2020 has been a year of reflection. Since in-person conferences have been replaced by virtual ones to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks, conference organizers have a unique opportunity to reexamine their events so they better reflect today's modern tech industry which is neither all white nor all male.
In fact, IT services management company Ensono recently published a report that shows women of color are particularly disadvantaged because they face racial and sexual discrimination simultaneously.
"The tech industry’s lack of diversity is an issue that affects all of us. Practically speaking, [the] lack of diversity also negatively impacts a business’s bottom line," said Lin Classon, vice president of product management at Ensono. "How do we help each other move forward? By amplifying the voices and presence of those who have historically been marginalized."
As background for Ensono's 2020 Speak Up report, the company audited 18 major tech conferences from around the world, diving into three years of speaker data and comparing it with Ensono's 2019 report. The company also surveyed 500 women from the US and UK who had attended a tech conference in the last 12 months.
How conferences need to become more women-friendly
Traditionally, conferences have featured mostly male speakers who present to primarily male audiences. However, the demographics are changing. Today, there are more female keynote speakers, session speakers, panel participants and attendees than there were in past years, but there is a fundamental level of thinking that's often missing, which is what the female speaker or attendee experience is like?
Some tech conferences provide non-traditional amenities such as sessions geared towards women (72%), a mothers' room (56%), a conference hosted meetup (28%), on-site daycare (17%) or a childcare stipend (11%). According to Classon, childcare stipends tend to be offered to people to encourage attendance, although they should also be offered to speakers who have not been offered a speaker stipend.
"Part of the industry's problem is that organizers look at providing amenities, like a designated mothers' room or childcare stipend, as an extra bonus of their event when these should have been looked at as table stakes to level the playing field for more women," said Classon. "The same argument can be made for religious observances and the need for designated spaces for worship at weeklong or multi-day conferences."
Tech conferences also tend to suffer from design bias as evidenced by the use of stools and chairs on stage that can make wearing a dress or skirt uncomfortable for the speaker and the audience.
"Replacing bar stools with chairs that are lower to the ground makes it more comfortable for everybody, frankly," said Classon. "Organizers should also consider swapping out the common clip-on microphone that is difficult to attach to women's clothing for a headset that can rest behind the speaker's ear."
When asked to name the top three conference features not designed for women, the respondents said furniture (60%), A/V equipment (47%), swag (42%) and facilities (42%).
Little discussed publicly but a huge issue for women is unwanted sexual advances and event-related behavior designed to prey upon men's sexual desires, which objectifies women.
"Companies should encourage their employees to report any and all experiences that make them feel uncomfortable whether that be a personal interaction with another attendee or a larger encounter with the event's setup like 'booth babes' and 'working girls," said Classon.
Fifty-seven percent of the survey respondents who did not report an incident cited a lack of a formal or clear process for speaking up about the misconduct. Forty-six percent said there was no way to provide anonymous feedback about it.
Although more tech conferences have been publishing and promoting a code of conduct, they need to do more to discourage bad behavior. Classon said companies can make a point of identifying the conferences that have a history of such experiences, boycott those events and proactively notify conference organizers about the reason(s) the company is boycotting the event.
What companies can do to ensure greater inclusion
The companies sending speakers and attendees to events can also affect positive change. They need to be aware of who is speaking and attending events and whether those demographics reflect their company's values for diversity and inclusion.
"While HR teams are typically responsible for [diversity, equity and inclusion] initiatives, the entire leadership needs to align on this for changes to take root," said Classon.
Specifically, the marketing department can look for more speaking opportunities as well as identify and encourage employees from underrepresented groups to become presenters. Department heads can nominate spokespeople outside the usual presenters, which can also provide a great opportunity for mentoring and coaching. HR should ensure that conference attendees and speakers are having good experiences whether the event is in-person or virtual.
A word about inclusion targets
Clearly, the best way to understand representation is to look at the numbers. However, "fairness" is often considered unfair or even reverse discrimination if American university diversity targets are any indication.
"Inclusion targets don't necessarily need to be a mathematical formula [because] such an approach tends to attract the accusation of tokenism or unfairness toward one group or another," said Classon. "I believe the backlash stems from confusion over the concept of equity versus equality and the fundamental belief (or lack of [belief]) in the fact that racism and sexism is a historical, structural and systemic issue."
In Classon's view, equity relates to fairness and justice. It assumes that not every group starts out with the same advantages and privileges. By comparison, equality treats all individuals as the same and assumes all individuals need the same things to succeed without taking into consideration the effect of systemic discrimination on women and people of color.
"A total of 37 companies on this year's Fortune 500 are led by female CEOs and of those 37 only three are women of color," said Classon. "Considering the lack of diversity within most tech companies' leadership team, until we bring about significant change in the statistics, whose voice gets heard and whose face gets seen shows how earnest the tech industry is in flipping the script."