When it comes to speaking at a conference which involves some travel costs, there are four* main options:
- The conference pays.
- The company you work for pays.
- You pay.
- You don’t go.
The Conference Pays
I think this, announced up front, is the most inclusive option because it means you don’t have to talk about money. Sometimes it’s capped, and sometimes it comes in the form of an “honorarium” which you can use to offset your travel costs. If those things are transparent, you can figure out what’s an option for you… or not.
There’s a second option which is they will cover “if necessary”. This ranges between checking a box on application, or asking. I think it’s always reasonable to ask.
The Company Pays
There are two main reasons why companies cover the costs of having employees to speak at conferences.
- It’s part of the employee personal development (e.g. there’s a budget for a fixed amount or for one conference a year).
- It’s part of a strategy to recruit developers: either for jobs, or for adoption of company products (developer relations).
Use of this reasoning varies from “we think it is the right thing to do because (1) and (2)” to “this is part of our recruitment strategy”.
Many big companies cover these kind of things, but not everywhere. Having to admit that $brandname company won’t cover travel can feel like saying “the place where I work values neither my professional development nor giving back to the community” – embarrassing. Because it’s rarely talked about we don’t really know whether this an accurate reflection of company policy… or more common than we imagine.
This also often comes with constraints on what you say, requirement for advanced views of slides etc. Focus on recruitment ROI can also mean restrictions on what you wear (not inclusive, my favourite outfits rarely include branded tshirts and on stage it’s reasonable to carefully consider what you’re wearing).
This is less inclusive because it involves asking. I once had a manager who worried that it was “unfair” that I was using the development program to cover that kind of thing… when the men on my team didn’t. Some conferences offer the option where you get credit for “sponsorship” if your company covers it. I think this strikes a nice balance. If you’re at an unsupportive company or have an unsupportive manager, you can avoid asking. If you’re not – great. The conference cuts their costs, the company gets exposure. Win win.
Clearly this is an option** – tech (in particular developer) salaries are in general good and some conferences view speakers paying their way as part of the “giving back to the community” on top of giving a talk.
But: pay isn’t equitable and the pay gap in tech is actually larger (2013 study reported that the gap has disappeared, but a more recent 2015 article reported that men made 61% more than their female peers), and there is also a racial pay gap. And consider that the typical time that a woman woman stays in tech (10 years) is comparable to that of a pro footballer (8 years) – very relevant to financial planning (I have found no data on retention by race). Both of these things effect the level of disposable income for underrepresented groups in tech.
This is the least inclusive option, because it means that people are likely to have to pass up on opportunities due to financial constraints. Financial constraints that may well be the result of structural unfairness in the industry.
You Don’t Go
This falls under the list of options because it is always an option. You’re not obliged to say yes to every invitation. It can seem like you’re missing out on the opportunity to give a talk, learn, or connect people. But I’ve come to view it as the opportunity to instead say yes to an event where they value being inclusive, and respect my time.
Of course this is an easier decision at the 10th speaking opportunity than the 1st. And easier again at the 100th.
For individuals: it may suck but these are your options, and now you get to pick one.
For conference organisers: please consider how the way you approach travel costs effects your inclusivity.
If you’re looking for speaking opportunities that cover your travel costs consider subscribing to Technically Speaking. We send out a no-more-than-weekly tech-focused newsletter with curated resources about public speaking and CfPs. Whether travel costs are covered is highlighted, and heavily weighted in whether we include them.
* There’s actually a fifth option which sometimes applies: scholarships. I’m not going to go into these here because they are a complex topic with a variety of options. The only comment I will make on scholarships is if they involve you paying upfront and then claiming the money back, it’s not inclusive of people who either cannot up front the money, or do not have a credit card that will up front the money. If relying on a credit card it can be anxiety inducing if it takes a while for payment to come through.
** For freelancers or small business owners the distinction between “you pay” and “the company pays” is blurred, and it’s important to note that expecting companies to pay means skewing against small organisations. For me the main difference for costs I have to cover myself now (as opposed to when I worked for a company that didn’t cover these kind of costs) is that by making is a business expense it comes out of pre-tax rather than post-tax income.