Friday, March 7, 2014

How to get great women to tech and startup events

I've been thinking about this for a while now. Why on earth are there so few women on stage at tech events? Many times even a lower rate than there are women in tech. I've done my hobby research. Asked both female friends and acquaintances with speaker potential, as well as conference committee members, what the issues are. I've helped (and tried to help) conference committees find female speakers. I have raised questions. On Facebook, Twitter, offline. Everywhere. And most importantly: I have promised myself to always say yes if I get the asked (as long as I am physically available and well, needless to say).

Now, after my latest discussion on Twitter (have you noticed that I never seem to learn that Twitter is crap when it comes to discussions?) a very wise friend of mine suggested that I should make a list with the suggestions I have for attracting more women to tech and startup events. Why don't you write a blog post and share it with those who need inspiration? I thought that was a great idea, so here I am. Writing a blog post. With my very concrete, and still pretty general, suggestions.

1. Make sure you have at least one female co-pilot.

"A new study shows that having just one woman on the organizing committee for a conference greatly increases the likelihood of women appearing at the front of the room." [the Atlantic]

I love research. I love studies. This particular study indicates that having at least one woman in your conference committee increases the number of women on stage at your event. Why? Most likely because men consider other men, whereas women consider both men and women. 

Great examples: Startup Day 2014 (arranged by @mariesundstrom

2.  Mean it.

Stating officially that you want more women on stage, e.g. publicly in front of your audience or on your official registration page, is a great first step, but in order to succeed you have to do more than that and be serious about it. I mean, dead serious. And you have to know and understand why you want a change. Because breaking old habits and making changes is _not simple. Making women feel welcomed in a world that is normally dominated by men is crazy hard. Even if you only have to do it once. I know many conference committees who want more women on stage and have asked e.g. @rattvise or me personally for help but still don't reach their goal. It is not enough to email/call a number of women once you realize that you have a majority of men in your lineup. And if you still do: please don't start the conversation with "We need more women...". Set your goals and objectives first. Before you even start calling anyone. If your goal is 50/50, then don't settle with less. Look for the best speakers but make sure 50% of them are women. And make sure to ban bad excuses like these: If you think this is about putting random women on stage just for the sake of it and not because they are equally kick ass, you're not getting it. (If you do, please call me and I will do my best to advice.)

3. Make sure everyone in the committee (if you have one) is on board. 

So, once you have at least one woman in the conference committee and a plan with clear objectives, make sure everyone else involved in organizing the event is onboard, aware of the goals and understand how serious you are about them. This will help. A lot. 

4. Don't take no for an answer.

If there are women who could pitch/talk on stage and you think would be great up there: ask them again and again until they say yes. But be attentive. The closest I've ever been to public startup pitching (apart from non-publicly pitching Thingspotter to VC:s) is pitching my MIT Media Lab thesis to sponsors.  I think I did fairly well, but I know it is _scary. Especially when you are doing it for the first time and you happen to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated context. So - if you get a no: ask again. Explain why you would love to have her on stage. And again: don't use "we need more women" or "because you are a woman" as arguments. If you want the best people on stage, let them know you think they are the best option based on expertise, background, because she/he has a really cool product or business case coming up, or whatever it may be. Help the person get acquainted with the culture and overall concept of your event. Explain what the rules are. Invite them to the audience first. Again, you have to really want it, believe that it is worth it and that your event will become better with more diversity in the audience and on stage, and work hard for it to actually make real changes.

5. Make sure you reach your target group. 

Do whatever you can to reach your target group - women. A female acquaintance told me: "I would have loved to attend STHLM tech meetup the other week but I hadn't heard of it and the guys at work often times assume that only other men are interested. So I never hear about these things unless I know what to look for." If you want to reach more women, make sure to seed the information in their networks (in addition to the regular/mixed ones), e.g. Geek Girl Meetup (disclaimer: I'm a member), Faces of Tech, @rattvise, Thursday Code Pub, STHLM investing in women, TillväxtverketKarin Adelsköld and Mikael Zackrisson's startup podcasts, by @jskn; and individuals like myself, @equalityalice, @heidiharman, @a_thorell, @maralkalajian, @mgrutnorrby, @elielk, @annika, @martasjogren, @donnahanafi, @samattsson, @louise_eriksson and many more who have _huge networks and are already engaged in these matters on a daily basis. I would make sure to visit some of these female oriented startup and tech events and promote my own event. Encourage them to attend and/or pitch on stage. 

6. Take affirmative action.

OK, I know this is controversial. Both among women and men. In a parallel universe where men and women are equal, I too would be against positive discrimination. I want to be treated as an individual. Not as a gender. But hey! Unfortunately, we are not in a parallel universe. And as long as the discrimination is positive and for a good cause, I really don't mind. We need to take action to make things change. So, why not offer a bring-a-women-discount to anyone who brings a woman to the event? If you don't want to offer discounts; simply urge people to bring women: friends, colleagues or others who may be interested. Another way of doing it, which I know Tyler Crowley of STHLM Tech Meetup is trying out, is reserving (free/discounted) seats for women or certain female tech/startup networks and organisations. My two cents is that women who attend startup events are more likely to eventually join a startup and/or start their own company, which is why I personally think it is crucial to get women to join the startup and tech communities. (I probably should have stated this earlier.) 

