So you want more women at your tech event?

This is what a tech event looks like when women are welcome.

Baby at PodCamp Montreal

This is a photo of me, taken by the talented Eva Blue at PodCamp Montreal 2010. I also brought my baby to WordCamp 2010 about two weeks before this photo was taken. There were at least two other babes in arms at that event. Their dads brought them.

This is what tech events look like when women are less welcome.

An all-male audience at Startup Fest

This photo is the first photo you see when you go to the Startup Festival website. The organizers asked me how to get more women at their event, and I pointed out to them months ago that photos like this do not help. In other words, I gave them a chance to fix it. But they kept the photo up just the same.

(Side note: Hey! Isn’t that copyright infringement? No. It is called “Fair Use.” Look it up.)

Tech conferences are routinely criticized for not having enough women. There aren’t enough women speakers, women organizers or women attendees. What gives? But more importantly, how can you, as a tech event organizer change this?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll offer 17 ways to get more women at your event. I’m doing this for a couple of reasons.

Decent results

I help organize WordCamp Montreal. Over the past three years, we have had the following results.

Women speakers Talks given by women
2009 21% 22%
2010 22% 19%
2011 29% 35%

These numbers don’t quite match up because some talks have two speakers and some speakers speak more than once, which is why both numbers are provided.

Also, in 2010 our keynote speaker was a woman (the wonderful Andrea Rennick) and in 2011 we organized a special “Women & WordPress” session which I’ll blog about later. We also organize our schedule so that attendees can see all the women speakers, if they want to do so. This didn’t happen the first year and some people complained, so it’s now part of our scheduling policy.

In general, the tech conferences with the most equitable gender ration rarely exceed 25% women speakers. That’s something we’ve done for the first time this year.

You’ll also note that progress can be slow, measured in years. And notice I said “decent” results, not “super-amazing” ones. But it is still progress.

Often at tech conferences there are no women speakers at all.

So, to sum up, we (yes there are even (gasp!) men involved in organizing this event. Don’t forget to tell them they are awesome!) have purposely chosen to provide a generally women-friendly space. You can do that too.

Basta! Enough!

I often hear event organizers complain that it’s “so hard” to get women to come to their events and even harder to recruit women as speakers. I agree. To an extent. But difficult is not the same as impossible. This shouldn’t be used as en excuse to stop trying. So I’m offering 17 ways to make constructive, effective changes to the way events are organized to specifically appeal to women.

Although I’m targeting women, many of the ideas I’ll present should work equally well in increasing various other forms of diversity. So if you have a tech conference with plenty of women (Yay! please invite me!) you will probably be able to use these suggestions to increase the number of people of colour, of the differently abled and the differently gendered as well as a representative cross-section of age groups. That would be amazing.

Who does she think she is?

Does this mean I think I’m perfect? Hell no! It just means that I value diversity and relish the opportunity to nurture it. It means that I’ve made a concerted effort to encourage it (with the help of various super amazing allies) with some success. There is still a lot of room for improvement.

We are still a long way from an equitable representation of diversity. I am certainly not above criticism. But I am committed to examining my own biases, even when it is hard, because it is just The Right Thing To Do®.

So please stay tuned for 17 blog posts!

Agree? Disagree? That’s what the comments are for. Contribute to the discussion.

23 thoughts on “So you want more women at your tech event?

  1. Holy Wow! Love this post, Shannon. Or should I say, sustained campaign (17 posts!) —so much more effective than a quick one-shot post that would soon be lost in the stream(s). Whether we ultimately agree/disagree with every point, your arguments are so nuanced and well-thought out that it will be very difficult for any intelligent person to continue to ignore this issue, once they’ve read it. Brava! A little discomfort with the status quo is good — without a grain of irritating sand, the oyster would never create a pearl.

  2. Fabulous post, and very good point about the photos and other subtle indicators. I’ve gotten used to being in mostly-male environments and it doesn’t particularly intimidate me, but events that REALLY want women to participate are likely to have to make some changes. (I remember when I was a grad student, my advisor had to threaten to quit before her colleagues would adjust the time of faculty meetings so she could pick up her daughter at day care.)

