotes the sexist concept of “women are sexual objects, men are the brains”. I wonder if we would feel the same way if we had booth babes of both genders.

Disclaimer: Like I said, I consider the whole concept of booth babes to be pointless and tasteless. It’s not that I, personally, like them so I want more of them or anything! Just wondering whether we’re going the right way by explicitly forbidding them.

Sheri Rubin August 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm

The problem is that with the current gender divide in the industry there will almost never be booth babes of both genders. The best we get is occasionally at things like E3 or Comi-con they’ll be cosplayers/booth people in costumes of male characters but that’s still rare too.

At professional conferences the organizers realize that for the most part it’s still majority of men and so they cater to that by giving us “booth babes”.

Courtney Stanton August 26, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Yeah, rather than exploit the bodies of all genders (which, while a form of equality, feels rather lacking in respect), I think getting vendors at professional events to dress and treat their employees like actual professionals would be a more positive step.

I know plenty of people who have jobs where their bodies are on display as part of work (strippers, burlesque performers, go-go dancers, that kind of thing). That’s a far cry from demo-ing a new controller or promoting a game’s exciting new graphics or what have you.

Kitt August 26, 2011 at 2:26 pm

That most of the comments here are from women bodes well for next year’s submissions! Greater awareness will definitely help in the search. Excited for this years, too, of course. ;)

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 6:13 pm

@Sheri: That’s a good point. And this is where a policy could actually help: Instead of forbidding them, it could allow them under the condition that they are gender balanced. :)
That would effectively reduce them too (most companies wouldn’t be able to afford it) without forbidding anything. :)

Rachel Blum November 6, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Since Lea asked about an example what is considered sexual harassment: How about going out for drinks after a conference, accepting an invitation for a drink from another gamedev, only to then have to explain to the guy that that’s not an excuse for having his hands all over me? Does that count?

(And no, that wasn’t Darius’ conference. He had a fantastic – and well-behaved! – crowd there. Both the conference itself and the party was tremendous fun. I’ll definitely be back next year!)

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I agree that it’s really sad that we need to have these policies. And I really didn’t understand why they were needed until I starting hearing from women (including my wife) that they’d been harassed at game industry networking events and conferences. Including events that I run.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Ok, I’m really curious. I feel like I’m living in another world. Do you have any examples of such harassment? (e.g. blog posts that these women posted) I think I’ve only read one or two stories like that, so I considered them a rare occurrence.

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 5:33 pm

The thing is, most of these women don’t want to post this sort of thing in public. It is mostly relayed to me in confidence. In general it’s things like unwanted groping in crowds, lewd remarks, that sort of thing.

You can read about all sorts of incidents here (not all game dev and not all conference related, but probably the best comprehensive resource): http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline_of_incidents

Sheri Rubin August 26, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I don’t know a single person on the 800+ member IGDA Women In Games SIG list who can’t tell you at least one story of being harrassed, sexually or otherwise, at game industry networking events or conferences. A good chunk of us have at least one story, if not many more, about being harrassed at work.. Many won’t publicly talk about it because they already have enough time getting accepted or dealing with the issues, but I can assure you it is NOT a rare occurrence.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Could it be a US thing? I’ve never been to a US conference so far, so all my experiences are from Europe.

Darius Kazemi August 26, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Also, I don’t mean to say that it’s LIMITED to unwanted groping and lewd remarks. I’ve heard much scarier stories come out of conferences as well.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Thanks for the link, very interesting!

Courtney Stanton August 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Right, sexist behavior only exists in the US, how could we forget?!

…in all seriousness, you’re being up-front about the fact that this is new information to you, and you’re thus processing/grappling/learning and asking questions, which is great. (As opposed to the more traditional, “all you bitches are crazy and oversensitive,” reaction that people express when confronted with the idea that their events have a dark underbelly of sexist assholery.)

However, it feels like there’s a little bit of the classic “Unless You Can Prove Your Experience Is Widespread I Won’t Believe It” going on here. I know this is new info for you, but it’s not Darius’s job (or anyone else’s) to provide you with “enough” examples (whatever “enough” even means) for you to accept the idea that an anti-harassment policy at a conference is a good idea.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I wasn’t asking for examples so that I believe him or accept the idea of an anti-harassment policy. I was asking for examples to see what these women consider as harassment. Simple as that.
I think you’re projecting bad experiences you’ve had with sexist people on me, and it’s unfair.

Lea Verou August 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm

I never said that sexist behavior exists in the US. I was asking about tech conferences in particular. Of course I have experienced sexist incidents myself as well. I’ve also been in the side where I was arguing with other women that a certain practice or behavior is sexist. Several times. However, none of these were ever in technical conferences, so I was just asking about those.

Sheri Rubin November 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Things heard at a recent game development conference I attended spoken by male colleagues to female colleagues:
1. Nice A$$
2. Nice Cleavage
3. My d*** is bigger than your husband’s d***

I’d go on and on but I think you get the point.

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