When you look around the room at a tech or social media conference what do you see? Are the panels filled with a diverse group of tech and social media experts? Chances are they are probably filled with white men. So why is that a bad thing, when after all, the tech sector is comprised of about 75% men and 25% women? It's a problem because when we design technology and social media platforms we design it for all. Women make up approximately 50% of computer and social media users. By not filling panels with diverse speakers, we tend to give conference attendees only male perspectives on tech and social media, when in reality our consumers and users are men, women, people of color, etc.
The lack of women represented at tech conferences has been discussed and debated for years, though it has not been a hot button issue publically as it has been privately until now (Women Snubbed in Top Ten Speakers List, Diversifying Speakers at Tech and Social Media Conferences, At the Ideas Project, Women Don't Have Any). Are women to blame for not being aggressive enough, promoting themselves and submitting conference panels? Are conference organizers to blame for not reaching out to the women in tech and social media community, cultivating them and helping to foster these relationships? Even with the emergence of groups and events like the She's Geeky Unconference, the Women Who Tech TeleSummit, Women 2.0, Girls In Tech, and Linux Chix, conference panels and keynotes still look like a boys club. So I decided to fire things up publicly after receiving an invitation to the critically acclaimed O'Reilly produced Web 2.0 Summit filled with 25 impressive men, and a handful of equally impressive women.
I petitioned Tim O'Reilly on Twitter to include more women at the Web 2.0 Summit using a tool called act.ly. In a nutshell, act.ly allows you to target your petition to another Twitter user, so each time someone signs it; the tweet shows up in their mentions thus having a viral effect. Within in minutes, several people in my twitter community who were also tired of seeing women excluded from conference panels, signed the petition and retweeted (RT) it to their followers who then retweeted it to their followers. The RT chain is one of the most powerful aspects of Twitter.
The flood of tweets quickly grabbed O'Reilly's attention as well as several other conference organizers and sent a clear message - the lack of women panelists at tech and social media conferences is a serious problem and will no longer be tolerated. Was this an aggressive tactic? You bet. Did I get results? You bet. O'Reilly, bloggers, and other conference organizers responded immediately. O'Reilly used the petition to post his experiences about his own conference's selections process based on each conference's objectives. We also setup a conference call to discuss the lack of women and diverse speakers at O'Reilly conferences and the rest of the industry. But it didn't end there. Other conference organizers got in touch with me admitting they have been struggling with similar issues and needed suggestions from the women in tech and social media community.
While women need to be more aggressive in promoting themselves and submitting panel ideas, conference organizers need to do their part too and share the responsibility. So what can conferences can do diversify their panels? The key is to ramp up outreach and publicity and to target women in tech and social media and encourage submissions. There are plenty of women in tech and social media that are highly qualified to speak at conferences. Below are strategies conferences can utilize to recruit more women panelists and diversify their rolodexes.
- Reach out to groups such as the Anita Borg Institute, She's Geeky, Women Who Tech, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women In Technology International, Women 2.0, Social Media Women of Color, The National Center for Women and IT and Girls In Tech and ask for suggestions of women speakers based on conference objectives and target audiences. Build a relationship with these organizations so that the communications pipeline is always open.
- Look at your programming committee. Is it diverse enough? Two women out of 10 are not diverse. Also, consider having 1-2 committee members solely focus on recruiting diverse speakers.
- Take on a 50/50 keynote challenge.
- Edit panel acceptance notices to include a section on the importance of having panels filled with diverse panelists.
- Follow more women in tech and social media on Twitter. For example, Women Who Tech recently compiled a list of 75+ women in tech's twitter feeds. Be sure and also look at the Speakers Wiki and GeekSpeakPR.
- Check out Kirrily Roberts 10 tips to getting women speakers.
What do you think conference organizers can do to connect more with women in tech and social media? What other tactics can they use to diversify their panels?