How to Design a Conference for Equity and Learning #ORDCAMP

Hi, I’m Vanessa–I’m the Learning Lead at P2PU, which means I work on how to get peers to learn from each other. About a week ago I found myself at Ordcamp, which is like a lock-in for nerdy adults of all stripes. The organizers made some novel design choices for their event, which got me churning about conferences and gender in general. As a Learning Designer by training (and a riot grrrl by trade) I think about how to structure experiences to alleviate stereotype threat and make an environment safe for learning. What follows is the research that informs my thinking, and a few concrete ideas for how to design a conference for equity, interaction and learning.

What’s Ordcamp?

About 270 passionate people came together last weekend at the Google offices in Chicago and spent nearly 40 straight hours with each other.

The format was an unconference, so the content of the event was generated by the campers. It was the best event I can remember, and I wanted to give props to the Ordcamp design crew on the following points:

  • Praises be to Ordcamp for removing the “hustle.” Campers were discouraged from pitching products, and wore their interests on their name tag, not their job title. Campers were encouraged to talk about stuff outside their area of expertise, and to attend sessions they knew nothing about. The result was that campers treated each other as people before the transaction of work.
  • Hats off to Ordcamp for a mix of folks. We know heterogenous groups are good for learning, and I noticed efforts by the Ordcamp crew to make it so. I met people from the humanities, the arts, education, not just tech. While it was mostly a youthful crowd, I spoke to several people with more experience in their field. And on the gender diversity front, I’d say about 30-40% of attendees were female-bodied (a purely a from-the-hip number).

These event design choices enable a safe learning environment. I heartily recommend focusing on the personal and designing for a mix of folks to prompt serendipity.

The Problem Set at an Unconference

Unconferences can be nerve-wracking. Pushing for a session spot, the expectation to “jump right in” to conversations, a sea of unfamiliar faces–this stuff is stressful if you aren’t competitive or extroverted.

The Ordcamp design crew had thought about this. At the plenary, all of the ladies were instructed to stand up, walk outside the room, and then we had first crack at the session board.

I was a little unnerved by being identified as a woman, walking by all the dudes, and not knowing why I was exiting the room. But (but but but!) I totally appreciate how the organizers at Ordcamp recognized the power dynamic at play. Let’s walk through a bit of neuroscience to give potential solutions some shape.

Wonk it Down

I asked several ladies at Ordcamp if, at tech events, they count how many women are in a room. Each of them said “every time.” When we (women) walk into a room, the automatic instinct is to find out if we belong there. For better and for worse, that’s usually a visual indicator–are there people who look like me in the room? Am I welcome?

The research backs this instinct up–findings suggest that the sex ratio in a room has a direct effect on female performance (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000). Also visible female role models (at all levels of engagement) can help ameliorate anxiety about performance (Blanton, Crocker, & Miller, 2000; Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005).

So conference organizers, pay these bits mind when you’re putting together your planning committee, invitations and panels. How we feel has a massive impact on learning and performance. We can help overcome anxiety and stereotype threat by designing for small interactions, empathy and prompting a culture to gel.

Design Principles for Equity

With any design project, I like to start with identifying certain design principles or priorities. When it comes to an event, I’d outline these as

  • interaction and mixing
  • collaboration over competition
  • personal over professional

That way we can look at each interaction we design and see if it meets those priorities. For an unconference (for Ordcamp in particular, since they are great), I’d recommend the following:

  • Prompt Campers to co-create. As a Camper, you’re assigned 2-3 other folks at random the week before. Brainstorm 3 of your passions, share 1 of them, and come up with a session idea that taps on all your collective ideas. For instance, if you’re all good at multitasking, come up with a session on time, being present or slowing down.
  • Self-introductions. Our interests were written on our name tags when we arrived (which I greatly prefer to my job title). But instead of having those pre-printed for us, in the first plenary session, prompt folks to introduce themselves to their neighbors without mentioning what they do for a living.
  • Select sessions at random. Have folks put their session ideas in a big, Inventables-branded molded drum and pull them out. Or have campers spin a wheel when they walk in and a session spot is one of the prized options. Or have them roll ridiculous dice. The idea here is to not separate “ideas of ladies” vs. “ideas of dudes.” It’s important that women are not reminded of their gender before they do something potentially cognitively stressful (Steele & Ambady, 2006).
  • Use the building to create a shared sense of identity. The building itself is playful. What story could be written using the titles of the rooms (Adventures in Babysitting, Risky Business, High Fidelity) crossed with the titles of sessions (Flaming Nunchucks, Farming Chickens, Uncertainty etc) before the sessions officially start? Or, is there a mystery that could be revealed by visiting each room? Which leads us to…
  • Keep people moving. Remember the new-kid-in-town-walk-into cafeteria feeling? You can find a way to stem that awkwardness and prompt mixing of folks by a.) having people self-select into themed tables (superheroes, rock clubs, etc) or having folks change tables intermittently (whiskey course, anyone?). Speedgeeking is another attempt at keeping people moving, so they have a sense that they “know” the room and belong there.
  • Report back. Involve the whole room in this phase by rocking a human spectogram  (e.g. I learned something new. I met 5 amazing people. I did something I’d never done before) and then asking for stories out of that group. Involve the entire culture in the reflection process as a way to welcome individual stories.

Event design is both an art and a science. Most of the time, the easiest option doesn’t nurture interaction or growth. And that’s what we want–humans interacting with each other. As peers.


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