Why aren’t more women speaking at tech conferences?

Let’s paint a picture here: I arrive at a hotel for a conference on some subject related to digital technology. I get checked in, and take a look around the lobby. Ah, a great mix of women and men, a few I know, lots I don’t. I make my way into the keynote hall, armed with the schedule and a cup of coffee. I crack open the schedule and…..it’s nearly all men. White men. One or two people of color. And maybe 25% women.

My discomfort grows through the day because in a panel discussion the four men on the panel are missing a critical point on a particular topic that should be addressed, and I know at least three women who could be up there, making that point. They could be making it in a way that is smart, compelling, a little bit funny, but the simple fact remains that they aren’t on stage to make it.

Challenging the status quo

Over the last few months, I’ve challenged a number of conference organizers in the digital/tech space to invite more women to the stage at their 2015/2016 conferences. The details of the challenge are fairly simple: aim for a 50/50 gender balance, but sessions titled “Women in….” don’t count. Nor do panels with all male panelists and a female moderator.

The reaction I get when I issue this challenge is expected: organizers agree on premise, but then immediately begin detailing exactly why it’s so hard. Women are under-represented in the industry. They say. It’s too hard to hit diversity targets AND get the right topics to fit planned tracks. They say. And then, they ask me to recommend women, since they don’t know any.

Encouraging diverse thought — as well as people

As much as I’d love to be an agent for all the brilliant, funny, hard-working and hard-driving women in my LinkedIn connections list, that hardly seems like the right way to go about effecting change. And I reject the other excuses as well: in the Twin Cities in particular, but also in our region and nationally, our industry is becoming more and more diverse.

Our community is rich with women who code, women who lead start-ups, women who are dominating their particular market through app development, strategy and customer engagement. Yes, I and other women I know in this field still talk about what it feels to be the only woman in the room sometimes, but it’s happening less and less. So why aren’t we better represented on the stage at conferences?

In late May, Sandi MacPhereson — founder of the Bay Area startup Quibb — issued a challenge to Silicon Valley:  help her to create a directory of women to speak at tech conferences. Having conducted a quick analysis of over 25 of the region’s top conferences, she realized less than 25% of the speakers were women. In 10 days, over 850 women from some of the biggest brands in tech signed up for her registry. So following her lead, I created a registry for Midwest speakers here: https://goo.gl/JHRYgy.

It’s time that a conference with a true diversity in the speaker’s roster is the norm and not the exception. We can – and should do better. Help us get there by inviting women you know to complete the registration at https://goo.gl/JHRYgy. If you are conference planner that would like to access the directory to plan your next event, contact me at jen@imbina.com.

Jen Swanson

Jen is the Director of Digital Marketing at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and blogs at imbina.com on issues related to women and leadership, closing the gender gap and work/life integration. Follow her on Twitter at @jgswanson.