The conference organizer’s dilemma

At this point in my career, I spend a disproportionate amount of time at tech conferences – I would venture a guess that I go to close to 2 dozen conferences per year at this point. As a speaker and attendee, I’ve come to know many of the organizers personally and we’ve spent time talking about the challenge of changing the ratio of men to women. I’ve watched over the last two years as they try various antics to bring female attendees to their conferences, including:

  • Women in Tech scholarships. Always an iffy choice, in my opinion. I don’t believe that women are skipping conferences because they can’t afford them, although I could be persuaded to believe that many women are more comfortable asking their boss if they can attend a conference when they can quickly follow the request with “I have a free ticket”. At @RESTFest, Github sponsored this scholarship but their selected recipient couldn’t make arrangements in time. Their recipients in the past were less engaged than they hoped for – you can bring women in with free tickets, apparently, but is that the same as having women self-select as they men do?
  • Special group invites. This is similar to the scholarships, but in this case, female tech groups are invited specifically. I was at @APICraft-Detroit recently and was pleasantly surprised to see almost 10 women (as opposed to two at the previous one)! They had invited the local chapter of GDI, which is a good way to get women in the door and hopefully get them engaged enough that they go to the next one on their own.
  • Advertising to female audiences. One tactic that seemed like it should work but didn’t, for some reason, was advertising on some of the #WomenInTech websites. Conference organizers are often working on a shoestring and this is an expensive gamble if it doesn’t work. Which it didn’t, in the case in point.

When I walked into RESTFest this year and saw that I was one of only two women at the conference, the organizer gave me the opportunity to give a talk I’ve given at other underrepresented conferences where I question some of the mixed messages we are giving about the tech industry. Every time I give this talk, I spend the rest of the conference in earnest discussions with men who REALLY REALLY want to change the ratio. We hear a lot of horror stories about women at tech conferences, but the reality is the majority of the men I meet at these conferences are kind, egalitarian, inclusive, intelligent men who would love to get a more diverse perspective at these gatherings. In the spirit of full disclosure, the majority of the tech conference organizers I know are men. I sometimes wonder if that’s part of the problem. Would women naturally sign up for a conference whose point of contact and main promoter was a woman? Maybe the ratio we need to change first is at the top. In the meantime, here’s a shout out to Ben and Mike of RESTFest, Brian and Kevin of API-Craft, Kin and Steve of APIStrat, Eric and Kim of Defrag/Gluecon… who have all shared their insights and struggles with me as organizers who care.