What the best conferences do to improve gender equality

A little thought goes a long way.
A little thought goes a long way.
Image: REUTERS/Nicky Loh
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As someone who attends tech conferences regularly, I can attest that between a lack of women speakers, sexist behavior, and in many cases sexual harassment, the whole conference experience can be highly uncomfortable. In one survey of 200 mostly high-level women working in tech, 90% of them said they have witnessed sexist behavior offsite and at industry conferences.

With this in mind, here’s how I have seen conferences improve gender equality.

Design a code of conduct and hire an anti-harassment officer

A conference code of conduct that emphasizes sexual harassment, demeaning comments, stalking, and intimidation will not be tolerated proves conference organizers care about making their attendees feel safe. The National Society of Black Physicists put an example code of conduct together and shared it on Medium for others to use.

Some conferences also go a step further and hire an anti-harassment officer, which I recommend. This is a person, or group of people, hired to hear sexual harassment complaints should women or men come forward.

The officers should be easy to find at the event—having them wear a different color shirt is often a good idea—and always be available to receive initial reports. PASS Summit’s Anti-Harassment Policy includes resources for conference attendees to report harassment and the anti-harassment officer’s phone number.

Have an exclusive place to discuss gender topics

This year I attended a Women Techmakers Meetup at at Google I/O, which was hosted by an organization that gives visibility and resources to women in the tech field. The meetup brought women together to share their experiences in the industry—such as not having a seat at the table or being paid less than their male colleagues.

Women need a specific place at conferences—exclusive for them—to network, seek advice and feel supported.

But also make gender topics an expansive experience

The Women Techmakers Meetup at Google I/O was a great experience. However, men weren’t invited to attend. While exclusive places for women are important, I believe diversity and inclusion events for both genders are equally so. Having both a gender-exclusive event and a mixed-gender event that address diversity and inclusion would be ideal.

That’s because events like these serve as educational platforms, not only for women, but also for men committed to supporting women in the workplace. The Spark + AI Summit in June, for example, hosted an event about women in big data and featured women speakers, including a Director of Engineering for Big Data Solutions at Intel, Radhika Rangarajan, and software engineer for LinkedIn’s Hadoop, Edwina Lu. The event was publicized to both women and men.

Feature women speakers, especially keynotes

In a Women Who Code and Pluralsight study, women ranked lack of female role models as one of their biggest career hurdles, just after lack of advancement opportunities. The tech world has a near-absence of women in leadership positions, and this is reflected in speaking line-ups.

When one of the most important conferences in the tech world, the RSA Conference, first announced its speaking line-up in March, it listed 19 male speakers for every one woman speaker. Even worse, the only woman, Monica Lewinsky, isn’t a tech expert.

Unsurprisingly, the conference faced criticism, and it ended up revamping its line-up to include seven women. One of them was Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, likely the most prominent security expert in the U.S. It goes to show: if conferences keep inclusion top-of-mind, finding experienced women speakers isn’t difficult.

Offer discounts for women traveling from long distances

Due to the atmosphere, it’s not crazy for women to consider steering clear of tech conferences. Offering discounts and promotions, however, can give them extra motivation, and in many cases, the opportunity to attend altogether. Google I/O offered ticket discounts for women to attend, for example. Another approach would be to offer accommodation promotions or ticket discounts for women attending with other female friends.

Offer free childcare services

Conferences like Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and Mozilla Fest offer free childcare.

Having this service allows not only mothers, but also fathers and other guardians, to relax and focus on the conference, knowing they don’t have to rush off to pick up their kids from daycare. And as an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  points out, childcare at conferences benefits more than just attendees.

“Attracting parents—or those wanting to start a family who are worried about future career barriers—during the early stages of their careers can support future conference attendance and enhance engagement with professional societies,” it notes.

Although oftentimes overlooked, these practices aren’t entirely difficult for conferences to pursue. All organizers have to do is keep diversity and inclusion at top of mind—and listen to what women want and need.

Mariángeles Noseda is a US marketing executive for intive.