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Gender bias in tech an issue at conferences

Tech conferences may seem like welcoming environments, but a study from IT services vendor Ensono reveals their structure can make women feel like outsiders.

Gender bias in tech is nothing new.

Entire conferences are held on the subject of discrimination against women in technology, many other conferences devote panel sessions to it and STEM programs in schools are dedicated to reducing the gender gap in the tech workforce.

One of the physical places at which gender bias in tech manifests itself is at conferences, where often women are significantly in the minority and, while not necessarily intentional, the setup of events is much more welcoming to men than women.

While attending a major conference in 2017, Lin Classon, vice president of product management at IT services vendor Ensono, was struck by the dearth of women in attendance. As a result of her experience, Ensono began a survey of women's experiences at tech conferences, and last year published a report entitled Speak Up 2019: Redesigning Tech Conferences With Women in Mind.

In mid-August, the 2020 version of the report was published, looking at data collected about conferences in 2019. Ensono looked at and surveyed the women attendees at a total of 18 major tech conferences -- among them Adobe Summit, (Salesforce) Dreamforce, Google Cloud Next, Oracle OpenWorld and South by Southwest.

Classon recently discussed the findings of the report examining the manifestation of gender bias in tech at conferences.

Among the key findings were that more than a quarter of all survey respondents reported being the victim of sexual harassment at a tech conference, women represented less than a third of all keynote speakers at the 18 tech conferences and that nearly two-thirds of all survey respondents say their organizations are more willing to send men to conferences than women.

While gender bias in tech has been a recognized problem for a while now, what prompted Ensono to first conduct a survey in 2019 honing in specifically on discrimination against women at tech conferences?

Lin ClassonLin Classon

Lin Classon: The genesis is something a little bit lighthearted. I was at a major conference and being an introvert I went into a ladies' room to get my bearings after being surrounded by a huge crowd, and I noticed that the bathroom was extremely clean and quiet because I was the only person in it. But when I walked by the men's room, I noticed long lines, and if you followed the social-media chatter men were complaining about the long waits for the men's room. It just struck me as very significant point that I wanted to make, so I took a picture with the lounge chair and sofa in the bathroom and tweeted it. The point I was trying to make is that of course I appreciate not having to wait for the ladies' room between sessions and the cleanliness of the bathroom, but I would trade that for having more women at tech conferences in general.

After you encounter these inconveniences over and over again, it tells you that this world does not have your presence in mind.
Lin ClassonHead of public cloud product services, Ensono

How does gender bias in tech manifest itself at conferences?

Classon: Starting with the unintentional ways, there's the design space, the amenities. You can always argue that these are small things and there's no reason to make such a big deal about them, but after you encounter these inconveniences over and over again, it tells you that this world does not have your presence in mind. You can imagine that for all the women who have devoted their lives to tech, it really serves as a psychological blow. It just tells you that you need to fight harder -- and we all do fight harder -- but it makes you think that we should change a lot of these things that are fundamental rather than just saying it's okay and we'll just live with it.

What are some of those things that add up and send that message about tech conferences being less welcoming to women?

Classon: There's the visceral response when you walk into a room. Many of us actually play the counting game, counting how many women, women of color, people who look like me, are in this room. That says a lot right off the bat. Other things are barstools [for speakers] that don't really work for women, A/V equipment that doesn't come with a clip and requires you to put it in your pocket when most women's dresses don't come with pockets, things like a podium being too tall and the microphone being too high, and even the swag that's given out -- t-shirts -- and often it's just one large size. When you're confronted with these things over and over again, what it's telling you is that it's almost like you're not welcome, that you're here as an outsider.

What were some of the key findings of this year's survey about gender bias at tech conferences?

Classon: First, I just want to mention that this year we looked at the survey from an additional angle, so we included looking at women of color vs. their white counterparts. Something we noticed is that women of color made up 14% of the keynote speakers in 2019 compared with 5% in 2018, so there's big progress in that respect. But overall 32% of keynote speakers were female in 2019 compared to 28% in 2018 so I can't help but worry that the gain made by women of color is somewhat at the cost of overall women's participation. It means that 18% of keynote speakers in 2019 were white females compared with 23% in 2018. Overall, the percentage of female keynote speakers did not really increase that much, and my concern is that we don't want to make this into an either/or situation -- there should be an add-on effect and not a replacement.

