10 Tips for Planning a Tech Conference that Women Will Actually Want to Attend

Seven years ago, I publicly petitioned Tim O'Reilly on Twitter to diversify the speakers at his conferences. I had just gotten home from presenting at DC Media Makers, and checked my email to find the Web 2.0 Summit announcing their lineup of speakers comprised mostly of men with just a couple of women. …not again!!!!

Like many people in tech, I was sick and tired of going to tech conferences where panelists and keynote speakers were comprised of only white men, as if anyone other than a white man was not qualified to speak about tech. Within minutes, hundreds of people RT’d my message. Tim responded immediately to me and we setup a call to talk the next day. A group of us then worked with his awesome team to share different strategies and tactics to begin diversifying O’Reilly’s conferences.

Fast-forward seven years. Have tech conferences diversified much? Some have and some have stayed the same. However, the conversations related to diversity and inclusion that used to happen only behind closed doors are now a lot more public. And many conference organizers or folks like Mike Butcher, Editor-At-Large of TechCrunch, feel comfortable going public and asking what women want out of a tech conference. Seven years ago that rarely happened.

After several years of running Women Who Tech events, and most recently the Women Startup Challenge in partnership with craignewmark, founder of craigslist and craigconnects, to help showcase and fund women-led startups (btw our pitch competition applications just opened today), we’ve learned a lot about what women want from a tech conference.

Here’s 10 tips from the Women Who Tech team and crowdsourced from our awesome community of 10,000 entrepreneurs, engineers, investors, and industry leaders to help you plan for your next tech conference.

1. Don’t be a mirror-tocracy.
Mirror-tocracy is the phenomenon where people like to work with and fund people who look like them, usually white straight men, according to Mary Hodder. One step in addressing a mirror-tocracy at conferences is to create programs, panels, and keynotes comprised of diverse people with different backgrounds, identities, and perspectives (gender identity, age, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, etc.).

2. Move beyond the big names.
A lot of conferences rely on big influencers in tech to sell tickets. I get it. But it’s also helpful for conference organizers to recruit speakers who are not a big name and who can share equally important perspectives, case studies, and data about their industry. Conferences need to create “an opportunity to add to the narrative as well as showcase a broader scope of diversity,” said Bonnie Sandy. Incorporate panels led by community practitioners on topics that matter to them, said Sandy.

3. Don’t pitch tech as a meritocracy.
Gender and racial biases are a problem in most industries, and tech is no exception. One way we can begin to address this is to foster intentional discussions about this at tech conferences. Panels about these topics are helpful, but weaving these conversations into other panels not focused on “diversity” programming, events, etc. will reach more people since many people actually don’t think they are part of the problem and don’t seek out diversity sessions.

4. Add programs for diverse communities.
We’ve had success organizing and creating the space for women focused events. For example, we recently held the Women Startup Speed Dating event where women founders meet one-on-one with investors and serial entrepreneurs. The event provides opportunities for women founders to get feedback on their pitch deck and ask follow up questions. Some tech conference attendees I’ve spoken to don’t like women focused events. While I respect this opinion and hope that one day everything will be so inclusive that we don’t need to do events and programs like this, right now, these events and spaces are helpful.

5. Create a code of conduct with community input.
“I want to see a code of conduct that ensures everyone understands how to treat each other [including panelists on panels] and know what to do if things go wrong,” said Larissa Brown Shapiro. Don’t just write this from the conference’s perspective though, ask your community to contribute ideas since this conference is for them.

6. Provide content guidelines that are inclusive, and enforce them.
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised to know that there are still conferences that aren’t providing and enforcing guidelines. “Educate your speakers about making their content inclusive and respectful,” said Brown. “Mix up your visuals, anecdotes, examples of success so they are more representative of your topic’s community,” said Sarah Schacht.

7. Don’t define your conference culture as one big brogrammer party. Conferences should have a fun factor, but don’t make the “assumption that everyone wants their networking events to be at a bar or with alcohol,” said Brown.

8. Promote women and people of color as founders and technologists, NOT just as consumers. 
“When we talk about diversity, let’s talk about women and people of color being creators of technology as opposed to consumers,” said Edria Flemming.

9. Showcase products that are catered to an audience beyond 20 year-old white men.
Show “examples of companies that serve the needs and desires of women in the marketplace [often these startups are founded by women], and not just one more app startup that services the needs of predominantly 20 and 30 year-old white males. They create apps that reflect their desires and the world according to their values, so we need more women to start talking honestly about their needs and views of the world to build tech that supports that,” said Milka Milliance.

10. Tackle workplace culture.
A number of women from the Women Who Tech community feel like large startups admit there are diversity issues, but not enough action is being taken to address the problems. Conferences can be a great venue for attendees who are in positions of management, including founders and future founders to get concrete advice to “help create more inclusive/diverse workplaces. This is awesome material not just for ourselves, but also to pass on to our own workplaces,” said Amelia Lin.

Over to you. What are your best tips for planning a conference that women will really want to attend?