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.

  • Rob Millis

    This is obviously an incredibly important issue in the global tech community, particularly as these events influence future outcomes. To preserve the strength of selection based on merit while still maintaining diverse engagement, I think the key is not to focus on the individual panel or presentation, but on the overall event.

    As you point out, a one-day event with a 21:1 ratio is absurd, and obvious enough that the organizers should be publicly called out for what appears to be clear bias. But in a 7-day conference with over 100 speakers, odds are pretty good that you’ll come across an all-female or all-male panel discussion, if only because of who was available to speak at a particular time and place. I worry more about the long term impact of undermining perceived credibility in that situations.

    It’s worth considering that the organizers who need to be forced to add a woman to a panel reluctantly are also the least likely to pick a strong participant. Event organizers who aren’t familiar with smart leaders in a particular field are more likely to pick pretty but inexperienced panelists, and that only reinforces the worst stereotypes. I’ve sat on a couple of those panels and I’m more than half serious when I say they set gender roles back about 10 years. It’s painfully awkward.

    The key to changing the gender gap at all levels of tech is to keep discussion like this alive throughout the tech community. And of course to close the gender gap among snowboarders as well (you prompted me google the gender stats there — I had no idea!).

  • Bruce Daisley

    How about we abolish panels.

  • Farkie0390+wallblog

    Uh, there is a female, at the bottom “Amber Weinberg”

  • Angyer vandefan

    Well anything that helps will be great