Why WOMEN in Tech events are important

Recently I gave a talk at the GitHub Satellite conference in London (https://githubuniverse.com/satellite/) on the importance of events that brand themselves as “women in technology” events.

You can find the link to my slides here:

https://speakerdeck.com/dickensa/from-wit-to-wittier

A video will be released in the next few weeks so I’ll update with a link when I have it.

For those of you who want to know more now here is the talk summary and please feel free to ask me any questions.

Before we start I’ll introduce myself:

I’m a second year PhD student at The University of Nottingham (in the east midlands, UK), I study ‘Gesture Controlled Sound in Facilitated Performance for Users with Complex Disabilities’ as part of the Mixed Reality Laboratory research group in the school of Computer Science.

I had an unconventional route into a technology doctorate, with my previous experience being as a musician, audio engineer and event manager.

For more about me visit: adickens.co.uk

Over the past two years I have helped co-ordinate the Women in Technology Conference at The University of Nottingham, alongside the student programming society. I inherited this awesome event from the lovely Paula Clerkin, who ran this under the previous society efforts, when our friend Tim Fogarty was the president.

As you can probably tell from my thesis title above, I am super enthusiastic about accessibility and in my satellite talk I wanted to share with the audience my experience and talk about the following:

  1. Why do Women in Tech communities matter?
  2. How do you grow communities like this?
  3. How do you be welcoming to EVERYONE?
  4. Five simple things you can do today to help support accessibility.

So let’s start at the very beginning (I hear it’s a very good place to start).

1. Why do Women in Tech communities matter?

To understand why it is important to have events that specifically WOMEN in technology we need to talk about the ideas of bias.

Bias is a term we are most often used to hearing in a negative context, when someone’s decision is biased that is usually a bad thing. When we admit to having bias in a suggestion we are being open about our own neutrality toward something.

Over the years we have seen many examples of negative bias having an effect on data and in turn this has influenced programming, events and even healthcare. When bias is present this can result in discrimination and exclusion, common examples can be found in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

But there is also positive bias. Whilst this can also lead to discrimination and negative outcomes, there is an element of positive bias that plays an important part in our culture as humans. Seeing someone who comes from the same cultural background as you and is achieving a thing, invokes a sense that thing is more achievable for you as an individual.

Having a positive bias towards our own cultures is argued to be inherent; as such there is an importance to have a diverse set of role models for any career.

The technology we build today inherits our biases, so being aware of your biases can be very important in making sure you are being open to everyone.

This can be difficult because we also have something called UNCONSCIOUS bias. These are biases that we inherit from evaluative conditioning (the culture we grow up in, the people we are closest with and so on). When you have unconscious bias you can easily overlook the influence of these on your daily practices.

Good news is you can work towards understanding more about your own biases through testing like the Implicit Association tests available from Project Implicit at Harvard https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

When it comes down to it, events promoting Women in Tech are focused on this idea of diversifying our role models in the tech industry.

Diversity has become such a huge buzz word IMO and often the meaning of this is diluted to simple check boxes — which I totally disagree with.

I think the amazing Terri Burns put it best at Code Motion, Amsterdam 2017:

“Diverse teams isn’t just about race or gender, it’s about thoughts, backgrounds, music tastes and personalities”

At the end of the day it’s about building teams and companies that have a variety of people with different ideas and ways of working. In HCI (Human Computer Interaction) we are very aware there is no one size fits all solution, people are unique by nature and having diverse teams helps us to understand more about our potential end users.

At the minute the simple facts tell us that there is still a need to brand events as women in tech, on average less than 20% of technical positions within the industry are held by women.

This is why pushing a community as Women in tech can play a huge part in promoting diversity, but remember women in tech does not mean women only and we should be working towards gender inclusivity and equality in all that we do.

Women in tech events strive to play on positive discrimination by showing people of all ages that anyone can be anything.

By showcasing women who own it in technical roles, we show younger and older generations that there are role models that exist who are people that they can relate to and take inspiration from.

Really the focus should be on removing all gender labels from job roles. Personally I’d love to see a day where the fluidity of gender is completely recognised across all industries but that isn’t yet the case. However we are seeing growth in minority groups accessing technology and that’s why supporting communities like these is so so important.

