Where are the Women in Tech and Social Media?

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.

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?

Allyson Kapin is the Founding Partner of Rad Campaign and the Founder of Women Who Tech. You can follow her on Twitter

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  • April Smith

    Thank you for writing this! I agree on many points! I look forward to the day when we have as equal and diverse representation at the tech conferences

  • pamelahawley

    Dear Allyson,

    Thank you for an insightful article. I can tell you from experience here at UniversalGiving (http://www.universalgiving.org), women's interest in SEO is on the rise. We have a stellar team of 5 women all working to understand, implement on current and new SEO learnings. They love the fast paced and creatively changing industry. They are personalizing it by really digging in to understand our consumers, what appeals to them in international giving and volunteering, and maximizing their involvement.

    If you want to take women's involvement further, add a social and community component. Women have much higher volunteer and service involvement than men do in the United States. Particularly, they can be inspired even more by SEO if it is married to an organization doing nonprofit work or providing a socially conscious business product. We can work on attracting and retaining women in this field by sourcing their intellect, and, their inspiration to help others and the world.

    I'm grateful to say that's exactly the mix we have on our team.

    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO

    Living and Giving Blog

  • Rita Nolan

    In your first paragraph you seem to be arguing that a reason there should be more women presenters is that a lot of women are end users. But that doesn't make sense to me. Getting the feedback of end users is valuable but a different topic.

    I'll give an extreme example to illustrate my point: I used to work for school nutrition organization but we never had children serve as presenters, even though they were the end users. (And no I am not calling women children. I genuinely don't understand the reasoning.)

    I agree though that people should search for good presenters and try to keep an open mind about fresh topics and fresh angles. That makes for good business. It's too easy to get insulated talking to only our LinkedIn network or reading only our favorite blogs.

  • Robert Fisher

    I hope I am not squashing my own success here, but I think the age of discrimination needs to come to an end at some point. It has to come down to what is known on the inside and not what someone looks like on the outside. There is no way by looking at someone, we can tell if they are a great tech person or not. It all comes down to what they know, how well they are known in their field and how well they can share that information.

    Unfortunately, it is not that easy and straight-forward. There are those out there that are worried that the techs from India are taking over, or that so and so is taking their jobs....well it comes down to the individual making themselves more marketable instead of just relying on their knowledge. We have to make ourselves better, and if we don't do that then we are gonna lose and someone else will come in and take over our jobs (and it won't matter what sex, color, country, height, weight, hair color, etc they are)

  • Russell Unger

    I've spent the better part of the past year working on the IDEA Conference (http://ideaconference.org) and went into planning the event with the intention of having the line up of presenters as gender-balanced as possible.

    I pulled it off.

    Was it a challenge? Not really. Did I absolutely focus on women in some cases? Yes.

    But that's because I needed to step out of my own network and I needed to find people with different knowledge than my own in the realm of Social Experience Design.

    I'm proud of what we've achieved with the IDEA Conference--it was a good step for us to take and there was no compromise taken for quality. If anyone thinks that is the issue, they really aren't looking very hard.

  • martine parry

    As a 23 years veteran in the technology industries, I can tell you that women are at all levels across the industries. Many of those I started my career with are now business managers coming from project lead positions with companies like MS whilst others specialised in programme management and sales and marketing as they came up through the ranks.

    I admit the percentage of women in the tech industries is low compared with men but hell, we are making alot of noise where we can.

    My experience is sadly that women are still not taken seriously in business and that the compartmentalisation of roles is not always agreeable with what women (generally) want to do and where they want to take their career.

    I have found myself at cross-roads where no I don't want to be treated badly in a sales environment (too often a nasty place to be), neither have I wanted to be sales-support as marketing often is (and populated in the main by women doing mostly office support work) nor technical support - and I moved on from programming and engineering many years ago. My natural place is marketing research and high-level planning - with a tech background that makes a lot of sense. This is more of a self-employment route than in-company positions. There are probably more self-employed women in tech than in-house employees.

    So, with alot of in-house practical people tied up doing work, it's usually the customer-facing sales staff that get to speak at conferences and the academics whose job it is to go out and speak and liaise with potential partners at conferences. Many (not most) are women so there is no excuse not to have women speakers at conferences. I wonder, however, how many women think it the best use of their time.

