Why Women Aren’t At Your Conferences // News // Notes from the Executive Director // Apr 26 2018

Why women aren’t at your conferences

By Heather Wentler

Every year, I shake my head when I see yet another women’s conference announced. In 2018 alone, there are more than 50 different national conferences focused on women in tech or entrepreneurship. There’s Wonder Women Tech, Women of Silicon Valley, regional Women in Tech summits and conferences, and so many more.

Maybe it’s a sign of progress. Maybe it’s a necessary step as we work toward gender parity. But to us at Doyenne, it feels like a distraction.

At Doyenne, we are building toward a future where siloed conferences and gender segregated spaces are not necessary. We recognize that we’re not there yet. There is value in creating a space where women can fully express themselves without fear of repercussions from men.

But there’s a danger in holding segregated conferences for women, or people of color, or any other group, in the context of entrepreneurship. Sure, a women’s conference is a good place for women to share their experiences, develop camaraderie with others and realize that they are not crazy or alone.

But it’s also easy for them to become a certificate that the people in power can hold up to say, “Look, our community celebrates diversity. We have this women’s conference!” or “Our conference has a women’s track!” They give themselves a pass to not change anything else about the way they plan and run their conferences.

For women entrepreneurs from all backgrounds to thrive, women need to have equal representation in entrepreneurial spaces. Those spaces need to be created and designed in ways that equally accommodate women and men from all backgrounds.

Creating those spaces is HARD. We know. We fight against just taking the path of least resistance with every event we put on. But it’s so important.

When you talk about gender parity, the assumptions you start with will impact the conclusions you make. This was obvious with the infamous Google Manifesto by James Damore, where one of his assumptions was that women had less aptitude and interest in working in tech than men. Working from this assumption, it was no surprise to him, and he saw it as no problem, that women are underrepresented in the industry.

I see this assumption play out in conference and event planning all the time. First, it starts by not even bothering to measure attendance by minority groups. You can’t change what you don’t measure, and what you measure is a good indicator of what you care about.

When conference organizers do take note of the lack of diversity at an event, they often jump to the conclusion that anyone missing from the audience must not have been interested in the topic. They blame the attendees for the lack of diversity, rather than taking a look at the way they planned the event, and the behavior of attendees, to find the answer.

We need to change our assumptions. We need to assume that entrepreneurship and technical aptitude are traits equally distributed throughout the whole population, regardless of race or gender. When you start evaluating events (and everything) through that lens, you’ll have to start asking new questions. Questions like, “What are we doing to make this space not equally interesting and worth the time of women or people of color?” or whatever group is missing from your space.

If you make the assumption that entrepreneurial interest and aptitude is evenly distributed across all genders and races, you’ll have to accept that the blame falls on the conference organizers, or systemic barriers to access, or other unknown causes. You can no longer just assume that it’s the fault of the individual’s lack of interest.  

One reason women might not be at your conference? We value our time. If the experience you offer includes crummy mansplaining, men hitting on us, and hearing the same tired old white male perspective for the 99th time, we are likely to decide that the event is not worth our time.

Too often, business owners and conference organizers put in the minimum time and effort in order to check a box indicating that they prioritize diversity and inclusion (D&I), but completely fail to actually put in the hard work that would make their spaces more inclusive.

The minimal approach to D&I focuses on making the planners look good, rather than creating something that meets the needs of a diverse audience.

The minimal approach creates broad panels meant to discuss all the issues minorities face in an industry, like “Women in Entrepreneurship” and “Black Entrepreneurs,” but still fails to examine anything about the culture, setup, or details of the event that might make those minorities feel threatened or unwelcome.

The minimal approach looks like sending a blanket email to all of the minority leadership groups in town and inviting them en masse to attend or present at your conference, without ever taking the time to try to talk to them one-on-one to find out how your event could appeal to and serve their population.

The minimal approach doesn’t take the time to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully with minority groups. It doesn’t take the time to ask, with humility, “What could we do to improve our event and overcome the stigma that it is a place for middle class white men?”

The minimal approach fills speaker slots with unvetted close friends and colleagues who look like the organizers, but puts diverse speakers through an intense evaluation.

The minimal approach doesn’t bother to collect metrics around gender and race, and when it does start collecting, doesn’t consider that asking questions about gender and race can be offensive, and needs input from underrepresented individuals on how to gather that data respectfully.

The minimal approach confuses tokenism with inclusion. It invites just enough women or people of color to be able to shove them into pictures to make the event look diverse.

At Doyenne, we know from personal experience that it’s way harder to build a truly inclusive space than it is to just offer a panel, or a separate track, or a separate conference that speaks to the needs of a particular minority group. Creating a truly inclusive event takes much more time and effort than creating an event that replicates the status quo of your industry.

As event organizers at Doyenne, we haven’t always succeeded at making our events inclusive of people of color. We own the blame for that. We are asking ourselves these tough questions, and asking our members of color what we can do to create spaces where women of color can be their true, authentic selves.

We’re working on it, and we challenge our peers in the entrepreneurial community to do the same. Stop checking boxes, stop taking the minimal approach to D&I, and work with us to rebuild Madison’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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