Improving diversity at conferences

With the SC17 conference just around the corner, I was reminded that WHPC is frequently asked how to improve diversity at conferences. As Inclusivity Chair for SC17, I can assure you that there is no simple quick-fix. Instead it takes constant effort during the entire period of planning and execution of the conference.

Last year, with the assistance of the organisers of SC16, ARCHER provided a Guide to Improving diversity at HPC Conferences. The following is a summary of the key actions that the guide recommends.
The guide aims to provide simple key steps that conferences can take to help broaden participation and thereby help conferences impact the community and provide positive change.

The key steps to improving conference diversity:

  • Appoint a Diversity Chair (or equivalent). This ensures that there is one of the senior conference organisation team with the responsibility for considering diversity and inclusion of attendees at every stage of the conference. These activities are always easy to sideline, so by making someone senior responsible for this activity, and no others, we can encourage the conference to ensure that inclusion is at the centre of the planning process.
  • Set your goals: the Diversity Chair should take the time to understand the current demographics of the community (e.g. by looking at previous conference attendee numbers, publications in the field, etc.). Use this to set realistic goals for the conference, aiming to improve all areas of under-representation (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, international participants, disability, diversity of participating institutions etc.). Areas to consider setting goals for are:
    • PC committee demographics
    • Invited speakers
    • Organising committee
    • Attendees (this is tricky as you have no direct control over this, but your actions can have an impact)
    • Authors (similarly this is difficult, but again, your actions can have an impact)
  • Publish your goals and committee demographics: make a public commitment: this will help encourage people to embrace your efforts and encourage more diverse attendees.
  • Lead by example: communicate early with stakeholders and your committee why you’ve set your goals, framing the discussion in terms of the community benefit and long term health of the conference.
  • Benchmark: monitor the demographics that you have chosen to set goals for (and others if you feel this will be useful in the future). Note that collecting demographic information needs to be done sensitively (see future post).

Improving the conference experience to attract attendees

  • Set a code of conduct for conference attendees, including reporting mechanisms. Hopefully this will be never needed (but if it isn’t then it doesn’t do any harm). When it is needed it is incredibly important for those impacted by unprofessional behaviour. Ensure reporting can be anonymous and protects all the individuals involved.
  • Provide a diverse range of keynote presenters
  • Reconsider where you advertise: are you only getting to certain groups because of your advertising methods?
  • Avoid jargon. Jargon in conference calls for papers/posters/participation often implicity sends the signal that ‘outsiders’ are not welcome. Let their science speak to author’s ability to contribute to your conference, not an individuals’ ability to not be put-off by jargon.
  • Assess the inclusiveness of your publicity wording and conference activities/social events. For example don’t offer an evening focused only on alcohol as it will mean that those that do not drink will not attend social events.
  • Publicise what you are doing to improve the inclusiveness of your conference and the attendee experience
  • Publish information on the venue in advance of registration. This should include information on accessibility and distance to nearby hotels. If possible also provide information on general accessibility of the city/transport hubs.

Other ideas:

  • Provide childcare facilities onsite
  • Provide free access to caregivers accompanying the attendee to facilitate sharing of caring responsibilities
  • Provide a parent’s room with a private feeding/pumping area. This is particularly important if you have attendees from countries where maternity leave is limited.
  • Consider providing bursaries for under-represented groups, this could include providing subsidised travel for partners of attendees to facilitate caring responsibilities
  • Consider security and welfare: provide transport between evening venues, or help organise groups for walking between accommodation and events.
  • Provide a prayer/multi-faith meditation room

Monitor, evaluate and disseminate:

  • Monitor demographics over time and share this.
  • Ask for feedback on your activities from your attendees including on how inclusive the conference is.
  • Ask for permission to stay in touch with your attendees so you can keep in touch and invite them back.
  • Share your experiences with other conferences: what worked and what didn’t?

If you have something to share, please do get in touch with the authors of this report by emailing and let us know how you got on or ideas/suggestions for improving this guidance further.

By: Toni Collis

  • Toni Collis is co-founder of WHPC and an Applications Consultant in HPC Research and Industry, providing consultancy and project management on a range of academic and commercial projects at EPCC, the University of Edinburgh Supercomputing Centre.

    Toni has a wide-ranging interest in the use of HPC to improve the productivity of scientific research, in particular developing new HPC tools, improving the scalability of software and introducing new programming models to existing software. Toni is also a consultant for the Software Sustainability Institute and a member of the ARCHER team, providing ARCHER users with support and resources for using the UK national supercomputing service as effectively as possible. In 2013 Toni co-founded Women in HPC (WHPC) as part of her work with ARCHER. WHPC has now become an internationally recognized initiative, addressing the under-representation of women working in high performance computing.

    Toni is Inclusivity Chair and a member of the Executive committee for the SC17 conference. Toni is also a member of the XSEDE Advisory Board and has contributed to the organization and program of a number of conferences and workshops over the last five years.

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