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article imageQ&A: It's important to bring women’s voices to tech conferences Special

By Tim Sandle     Jul 27, 2019 in Business
Companies have the opportunity to elevate women leaders and shift the perception of tech conferences as male-dominated events. Lin Classon of Ensono explains how and why a a more representative environment is needed.
Two years ago, Lin Classon, director at Ensono, tweeted a photo of an empty women’s bathroom at a tech conference. The tweet ignited a larger conversation – if women are notably absent from the bathroom, where else is their presence lacking at these events?
This led Classon to explore the subject further and Ensono has released a report ("Speak Up: Bringing More Women’s Voices to Tech Conferences") that explores the perceptions and experiences of women who have attended tech conferences. The report finds that one in four women have experienced sexual harassment at a tech conference. As an example of the tech industry's "Boy's Club" reputation one company at CES 2018 thought it would be a good idea to have robot strippers.
Despite major initiatives to build the pipeline of women in STEM careers, like Girls Who Code, only 25 percent of tech conference keynotes in the last three years were women. Lin Classon explains to Digital Journal how this can be addressed.
Digital Journal: What proportion of women are entering technology professions?
Lin Classon: Women make up 20 percent of tech jobs in the U.S., even though they make up more than half of the total U.S. workforce. It seems reasonable, then, that Ensono’s report found 20% of keynote speakers at tech conferences are female. However, if the number of women on stage at major industry events is equal to the number of women in tech, the percentages will continue to remain stationary. To increase the proportion of women choosing STEM careers, younger generations need to see more representation of females among the C-suite and on the keynote stages. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.
DJ: Why are women put off by technology conferences?
Classon: The tech industry has a long history of gender disparity and ensuing issues in the workplace. Ensono found this reputation has carried over to industry events — 41 percent of women report having an experience at a tech conference that makes them less likely to attend a future event. When women experience a negative interaction at a professional event, it discourages them from attending again, which is part of the reason there are so few female attendees.
Two years ago, I tweeted a picture of an empty women’s bathroom at AWS re:Invent to illustrate the lack of women represented at the conference. Many others responded with similar experiences at conferences they’ve attended showing that this is a common issue. Most recently, the lack of women attendees at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference also garnered some attention. While I’m not complaining about short lines for the bathroom, I’d much rather be surrounded by an overwhelming number of female technology professionals when I attend conferences.
DJ: How bad is sexual harassment at technology conferences?
Classon: Let’s just say that even the venerated TED Talks had to grapple with sexual harassment at their events. With the #MeToo movement, one would hope that the problem is going away. While we may be heading in the right direction, sexual harassment in the tech industry is still a very real issue. Ensono found one in four women who have attended a tech conference report experiencing sexual harassment.
DJ: Why do we see so few women addressing tech conferences?
Classon: Anyone who has attended a tech conference has seen the “lone woman on the panel.” In fact, Ensono found 70% of female speakers reported being the only woman on a panel. The industry’s non-inclusive environment is partly to blame, but tech companies should also bear the responsibility of mentoring, encouraging and submitting their female associates for speaking opportunities at conferences.
DJ: How can venues be more ‘women friendly?’
Classon: While companies should make sure to be more inclusive in whom they send to tech conferences, tech conference organizers should be held accountable for ensuring an inclusive environment at their events. For example, the prevalent practice of employing so-called booth babes, and colloquially referring to them as such at events, sets the tone and atmosphere. It tells women that we don’t belong. It needs to stop. We don’t need another Consumer Electronic Shows’ robot strippers incident.
Improvement could be made by establishing, communicating and reinforcing a code of conduct. Ensono found 49 percent of women are unclear about the existence of a code of conduct at conferences they attend. It’s important there are set rules and guidelines that outline the expectations for appropriate behavior and consequences for bad behavior, and it’s just as important to ensure all attendees are aware of them. This provides attendees with an understanding of what would be considered inappropriate and a clear process for how to report an issue.
Other ways for conferences to be inclusive of female attendees include mother’s rooms, childcare stipends, on-site daycare, women’s meetups and sessions promoting networking with fellow female attendees and speakers. By providing women with the right resources and support, we will hopefully begin to see an increase in their attendance.
DJ: What can companies do to better attract female delegates?
Classon: First of all, companies should make sure to promote speaking opportunities widely and early, as many women are also mothers and they’ll need time to make childcare arrangements. They could take one step further to support women to become ready for keynotes and panel positions by providing presentation skills and speaker trainings.
More about Gender, Conferences, Women in tech, Stem
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