Are there other numbers that stand out that show how gender bias in tech shows up at conferences?

Classon: Some of the things that are not so good are that 61% of women surveyed said their company is more likely to send a male colleague to a tech conference than a woman, and I'm saddened by that. Twenty-nine percent said they had experienced sexual harassment at a conference. With the MeToo movement increasing awareness overall -- not just among women but among men -- to see this number is disheartening. And of the 29% of respondents who said they experienced sexual harassment, 57% said they didn't report the incident because they didn't know the conference's process for reporting it. We believe that if there is a clear indication of how to report an incident, a safe way to report the incident, a lot more women would report it.

But there are some good things I've noticed. I'd like to see the number increase, but I think we're moving in the right direction, but 56% said there were mother's rooms provided by the conference organizers and 17% actually provided on-site daycare, which I wish we had when my kids were younger.

Are there any numbers that point to measurable progress year-over-year?

Classon: The team did audit the same 18 conferences, and we definitely saw improvement in the number of female keynote speakers being represented. Also, this year, 60% of women said they attended an event with a formal code of conduct, and that's higher compared to last year. Sometimes a conference might have a code of conduct but they don't explicitly share it to make sure that everybody knows -- not just women, but men -- and last year when we asked, 49% of respondents said they weren't sure if the conferences they attended had a code of conduct and this year only 20% said they weren't sure. That's partly because more women now know to ask, but also because companies are more aware and before sending their employees, they want to know that there is a code of conduct.

Do virtual conferences mitigate or eliminate some of the gender bias in tech women experience at in-person events?

Classon: I have high hopes for virtual conferences. I hope that virtual conferences will allow companies to send more women to attend since travel expense is no longer a factor. That should allow companies to send more representatives to these conferences. With the virtual conferences, I also believe there is a way to increase the number of female keynote speakers just by nature of no longer having to travel.

Assuming virtual conferences reduce some of the discrimination women experience at in-person events, are they just covering up the effects of gender bias in tech or can what good is taking place at virtual events translate to future in-person events?

Classon: I've been thinking about this a lot. I feel like if we can do this when we're holding virtual conferences, we can do this once we all go back to in-person conferences. I hope that by what we're able to do through the nature of virtual conferences, we will actually be able to present evidence that a lot of the blockers -- the reasons companies are using for not sending more female associates to conferences -- are not really insurmountable and there are ways to sit around together and figure out ways to send more women to conferences.

What can be done to speed up the process of reducing the effects of gender bias at tech conferences?

Classon: There's always the concept of voting with our feet. Larger companies like Google, AWS, Microsoft … have the wherewithal to drive change because of how big they are. A lot of companies actually rely on larger companies for sponsorships, and a sponsoring company could start saying that if there's an all-male panel they won't send attendees. I have actually seen several examples of individuals who are well respected and get a lot of invitations to be keynote speakers who have said publicly that they will not accept an invitation if it's an all-male panel, and just the other day I saw a tweet from a venture capitalist who is quite well respected in the tech industry and he said if the panel is not over one-third women or people who are not from central casting, he won't agree to it.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Classon: Some people may look at this and say, 'Yes, we see the survey, but what's the point, what kind of action are we hoping to drive?' What we're trying to do is provide the data-driven perspective for the whole industry to come together and start a conversation. A lot of these things have been talked about for many years, and I don't believe anyone is surprised by the numbers, but if they look at them it allows us to say the data clearly shows that we can do better so now let's come together and take action. Also, people may ask why it's so important to have women on stage, to have women be on a panel, and I really believe representation is very powerful. It even goes back to ensuring the pipeline for future female executives in the tech industry because you cannot be what you cannot see.

It's really important for us to put women front and center at these conferences on the keynote stage, whether it be virtual or in person.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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