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Tech conferences have a sexual harassment problem

Tech conferences have a sexual harassment problem
[Photo: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos/Unsplash]

If you’re a woman attending a conference in a male-dominated industry like tech or finance, chances are you’ve been faced with two things: “manels,” which are panels in which most or all of the participants are men, and no lines for the women’s restrooms.

While the latter is arguably helpful when the session schedule is so tight there’s barely any time to use the facilities, the former is a constant reminder of just how little progress has been made to incorporate gender diversity into industry events.

It didn’t go unnoticed by Lin Classon, Ensono’s director of public cloud product, who experienced just that in 2017 at AWS re:invent, which boasted some 40,000 attendees. And that’s partly what prompted the company to conduct a small survey of 500 women across the U.S. and U.K. who have attended a tech conference in their careers.

Among the findings:

  • Female representation is growing slowly, but still nowhere near parity. In the years between 2016-2018, the number of women speakers was 29% at conferences with 100,000+ attendees, 17%  at those with 20,000 to 100,000 attendees, and 25%  at those with fewer than 20,000 attendees.
  • Female speakers who reported being the “lone woman” on a panel hovered around 70% at nearly every career level. Seventy-four percent of women in a technical role have been the only woman on a panel, versus 46% of women in a non-technical role.

Perhaps because of the lack of representation, women are more likely to be harassed at industry conferences.

  • One in four women who have attended a tech conference report experiencing sexual harassment.
  • Nearly half (49%) of women reported being unclear about the existence of a code of conduct at conferences they attend.
  • More than a third (38%) of those who had seen a code of conduct at a conference said they have experienced sexual harassment.
  • Forty-one percent of women report having an experience at a tech conference that makes them less likely to attend a future event.
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