The Power of Listening to Your Community: A Discussion with Micah Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum

How can event organizers respond to community pressure? Is it possible to achieve gender balance at events when that field is dominated by men? How does featuring more women speakers change the discourse?

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

We spent some time discussing these questions with Micah Sifry, curator of Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), an annual conference that explores the intersection of technology, politics, and advocacy and that has been achieving gender parity on stage for years. But PDF didn't always meet GenderAvenger's 40%+ standard. It was pressure from the conference community to highlight more women speakers that led to a turning point for the organizers.

In its early years, PDF featured a roster of speakers that reflected the men-dominated composition of the tech and political spheres. Sifry tells us:

It wasn’t until about five years in, when a number of our friends actually came to us and said ‘Hey what’s going on here, why is this conference not featuring more women speakers?’ I’m so glad those folks intervened and raised the issue. Right away, we started to work on fixing it.
used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

The solution became obvious to Sifry and his partner, Andrew Rasiej: they needed to tune in from the start of programming and be deliberate about the overall mix of speakers. There is still a tendency for men to self-promote more than women, and those who don’t pay attention will wind up with men-dominated events, whether they intend to or not. This year, PDF’s organizers will encourage the community to continue monitoring gender balance, but this time, they will use the GA Tally app.

Sifry recognizes the visibility that comes with speaking at the conference and takes his role as curator seriously:

I don’t want to just fill a quota. This is about giving lots of people who otherwise might not have as equal a chance to establish themselves, to springboard whatever it is that they’re working on,” he tells us. “So it’s important for me also to work with people who are at that stage, where this is a really important lift-off opportunity.

Curating an inclusive speaker roster was a first step for PDF. They now set standards for the broader community in two significant ways. First, the organizers will not accept proposals for all-male panels. Second, all attendees are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits harassment of any kind and asks the community to ensure a welcoming environment for all.

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

Long-time conference-goers can see the impact — more women attend, and the program is infused with new and diverse perspectives each year. Newcomers may not see the change, but that’s okay. Sifry explains:

If we didn’t have such a strong representation of women at the conference, you’d end up with a situation similar to the tech industry where Apple can make a health app and nobody thinks ‘By the way, women menstruate, so that should be a core feature of this thing’ because the people who developed it all have a predominantly male perspective. So, I just think it’s like fluoride in the water; it’s better for you, and in some ways its effects are invisible to you, but there’s no question that without it, we would be worse off.

Sifry, a self-described feminist, credits some key women advisors, including his wife, Leslie, longtime friend of PDF, Deanna Zandt, and our very own Gina Glantz, as “part of the silent chorus in my mind influencing what we think and what we’re doing.”

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

used with permission from personaldemocracy, via Flickr

As for that perennial excuse that makes us cringe every time (“We can’t find any women to speak”), Sifry says it’s nonsense that often reflects the lack of diversity in that person’s network. He offers some advice for those without their own silent chorus:

Anybody who says that simply hasn’t asked for help, and doesn’t realize that in their network there are many people who can give them suggestions. All you have to do is ask, and there’s no shame in asking for help. It’s more of a male, socialized behavior of some kind, speaking as someone who never likes to ask for directions.

Looking towards PDF 2017 (June 8–9), the excitement is palpable. Sifry calls it a “movement moment” and, with help from assistant curator Danielle Tomson, has architected a program featuring new voices and emerging leaders, some who are young and others who are part of a wave of older women leading the resistance on the ground.

This is the speaker count as of May 18, 2017.

This is the speaker count as of May 18, 2017.

I’m excited about the collision of old and new, which we’ll be embracing. I’m also looking forward to hearing from some of the people who have been doing work in the trenches — I’m thinking of Emily May from Hollaback! who’s been doing anti-harassment organizing for more than a decade, but has really stepped into the moment in a bigger way. Or Jessy Tolkan, who’s now in charge of campaigns for Purpose and has played a huge role in things like all the Sister Marches. So, they’re not new leaders in the sense of people who weren’t that politically active until November, but they are rising stars.

So, what can we learn from PDF’s story? Event curators have no excuses and should not be afraid to engage their community to find women speakers. They should be conscious of the power they have to create a springboard for more women. And, to all the Avengers keeping a watchful eye — you count!