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Getting More Women to Tech Conferences Starts with the Businesses That Send Them

A study of keynote and featured speaker lineups at 18 major tech conferences over the last three years found a 1:4 male/female ratio.

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A public restroom isn't always the best place for conversation, but at AWS: Reinvent 2017, it was the perfect setting to start an important one.

Lin Classon

I never intended my experience to attract so much attention, but the scene in front of me was way too telling not to share: At a conference with more than 40,000 attendees, the women's restroom was almost completely empty. Not only did the photo I snapped resonate on Twitter -- where women replied by sharing their own barren tech-conference restroom photos -- but news outlets like quickly joined in.

Related: Conferences: Are They Worth Your Precious Startup Time?

Indeed, identified my observation as indicative of a larger problem: Where exactly are women at tech conferences?

As it turns out, this question is profoundly more difficult to answer than it would seem. Tech conferences, and the tech industry in general, do not have a stellar reputation for gender equality. Robot strippers, sexist presentation decks and booth babes have occurred at conferences and have grabbed headlines; we're all familiar with statistics that show women hold only 20 percent of technical jobs.

However, it would take a more objective look at the makeup of tech conferences -- and a wider poll of the women attending them -- to reveal how inequitable these events truly are. That's exactly why my company, Ensono, conducted just such a poll.

The "lone" woman phenomenon is typical.

So, where, exactly, are women at tech conferences?

For one, they may be found on stage, but significantly less often than men. Our poll looked at keynote and featured speaker lineups at 18 major tech conferences over the last three years. And we found a 1:4 ratio of men-to-women presenters. This wasn't an awful statistic since this ratio reflected women's representation in technical roles in the workforce overall.

Related: 6 Inspiring Women Changing Tech and Business This New Year

However, women can't be what they can't see, and they made that clear in a survey we distributed to U.S. and U.K. conference attendees. Seventy-six percent of respondents told us they were more likely to attend a tech conference if it included female speakers or programming geared toward women; and 64 percent indicated it was important to see women represented in speaker lineups.

What's more, while women made up one-quarter of speakers, on average, across all conferences we audited, there were quite a few unfortunate outliers. From 2016 to 2018, we found fully 11 keynote-speaker lineups completely devoid of female speakers. Additionally, of the women we surveyed who had spoken on a panel, 70 percent said they had been the "lone" woman among those chosen to speak.

Sexual harassment and lack of accommodations

The lack of female representation wasn't our only worrisome finding. Twenty-five percent of women surveyed indicated they had experienced sexual harassment at a tech conference, and more than 40 percent said they had had had an experience that made them less likely to attend a future conference.

Additionally, women reported a general lack of accommodations that could have improved their experience; this included needs like "mother's rooms" for nursing moms or programming geared toward women in tech.

Business leaders have the opportunity to make things better.

Our research didn't paint the rosiest picture of the tech-conference landscape for women. However, while the reflexive response would be to criticize conference organizers, what was clear was that it's also incumbent upon anyone with decision-making abilities in the workplace to look inward.

With more thoughtfulness and open dialogue among their leadership personnel, companies can be part of the solution to gender inequity at these conferences. Here's how:

Increase engagement from marketing.

Marketing departments often choose who attends industry events and play a role in selecting speakers to represent the company. But it is also important that marketing departments promote these events internally at their organization, and support associates who want to participate.

Marketing teams should always be looking for fresh voices to speak at conferences, rather than relying on the same thought leaders each time.

Offer better training and prep.

Many associates may want a chance to speak, but not yet be ready for the stage. Companies should consider paying for public speaking or presentation courses, and encourage mentorship pairings with more experienced co-workers who have represented the company in the past.

Create an internal code of conduct.

Many conferences now include a "code of conduct" in their programs -- guidelines for behavior at the conference. However, more than half of the women surveyed reported being unsure if such a code existed at a conference they'd attended.

Companies can play a role by developing a code of conduct of their own, outlining how associates are expected to behave at conferences.

Offer support.

Companies should consider why certain associates are scarce among their speaker pools and work to diversify the pool. If a lack of childcare is the issue, companies should consider offering a stipend or paying these costs altogether.

If associates are simply too busy with their day-to-day work obligations to prepare for a panel or speaking engagement, time off should be offered. Simple support goes a long way toward making these opportunities more inclusive.

Clearly, tech conference organizers have their work cut out for them before women have as many opportunities and as positive an experience as men. But it's also important that leadership at companies make the commitment and take actions to encourage and enable more women to represent them.

Related: Hunting For Accomplished Business Leaders in Women

Armed with data, we can all contribute to make tech conferences a better, more welcoming place for everyone -- even if the result is crowded bathrooms.

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