October 13, 2015

We can do better

On Conference Accountability and Representation of Diversity

RIT has an annual design conference called “Thought at Work,” that according to the website, is “a 3-day design conference for students, by students. It bridges the gap between the academic and professional worlds by providing a platform to collaborate, learn and hang out.”

I wrote a letter to address some diversity concerns and sent it out. Hopefully it is being delivered to the appropriate recipients. I am also posting it here to promote awareness of these issues for others in our industry.



To Whom it May Concern:

I’m writing this letter to address some concerns I and others have with the way that RIT’s student run conference “Thought At Work” is being run. According to the event website, the conference is a “design conference for students, by students. It bridges the gap between the academic and professional worlds by providing a platform to collaborate, learn and hang out.”

Thought At Work recently posted their speaker list for the conference for the 2015 event on their website, thoughtatwork.org. I excitedly opened it up, to see that there are currently 13 speakers listed and only one of them is a woman. I brought these concerns up to a member of the Thought At Work team and I was told that “all of the women we asked said they were busy.” I assert that if they were able to find 12 men, there is no reason that they could not have found a proportionate amount of women. They clearly weren’t asking enough.

Some of the greatest pioneers of our industry were and are women, but we still have issues getting women and keeping women in our field. A much-quoted survey of the UK design industry published by the Design Council in 2010 revealed that only 40% of designers were women, in startling contrast to the 70% of female design students. I’d assert that RIT wishes for all of their students to enter and be successful within the industry of their chosen major. In addition, CIAS is already suffering from low female enrollment, with the last reported statistic being a total of 21.6% of the school being female. We can do better.

We are showing our students an incomplete and limited perspective on our industry. We are releasing students into an amazing industry that values talent and passion and hard work above all, and I want to be able to show that in our school. There is so much more to our industry than what we are showing our students with this line-up. Students need role models that they can relate to, and that is what this conference is supposed to be about.

Here is what I ask of RIT and the Thought At Work team: First of all, introduce a clear Code of Conduct that applies to staff, volunteers, speakers, and attendees of the conference. Post it publicly throughout social media channels and on the TAW website. You can adapt an open source one like this one here: http://confcodeofconduct.com/ In fact, many women, such as the talented animator Rachel Nabors, refuse to speak at conferences that do not have a Code of Conduct. Creating a CoC is very easy and does a lot of good.

Secondly, make a public commitment to showing diverse representation of ethnicity and gender in our industry by committing to having at least 40% speakers be female and/or ethnically diverse for the 2016 conference and future events. Post this on the website and make it public information, and make it a priority early on in the decision process. Reach out to people in the industry, don’t just bring in people you know. There are more talented people out there than just the ones we personally know or are local to Rochester.

I sincerely hope that RIT and Thought at Work be able to take accountability for this situation and work to remedy it for the future. We can be better. Let’s make it happen.

Sincerely yours,

A Concerned Student