Magdalena Balazinska
Magdalena Balazinska

The Diversity of Diversity & Inclusion

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The importance of diversity and inclusion has been widely recognized by now and efforts toward this goal are commonplace in almost all settings. Diversity and inclusion, however, remains challenging, and even well-intentioned efforts do not always work. 

In this blog post, we report on our experience with the ACM SOCC’19 conference that recently took place in Santa Cruz, CA at the beautiful Chaminade Resort and Spa. Over the past years, several of us on the SOCC’19 organizing committee have been pushing a variety of diversity efforts at conferences and in other contexts. At SOCC’19, we made a very focused effort to address diversity and inclusion as best we could and make the event as welcoming as possible.

There are several reasons why diversity and inclusion remains a challenge, but we would like to highlight two of them.

The first challenge lies in the diversity of needs that those efforts target. For example, diversity and inclusion efforts often target work-life balance and workers with little children. The efforts then propose solutions such as providing sponsored childcare at a conference. While such a resource is useful to many, not everyone is comfortable leaving their infant in such care and should never be forced to do so. Forcing a one-size-fits-all solution to an inclusion question can cause people to feel further excluded.

The second challenge arises when efforts toward diversity and inclusion target only some populations but not others. Different conference attendees experience different challenges. Some need to travel with infants. Some have severe food allergies. Other attendees may have anxiety and difficulty being constantly surrounded by a large crowd. Other attendees yet may struggle with understanding speakers. There are many circumstances that can cause an attendee to struggle. There is also the even more common challenge that some attendees are new to a community and are not yet well integrated with that community.

This year at the 2019 ACM Symposium on Cloud Computing (SOCC’19) we decided to take a systematic and broad approach to our diversity and inclusion efforts. We tried a variety of initiatives. Not everything that we tried worked perfectly and we did not support all needs. However, we believe that we made a significant step in an important direction.  

First, we created the official role of “Diversity and Inclusion Chair”. This was a critical step because it enabled us to have a person on our team dedicated to thinking about and coordinating our efforts. Beside the direct contribution of this role, frequent conversations around the proposed D&I initiatives helped our already committed team of organizers to be reminded of our commitments and look at every decision through the lens of inclusivity.

Second, we raised money specifically for diversity efforts. Microsoft stepped up to the challenge and provided us with that sponsorship. This is in addition to raising money to generally reduce registration costs and raising money to support student travel scholarships.

Third, we surveyed a sample of people from the database and systems communities with diverse backgrounds to understand their needs and, importantly, to hear their suggestions for addressing those needs. We did not assume that we knew best. This is important!

Fourth, we worked hard to try and address as many needs as we could by putting in place several initiatives.


Inclusion statements: We posted explicit inclusion statements in our welcome remarks and we visibly displayed a poster with the ACM anti-harassment policy throughout the conference.

Pronoun stickers: We encouraged the use of pronoun stickers and displayed a poster explaining the reason for pronoun stickers.

Networking: We encouraged the use of networking stickers that enabled attendees to self-identify as a student, an attendee looking for a job, or an attendee at an organization that is hiring this year. The goal of the stickers was to encourage interactions between students, senior researchers, and people hiring. We also invited students to spend 30-min to 60-min volunteering at the registration booth to interact with conference organizers and attendees in this special role. Volunteering time-slots never overlapped with any session, were reasonably short, and were completely optional.

Onsite meals and social program: Our entire social program was onsite and clearly advertised to maximize participation and inclusion. We provided all-inclusive packages with lodging and three meals a day. All meals were at the conference venue. Everyone was invited to participate in the evening social program. There was an opportunity to grab a drink and hang out together every night. We worked to remove any worry related to forming a dinner group, finding a place to eat, going out to drink, and coming back to the hotel late at night. 

Quiet room: We reserved a special, quiet room near the main conference program for attendees seeking a short break from the noise and the crowd.

Child-related expenses: We offered small grants to any attendee traveling to the conference with little children with the goal of reimbursing any reasonable expense including onsite child-care, nanny hires, extra plane tickets, meals for a partner, room upgrade, etc.

Student scholarships: We provided student scholarships with the support of the National Science Foundation, ACM SIGMOD, and ACM SIGOPS to encourage students to attend the conference and participate in the conference discussions and activities.

Papers/Talks: We provided guidelines to authors on how to write their paper and how to prepare their presentation with a focus on accessibility and use of inclusive examples. In particular, we explicitly encouraged them to take into account that color and hearing perception varies from person to person and to promote inclusiveness by challenging common implicit assumptions and biases as they prepare their papers/presentations.

Questions: We provided guidelines to session chairs on how to properly introduce the speakers and encourage participation in the follow-up paper discussion. For example, we asked the session chairs to practice pronouncing the speaker’s names, make sure to use their preferred pronouns, and ask them to enable closed-captioning. We also asked them to make sure they take questions from attendees with different backgrounds.

Closed-captioning: We experimented with closed-captioning of the talks. While today’s technology is not yet where it needs to be, a regular use of the technology will hopefully motivate its further improvements. 

Remote participation: We supported remote paper presentation for a paper whose authors could not get a visa to travel to the conference.

D&I presentation at the conference: Finally, the D&I chair gave a short presentation at the beginning of the conference to make everyone aware of our diversity efforts and to encourage the attendees to actively support them during the conference. The chair also explained the ACM anti-harassment policy and the reporting process for the attendees that might feel abused or discriminated against during the conference.

Going forward

We do not claim that everything worked perfectly nor that we succeeded in supporting all needs. Nevertheless, we definitely succeeded in creating an overall welcoming and inclusive atmosphere at the conference. Many attendees expressed their appreciation of our efforts and contributed themselves to those efforts. We surveyed the attendees after the conference. 27% of attendees took the survey. Over 90% of respondents reported a high or very high level of satisfaction with the conference as a whole and over 95% reported a high or very high level of satisfaction with diversity and inclusion activities specifically. All our diversity and inclusion activities were highly rated by the attendees, with closed-captioning being the one that still needs most work to be effective. Beyond this survey, organizers and chairs of other conferences followed up with us and are considering to adopt some of the initiatives we implemented in their conferences.

The journey ahead is a long one and we should continue to work together to push further improvements and innovations. We should try new things and adopt best practices that we develop and that others develop (e.g., SIGACCESS accessibility guidelines). Overall, however, we find that being mindful of diverse attendee needs required moderate work and a moderate investment but it made a world of a difference for individuals and in the overall conference atmosphere.

Copyright @ 2020, Magda Balazinska, Avrilia Floratou, Carlo, Curino, All rights reserved.


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