Thursday, August 20, 2020

Survey Results: Designing Conferences So Women Feel Welcome

 I just finished reading a report from Ensono entitled

Speak Up 2020

Redesigning tech Conferences with Women in Mind


The report, released two days ago, is based on two primary collections of data: An audit of eighteen major tech conferences from around the world (See the list Here), including a review of speaker data for three years; and a survey of five hundred women from the U.S. and U.K. who attended a tech conference in the previous twelve months. In all, the conferences surveyed had a total of more than one million attendees.

Note: These data were compiled before the pandemic, and before most in-person conferences were shut down for 2020. 

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A handful of key findings stand out. I would be very interested in hearing responses from women in the SMB IT community about their experiences. Put comments below - or on your own blog, and point me there.

The big points where conferences are getting things wrong, according to the report, are:

  • Discrimination - both on the basis of sex and race. 62% of female keynote speakers said they have experienced discrimination at tech conferences. 

  • Facilities - for speakers. Speaking environments are often set up for men "by default." For for example, tall bar stools on the stage are not a good choice for women in skirts. Microphones that pin to a man's blazer may not work well on a dress. 

  • Facilities - for attendees. A lack of mothers' rooms and even restrooms can make it more challenging for some women to attend.

These things - and others - can make women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. One thing that can go a long way to helping "next year" is to include questions in the conference evaluations regarding experiences about discrimination, harassment, and facilities.

It's obviously good that more women are on stage at presenters and panelists, but we also need to make sure the female attendees have a good experience and will come back to the conference in the future. And, we have to acknowledge that we're all in this together. If someone feels uncomfortable and unwelcome at one, or two, or three conferences, they may choose to just stop going to conferences. That's not good for our industry.

The report had some good suggestions for conference organizers, and for companies sending women to these events. One obvious tip is to complete the feedback loop. Companies can ask attendees about the conference, and pass that feedback on to the conference organizers. 

As a checklist nerd, I wrote a big comment in the margin: A checklist would be good.

I have worked with many conferences and conference organizers. It is my impression that women are very well represented among the conference organizers. In addition to picking the facilities, they have great input on the furniture that's used, the AV equipment, and other facilities.

Some improvements need (eventually) to come from the facility managers. Clearly, the conference organizers could do much to publish rules of conduct and make it easy to report problems. 

I sat on the CompTIA executive committee for Advancing Women in IT last year, and I sit on the EC for Advancing Tech Talent and Diversity this year. So, I've had a lot of conversations about this topic over the last few years. 

Our industry has a great imbalance that needs to be addressed. As events get smaller, the percentage of female attendees decreases significantly. In many ways, this reflects the participation of women in our industry nationally and globally.

If we want to improve the balance, one big step is to make women feel welcome and comfortable at our events. And this includes making gender enough of a "non-issue" that the big take-away is about education and getting value from the event. 

And on a personal note, I would add that this is not a "women's" problem. This is an industry issue. It won't be solved with women talking to each other about what's wrong. Everyone needs to be in the conversation, including the men who attend the conferences.

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Thanks to Ensono for doing this research and publishing the results. As always, I welcome your feedback.



  1. Rethinking the "booth babe" phenomena might be a good place to start. I have seen some companies respond with "booth hunks" as well. This practice seems to have been in retreat already from its heyday, probably reach in the 90s at Comdex. Perhaps the best answer here is to simply provide real content at the shows and staff the booths with engineers and coders, at least those you can coax into a public forum like that, and others that can actually impart value. But there are many other subtler cues around dress codes, party entertainers and even the food served that might be considered as well. Of course, we could just ask a lot of industry women how to get started.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Josh. I do think the place to start is to ask women what they think. But as our friend Amy B. has pointed out, it's important that men be in these conversations. If an event is 90% male, and it's important to have women involved, then the males need to be involved in that conversation.

  2. Anonymous7:58 AM

    The article seems contradictory and appears to be "do things different for one group" rather than having the group, women in this case, just wear slacks - as an obvious response to bar stools on stage. I'd love to see everyone enter the IT field because they want to. If the have to be specifically coddled, perhaps there isn't the passion for the field? Square peg, round hole and all that. This isn't mysogonistic viewpoint, rather common sense. The cited examples are mushy headed thinking trying to pass as reasoned analysis of what looks to be a contrived problem. If it was a real problem, there would be solid examples.

    Would you ask men if they felt they couldn't attend a conference because there weren't changing tables in the restroom? Who brings a baby to a event and expects to have said baby with them the whole time? Besides, i've never been to an event, EVER, that there weren't the same number of restrooms for both sexes.

    1. Thanks for speaking up, Anon. Obviously, I disagree, especially with the assumption that this is a contrived problem. If you don't buy the assumption that it's important for women to be involved, or the research that diversity increases creativity and profit, then you don't see a problem. The world is a complicated place and I am happy to discuss complicated issues. You obviously read this post more carefully than most. I hope you'll continue to be part of the conversation.


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