Beating the Odds — How We got 25% Women Speakers for JSConf EU 2012

For every bad male speaker (sorry), there’s two good female ones who didn’t consider submitting a talk.


tl;dr: we copied Courtney Stanton’s approach verbatim. It is good and it works.

When we set out to organise JSConf EU 2012, we were wondering what we can do to attract more diverse group of attendees and speakers than we did the previous years.

Then we found Courtney’s blog post on how she managed to get 50% women speakers for her game developer conference No Show and we decided to flat out copy her approach and see how it works.

Does it ever work. The ingredients are as simple as they are obvious:

  1. Open an inviting call for presentations (CFP).
  2. Select talks anonymously, and state in the CFP that you do so.
  3. Encourage people from under-represented groups to submit to the CFP.

Your call for papers should make people giddy to submit to your conference. Whatever it is that you can offer — loads of money and perks, fame, travel, a great time with fellow nerds or doing a good thing for the community — sell your event so people want to give a talk. We also tried to cover everything a potential speaker would want to know about. Take a look for inspiration or just copy it for your event.

The key point of the whole procedure is an anonymous talk selection. That means you evaluate each proposed talk on the title and abstract of the talk, but not on who submitted it.

Anonymous selection avoids biases we have towards people. We all do, it is not a bad thing, but if your goal is all awesome talks, you should try to work your way around your biases.

More importantly: if you are going around asking people to speak at your event and they are generally under-represented at your event (say, women at a tech conference), you need to avoid treating them in a special way. Nobody wants to be invited to speak because of their gender, or skin colour, or sexual orientation, or whatever else. Nobody likes special treatment. Nobody likes to be the token-representative.

If you go around encouraging people that are usually under-represented at your event to submit to the CFP and promise an unbiased selection, it ensures they don’t feel that they’ve been picked because of a particular personal feature, rather than the content of their proposals.

This is crucial. Even if you don’t think you are biasing against anything or anyone, unless you anonymise CFP submissions, you will apply your personal bias.

Where you can dial up the bias-meter to eleven is when you evaluate the submissions themselves. Hate topic X? Then rate all submissions around it low. You get to shape the nature of your event, and hurt no feelings.

Note: If the goal for your event is to get all your friends, or heroes up on stage, that’s by definition a personally biased selection and that’s just fine. This is not to condemn anyone doing that, we just like to share what worked for us.

So far so easy. Now the part where the hard work comes in.

Interlude: Why?

We love each and every one of our previous supporters. Speakers spend countless hours preparing their materials and take a week out of their schedule to be in Berlin. Attendees pay a good chunk of money to see the results of that. We are very grateful to anyone who has helped make JSConf EU a success.

Yet, as expected for a technology conference, we are a mostly caucasian white male event. Note that there is nothing wrong with caucasian white males, it’s just that we think monoculture is not quite optimal and we wanted to see what we can do to change things up.

Since we can’t solve all problems at the same time, we thought we try to see how we can get more women involved with JSConf EU as a first step towards a more diverse crowd.


Courtney writes:

So! Getting women to submit content: easy? Um. When I’d talk to men about the conference and ask if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d always start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a lead [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

We know there are plenty of men that react in the same way and that would benefit from encouragement, but the ratio is so far off (see the numbers below) that we decided to make a special effort to reach out to women and ask them to submit to the CFP.

Tiffany set up We Are All Awesome as a general resource to encourage more women to submit to tech conferences generally. It is a huge success and allowed us to link to articles discussing specific issues.

On top of that, we went out of our way to find women that do amazing things with JavaScript and The Web. We looked around on GitHub and Twitter, looked at other conferences’ line-ups, asked friends and colleagues. We sent them a nice email, stating that we do like their work and invited them to submit to our call for papers.

As predicted by Courtney’s description above, we got the entire host of responses. We came prepared though.

“I’m not an expert on anything.”, “I don’t work on anything interesting at the moment.”

— We offered a brainstorming session, a 10-minute chat, an hour long phone call, whatever was required. It turns out that there’s something of interest hidden in everybody, but self-censoring often keeps it hidden. In the right conversation, these things will emerge. It might turn out that the result is not something that is relevant for your event, but more often than not it is. And even then, we ended up suggesting other events to submit a proposal to.

“I only know what everybody else already knows.”, “I wouldn’t be able to add anything worthwhile to the topic.”

— Everybody is a unique snowflake. You have your own interests, projects you follow, philosophies that inspire you, people you admire. The combination of all these things gives you a unique perspective on the world. And more often than not, that perspective is worth sharing. For example: Stuart is into Punk Rock or at least music history and his proposal was an immediate hit. So was Garann’s. She takes Tina Fey and applies her to error handling and exceptions in JavaScript. How awesome is that.

“I don’t know how to do good slides.”, “I don’t know what a good proposal looks like.”, “I’m no good on stage.”

— We had these covered by our call for presentations. We offer slide templates, to review slides, connect you with professional speakers for training and guidance, and finally opportunities to lose stage fright at smaller events like local JavaScript meetups.

The Numbers

We received 234 total talk submissions by 180 unique submitters. 162 (90%) men, 18 (10%) women.

We invited 35 women to submit to the CFP, of these 13 ended up submitting one or more proposals, 5 women submitted on their own.

The 40 speakers we selected for the weekend are the top 40 anonymously ranked of all proposals.

The final tally:


There is a lot more work involved to get women to submit to a tech conference. However, the work pays off in spades because the submissions from women (for us) ranked significantly higher on average than men’s submissions. Again, this is with an anonymised, unbiased talk selection.

Our highest ranked talk is from a women and we know we wouldn’t have gotten that talk without the outreach we did.

The most common feedback Tiffany got for We Are All Awesome was that people don’t care about the gender of the speaker, they just want a great talk. We agree: our industry systematically biases against 50% of great speakers and misses out on a significant amount of talks, topics, discussion and thus progress. We hope to do our little part to get this solved.

Here are few select statistics for women in computing:

There is a long way to go, but we are happy to celebrate our 25% milestone.

As stated earlier, our goal is a more diverse conference, a more diverse industry. Women are only one of the under-represented groups. We need to broaden this effort in the coming years.

Finally, please steal and copy from us as much as you need. All our resources are on GitHub, ready to fork and clone and remix. Please get in touch, if you have any questions or need any help.

Here’s to the future! Here’s to JS!