Why organizing women-only events in tech is a good thought but a bad idea

Lately I’ve seen some of the big tech events and conferences responding to critique regarding gender equality by creating additional events for women-only. Although I can understand the thoughts and intentions behind these actions I think they’re very counterproductive, I’ll try to explain why.

Back to basics

Since I’m a person of metaphors, let’s start with one. Say you’re having a party. It’s a really nice party and everybody’s having a good time, only in the end you realize that only tall people showed up. You’re disappointed and maybe you rant a bit about how short people didn’t bother to show up. Maybe you even think they mustn’t like you very much.

After a while you talk to a few short people and ask them why they didn’t come to your party. You review your party with their comments in mind only to notice that you only had tall chairs out, no wonder short people didn’t feel welcome when they didn’t even have anywhere to sit.

No worries you think, at your next party you’ll make sure all short people feel so very welcome. You get an extra table and fill it with only small chairs. Problem solved — right?

To the point

I feel that our tech community have really come a long way when it comes to inclusiveness, here in Stockholm anyway. You can’t host an event where the speaker line-up is 90% white males without causing a social media shitstorm, and that’s great.

That said, we still have a long way to go. I see a lot of events and conferences acknowledging the gender equality issue but not really doing anything to solve the problem. Giving short people a separate table at your party won’t make them feel included in the group, and giving women their own space at your conference won’t make them feel like a valued part of the tech community. What you’re really telling them is that they’re not good enough for the main event while handing them their own sandbox to play in.

Questions that always enter my head when I hear about these women-only parts of big events are:

  1. Why can’t these efforts be applied to the main happening?
  2. Can men and women not feel included at the same time? Do we have to choose?
  3. How come these women that you got to speak at the women-only event couldn’t make it to the stage of the main happening?

Generally I can appreciate why these kind of events are being created, but it’s just throwing some time and money on a symptom without ever solving the real problem.

But wait a minute

By now I guess some of you are wondering about initiatives created by women for other women, and whether I think those are a bad idea too. I’m talking about events like Geek Girl Meetup, PyLadies and The Code Pub for example. Well I don’t, and heres why.

Women are still outnumbered in tech, and minorities need safe spaces where they can gather inspiration and exist in a context where they’re not the exeption. We need to see that there are others like us and that we’re not alone. These initiatives are always created on their own because women need them, not as a way to please the gender equality conscience.

In a perfect world we wouldn’t need these events and women could find inspiration and people to relate to everywhere they looked. But we have a long way to go to get there, and putting women at a separate table won’t get us any closer than we already are.

Ok, what to do then?

Knowing what to do is easy, achieving sustainable results is the hard part. Like with every great change nothing comes for free, but we already know that right? The trick is to just start doing something and the rest will follow, here are my suggestion to where to start.

If you think the hardest thing will be to find female speakers for your conference or event, grab the bull by the horns and start by filling up those spots. Look through line-ups from other conferences, browse through blogposts, tweet tweet tweet and have luch with everyone who can give you a lead or input to where to look. Don’t bother waiting for intros, just ask and then ask again.

Cast your prestige aside, this is tricky business and we all need help doing it. Lucky for you there are people that has walked the road to success before you and they’re happy to share how they did it. Here are two great examples:

Also, there’s no harm in bouncing your ideas with your audience. After all, who’s better to answer how your event could be more inclusive than the people you’re working hard to include?

Please don’t fall into the very common trap of thinking that because this is an important issue people should work with putting together the speaker list for you for free. Many of us have worked really hard to build our networks and so should you — it’ll be a great investment for your future events. Read this great piece to get some tips:

From what I’ve seen, this is the hardest thing and also where it all starts. If you can’t see what you’re bad at, how will you ever really improve? Dare to believe what people are saying (and not saying) and really review what you’re doing to create a truly inclusive event. This list is perfect for ransacking:

So, now you have the tools — it’s time to get started.

Good luck! ☺

Written by

Frontend engineer with a passion for usability and design. Co-founder and CTO at It’s Re:Leased. Strong advocator for more women in tech. 📍Stockholm

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