    A pity the VENUES can’t also make some changes, like say providing twice as many bathrooms for women…

  3. I’m looking forward to the rest of your posts. I’m a women in technology and have often been frustrated by the lack of other women at conference. But, honestly, as a mom who did the total attachment parenting thing, I still wouldn’t espouse the idea of bringing a baby to a conference and equating that with making it “female friendly.” That might make it a baby friendly conference. But, it does nothing for women who aren’t parents, people who don’t like kids, etc. And, it perpetuates the idea of women as caregivers and those that have to “do it all” instead of honoring and recognizing women as skilled professionals.

    • I agree that allowing parents to bring their babies to a conference certainly isn’t the only way to make a conference woman-friendly. Many people don’t have kids or don’t choose to bring them to a conference. Many people who would bring them are dads. My baby was 4 weeks old when I went to that conference. I really did have no choice. It was bring my baby or not go. That’s a choice that women, who, practically speaking, do more childcare in our society often have to make. And the choice is often to not go, especially for women who are single-parents or who have lower incomes and kids. And those lower-income women are often women of colour.That means fewer women at tech events, and a less diverse set of women, if the ability to pay for childcare is a factor in attendance.

      Also, I don’t think that having a baby and being a skilled professional are polar opposites. Why can’t I be a mother and be recognized as a skilled professional at the same time and at the same event? Why do those two spheres of my life need to be separate (if that’s what I want to do- other people will make other choices)? Maybe we can’t have it all, but when conference organizers make spaces that welcome a larger and more diverse crowd, we can certainly have more. We are no longer forced to choose between a traditional female role and a professional one. We get to navigate through a broader spectrum of choices.

      And I do think it’s a very visible example of how to do things differently. Certainly, not the only one – I didn’t have a photo of people interrupting each other less often, for example ;) But it’s a very clear signal that something here is very different. And it encourages people to find out what else is different, and that “what else” is often a more welcoming environment for everyone (which, yes, would include babies).

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Pingback: Tracking the Montreal Women in Tech Debate « Montreal Girl Geeks

    • Hard gender quotas aren’t really something I recommend. But I do think that organizers have a huge ability and responsibility to make women feel welcome at events. At any technology conference, aiming for gender parity as well as proportional representation based on race and other factors is a highly valuable and should be encouraged. The alternative is to pretend that inequality isn’t an issue, that it isn’t important that all members of society have a chance to participate.

      I’m very happy that you haven’t personally experienced discrimination. That is excellent news. Certainly I’d like that to be the experience of even more women. However, my personal experience and that of the women I’ve spoken leads me to believe that there is is still a lot of work to be done.

      Thank you for sharing your point of view.

  5. (I’m one of the organizers of the php|tek conference in Chicago each year.)

    I think It’s interesting that you choose WordCamp Montreal as a baseline.. I’ve been to and spoken at a number of WordCamps and without exception the topics are much less technical to the point of some being writing & PR courses. There’s nothing wrong with that, just a fundamentally different type of speaker & audience.

    Looking at your schedule tells the full story. The vast majority of the women are speaking on non-technical topics. The handful of women in the mix on the tech side are doing mostly introductory subjects. Everyone needs

    Now look at any tech conference..

    If we have too many non-tech topics, bosses don’t want to pay and the experts don’t want to attend. We can have some beginner level sessions, but they have to be on very specific subjects or we get the same problem. And very few designers get in the door unless they have a powerful niche (html5, mobile) and a technical (not design) angle on it.

    Claiming these two types of events are equivalent is incorrect which makes me believe that either a) you haven’t been to a conference more technical than a WordCamp or b) you’re glossing over this fact for simplicity sake. Either way, as a result, you do the topic an injustice.

    And for the record, of the 31 speakers, 5 were female, including Anna above. I think we accepted nearly every female candidate.. but because of their topic, not because of their genitals.

    To do otherwise would be discriminatory.

