Do Australian tech conferences suffer from “A Culture of Exclusion”? How do we avoid it?

I spotted this interesting article by Ryan Funduk, on the culture of exclusion generated by piss-up parties at tech conferences — primarily at conferences in America, but the issue is certainly prevalent in other places.

I attended OSCON last year, and whilst OSCON is clearly not as bad as the type of events that have been highlighted in this writeup, there were still plenty of events that were promoted by the conference and their sponsors, but clearly served only as an opportunity to booze up some delegates. In fact, there was at least one such party advertised in the conference schedule each night — peaking on the Wednesday where there were three such conference parties advertised on the conference schedule, cleverly paced for two hours so that delegates could move on to each of the parties as the previous one wound up.

I personally feel as though these sorts of events have no place being actively promoted by the conference schedule. There are several good reasons for this that are all detailed in the parent article, but they all boil down to the fact that not everyone drinks. Parties where the key attraction is drinking only attracts those who drink. By advertising such events as part of the programme, they create cliques within the conference community that aren’t defined by the community that the conference serves to support.

Worse still is when such events are not run with alternatives available, because this strongly promotes the subtext that drinking is the only way to socialise at the conference. So a delegate who doesn’t drink will not fit in to any part of the conference, because there is no well-established way for non-drinkers to find each other.

As an active participant in tech conferences in Australia, it’s important to reflect on criticisms of such conferences in other countries, as well as here, to make sure that we’re providing a culture that actively encourages any delegate who chooses to attend — regardless of age, gender or lifestyle choice.

In the case of conferences run in Australia, I don’t believe that the issues of Alcohol-driven events are near as much of a problem as they are in America.

At Linux.conf.au, since the demise of the Google Party (an event very much brought over by American employees of Google), I don’t think I’ve seen a single event associated with the conference where drinking was the sole purpose of the event. One exception of this is the Professional Delegates Networking Session, however, I have always seeked to run a non-alcohol driven alternative against it. As a non-drinker for most of the LCAs I’ve been to, I don’t think I’ve lost out by not participating in the drinking.

At PyCon Australia, we’ve been careful to not offer up any events with an open tab — companies who want to sponsor alcohol have to do so in a way that ensures that the amounts provided are limited, and any foray into dangerous territory comes at the expense of the delegates. There is no conference event planned without a defined activity, and in every case, the presence of a bar at the event is clearly a distant second in terms of priorities for the organisers.

One of the great successes over the past few years in Australia has been ensuring that toxic cultures within the tech community aren’t tolerated. I think it’s imporant that we look at everything we do with a critical eye. I’m sure that our record on avoiding the fostering of an alcohol culture at our events isn’t spotless, and it’s one that we should look over with as critical an eye as we use to look over issues of gender or sexuality.

It’s definitely my intention to do this as I continue to put together PyCon — constantly looking at what we can do as Australian-based conference organisers do to ensure that the culture of alcohol doesn’t take over from the culture of the technology that we’re gathering for?

Update: I’ve written a further post on this topic. Do try it.

6 thoughts on “Do Australian tech conferences suffer from “A Culture of Exclusion”? How do we avoid it?

  1. Having had hardly any exposure to conferences so far, these posts make me wonder: Aside from the meta discussion about diversity (which is pretty much universal these days — and rightly so), could it be that this and the “brogrammer” culture is a problem that is more present at JSConf and Ruby conferences than Python?

    Personaly, I’ve certainly felt a strong cultural disconnect from the Ruby (and lately, post-Node.JS, also JavaScript) community. It’s more than just the hipster meme and the drama (thanks, Zed and _why), though “coolness” and “edginess” seem to be quite important. There are probably many factors playing into this, age seeming to be one of them. You don’t hear anything about sexist COBOL programmers or late night binging at Java conferences from what I can tell. Even PHP seems to have grown up.

    Are these excesses a problem at conferences in general? Is this an American thing? Or even a Ruby/JS thing? What distinguishes conferences and communities that have this problem from those that do not? Is it a problem with conferences or communities, or is it a much more widespread cultural issue (as in e.g. American youth culture) that has just become more visible for us recently?

  2. I’ve only been to education conferences, however, I never realised that technology conferences hosted drinking events. We usually have social events in bars or restauraunts with food and drinks afterwards that are booked for two (or so) hours. Drinks are sometimes open bar or token orientated. If people want to party more somewhere else, then that is their own decision.

    Personality differences represent the worst culture of exlusion that I have seen… In particular, individuals that don’t fit with conference groups and end up spending the entire day (or two) mostly on their own. The social event tends to draw that out even more (if they turn up).

  3. At conferences I’ve been to, I’ve wondered why most people don’t bother with the socialising afterwards. It’s never occurred to me that it might be a feeling of exclusion due to them not being drinkers. I always assumed they were just shyer and less interested in socialising.

    I don’t think the central point of these social events is drinking, and I think I’d be hard pressed to find someone who thought that if you weren’t drinking you shouldn’t attend.

    If non-drinkers don’t turn up because they think the events will be comprised of only drinkers, then that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It needn’t be that way.

    I’m sceptical that this is a real problem. Perhaps it’s one of perception.

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