Men! Should you refuse to speak on all-male panels at tech conferences?

Edge Conference line-upRebecca J Rosen, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, has put forward a simple suggestion to help phase out all-male panels at tech conferences: get men to make a pledge saying “I will not speak on or moderate all-male panels at technology and science conferences”.

The idea is that as a result organisers will be forced to make the line-up at their events more diverse. Her post was prompted by a piece by Guardian web developer Matt Andrews, Diversity in tech: Still an issue in 2013? in which he talks about the line-up for next month’s Edge Conference, which at the time had a panel of 22 speakers, all male (a woman has since been added to the line-up). He wrote:

“I can’t remember the last time I saw a single-day web conference with this many speakers, which only makes it worse. If they’d featured one woman alongside 21 male speakers, it would’ve been embarrassing. To feature none looks almost deliberate.”

Rosen is calling for men to put pressure on conference organisers like Edge to encourage them to work harder to find a more diverse set of speakers: “Refuse to speak on all male-panels. Just say no.”

The only problem is it leaves us women open to accusations of not being there on merit. While no one points the finger at a particularly boring male conference speaker and questions why he was picked, if a woman’s performance is below par there will be whispers that she’s only there to make up the numbers, so organisers can’t be accused of presenting a men-only panel. Nobody wants to be the token chick.

What it comes down to is increasing the pool of potential speakers by getting more women into tech in the first place, and once there, allowing their voices to be heard. This is turn encourages more women to go into tech, bringing vital knowledge and perspective to the industry.

However, there are lots of little signposts along the way which say ‘You’re not wanted here.’ For example the way that products at tech trade show CES in Las Vegas are promoted by bikini-wearing booth babes. The men-only feel to Wired covers. Or the way that tech blogs and printed publications talk about women as though they’re some funny little subset and not part of the mainstream – witness the glut of articles on the rise of Pinterest and its popularity among (gasp!) women.

And just today, a message went out to a networking group I belong to in Cambridge asking for a web designer. Along with outlining the coding experience required, the job description said the ideal candidate was ‘probably a snowboarder’. Yes, you do get female snowboarders, but come on…what they’re really after is a bloke, and an able-bodied one to boot.

It made me think of a conversation I had last year when I was doing some copywriting for a global software company, writing job ads for their recruitment team. They said something interesting: men tend to self-select in, so if they can only do a couple of things in the spec they still apply, whereas women will self-select out, so if they can do everything on the list bar one element, they won’t apply.

Maybe women just need to pull themselves together, stop whining and be more pushy – but if people within the industry can pick up on these obstacles which, little by little, are putting women off from pursuing a career in tech then this will surely help too.

Sue Keogh is an editor, copywriter and founder of Sookio. You can follow her on Twitter at @sookio.