    • WordCamp isn’t the baseline. It’s just the event I personally have the most experience with as an organizer. To claim that WordCamps are not “real” tech events because they don’t only have hard-core coding topics is to take the easy way out. Next time I’ll also consider posting my conference-going CV, so you’ll have to work a bit harder at those personal attacks ;)

      I have never suggested using some quota based on gender, but I do strongly support encouraging more women to participate in technology conferences. At the present time various factors discourage women from participating, from attending, from speaking. This series of articles is designed to get people thinking about why and to come up with practical solutions. If you have a suggestion other than hard gender quotas, please add that to the discussion.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  6. It was a critique of your point, not a personal attack.

    The most common question I’ve heard at the WordCamps I’ve attended is “what is PHP?” When that is a majority of your audience, it’s a business-focused event, not a tech event. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s a fundamentally different audience which needs a fundamentally different topic.

    Do you have numbers on the gender breakdown of the attendance of individual sessions?

    • No, I’ve just never been to a tech event. ;)

      It sounds like you’re going to the wrong WordCamps. WordCamps do appeal to a large range of people from “coders” to bloggers to small business users to enterprise users. They will all have different needs and questions. And yes, we do cover “What is PHP?” in the Beginner’s Guide to WordPress session. But other talks are clearly geared towards a more technical audience and cover topics like version control, scaling, database optimization, plugin development, APIs, etc.

      But WordCamp is just an example, not the example. DIfferent conferences will have different results. The point is not that our numbers are higher than some, just that we are conscious of a disparity and actively trying for improvement with some success.

      We don’t keep stats on session attendance. Many women attend the more code-based sessions, and many men attend the more blog-based sessions. And many people are tempted to check out the “other” stream for a talk or two, just because the topic sounds interesting. Just because you’re interested in tech and at a tech conference, doesn’t mean it’s the only topic you want to discuss over a 48-hour period. Some people come for the blogging and stay for the code, and vice versa.

  7. I’m welcoming women, but there just aren’t enough of them in the community and in the industry. Attacking organizers by asking them to take responsability over something that they have no control over (career choices) is wrong.

    • I think that maybe you’ve misunderstood the purpose of this series. I’m trying to get a dialogue started on things that organizers can do to make women feel more welcome. Specific, practical examples (like my latest post on keeping ticket prices low). I have some ideas and other people have suggested some ideas as well. Certainly all won’t apply to every event, but hopefully people will see that really very small differences in how events are organized can make a huge difference to who attends. I’m also hoping that other people will suggest ideas. So if you have practical examples, please suggest them! Maybe the number of women in tech is small at the moment, but certainly there is room for improvement even if changes in career choices will take longer.

      • I don’t argue the intention. It’s just that it comes out all wrong, like saying that women make less money and we need to lower ticket prices.

        Most conferences offer an early bird rate, which is often almost half the price of a regular ticket. We don’t see many women or students jump on the opportunity. They rather wait until the prices double and then complain that it’s too expensive. If instead of calling it “early bird rate” we call it “female rate”, will we get more sales? I’m just curious :)

        Also, remember that it’s mostly companies that pay for their employees’ entrance, at least for our kind of event. It doesn’t make a difference how much she makes in that case.

    • Yes, I do moderate the comments here. I think it’s important that my blog be a space that encourages positive change and I’ve seen that degenerate on other forums. It’s a bit like my house – you can come to my house and disagree with me, but you can’t call me names in my own house.

      Of course if you prefer to call me a “whiny” feminist, call my blog a “rant”, say I’m “paranoid” and claim that I “act like a victim”, then by all means, take the discussion elsewhere.

  8. When you look at conference speakers, you’re only looking at the end point.

    To have qualified speakers, you must have people who are excellent in their area.

    To have someone excellent, they need to choose and area to focus on.

    To choose an area they want to focus on, they have to be in the field in the first place.

    To be in the field, they need to choose a science/math oriented education path.

    To choose a science/math oriented path, they need to find it interesting and non contrary to “being a girl.”

    I serve on an advisory for my undergraduate engineering school and after years of trying to “recruit more women” which was really just moving them between schools, they took a long – and in my opinion, the correct – view and partnered with Girl Scout troops to teach the fun and interesting side of science/math.. at the elementary school level.

