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Can Virtual Conferences Close Tech Industry’s Gender Gap?

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A tech conference is perhaps one of the very few places where women don’t have to wait in long queues for restrooms. This humorous observation also makes a strong case for IT industry’s gender disparity. Countless technology events each year lack female attendance. This under-representation of women goes beyond attendance. Robot pole dancers and robot strippers at CES (consumer Electronic show), one of the largest tech trade shows in the world and booth babes at Computex, Taipei as well as lack of female keynote speakers in huge global tech conferences are reasons enough to explore the various challenges women face at global tech events. Now as digital events have become the new normal due to the impact of COVID-19, a new study by Ensono that analyzes women’s experiences at tech conferences, poses the question – will virtual events help the tech industry make progress on closing its gender gap?

Speaking exclusively to CXOToday on the research report, Lin Classon, Vice President of product management at Ensono reveals how biased conference practices have been a barrier to gender equality in the tech industry. “For women of color, this disparity is even greater, and companies are responsible for diversity and inclusion efforts that challenge the status quo,” she says, as the research shows, while women made up merely 28% of keynote speakers at tech conferences over the last three years; women of color comprise a shockingly minuscule figure of 8%.

Addressing specific challenges  

Seven out of 10 women who have given a keynote speech don’t think conferences are designed with women in mind, finds the study. For example, bar stools used for onstage seating put skirt-wearing panelists at risk of a wardrobe malfunction, and microphones designed to clip onto a suit lapel are awkward to attach to a dress.

“The common design practices employed at in-person tech events often inadvertently turn out to be discriminatory. As we mentioned in the report that stools on stages that aren’t suitable for dresses and skirts, projectors and screens too high for most women to reach, and microphones are made for lapels instead of blouses. These minute inconveniences all point to the fact that the speaker is often, if not always, presumed to be a man,” Lin mentions.

The research, at the onset, also noted, 62% of female keynote speakers said they’ve experienced discrimination first-hand at a tech conference; and over one-third said they’ve experienced sexual harassment. 

So, would taking events online solve a lot of these challenges and make the tech industry more inclusive than ever? Lin notes, “Virtual conferences allow women to create their own inclusive spaces where they can share their expertise and knowledge in comfort. Additionally, statistics show that women tend to bear the burden of needing to arrange childcare when they need to travel for work. With events being held virtually, women can attend more easily.”

Getting more men in the act

According to some, part of this problem is resolved by organizing more women-focused tech events — they directly connect female founders with investors, allowing them access to knowledge, capital and a platform to explore the industry without the fear of discrimination. However, there are many more things to figure out when we speak ‘inclusiveness’.

Lin believes, gender equality can’t happen without the participation of men, but if men don’t feel welcomed at these events because the focus is not on them, these events can create a bigger gap.

“I prefer to frame the conversation as “we are all in this together” rather than “a women’s issue”. The concept of ally-hood is very important. All of us have daughters, sisters, nieces, partners, etc. What is the world you would envision for when they enter the workforce? By bringing diverse voices, ideas and thoughts together we drive innovation faster and make the world a better place for everyone. We will all benefit from this,” says Lin. 

She suggests, one simple thing our male colleagues could do is to help amplify female voices, like for example, sharing on social media could be an effective way to take a stand, and to support female experts when their credentials are called into question, which unfortunately happens quite often. 

This signals the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on what it could be like when the world is safe enough to resume in-person conferences. For example, if we are able to invite more female speakers or send female employees to virtual conferences, what’s stopping the same thing from happening for in-person conferences? As Lin observes, whether it’s virtual or on stage, ally hood practices become extremely powerful when it is publicly practiced by industry leaders.

For example, female aides in the Obama presidential administration adopted a practice known as “amplification.” When one woman made a good point, another woman would repeat it and “amplify” it, giving credit to the original speaker. This helped ensure women’s voices were heard.

Applauding some of the recent developments, Lin says, “I have seen quite a few technologists with large followings on social media publicly announce that they will not accept a speaker invitation if it is an all-male panel.”

Encouraging women as keynote speakers

It is therefore, vital for industry leaders to encourage more women participation in keynote sessions at tech conferences – whether it’s virtual or on stage, believes Lin.

However, unconscious bias against women isn’t a problem that will be solved overnight. Stereotypes about women exist throughout our broader culture, and most people absorb them at a very early age. 

women

Nonetheless, the study shows, how companies can take concrete steps to ensure the women they send to tech conferences feel safe and supported and have options to address any negative experiences they encounter. “They can invest in internal resources that vet conferences and transmit attendee feedback. And they can equip their employees with the tools they need to support each other at conferences, whether in person or online,” it says.

This will not only drive more women to attend conferences, but they’ll also be more likely to come back. More women will stand onstage as keynote speakers or sit as panelists (hopefully not on uncomfortable barstools). And maybe in the coming days, we can move the needle a little further toward equality.

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at sohini.bagchi@trivone.com