Leveraging Data And Covid-19 To End Diversity Gaps In Tech Events

As Black Lives Matter earns the “biggest movement in U.S. history” ribbon, progress in gender equality is losing steam after decades of improvement.

For many technology events, legacy barriers evaporated given the shift to strictly-remote conferences and interactive webcasts. The question begs, ‘Is open access enough?’ Today’s virtual reality is an ideal time for research on, reflection in and planning for a more equitable future for women’s presence in tech events.

What the data tells us

Ensono – a hybrid IT services provider – recently released Speak Up 2020: Redesigning Tech Conferences With Women In Mind. In this year’s report, Ensono not only refreshed their previous survey by sharing women’s responses when asked about their tech conference experiences, but chose to dig a bit deeper on diversity and the role of unconscious bias in conference planning.

What we find out via the survey data is that, while progress has been made, barriers to inclusivity remain broad; ranging from general harassment to easy physical fixes and everything in between.

The report showed that, while still disproportionate to men, the presence of women overall and, by a higher percentage, women of color, has increased in keynote representation. The needle moved from 28% to 32% women keynote speakers and, most excitingly, women of color leapt from 5% to, in some cases, 14%.

Unfortunately, while striving to be more visible at technology events, the reports of discrimination and harassment increase in tandem with the increase of female keynote speakers. In addition, the majority share that tech conferences are simply not designed for women and share the design flaws.

From a structural perspective, design bias is woven into the DNA of conference planning and ripe for rapid improvement. Ensono’s report touches on several quick fixes including lapel mic alternatives, replacing stools and leveling room temperature.

As a frequent keynote speaker, panel member and filmed interviewee, I can attest that it is not uncommon for me to carry a lapel mic battery pack in my hand as ladies clothing is traditionally devoid of pockets. While certainly a first-world struggle, expression and movement is awkward for women in the spotlight when required to carefully hold anything throughout a speaking engagement.

Now for the impact of today’s remote reality

Given knowledge is power, both the survey results above and peer feedback on the pandemic experience highlight improvements and simple pathways to improvement.

Free. During today’s pandemic, many previously cost-prohibitive technology standard events have a new feature. Microsoft Ignite, Ellucian Live, VMWorld and many others are free of cost for 2020, leveling the financial playing field for participation during this difficult time.

Accessible. In addition to financial wins, our remote reality introduced accessibility wins as well. Shelby Spencer, Chief Technology Officer for Briotix Health LP, is a disabled executive who has struggled with feeling unwelcome at conferences due to persistent accessibility constraints. She shares, “This is an unexpected benefit of Covid-19 actually, which is forcing a reimagining of access, remote connection and networking and finally providing a means of access for people like me.” The pandemic is providing a literal and attainable seat at the table for those previously disenfranchised.

Warning: access is not inclusion

Removing any barriers is advancement. However, lack of inclusion stops access in its tracks. In fact, visible lack of inclusion represents one of the loudest conference complaints found on Twitter during 2020’s pandemic.

“Tired of the #manels,” shares Paula Brantner, President and Principal, PB Work Solutions. Manels, or all-male panels, signify an erroneous lack of available female expertise and/or the lack of importance in including a woman’s experience in tech leadership.

Michael Berman, Cal State’s CIO and a close colleague, shares, “I make it a regular practice, when invited to participate in a panel, to ask who the other participants will be and whether they have considered diversity. Specifically, I let them know that I’m not interested in being on an all-male panel.” In transparency, it took some convincing to get a quote out of him as he feared it may come across as virtue signaling. As a female determined to elevate the presence of my gender in technology fields, I ask allies to please keep speaking out, loudly and often. We need the male voice.

Despite our current remote-working reality, examples abound this very week portraying a lack of female inclusion on higher education technology panels, on digital expert industry panels, one southern state showcased a dismal showing on their CIO of the Year finalist roster and even a recent invitation-only event featuring guest speaker, Condoleezza Rice had one female leader at the table. We can do better and now is the time.

In conclusion

Ensono’s report continues to highlight a persistent lack of diversity present while sharing tangible improvement pathways for a more equitable conference environment. The 2020 report, based on 2019 data, finds our work is paying off, but we’re not there yet. An uptick in female representation on panels and as keynotes between 2018 and 2019 shows a slight slide in presence for white women but a more than double increase in women of color. Allow me to speak on behalf of all white women here, “We support this!” So, yes, strides made while the push continues. A push that is doable by both genders.

During this new abnormal, the Ensono report stands out as one that should be required reading for both tech conference organizers and a/v developers. While it highlights improved numbers in narrowing the gender gap, is there any indication that the recent shift to all virtual events has resulted in a measurable and positive impact on inclusivity for women in conference events? Not really. Inclusion is more than ease of attendance.

Now is the perfect time to use our virtual reality as a respite for improvement. We should challenge all event planners and supporting vendors to dedicate time to checking boxes on the equity impediment list and empowering our world to re-enter a live event space more welcoming for all.

As a reminder, identified issues remain a lack of diversity representation on panels, the baked-in inequitable experience for women and legacy inclusivity and harassment for women and women of color. Sounds like it is time for a lot of quick wins!

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