So you want more women at your tech event? Put a woman in charge

This is Part 1 of an ongoing series called So you want more women at your tech event?

One of the first things you should do if you want more women at your tech event, is put a woman in charge. Tech events usually have an organizing committee and there should be at least one woman on that committee. You could even try two or more!

But what does “in charge” mean? It means having a woman organizer who will have some authority, who will have the power to say no and to implement positive measures that appeal to women. Yes, I’m telling male event organizers that they have to actually cede some power to women.

What it doesn’t mean: having your secretary, or junior employee organize the event, or hiring a woman event planner.

That is because these women will lack the one thing that will be the most valuable to your event’s success: The ability to call you on your s%#t.

Now’s it’s very possible that your secretary, or employee or event planner might also call you on your s%#t, but they may also feel constrained by the power imbalance inherent in these asymmetric relationships. They might feel they are being forced to choose between calling you on your s%#t and keeping their jobs. Essentially, you will have veto power over them. This is not putting a woman in charge.

Calling you on your s%#t.

Why is this important?

The ability to call you on your s%#t mean that whenever you make a questionable decision they will stop you from publicly humiliating yourself. If you are considering having booth babes, talking about the business of strip clubs, or assigning all the bathrooms at your venue to men, the woman (or women) on your team will save your a%#. Don’t forget to thank her (or them).

Wait! Maybe you think you are above reproach? “I will never do that type of thing! I respect women and want them at my event”. This is not sufficient. Anyone can make a mistake or misjudge a response. This isn’t about being “respectful enough”. It’s about having people around who will actively evaluate what your event decisions mean for women.

I’ll even share something I did myself that was not acceptable. I was helping to make up a schedule card for WordCamp Montreal. When making the online version I put two speaker tracks in blue and orange on the schedule. When I did up the paper version I used pale colours so you could see the text. The orange looked bad, so I changed to pale red, aka pink. Now I had a user’s track in pink and a coder’s track in blue. I didn’t even notice. My intentions were good, but the outcome was not acceptable and I’m sure you can see why. Luckily, co-organizer Jeremy Clarke called me on my s%#t. Thank you Jeremy! Calling you on your s%#t is not about your intentions. No one is immune.

Can men call you on your s%#t? Absolutely! But having at least one woman on the team will mean that someone who thinks about being a woman a lot (maybe all the time?) will be around and she will probably notice things that are disrespectful to women more often and more quickly.

Visibility

Another thing having a woman will do, is get more women up on stage and online and associated with your event. Your co-organizer will help MC, she’ll be up on stage introducing speakers, her photo will be on your website with the other organizers.

This is important!

It’s important because her presence will signal to the women who would speak at your event that they are welcome. It will signal to other women that they can contribute as organizers. It will get one more woman’s face on your website and that will signal to women ticket-buyers that they will not be alone. If there are two women organizers, or more, even better.

When it comes to your event, making women visibly part of your organization team will help women feel welcome, respected, involved.

Can you mess this up? Yes! You can appoint a “token” woman, give her no power, use her photo to advance your agenda, and ignore her advice. People will see through this. They will think less of you and your event for it.

Flypaper

The other thing a woman in charge will do is act like flypaper for other women who are thinking about speaking or organizing, or even attending but aren’t quite sure.

I speak from experience when I say that women have often come to me before applying to speak, or offering to help organize, or even just before buying a ticket to ask me if my event was for them. Sometimes potential speakers worry that they aren’t enough of an expert. Attendees might worry the event is not welcoming. Organizers might wonder about the group dynamics.

Women also come to me when there are problems, when no one is being called on their s%#t. This is important, because it means that they can request change, without resorting to a direct confrontation with the person who has offended them.

Of course, this will only work if the woman involved is already part of the tech community. She needs to already know some women, and network with them, in person or online or though various groups or even socially. If women who might come to your event see someone who they’ve never heard of, who is not part of the tech community in the only woman-held leadership role, they might suspect you of tokenism (also see above).

[Added July 18: Just to be clear, this person doesn’t need to be a “big shot”. They don’t need to be a mover and a shaker. I’m none of those things! They just need to be accessible, online or off. The more women you have on your committee the less of an issue this is.]

By including at least one women, you will have an enthusiastic, informed advocate who can listen to the actual women you want to attract to your event and who can help fix things that go wrong.

Just add women?

No. You will probably find that just adding a woman to your organizing team will be insufficient, and that the woman/women you add to the team may even have ideas (gasp!) that involve changing your event in some way.

This is awesome!

Since she is a woman and is talking to women who would come to your event, she’ll probably come up with some great ideas that appeal to …. women!

At WordCamp Montreal, we had a last-minute gap in the schedule four days before the event. So I quickly organized an informal brainstorming session on ways to boost the number of women in tech (blog post on that soon). For me, it was a highlight of the conference.

Women who are involved in tech, but would not otherwise have attended WordCamp, bought a ticket. Women-focused groups like the Montreal Girl Geek Dinners publicized it to their members. Some of the women who did come were suddenly very excited to learn php. All over WordCamp, small groups of women were incredibly excited to get coding. Even men were asking me “what happened?”.

Would a man have come up with the same idea? It seems unlikely less likely.

[Added July 18: That does not mean that men couldn’t or shouldn’t come up with similar ideas. Some will! This is awesome and should be encouraged.]

So adding a woman to your team, if there isn’t already one, might involve making actual changes, sharing power, sharing the spotlight, examining your own behaviour and listening to women. Hard? Maybe. Worth it? Definitely.

Ability to apply this strategy to other marginalized groups: high.

Want more? 16 more blog posts on getting more women at your tech event will be coming up. Stay tuned.

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

One Reply to “So you want more women at your tech event? Put a woman in charge”

  1. I’m a female conference organizer with great authority. The conference ran for 5 years without me, and then 5 years with me. Female attendance didn’t change.

    I once tried to please the girls by putting a stock photo of a female coder in the conference program. Instead of being praised, I was called a sexist. People see bad even in the good (sigh). I refused to call it, because it made no sense.

    In my personal experience and from what I heard from other big conference organizers, it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female organizers, or if they try hard to please the female audience. Some people will get offended either way.

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