Gender diversity at tech conferences
Friday, March 8, 2013 at 04:11AM
John Carney

A couple of months ago someone tweeted the following question:

If more did it would make a huge difference. RT @jb_au: Men: would you refuse to speak on an all male panel? theatlantic.com/technology/arc…

— Karen Pickering (@jevoislafemme) January 5, 2013

I responded with "yes", though in my case the point is moot - I don't get invited to speak at conferences, so its's easy for me to say yes.

At the time the controversy du jour was the male-dominated roster of speakers at a UK tech conference, as highlighted by this post by Matt Andrews. I know I'm coming in to this a bit late, and in the end it looks like they fielded 3 women out of 35 speakers, but there's a couple of observations I'd like to make.

In a follow-up to Matt's post, and the ensuing debate, the Edge conference organisers posted a FAQ explaining the situation. This seemed to calm the debate a little, but this bit raised even more questions for me:

How did you choose your panellists?
About half the panellists are employees of the three conference organisers. They are paid to attend Edge, represent their company, and participate in the discussion as part of their job. They were nominated by their respective employers. The remainder come from exploring the networks of existing panellists, reaching out to spec authors, and asking relevant industry leading organisations for representatives or recommendations.

How then did they manage to end up with so few females early on? Surely the companies organizing the conference employ more women? Yes, tech is still a very male-dominated industry, but at the time this issue blew up they had 22 speakers, all male, and I don't think I'm being overly cycnical in suggesting that if Matt hadn't stirred up debate, it's likely they wouldn't have had any women speakers.

The other observation I would make is about some of the remedies suggested. After saying that I wouldn't speak on an all-male panel, I think a better approach would be to accept on the proviso that they would accept a female speaker in my place if I could find one.

Andrews' himself said:

I would explicitly not be satisfied with a process that resulted in 100% male speakers. I would have stopped once we'd reached, say, 17 male out of 22 possible speakers (being pretty conservative, I think) and insisted that the remaining five (a cool 22% female representation) would have to be women.

In my opinion, waiting until you've filled 80% of your roster is too late. Tech conference organisers should be actively seeking female speakers from day one. There's no lack of resources for doing so: look for local female-oriented special interest groups on LinkedIn or meetup.com; put the word on on twitter and Google+. Also, there's the We Are All Awesome website.

In the discussion following my reply, someone asked why stop at gender diversity? Well, no. We shouldn't stop there. However, my experience is that when you try to solve ALL THE PROBLEMS, you end up solving none. At the time I said that I thought gender diversity is the biggest problem, but I've since learned that I was wrong.

Still, if you're organizing a tech conference (or speaking at one) pick a dimension of diversity where you think you can make a difference and focus on that. For me, that would be gender.

Article originally appeared on the inner curmudgeon (http://innercurmudgeon.com/).
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