I love tech, its my life, and I love conferences and tech events, they inspire me. But many times I’ve walked away with a niggling feeling in my stomach, like something isn’t quite right, like I’m an outsider. I talk but I’m not sure if I’m really being heard, I often feel invisible.
This is what it fees like for many women (both cisgendered and self identified), who go to conferences and try to engage, and try to get acknowledged. We often feel like we aren’t valued, or our work isn’t seen as important…. because…. well…we’re women.
We know that women in tech are struggling to stay in the industry because of it’s alienating boys club and school yard antics. Tech conferences and events are a microcosm of the sometimes stifling industry that sees women poorly represented, excluded, bullied or harassed making it difficult and intimidating for them to attend or even feel comfortable at events.
I’ve been fortunate enough to go to some amazing conferences including WordCamps and UX conferences in Australia and worldwide. These are by far some of the best places for gender diversity and inclusion, but it’s not perfect and they’re still working hard to be an inclusive and a safe space for women.
Regardless, men are crucial to helping break down the sexist attitudes and behaviours at these events that cause barriers for women.
Here are 10 practical things men can do to support women at tech events, show they are allies and champion equality.
1. Ask women to be presenters
One of the most powerful ways to make women feel supported, is to provide visibility. If you have a good representation of women amongst the presenters at your event, you’re sending a strong message that they are welcomed and valued members of the industry. I was one of the organisers for the WordCamp Brisbane 2015 conference and we worked hard be inclusive and encourage gender diversity amongst our presenters, but it wasn’t easy.
Tip: if you’re on a conference organising team, have a mandate to include 50% women on your speakers list. If you think this is going to be a challenge, you’re right. Women are told their ideas aren’t good enough, so they won’t necessarily submit an application to present. You need to seek out and canvass the women in your industry to present at your conference. If you have women on your organising committee (and you should), don’t leave this job up to them! Be involved in the process, reach out to the women you know in your industry and ask them personally if they will present.
2. No inappropriate touching
Really this should be on the top of the list and I find it so incredibly frustrating that this still has to be discussed. Respect women’s physical boundaries and keep your hands to yourself. Seriously…even if you’re getting on well, even if she’s being nice to you and especially if you’ve both had a few drinks at the after party. You don’t have the right to breach her physical boundaries in any way. From outright touching or groping to an opportunistic lingering hand after a hug goodbye/hello. Any intrusion on her physical space makes a woman feel humiliated, devalued and angry.
This has happened to me a couple of times at conferences. The worst part is it’s been from people who I thought shared the same values as me, I really connected with, and who I thought were my ally. It’s incredibly crushing and I’ve instantly lost respect for this person.
3. Don’t interrupt
Don’t talk over or interrupt a woman if she’s talking. If you see a woman having a conversation with someone, anyone, even if they’re talking to your friend, wait for the appropriate time to join in. Interruption shows disrespect, wait your turn.
4 Ask about her work
For men, because of your gender, you have more opportunities for progressing your career than women. You’re also socialised to think that you’re good at what you do and your career matters, so men will talk openly and easily about themselves and their work. It’s expected and encouraged.
It’s different for women, there’s constant barriers for career progression, there’s pay inequality, and there’s discrimination and sexism in the workplace. They’re also socialised to not talk about themselves or their careers as they’re not as important, and even if we do talk about it, we’re not heard or listened to. So speaking confidently about work is confronting. Even for the most extraverted of us, this ingrained learning is very hard to overcome.
Be aware when you’re taking up space talking about yourself, share space in the conversation and actively ask about her work. When she tells you, listen and be interested and engaged in the answer. Encourage women to start taking equal space in conversation and support them to become a more valued part of the industry’s ecosystem.
5. Don’t comment on appearance
It’s a daily battle for women to feel like they are valued for more than their appearance. As tempting as it may be, avoid giving compliments on how a women looks. A woman may have put effort into her outfit, but you can bet she’s put far more effort into learning her tech skills, so focus on her work and the contribution she’s made to industry, not her appearance.
6. Stop ogling and don’t talk about sexual things
I really shouldn’t need to say this but unfortunately I do. Even if a woman is wearing a revealing outfit (which is totally her choice BTW) don’t stare and keep eye contact with her, don’t drop your eyes for a quick (or long) look at her breasts or legs. Believe me, we notice!
Avoid sexual innuendos, sexist jokes or conversations about the busty hottie you saw on the plane to the venue. It adds no value to the conversation, makes you look lecherous and is signal to us to keep our distance. Besides….it’s really gross.
7. Don’t assume that a woman isn’t a developer
When a woman tells you she’s a developer, don’t look surprised, look interested. Ask her questions about her work, what scripting language she prefers, what platform she uses, her process, and what is part of her code toolkit. Share resources and ideas with her. On the flipside, if she’s not a developer, don’t think she’s any less important or doesn’t provide any value to our industry.
The bottom line – treat her as an equal…regardless
8. Make her feel welcome in groups
If you’re socialising and a woman that you don’t know joins you, make her feel welcome, introduce yourself and the others in the group. Be inclusive in your conversation, support her to contribute to the conversation and be a part of the group.
9. Watch the language
Gender bias in language is rife in the tech industry. Seemingly insignificant phrases like ‘our developer guys’, ‘the user; he clicks on this’ actually contribute to daily sexism. Be aware of your language and aim to keep gender out of your language.
Use gender neutral language like: ‘our developer ‘team’ or ‘the user; they click on this’.
10. Actively recruit women for your company
If you’re recruiting at the conference, reflect on how many women are in high positions in your company/team and consider the women in the room as possible candidates. If you don’t have the power to recruit, but have noticed that your company severely lacks women in your team, ask why. Be an ally and advocate for change so that more women can become valuable contributors to the growth of this industry.
This isn’t by far an exhaustive list and the items listed here can be taken into the workplace as well. What are your thoughts, have you got any tips for supporting women at conferences or in the workplace?
Feel free to comment below.