7. No sexist comments allowed. 

Another female acquaintance of mine reacted when she heard a man on stage at a startup event joke: "Sometimes you have to meet the mother before you marry the daughter". Now, you may think this is pretty harmless but still, if getting women to attend and pitch at events like these is really hard and some women feel unwelcomed or lost, then even the most harmless (shabby and dated) comments can do harm. Well, at least they don't help. Make sure to build an event community and culture that makes everyone feel at home and comfortable. If you hear someone tell a sexist joke on your stage, take him/her aside afterwards and say: "Hey, you did a great job up there but I'm really working hard on creating a positive and including culture here and that joke about mothers and daughters...maybe choose another joke next time?" 

8. Invite women on stage anyway.

OK, let's face it. In some cases there _is a lack of women. E.g. women who are founders of a startup and ready to raise VC $. Or as a female friend of mine said: "I wish we could 3D print female tech entrepreneurs, but we can't." Don't get discouraged. Invite women on stage who can inspire in other ways. Women who have managed to raise money, women who inspire others to start companies, women investing in startups, women who aren't the founder or CEO but can pitch anyway, women who know how to attract women to tech companies or startups. Just to exemplify that women are indeed welcome on stage, and again - inspire other women to get on stage. But still - don't just do it because you want women on stage. Make sure that whatever the speakers have to bring to the table adds actual value to your community and audience. But try to be more open-minded. At least initially. 

9. Arrange a women only event prior to or after the main event. 

This idea was mentioned in a meeting that I attended the other day and I like it. I have mixed feelings about separatism but the fact is, many women do seem to appreciate having the option of surrounding themselves with other women only. (I'm part of a few women-only communities myself, actually.) So, why not? Arrange a pre-drink event or whatever where women in tech/startups can meet other women in tech/startups before the big crowd arrives. 

10. Stay informed, involved and updated

When it comes to Swedish female tech startup founders and entrepreneurs: make sure you are updated and in touch with the ones that are out there. Considering how few there are in Sweden (now, let's hope this will change really soon), not knowing them communicates that you aren't taking this seriously. Which brings us back to #2...

Well. That's it for now. 

Thanks Heidi, Annie and Sofia for your valuable feedback and suggestions! I am all ears and would _love to extend this list as much as possible, so please add your suggestions below.


11. Don't expect others to do your job

If you want more women, don't just ask people on Twitter or Facebook to help suggest or search for names. Asking for help and using existing networks to find people is of course important and constructive, but in order to make real and long-lasting changes you have to get involved on a  personal level and do more. Reach out to women and tell your side of the story. Why do _you as an organizer want more women on stage?

12. Invite women on equal terms

Make sure to acknowledge the women you approach and invite as much as you acknowledge the men. I have seen several cases where an event or conference "brags" about having women on stage but when I browse the agenda, the men are keynote speakers and the women are in panels, workshops and in "smaller" tracks. So: don't just count. Make sure to include female moderators, keynote speakers etc as well. And if the women you approach say they prefer to be in a panel, tell them their message is so important that you want the spotlight to be on them, and only them for once. (Thanks @gullfot for this addition!)

13. Take full responsibility for the content and messages presented on stage

@mariesundtrom: "Event organizers should look through and approve every speaker presentation prior to the event. Don’t allow speakers to bring their presentation on a stick to the event, because that means you have no idea what they will show to the audience. For example, at Slush, one VC talked about the importance of role models showing two slides of 12 entrepreneurs, all male. I would ask that speaker to work on the presentation before I allow him/her up on stage."

14. Create an interesting context

@mariesundstrom: "You need to provide an interesting context for the speaker to be part of, to make participation worth their time. At Startup Day, we have focused on: 1) diversity, 2) inspiring audience, 3) good cause, 4) getting exposure, 5) opportunity to reach out to extended crowd via video, press, trending."

1 comment:

Lisa Crispin said...

I hope more conference organizers will heed these suggestions! It's also my experience that when more women are involved in organizing the program, there are more women on the program.

My own personal effort to get more women presenting at conferences is offering to pair with other women to propose sessions to conferences. I'm having mixed results. In one case, I paired with a younger woman who wanted to present at conferences but was getting her proposals rejected. Together we got a proposal accepted to Agile 2014, and the collaboration was fun and beneficial for both of us - plus, participants seemed to get a lot of value!

But for a couple of other, smaller regional conferences, I couldn't find any women to pair propose/present with. That is sad. I think women tend to be busier (especially those with kids), and also, more shy about public speaking. I will keep trying, though. If you're an experienced speaker, you might try helping women get their proposals accepted and help them prepare awesome sessions so they can be more successful.