14/08/2013 10:54 BST | Updated 13/10/2013 06:12 BST

It's Time to 'Lean in' and Do Something About Diversity at Tech Events

This week twenty prominent Australian business leaders signed a pledge to put an end to all-male panels at conferences. They will ask which women will appear with them at an event before agreeing to participate, a move they believe will help women build their profiles and improve their chances of getting into more senior roles.

The Panel Pledge was first proposed by Rebecca J Rosen earlier this year, in response to growing anger about all-male panels at tech conferences.

While the tech industry is not alone in having a lack of women speaking at events, but it's certainly one of the industries where it is most acute.

Diversity in tech is important

In almost every industry, we are increasingly relying on digital skills to create products and deliver services. For that we need more skilled, creative tech people who can focus on the needs of the customer and find creative solutions. So we need diversity in skills, experience, knowledge and thought, at all levels. We can't find great solutions for everyone when we only approach problems from the perspective of one sector of the population.

Diversity makes tech better.

What's so important about conferences anyway?

Conferences are where we have our industry debates. Where we pick up ideas. These events are simply more interesting when we hear new perspectives and case studies rather than from the same (white, male) voices over and over again. Our industry debate is stronger when we hear from the brilliance of the many and not just the few.

Women are a minority in the tech world, it's true, particularly at senior levels. But is that chicken or egg? The lack of visible, high-profile women at these events only serves to reinforce the idea that tech is a male preserve.

The make-up of conference panels matters for individuals, too. A public profile is increasingly expected of those in senior roles, as are skills and experience in selling ideas to groups of people. By giving women opportunities to be noticed and make a name for themselves in the industry, we can help women progress in their careers.

Diversity isn't just about women

The current debates focus on women, but the fact is panels are overwhelmingly white, and very rarely include people with disabilities.

So diversity shouldn't be seen as a 'women's issue'; it's about ensuring conference panels reflect the audiences they're talking to. Inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds might bring a different point of view to the conference, which helps making talks and panels a lot more interesting.

Promoting diversity isn't just about doing the right thing; by appealing to a broader spectrum of people it's also something which makes commercial sense.

So what can be done about it?

Initiatives like the Panel Pledge and threats to boycott all-male panels have certainly succeeded in drawing conference organisers' attention to the issue. Quotas have provoked some fierce debate too, with many suggesting this is tokenistic and ultimately devalues the contribution of women who are selected - suggesting perhaps that they weren't selected on merit alone. Others felt a firm commitment to have, say, women make up a third of speakers signals a strong signal to those attending that diversity is a real issue.

What's clear is that conference organisers do have a clear role to play in promoting diversity in their conference lineups. They could attract more female speakers by:

  • Making a clear commitment to diversity in calls for submissions, and actively welcoming submissions from women and other under-represented groups (here's a great example from J Boye)
  • Being proactive and reach out to potential speakers who may be reluctant to put themselves forward, or ask potential speakers to recommend others

Those conference organisers who are making real efforts to recruit more diverse speakers are to be applauded for their efforts. But the fact is, it is a real effort - this blogpost from Courtney Stanton explaining how she got 50% female speakers at a video game conference illustrates it can be a real pain, and when you've got an event to organise and tickets to sell, it's a hassle one can easily do without.

Leaning in

If we are to succeed in making conference panels reflect the make-up of the population, women need to put themselves forward. As Sheryl Sandberg advocates, more women need to lean in, or take advantage of the professional and personal opportunities that come along.

Here's some tips for women who'd like to speak at a conference but aren't sure about how:

  • JFDI. Speaking at a conference is a great way of boosting your professional profile.
  • Start small. Speaking in front of hundreds of people is a little scary. But you don't have to start there. Start by running a session at an unconference or doing a quick Ignite-style presentation, and work up from there. I founded 300 Seconds to create opportunities for underheard voices to gain experience and confidence in just this way; try out public speaking at one of our events or look for a similar event where you live.
  • Don't undersell yourself. It's all too easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and think you're not good enough. Fight those negative feelings! What's the worst that could happen?
  • If you're asked to speak at a conference, don't keep it to yourself; mention it on your blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. Once you have a track record as a speaker you're more likely to be asked again by people finding you through web searches.
  • Advocate for other women. If you're asked to speak at a conference, ask the organisers if they're interested in hearing from more women. Get them in touch with some of the brilliant and talented women you know.

Having a greater variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented makes conferences better, and that, in turn, makes the tech industry better. But for that to happen, organisers need to be more proactive about recruiting diverse speakers, and more of us need to get over our nerves, grab opportunities where they come, and put ourselves forward.