How to survive tech conferences as a female speaker

Women are significantly outnumbered by men at most tech conferences, even more so on panels as speakers. Here's how to make the most of it.

How tech companies can recruit and retain more women Learn about the benefits of creating a more diverse workforce and promoting women to leadership roles, reasons why women leave tech jobs, and tips on recruiting and retaining women at tech firms.

Women have only occupied 25% of keynote or standalone speaking positions in the past three years at tech conferences, reported Ensono's recent report titled Speak Up: Bringing More Women's Voices to Tech Conferences

The report audited three years' worth of standalone and keynote speaker lineups from 18 tech conferences across the world and surveyed 500 women in the US and UK who attend tech conferences. After conducting this research, the report shed light onto a startling, but unsurprising, reality for women attending these events. 

SEE: Tech conferences and events to catch in 2019 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

On average, women only made up 25% of all keynote or standalone speakers at tech conferences in the past three years, the report found; and, the majority (70%) of women who sat on a panel in a tech conference reported being the only female. 

"I wish I could have been surprised," said Lin Classon, director of public cloud product at Ensono. "We all believed this was going on, but this puts actual numbers to it. We were hoping that [the report] would put a fire under this whole movement."

The root of the underrepresentation 

The lack of representation of women featured speaking at tech conferences is reflective of the entire tech industry gender gap, the report noted. 

"Attending a tech conference is not a challenge, but finding speaking opportunities at one can be," said Charel MacIntosh, senior vice president of OTT channel strategy and sales at ZypMedia. "If you are presented with the opportunity to speak at a conference, the primary challenge can be your self-doubt and worrying about if the audience will take your commentary seriously because of preexisting gender stereotypes."

The number of female speakers has grown—slightly—by 4%, between 2016 to 2018. Similar to the data of female tech conference speakers, the representation of US women in tech, as a whole, has also remained stagnant and minimal throughout the past three years. The number of women in the workplace has shifted by less than 1% every year since 2015, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company's 2018 Women in the Workplace report found.

With only 20% of tech jobs being held by women, it would make sense that the report determined a 4:1 ratio of male speakers to female speakers at these conferences. 

It's no secret that women have been discriminated against in the workplace for decades, whether it's being paid less or less opportunities for promotion, and many women end up leaving their tech jobs to pursue something else. 

While companies attempt to improve conditions for women, through mentorship programs and more public diversity and inclusion prioritization, the problem persists—which is especially evident in attendance at tech conferences. 

"I don't believe people have malicious intent to exclude women, necessarily," Classon said. "But, it's the fact that you don't think about it."

Interesting, how female voices seem to only be highlighted in voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana—devices that are automated or controlled by other people.

Attending conferences

Many women opt out of conferences to avoid the feelings of isolation, the report found. Some 41% of women said they have had an experience that would make them less likely to attend a tech conference again. The top reasons included a lack of women-focused programming, lack of accommodations for mothers, and gender-based descrimination, the report found. 

However, staying home from tech conferences is counterintuitive, only making the small female population of attendees even smaller, Classon said. 

"There is a value of being there," Classon noted. These conferences could act as a "safe space, talking about the challenges that are unique to women in the tech world." 

Instead of holding a negative connotation for women, tech conferences could become a community for women in tech to gather, she added. 

How to survive

Forging a female community at tech conferences sounds like a major challenge, but all change starts somewhere. 

Start with online communities prior to the conference, Classon suggested. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, look for other women who are attending the conference, and ask to meet up. 

"Just put yourself out there. Send them a tweet," Classon said. "Say, 'I'm going to be at this conference, do you mind I just catch up with you, have coffee or something?'"

Female conference-goers should also attend the talks given by female speakers. Walk up to the female speaker afterward and make a connection, Classon suggested. 

"A woman's best tool is her network," MacIntosh said. "I recommend reaching out in advance to find out who else is attending and plan to meet up. If that fails, network alone. Some of my most trusted industry colleagues and deepest relationships are with those who I met at industry events and bonded with over having the same cultural experience."

However, the responsibility also falls on the conference itself to promote women in tech and bring them together. The conference could easily host an organized event for women in tech to gather and network. This would also alleviate anxiety for women who might be attending the conference alone, Classon said.

Conferences should also make accommodations for mothers, Classon added. Whether it's through onsite daycare, or mothers in tech meetings, tech conferences must make a space for these women to also feel welcome, she said. 

Another route conferences can go includes inviting tech-focused women's groups to attend, MacIntosh added. 

"As this culture stems from the workplace in this sector, I think tech conference organizers should consider adding forums to conferences that speak to leaders on how to create a more inclusive and diversified workforce," MacIntosh said. "In some instances, it may be that the company is looking to diversify and they just need direction and advice on how to go about it." 

Companies attending the conference must encourage their own female leaders to attend and speak at conferences, MacIntosh said. This visibility is not only great for that leader, but for women attending. Seeing more women standing up on stage can help female attendees survive the long conference days surrounded mostly by men.

For more, check out How tech companies can recruit and retain more women on TechRepublic. 

Also see 

Female manager stands addressing team at board meeting

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