Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why are there so few women at tech conferences? What can we do about it?

These days there is an inspiring variety of tech organizations, tech conferences and events hosted for women. Bay Area being a hub of technology hosts great many of those events, participating in which leaves you inspired at sheer number of women involved and actives. This paints a very rosy picture, and after being exposed to a reputable developer conference, meetup or tech group, you might come to a shock, realizing how severely women are underrepresented. Sometimes having a 5% presence, often being limited to presence of 'eye candy' help desk or several speakers to create the illusion of diversity.

One of my favorite events I got to attend last year was Grace Hopper Celebration conference, gathering of 12 thousand people in Houston celebrating women and their achievements in technology, and paving the road for the next generation of women technologists to be more ambitious and successful. One of the recent inspiring events I attended was Women Techmakers gathering at Google, celebrating International Women's day. They hosted a panel of women founders, who came up with very successful startup ideas, had a few sessions by different educational channels targeted for women. There were boots were you could mingle and learn from all these inspiring women about their organizations, sign up, volunteer and participate. I left the event at a very high note, planning to join one of the organizations. Most of these organizations targeted at women in tech are great, but after a while of listening to different names you start to fuse them into one and (so offense intended of any of these organizations) realizing that they are all sound similar and essentially pursue the same goal, e.g. GirlDevelopIt!, WomenWhoCode, Femengineer, She++, etc. They all try to increase awareness that there are very few women in tech and provide resources for women to start or progress in their tech careers.

Just this week there are 2 tech leadership conferences happening in Bay Area for women in tech.

We (women in tech), leave those events feeling warm and fuzzy inside, with great hopes and plans for women in technology changing the future. It is not until you attend a highly reputable conference like Build by Microsoft, AWS by Amazon, or startup/founders meetup, that you realize there are NO WOMEN there! Google and Facebook have been cautiously trying to increase the participation of women through groups like Systers and special discounts for underrepresented groups (Participation of Google I/O rose from 8% in 2014 to 20% in 2015). I was disappointed to see that Microsoft hasn't done anything in this regard, although they say they have tried. I took few pictures of the crowd to share with female coworkers, shared with a challenging hashtag #spotAWoman.

There was a women in leadership session at Build, attended by all the ~30 women present at the conference, from the thousands of attendees. I go to ask the panel this very question "why are there so few women at this conference?". The answer was not satisfying "there are very few women engineers coming through pipeline, you see the same representation here". This is not accurate, there are 20%+ women entering the workforce in technology, if you look at the diversity numbers published by most tech companies (Google, Netflix, Microsoft) that number is far greater than 5%. Percent of every other minority in tech far greater then represented at the conferences. Let's face it, most reputable software conferences are mostly attended by White male population.


So what can you do to change this?

As an individual contributor - you need to raise this question to your management and to HR department at your company. Ask for the conference attendance budget to plan for more women speak and attend those events.

As a manager or director - encourage everyone on your team, especially women and racial minorities, to submit talk proposals and attend events/conferences.

As a event/conference organizer - talk to different women's groups to increase awareness of your event, and encourage women to join.

Finally as a woman in tech, step outside of your comfort zone. Don't wait for your management to offer you attending Grace Hopper Conference for the n-th year in the row, go ahead and tell them you need to go to JavaOne or Build or something else. Every organization has a limited budget for conference attendance, and unless you are a VIP engineer (e.g. authored books, have published widely used open source software..), you will have to pick one maybe a couple to attend every year, since you need to be developing/working rest of the time. Do your diligence and step out of your comfort zone, choose a non-women centered event and persuade your company to sponsor your attendance.

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