man presenting at conference

"Not for Pregnant Women or Aliens"

It's Time for Tech Conferences to Start being Accountable to Women

Nov. 7, 2018, 7:34 p.m.

Last week I attended a tech conference in Philadelphia with the goal of familiarizing myself with a few Javascript frameworks I had previously been scared to touch (Python is more my thing). Overall the conference was educational, professional, and fun. I learned a lot, connected with other women, and strengthened my confidence in my ability to tackle the unknown.

But, although I have been to tech conferences before and knew the type of crowd I'd be dealing with, I was not prepared to experience sexism so overt that it made me walk out of a presentation.

bros at libreplanet

Most of the time, sexism in these types of spaces is subtle. Conferences can be under a lot of scrutiny, and often make an effort to at least appear welcoming of women (and people of color). This conference was no exception. They had adopted a Code of Conduct which prohibited sexual harassment, made sure to have at least a few token female speakers (more on this later), and women were in prominent roles as organizers and volunteers (I was one of them).

Yet these types of surface-level concessions do little to actually ensure a welcoming environment for women where we are equal and active participants. Especially when the culture is already so heavily male-dominated and saturated with misogyny, just ready to boil up over the surface, like in tech. And in the case of this conference, that is exactly what happened.

I was sitting in the front row of a workshop with a packed room, full of mostly men and a handful of women. We were all there to learn about webpack, but it quickly became clear who the presentation was really for. Perhaps anyone who read the full details of the talk in the schedule would have been warned:

"Build the app – from scratch, live, not for people with heart problems, pregnant women or aliens from the dark side of the moon."

Yes. He really did just make a joke at the expense of pregnant women, who are apparently so weak they could not bear to participate in his very exciting workshop.

But it got worse. Almost immediately he announced, “If any developer wants to show off his code at the end of the session, he can win a prize!” I rolled my eyes as hard as I could, hoping he saw me and would correct himself going forward.

He continued, “Go ahead and git clone, npm install, blabla…” (not a direct quote, probably), “A developer will need to make sure his system is configured...”

At his point I audibly huffed. I stopped being able to focus and started counting the times he implied the women in his audience did not exist. “1, 2, 3, 4...”

By the fourth time, I wanted to stand up and ask, “Excuse me, are women allowed in this workshop, or…?” But I was so upset I was shaking, I worried that if I tried to say anything my voice would tremble. I did not want him to see me afraid. “… 5 ...”

At the fifth time, I walked out. I had no idea what he was even talking about any more, and my blood was boiling. Why did I feel like I was completely alone in there? Why did none of the men in the room stand up and say something? Why was the burden on me, or any of the other women, to risk our own reputation in a room where we were already outnumbered 10:1?

Later, I spoke to a couple other women who were in the room. One told me she eventually realized the presentation was not for her and opted to choose her health care plan during the workshop instead. A third woman also confirmed that she shared my experience of being completely unable to focus and learn the material as the sexism continued to fly through the entire session, even after I left. A fourth told me she walked out after me.

Moments like this have a real impact. At least four women who attended that workshop to learn (and there were only like six women in the room of 50+, anyways) were unable to get the information they came for because of blatant sexism. Although I was a volunteer and attended for free, how many of those women missed out on a fourth of their $300 conference value since this session took the entire afternoon of the first day? How many of them, like me, were frustrated and unable to focus the rest of the evening? How many of them won’t bother coming back next year? The message was clear: we say women are welcome, but we will not defend your right to be here.

Avoiding moments like these requires a major culture shift that goes beyond the ally-theater of generic Codes of Conduct (Spoiler: “Don’t be a jerk” is not a useful CoC), and token female speakers. Conferences are in a position to change the culture of technology, and it’s time they start taking that responsibility seriously. So what can be done?

Karen Sandler speaks at libreplanet

The first step is the most obvious: your conference needs more women (at all levels).

Where there are men, there will be patriarchal bullshit. The fewer the men and the less prominent their roles, the less patriarchal bullshit there will be.

Although the tech industry is only 30% women, conferences must set a goal of 50% or more women in all parts of the conference, from speakers, to organizers, to attendees. The only place I have consistently seen tech conferences achieve a greater than 50% women is with volunteers. Volunteers at conferences are consistently majority women. This begs a couple questions:

  1. Since volunteering is a way to gain access to the conference for free, is this conference otherwise inaccessible to women, who are at a financial disadvantage to men and less likely to be hired for jobs which would pay for their attendance?

  2. Why was this conference able to do successful outreach to women when they needed labor, but not when they needed organizers, speakers, or attendees?

  3. Is this conference taking advantage women’s free labor, without providing quality (sexism-free) content to them in return?

Although it is hard for organizers to control the flow of attendees to a large conference, serious efforts need to be made to conduct outreach to women’s coding programs to draw female attendees. There is no shortage of groups such as Girl Develop It, TechGirlz, bootcamps, and local organizations to choose from. These efforts can include promotional partnerships, scholarship opportunities, and targeted outreach campaigns. Consistently measuring attendee demographics as registrations roll in (and course correcting when necessary) and tracking where attendees heard about the conference can help.

On the other hand, the speaker line up of a conference is much easier to control. If a given conference honestly lacks the ability to have a lineup of 50% or greater women, it is because they did not try hard enough to get women’s proposals. It’s as simple as that. And all of the same tools for doing outreach can apply to CFPs. But personally, I won’t be satisfied until I see a mainstream conference where ALL of the speakers are women.

"People ask me sometimes,

'When do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court?'

And my answer is when there are nine."

~ Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The conference I attended last week had a total of 20 speakers, four of whom were women (20% – already a less-than-industry ratio). Two of those four women were paired up with a man to speak. One was only there to give design advice at the beginning, and was subjected to standing silently at the man’s side through the entire rest of his hour-long workshop. I’m not sure she counts.

Simply examining these dynamics and working to move closer to equal ratios of women at all levels of participation in the conference will go a long way to move women’s inclusion away from tokenism to actual structural change.

woman presenting at libre planet

Conferences also need to start taking presenter content seriously by providing guidelines to presenters and empowering volunteers and moderators to step in when those guidelines are violated. The creation of female-only spaces at conferences (even as a followup happy hour or lunchtime affinity group) can provide women a chance to connect safely, and share their experiences and advice with each other.

As the space where industry leaders and newcomers alike join together to learn, grow, and shape the future of technology – conferences are in a position to make a serious dent on the toxic male culture of tech. But half-assed Codes of Conduct and token female speakers will not create the change this industry needs. It’s time for male organizers of these conferences to step aside and let women take the reigns, leading us in the feminist future we deserve.

Update (11/8/18): the conference in question has since posted an apology and made a commitment to increasing their diversity next year, as well as creating inclusion guidelines for speakers.


Some images courtesy of Libre Planet, which is not the conference I'm talking about. (CC-BY-SA)