In the last year and a half, I’ve been lucky enough to attend four tech conferences in two different cities. I was a speaker for the very first time this summer and repeated the experience a few months later.
For all four times, I appreciated that the organizers paid attention to gender diversity in crafting the conference program. But as far as attendees went, it was still predominantly male.
While shorter lines for the loo are cool, what’s not so awesome is some of the subtle forms of sexism that still permeate these spaces.
Luckily, conference organizers, sponsors and attendees can all play an active role in making it easier and more comfortable for young women to attend and actually enjoy a tech conference.
If you are organizing a conference, be sure to advertise in a variety of ways that would reach a variety of people, including young women. If you know of a really awesome potential speaker, reach out to her and invite her personally. If you’re a man attending a conference, invite a female friend, colleague, employee, sister or daughter to attend with you.
As a boss or conference sponsor, make it easier for young women to attend tech conferences by subsidizing their ticket, accommodations, and travel. Set up scholarships, special sponsorships or programs to help keep the conference accessible.
Young women are hugely underrepresented in tech, so it might not occur to them that they should speak at an industry conference. Encourage the young women you know to apply to speak and validate their knowledge as worthy of the stage. Coach them and offer support in preparing their pitch or talk.
When organizing conference activities, seek input from a young woman to add a diversity of voices. Include their point of view in panel discussions and facilitate conversations in ways that invite them to share their knowledge and experiences.
I don’t mean be protective, but do draft a code of conduct and publish it for conference attendees to read and adhere to. Make it easy and safe for any inappropriate behaviour to be reported and prepare policies to deal with situations should something happen.
Don’t assume you know their story. Don’t assume they are attending because their boyfriend is or that they must be following the non-technical conference track. Don’t assume they are students, that this is their first conference or that something is too advanced for them.
This one is tricky because sometimes it’s about tone and who is addressing the young woman, not so much the exact words used. In general, avoid using language like cute or phrases like “you go girl”, any reductive references to Ada Lovelace or Sheryl Sandberg. (But good for you if you know who Ada Lovelace is!)
Sometimes a speaker slot is given to a young woman over another male applicant for the sake of diversity. Don’t dismiss this young woman’s talk and say she was a “token” choice. Don’t dismiss her opinions, experience, or expertise.
Don’t make comments about their appearance, clothing, makeup, voice. These types of comments have no place when addressing a fellow attendee or speaker. Stay professional and don’t be gross.
Please don’t use conferences to try and pick up the handful of women who attend. This is the best way to make them feel uncomfortable. Again, stay professional and don’t be gross. If you think you’ve met the love of your life, be cool and tweet something funny at them.
Have something to say about this? Share your experiences and advice for creating inclusive spaces in tech in the comments below.