    I work on NDA-covered projects - so I can't talk about them until getting sign-off. However, I can talk about most subjects that are of interest to me in tech. My current focus is 3d Web and I am also revising my previous work in intelligent systems and computer vision.

    Contact me to discuss further.

  • Heather Lloyd-Martin

    I find this topic very interesting. I've been a speaker for over 10 years at Search Engine Strategies events - and women are always well represented at these conferences. As they are for SMX conferences, DMA search panels and others within the search marketing community. So, to say that "women aren't represented in tech conferences" isn't completely accurate - there are conferences that have been working with talented women for a long, long time.

    At the same time - and as someone who also organizes conferences and panels for various organizations - I would never - EVER - choose a speaker because of gender. Nor would I put up with that kind of pressure. People come to conferences to hear talented speakers, not to make sure that there is an even 50/50 gender split. Granted, it seems like some women may be feeling excluded from some speaking opportunities - and although I've never experienced that, I can understand the incredible frustration. But forcing a quota...or putting pressure on a conference organizer to bring on more women (when, perhaps, the best speaker choice for a panel would be a man) isn't the best option. It should be about what you know, and how well you can present. Not gender.

  • Nancy Nally

    I heartily agree that women are underrepresented as speakers at tech events.

    However, I think the suggestion to rectify this by having events draw on resources of the women in tech events could create another problem. It comes perilously close to creating a alternative career track that women must follow to reach the top of the tech events industry. First, it would require us to work our way up through the women's events so we can get to the top of the list as the best *woman* speaker on a topic. Then we'd have a shot at speaking at mainstream events that wanted "diversity". It seems to me that would just create divisiveness among the women in the industry as we competed amongst ourselves to be the top female.

    The best course would be to work to integrate the geek boys network better through networking so that when male event organizers are calling on people they know to present at events, they actually know women to call on!

  • Alison Groves

    All of these dudes at conferences, and I still can't find a boyfriend. :)

  • Queen of the Click

    I think in different areas of tech, the statistics are different. In social media, it must be close to 50%. I can name just as many women as men who could present at a conference.

    Amongst Linux users, I can't name as many females, so I will accept your 75:25.

    Kapin mentions a quota because conference planners need to realize that there are many equally qualified women to present at a conference and the conference attending population should be represented in their Keynotes.

    As Allyson suggested it comes down to conferences putting together a diverse enough programming committee so that we hear from more than just male(white) geeks.

  • Alex Rykovo

    I am very interested in hearing an objection to having a quota that reflects the industry as a way to ensure proper representation at conventions.

  • Alex Rykovo

    A lot of people have brought up the point that they think quotas are fake, and they want to see the BEST ideas in tech and they don't care what the genders are.

    That's all well and good. But if the conference leaders are truly skimming the top of an industry which is 25% women, there should be roughly a 75:25 ratio of men to women, and there is not. Which means you are not REALLY getting all the best ideas. You are getting ideas from the (white) boys club.

    Quotas that reflect industry composition raise awareness and demand that they dig deeper into the industry and TRULY include the BEST.

  • Adam Kmiec


    I agree with everything you said. My issue is with her desire to have a quota. No one wins with that.


  • Queen of the Click

    Adam, (reposted here with Brooklyn love)

    In every area, there are men and women who are qualified and deserve positions and recognition.

    Yet positions, recognition and even conference speaking invitations are given by those in charge. I've had a series of fortunate events and I've been hired and promoted by people who knew me or knew my work. Many people haven't had my luck and that is a problem that exists in our society. I'm taking the time tonight to tell you why you need to change your attitude about this topic.


    I was surprised to see you were the father of a baby girl.

    My father understood in the 70's his role of being a Dad to a girl. He bought me legos and erector sets so that I could build. I had dolls, but I had "boys toys" because he knew that I would go to school with boys and need to be able to compete with them. My father is a feminist because he watched women get stepped on and overlooked for positions at his company. He was an actuary and he made sure that women who were interested in the area prepared for tests and got positions in the company. He knew back then what I would be facing in a man's world.