    • Absolutely, this is just the end point. Change needs to start at the point where girls make career choices. And helping young women see the advantages of a career in tech is a laudable goal.

      But I still think that conference organizers can make small changes that really make a difference to women’s participation. My latest post, for example was on keeping ticket prices low. Another idea is OSCON’s new policy to discourage sexual harassment. This whole series is designed to get people thinking about what those changes might be.

      And again, if you can suggest some ideas, please contribute them to the discussion.

  9. There seems to be quite a controversy over Startup Fest, so I thought I’d weigh in here. This will be a long post, so bear with me.

    Around the time that smart phones were coming out, one mobile company in the US realized that they could increase revenue if they could develop and market a device targeted for the more senior members of our population (e.g. our grandparents). So they came out with an inexpensive mobile device that was easy to setup and easy to use, and then marketed it with the tag line “it’s so simple, even your grandmother could use it.”

    Yes, there was a small controversy, and the product didn’t sell. One of the (many) problems with this campaign was that grandparents thought the tag line was a little condescending. There’s no way the target audience (the grandparents) would go out and buy a device that essentially makes fun of them.

    But it wasn’t really their intention to make fun of the grandparents. So the mobile company went back to the drawing board, made the necessary apologies, and then changed their tag line to “calling your grandchildren has never been simpler”. The change resulted in a profitable product. The main reason is that the message being sent to these grandparents is that this is a phone that makes things simple for them. They could use a smart phone if they wanted to, but why use a smart phone if all you want to do is call your grandchildren? Pure genius.

    This example was told to me in a different context (i.e. make sure that your product is properly marketed in a way that makes it enticing to your target buyer and target user), but it’s a good example for what I want to talk about here.

    So why do I bring up this example? Other than the coincidental similarity in the tag lines between this example and the one used by Startup Fest (and no, I didn’t make this example up), it does provide a valuable lesson. When you make a mistake, own up to it, make the necessary changes to correct the problem, and then move on. If you can capitalize on the controversy, all the better.

    There are three magic sentences that always make problems go away: “I am sorry. I fucked up. It will never happen again.” If you stop there, you’re golden. If you try to justify why you fucked up, then your apology is no longer sincere and you open yourself up to further attacks.

    And that’s where this controversy really starts. The Startup Fest guys started with a sincere apology, made efforts to correct the problem, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to take pot shots at their critics… thereby making their apologies and actions look insincere. And that led the controversy to drag on longer than it should have, well past the end of the conference.

    And the thing is, a golden opportunity was handed to Startup Fest to capitalize on all this press. An interesting article in Business Week showed that 41% of privately owned businesses are owned by women, but only 3% to 5% receive venture capital funding:

    http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/jul2008/sb20080721_908767.htm

    So imagine if the organizers had instead said the following:

    “I’m sorry. We didn’t intend to anger anyone. We’re working to make Startup Fest accessible to everyone. Studies suggest that women receive less venture capital funding then men. There are many reasons for that, but Startup Fest is an opportunity for everyone (both men and women alike) to make the necessary connections to realize the funding they need. Come to Startup Fest and you’ll see how we strive to make the tech environment and tech funding accessible for everyone.”

    And then stop there. No pot shots. No personal attacks. No talk about feminists or whiners. And certainly no backing out of promises. In other words, take the high road. Then let the problem blow away and have everyone talk about the Startup Fest organizers like they were geniuses.

    So where did Startup Fest actually go wrong? They had to add a “but” to the end of their apology. Effectively, they said “I’m sorry, but …” Unfortunately, the minute you say “I’m sorry, but …” you’re no longer golden: you’ve just proven that you’re not really sorry.

    And then things escalate. And things get personal. Which is wrong, given that the fundamental issue is an important one (i.e. woman involvement in high tech).

    Unfortunately, I can’t imagine the escalation of personal attacks ending until Alistair ends up looking like a sexist jerk or someone suffering from poor judgement. And since I don’t think either is the case, it’s perhaps time for everyone to tone down the rhetoric. Everyone should probably stick to saying “I am sorry. I fucked up. It will never happen again.” And then stop there.

    And then the controversy will likely go away too.

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