How Come Every Tech Panel Is Always a Tech 'Manel?' Women, already badly underrepresented in the tech industry, are rare on panels at professional conferences.

By Amy Buckner Chowdhry

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Caiaimage | Agnieszka Olek | Getty Images

In early January, I made an annual pilgrimage to that City of Sin -- Las Vegas -- to attend the most prominent technology conference in the world. CES makes headlines every year for the crazy new gadgets emerging from the desert, but this year a different issue took center stage: the lack of women in attendance and on its panels.

As a woman, it was impossible not to notice. The reality is that it's all too common. In response to the staid line that there aren't enough "qualified" women to include on panels, last year Mic. compiled a list of 1,000 women in tech to combat organizers "lazy" excuses for not including more female speakers. Unfortunately, the message has clearly not been received. In April, RSA will host the year's most prominent cybersecurity conference. Of the 20 keynote speakers the only one who is female happens to be Monica Lewinsky.

Related: Hey, James Damore: Your Beliefs About Women in Tech Are Nothing Like the Reality Women Live in Tech

I'm not a cybersecurity expert, but I would wager a guess that there were other qualified female applicants who could've easily shared their point of view with the conference. The uproar caused RSA organizers to go back to the drawing board and even invite prominent women in cybersecurity to speak after the fact. But, to ask the obvious question, why weren't they asked or accepted in the first place? For all the talk of a massive cultural shift in the wake of #TimesUp and #MeToo, it is often the more subtle, ingrained structures of our organizations that -- presumably unintentionally -- hold women back.

Allow me to share a recent experience.

Last month, my PR team and I pitched a panel idea to a prominent tech conference which has made public claims about its commitment to change these notorious gender imbalances. The feedback on our topic was positive. The organizer was excited at the prominent tech companies we would be including in our panel. We were thrilled and began a back-and-forth dialogue to finalize the specific panel participants.

That is when we hit a dispiriting roadblock. The conference organizers approved our initial panel, which included a combination of VPs and a male director-level panelist at leading tech companies. As it became clear that not everyone from our initial list would be able to participate, we shared an alternate panel complete with strong female leaders in the tech space from the same companies that were so important to the conference. But the panel was rejected on the premise that the new director-level participants didn't have senior enough titles. Despite leading large, prominent and important teams within their organizations at Google, Amazon and Facebook, it was their titles that mattered most. Why wasn't this an issue with the initial director-level male panelist?

Related: That Infamous Google Memo Says Plenty About What's Wrong With Tech and Why It's So Hard to Talk About

And what of their call for more female participants? Of the conference's several hundred speakers, only 30 percent of the listed speakers are women. The unfortunate reality is that this phenomenon isn't going to fix itself. Fewer women sit at the C-suite and qualified candidates are held back and denied speaking opportunities simply by the title listed on their LinkedIn accounts. With archaic rules granting preference to company title over experience, we are severely limiting our talent pool.

Representation at these kind of conferences matter. They are where connections happen and deals are made. Every time a woman is shut out from appearing on a panel, it not only limits her ability to share her expertise, but sends the larger message that women are simply not welcome. Continuing to cherish the "manel" is not a great place from which to start fixing tech's larger diversity problem.

While many of these conference organizers are surely well intentioned, they miss the larger point. By putting too much emphasis on rather arbitrary conventions like job title they are denying attendees a diverse conversation with multiple viewpoints. It is time for organizers to ignore the elephant in the room: title does not make the man, or woman.

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Amy Buckner Chowdhry

CEO and co-founder of AnswerLab

Amy Buckner Chowdhry founded AnswerLab over a decade ago to help the world’s leading brands build better digital products. Under her leadership, AnswerLab has grown to become a trusted UX insights partner to companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and more.

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