The Day I Left a Tech Conference

I’ve attended my first tech conference ten years ago. It was somewhere in the North part of France. It was about Open Source software and communities. This event was quite big and took place in a different city every year.

I remember I wanted to bring something back home. I saw a t-shirt from a community of a major Linux distribution. It looked perfect: it was beige, a color I was wearing all the time, and the logo was not too big in the front. Since they had no women sizes, they offered me to try it before buying: small was a bit large but comfortable enough so I took it. After wearing it a few times, I realized that this so-called "unisex" cut was horrible and not comfortable at all: it became a t-shirt I would wear for cleaning the house and sport.

My second tech conference was two years ago, somewhere in Europe. I got my second tech t-shirt there: it was a turquoise women shirt with a beautiful abstract logo on it. It looked awesome and I wore it until way too many holes were visible.

Today, I received news from a conference I’m really excited to attend. Lots of my friends will be there and the talks last year were amazing. Their swag was also really cool: I’ve got a beautiful blue light hoodie. Women large was a bit small but women sizes really differ from one brand to another.

Since I switched career to work in tech, I’ve attended many conferences in Europe and even one in the US. Like my peers, my wardrobe is now full of tech t-shirts, all women large.

Going to conferences wouldn’t have been possible without financial assistance provided by those events. Some offered a free ticket to their week-long event, but most also covered a big chunk of travel and lodging costs. I even got paid to speak at one!

All those conferences I’ve attended had one thing in common: they cared about making everyone feel welcome and included. They had a Code of Conduct — not hidden somewhere on their website, but visible in every email, printed in the program or hanged on walls across the venue. When they had t-shirts, they always had women sizes or “fitted” and “straight-cut” t-shirts and people could choose the cut and size they wanted. They had non-gendered bathroom or signs like this. They had financial assistance, acknowledging that not everyone can pay or get reimbursed by a company to attend an event. They had a real diverse lineup of speakers and they were proud of it. They also had childcare, a quiet and a prayer room, vegan food, etc.

It was not a marketing trick: it was people genuinely showing that they cared about inclusivity. They were making deliberate choices to challenge the status-quo.

A few days ago, I was looking forward to attending a conference in Paris. I was pretty excited to discover a community that’s different from the one I usually hang out with. Sadly, I never made it to the first talk because I chose to leave less than one hour after arriving. That was a first for me: I had never walked out of a conference before. I love going to conferences!

I had just picked up my badge and was looking for coffee. Entering the venue, I saw people from the staff giving out t-shirts. Since I had a free diversity ticket, I didn’t do the full procedure of buying a ticket and wasn’t sure if I was eligible for a t-shirt: when I signed up, I had to answer questions about my job title, the name of the company I work for and even 3 topics that would be listed on my badge to serve as ice-breaker, but no t-shirt size. I went to the booth and ask for a women shirt. The answer was something I heard 10 years ago and was really surprised to hear again: “we don’t have women size, only unisex”.
I was so shocked that I left to another room saying angrily that unisex are men shirt so since there’s no women shirt, I won’t take one.

After that, two members of the conference organization came to talk to me. One was a woman telling me she had no problem with "unisex" t-shirts so I should be like her. The other one was a man who tried to say he was sorry but kept on telling me again and again to not be offended by the choice they made. He told me that the previous year, they gave tank tops to women but were criticized for it because they looked too sexy. So instead of going for regular fitted t-shirts, they deliberately decided to remove this option.

The absence of women sizes t-shirts didn’t make me leave: I was angry and the day was a bit spoiled by that, but I was ready to move on and enjoy the talks.
What made me leave was discovering that I was in a place that was the strict opposite of the conferences I usually attend: details after details, this space was screaming “we don’t want to make an effort and cater to people like you”. It was a violent realization that they had no problem with perpetuating and contributing to all the micro-aggressions minorities experience every day in tech.
What made me leave was organizers bullshitting me and making bad excuses after bad excuses while trying to convince me they care about diversity and inclusivity and that I should not complain since I was attending their event for free.
What made me leave was knowing that conferences can be much more inclusive than this one and that I don’t have to tolerate any pinkwashing lies or ill-fitted “unisex” t-shirts anymore.

I was lucky to be able to remove my lanyard, go back to the registration desk, and hand my badge back. I was not abroad and I didn’t come with financial aid covering my flight tickets. I knew I would be able to call friends and meet with them to debrief about what just happened. I was not trapped in attending an event where I felt completely unwelcome.

My goal is not to blame this conference in particular: I still see, especially in France, way too many events not caring at all about inclusivity or diversity, arguing against Code of Conducts, or with all white-men lineups.
My point is that organizers should always have in mind that diversity is not just a line on the conference’s budget. Caring about diversity and inclusivity is about making real genuine efforts and making sure to not replicate all the (micro)aggressions minorities faces every day in this field. And if you fail and someone complains, don’t make bad excuses: apologize correctly and educate yourself.

You, as organizers, have the opportunity and responsibility to make sure that, for once, everyone feels welcome in tech.