    You know what it is like to be a minority. I do too. I sat in computer conferences 10 years ago and was one of three women in a room full of about 150 white and Asian men. Again, I'm lucky because I was the free spirit and I didn't realize what the statistics were back then. I just thought "wow this is cool, they love computers as much as I do."

    Now, when I am not being a fantastic tech teacher to some talented middle schoolers, I work for a company that let's me hire the people who work on my team. Men and women are needed to work together in my opinion because we think differently and as a result make a great team. To overlook that aspect, would say that we don't have a good understanding of society. Conferences that leave out women as speakers is uncalled for in our day. There are just as many qualified women as there are men. Anyone who doesn't believe that they can be replaced by someone else who is just as qualified is naive.

    Finally, tonight I realized that women have so far to go. Not because we aren't THERE, but because there are people who aren't THERE with us. I will accept every single speaking opportunity that is sent my way as a result of your words tonight. May my students, nieces, your daughter and my future children never know that we lived in such a backward society.

    Props to my Dad, my professors, J. Adams, L.Ani and all the men who I have worked for and with over the years. I have always felt supported and acknowledged as a professional and equal.

  • maco

    I think you're missing the fact that many invited speakers are people within the conference organizers' own personal social networks. If they don't *personally* know any women or have any recommended to them that are top-tier, they won't know they exist. Whereas, in other social circles, those women are highly regarded. Saying "I know there are women who know stuff, but I don't know who they are. Someone, please tell me how to reach them" isn't a bad thing, and it isn't selecting gender over competence.

    And when it comes to a Call For Papers, I can tell you from experience on BOTH sides of it that women don't submit proposals as much as men.

    I wouldn't have considered speaking at a conference (believing I had nothing to say) until the organizers from Ohio Linuxfest (some of whom knew me from a Linux Users Group) sent someone to a hacking conference I was attending to find me and tell me that they wanted me to submit to the CFP. I said I'd have nothing to talk about, believing that to be true. The people around us turned around and said "sure you do!" and started listing off topics they'd heard me converse about that they knew I'd be knowledgeable enough to present on.

    This year, I'm on the speaker selection committee for Ohio Linuxfest, and only 5 of the 42 proposals were from women! I wish we could've convince Emmajane Hogbin and Leigh Honeywell to come down from Canada, Akkana Peck and Valerie Aurora from California, but alas...

  • Stephen Mack

    Allyson, I'm not knocking you personally. I'm just making observations about the confluence of the free market and human nature.

    BTW, Ami's advice should be taken with caution. Because you will be embarrassing the host of an event in front of his audience, both female and male.

    If he blinks, you're in luck. If he doesn't, that's it. You're out. Might as well look for another line of work.

  • Adam Kmiec

    Amen - Stephen. I love the hypocrisy. My favorite example of this is that Michelle Wie gets to plan on the PGA, yet men are barred from the LPGA. People like Allyson often get away with this, because the topic is taboo. After all - you as a man, can't dare question an overly narrow focused pseudo-femenatzi (my female colleague's word) like approach. It's rare that you'll find people who speak up against the argument. Glad to see someone else is willing to call her out on it.

  • Adam Kmiec

    Women and men are indeed qualified. But, I'd love to see some data from YOU - since it's your argument. Show me the top 100 leaders in the space. Rank them. Would the breakdown be 50/50? I think not.

  • Ami Dar

    Hi Allyson. As an Ami who is often taken for an Amy, more power to you. One small thing that works, I think, is when you go to a conference where there are plenty of women in the audience, but the panel on the stage is all men, use the Q&A time to ask the moderator or the organizer if they couldn't really find ONE woman. This tends to get their attentions. Thanks again for the great work!

  • Stephen Mack

    Re: "Women and men are both qualified to speak at conferences Adam. That is my point!"

    Allyson, no that's your opinion

    The point is, you don't run the conferences. The conference organizers select the people that they think are the best because it's their conference.

    Conferences are part of the business process. And the business process is about making money. If diversity contributes to making money, conferences will be diverse. If not, then they won't.

    BTW, there are plenty of commercial domains that are women-centric. They have their conferences (mostly women). Should there be hew and cry about the paucity of men at those?