2. How do you grow communities like this?

At Women in Tech Nottingham, we set out a goal to inspire people to want to take up technology (as a career or hobby). The conference was designed to provide less-techy people with a window into the varying careers and skills you could find in this industry.

We use talks from inspirational role models to engage our audience and provide accessible workshops that offer an introduction to many different technical topics. And so far the atmosphere created by such an event has helped it to grow and grow.

In Women in Tech held in February 2017, we had 240 attendees and our community just keeps on growing.

We did this by being present in as many places as we could. We did outreach in schools, the local tech community (Tech Nottingham), at monthly meet ups (like Nottingham’s very own Women in Tech meet up) and across the university in as many places as possible.

There is a need to showcase to people that there is an active community and space for everyone.

We try to encourage folks to be ambassadors for the community (whatever their gender) and we volunteer to support events like hack days or workshops, where people can come and get involved.

And by people we mean ALL people, regardless of gender, technical knowledge, age or interest. Removing barriers helps create a more open environment where everyone can feel they can contribute.

This formula works because when you impact one person, it has a ripple effect. Post this year’s event I was humbled by the sheer amount of positive comments that were shared across social media.

During the event an 8 year old girl drew a picture (included in my slides) that was of a women in tech hero saying:

“this event showed me I can be a woman in tech if I want to be”

This brought me to tears on the day, it was really touching to know this was something our team had inspired.

3. How do you be welcoming to EVERYONE?

We are all human — and we shouldn’t be afraid to show that to people!

Living in a competitive environment is hard, lonely and fuels insecurity.

In comparison, being in a community that is striving towards the same goals feels like a big warm hug. It makes people smile and feel like they have a network of support.

The goal here should be to encourage and support each other.

There are some great organisations that have a UK presence that push for inclusion and accessibility: NonBinary in Tech (uve), Code Liberation (phoenix perry), Modern Muse, Rails Girls LDN, She++ and CodeFirstGirls (Diana Lee), and Transcode (Jessica Rose).

Look these up to see how they make their online presence welcoming.

Having a code of conduct is important too for inclusivity’s sake, this is the one we use for the Women in Tech conference: http://confcodeofconduct.com/

And there are things you can do to ensure your events are as accessible as possible:

  • Name badges that have an optional pronoun section: In a world where gender isn’t just binary it’s important to recognise that some people might prefer to indicate how they would like others refer to them
  • Gender neutral toilet facilities: this depends on your venue (unfortunately in the UK we aren’t quite there with making this the norm) but even if it is just one or two locations it can help to make people feel comfortable
  • Make sure people know your event is inclusive: promote gender inclusivity heavily in your communications and marketing for your events.
  • Improve your vocabulary: “Hey folks” is such an easy switch from “Hey Guys”, this might seem like a small thing but it makes a difference in terms of greeting everyone in the room with a gender neutral term.

I’m also a big advocate in ambassadors as I mentioned above. When we create community ambassadors, they reach out and publicly show their support for your community and help promote your messages. They are also amazing at supporting inclusivity for everyone at your events!

We are super lucky that we have a great hub of folks in the Nottingham and east midlands area that are just friendly faces and willing to lend a hand — I can’t thank them enough for the support they’ve shown me in the student community and beyond.

4. Five simple things you can do today to help support accessibility.

So what are the things you can to today to help support a welcome and inclusive community?

  • Be aware of your own biases — take the IAT tests and know where you might not have full neutrality on a subject
  • Encourage more events that promote inclusivity — switching language to “hey folks” is a quick fix and please please please also be mindful of terms like “basically” and “simply”. For all you know your simple could be my string theory, unless you know your audience really well avoid assuming knowledge levels at all costs.
  • Be an ambassador — volunteer, share events and promote the communities you are part of.
  • Challenge negative behaviour — there are some terrible stereotypes out there, please call out people who are being negative toward your community. Don’t let the last negative experience with someone in your community, be the only experience that person has with your community.
  • I owe this point totally to Jessica White 👩‍💻 : BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER, ALWAYS. This is and will always be our mantra at Women in Technology Nottingham.

Thanks for reading please feel free to comment if you have any additional thoughts on ways to engage with communities and support their growth. I’d love to hear from you.

I’m @RedRoxProjects on Twitter & @dickensa on GitHub.