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Closing the tech conference gender gap

Increasing women’s representation on the technology stage

​The dearth of female speakers at tech conferences is a symptom of the industry's gender gap. Awareness and a bit of extra effort may go a long way towards alleviating the shortfall.

Susanne Hupfer

IN 2017, a tech company product manager began tweeting about nearly empty women’s restrooms at big tech conferences.1 When these humorous observations went viral, her company was inspired to study women’s representation and experiences at these events. The company’s audit of speaker lineups from major 2016–18 US technology conferences revealed that, on average, only 27 per cent of keynote or standalone speakers were female—on par with women’s representation in American tech jobs but far from their portion of the national labour force (see figure).2

Male-dominated stage lineups are a global phenomenon: Event software company Bizzabo used facial analytics software to scan 60,000 speaker images from thousands of professional events in 23 countries over five years, deducing that 78 per cent of tech event speakers are male.3 And a survey of 500 women in the United States and United Kingdom who have attended tech conferences revealed that 70 per cent of panellists reported being the “lone woman.”4

In recent years, critics have reproached tech conference organisers for failing to book any female keynote speakers or for having all-male panels (even when discussing, of all things, gender equality).5 However, a shift is occurring and many prominent tech conferences are diversifying their speaker lineups. The Consumer Electronics Show won praise this year for featuring four female speakers (out of nine) on its keynote stage.6

How much female representation is enough? Some have pointed out that when a tech conference speaker lineup is one-quarter female, it mirrors the representation of women in tech positions. But that highlights a more fundamental issue: Should the industry be satisfied with women’s share of tech positions—and speaking roles—at just 25 per cent?

With research showing that diverse teams perform better and are more innovative, leaders across industries are recognising that a diverse workforce is, as advocates have long suggested, good for business.7 As the tech industry seeks to shape the future, it is aiming to be more representative of that future. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has explained, “A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions and outcomes for everyone.”8

That sentiment applies equally well to tech conferences, which represent a conversation among leaders and professionals about what’s important for the industry, now and in the future. Bringing speakers with a wider range of perspectives and ideas onto the stage—and more diverse participants into the audience—can be good for creatively driving the conversation and advancing the industry. Moreover, ensuring more female researchers and leaders on stage can give them greater visibility as role models—which may help move the needle on women’s overall tech industry representation.

There are steps that conference organisers, participating companies and potential speakers can take to help make tech events more diverse:9

  • Consider drafting and posting diversity guidelines or policies for events your organisation participates in or runs.10
  • Encourage speakers from diverse backgrounds to apply for speaking opportunities. Consider ways your company can support and mentor new speakers on writing proposals, crafting presentations and presenting.
  • Commit to creating more diverse speaker lineups. Rather than inviting the same luminaries year after year, look for upcoming stars—perhaps at a level below where you ordinarily look. Consider highlighting diversity guidelines in your calls for proposals/speakers, asking speakers for recommendations of additional experts from underrepresented groups, using professional networking sites to seek out novel speakers, consulting databases of experts/speakers,11 and reviewing guides for making events more inclusive.12
  • If you’re a frequent speaker, consider establishing a policy on whether you’ll take part only in diverse panels and events. The director of the National Institutes of Health has set one notable example with his plea for an end to all-male panels.13

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Cover image by: Viktor Koen

  1. Adam Rowe, “What women’s restrooms can tell us about tech conference sexism,” January 11, 2018.

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  2. Ensono, “Speak up: Bringing more women’s voices to tech conferences,” March 12, 2019.

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  3. The analysis discovered the lowest proportions of female speakers occur in venture capital and private equity events (18 percent) and telecommunications events (16 percent). Khari Johnson, “Facial recognition software finds 78% of speakers at tech events are men,” VentureBeat, November 1, 2018.

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  4. Ensono, “Speak up.”

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  5. Jessica Guynn, “Dude, you have an all-male conference. Time to make room for women,” USA Today, March 8, 2018; Brigid Schulte, “There’s no excuse for all-male panels. Here’s how to fix them,” October 6, 2017.

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  6. Barbara Ortutay, “CES 2019: 4 of 9 Las Vegas keynote speakers are women,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, January 4, 2020.

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  7. David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why diverse teams are smarter,” Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016.

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  8. Jennifer Riel, “Tolerance is for cowards,” Quartz, Oct. 27, 2017.

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  9. It’s important to note that other groups (e.g., minority groups) also face underrepresentation at tech conferences, and our recommendations apply to creating more inclusive events in general.

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  10. Some organizations have made public pledges. See Lancet Group, “The Lancet Group’s commitments to gender equity and diversity” (encompassing “The Lancet Group diversity pledge” and “The Lancet Group no all-male panel policy”), accessed January 24, 2020.

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  11. For example, the “Request a Woman Scientist” database, launched in January 2018, has more than 10,000 participants. See Virginia Gewin, “How the creators of a database are stamping out all-male panels,“ Nature, May 10, 2019. Another example is the CallbackWomen Twitter account, which strives to connect female coders with speaking opportunities at programming conferences.

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  12. Ensono, “Speak up,” describing proactive, thoughtful strategies that technology companies can deploy to make tech conferences more inclusive. Diversity Charter offers guidelines and resources for making events more inclusive.

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  13. Anne Stych, “NIH head says no more ‘manels’; 2,000-plus pledge the same,” Bizwomen, June 17, 2019.

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