Being a conference organizer is hard. Like, seriously. Aside from the obvious logistics, and the not-at-all-obvious logistics, you're in a position to create a social gathering, not just a technical one. That comes with a lot of baggage and challenges, many of them often competing and incompatible, that need to be balanced. One in particular is ensuring that the speakers are an eclectic lot that are representative both of the community as it is and as you want it to be. That can take a lot of work.
Earlier this year the organizers of the PHP Central Europe conference (PHP.CE) approached me and asked me to submit sessions for the PHP.CE conference in Dresden this October. I rather enjoy speaking at conferences so I of course did so, and this past week they announced their speaker selections, including me with 2 sessions.
Unfortunately, some fellow speakers pointed out that their speaker selections for this year included zero women. There were numerous speakers with 2 sessions (myself included) or a workshop and a session, but no women at all.
I am not comfortable with that, but in the interest of finding solutions rather than problems I reached out to a number of other double-selected speakers and on behalf of three of us (the other two are welcome to identify themselves if they wish; I don't want to name-drop them without their permission) messaged the organizers, asking them to drop some of our double-sessions in favor of more female participation. We also offered to work with them to figure out ways to reduce the cost of bringing us in (a number of us were transatlantic, and Dresden is not the cheapest city to get to) so they could afford to cover more speakers.
Unfortunately, the organizers indicated they were not open to such an arrangement. According to them, they had only a single woman submit a session proposal this year despite having women present in previous years, and hers was a repeat from a local conference last year. They were also firm that the Call For Papers was done and over and they're not open to reaching out to new people now.
As a former conference organizer and track chair myself, I can empathize with their situation. Really. PHP.CE is far from the only conference that has speakers present multiple times to save costs, and I'm fine with that strategy, especially if it keeps the ticket price down to make the conference affordable for more people.
I can also empathize with having a low number of session submissions from women; as former track chair for the PHP track at DrupalCon (among others) we always struggled to get women from outside of Drupal to submit to that track, despite Drupal itself having a relatively large female population. We actively reached out to women both in the PHP community and local to the event and still sometimes had no submissions from women. (In that case, I know exactly why; DrupalCon doesn't cover speaker travel costs, and the PHP community does. Multiple people we spoke to said that was the reason they didn't submit sessions. Despite my protestations DrupalCon has never addressed that glaring problem.)
Sadly from what the organizers told me they actively don't want to do outreach, and just let whoever wants to submit submit. While there are certainly bad and harmful ways to do such outreach, there are also good and constructive ones. If you see no submissions coming in from women or other minority groups, that's an indication you should at least try the good ones. If they had tried and were unsuccessful I'd be more forgiving, but you need to at least try. And when multiple speakers offer to work with you to reduce costs so that you can at least try, that should be taken seriously.
To be clear, I'm not angry or mad at the PHP.CE organizers, just disappointed. Please, no one take this as an invite to pile-on or send hate mail their way. Don't do that. Please. No one benefits from that.
However, I have decided to decline to speak at PHP.CE this year and wanted to explain why, in the hopes that other conference organizers take note.
The PHP.CE organizers indicated they want to discuss ways to do better next year; I will take them at their word, and if you're in a position to be able to help them improve the conference session process for next year to have a more diverse set of speakers, I encourage you to take them at their word as well and reach out to them.
I look forward to an improved session process next year that shows real signs of trying to recruit a more diverse set of speakers. In that case I'd be happy to submit sessions again. But this year I must decline.