The Trouble With Women’s Events

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I improved it.

There’s a theme emerging in my backchannel lately, as my girlfriends and I discuss why we aren’t doing certain events. And often, these are events for women.

We used to retreat to these events because we weren’t welcome – or safe – anywhere else. But now, we see lots of technical events working really hard to get 30-50% women speakers in an industry of only ~20% women. To do that they offer things like strong codes of conduct, covering speaker travel costs, both things that women-focused events have been slow to adopt. GHC, for example, didn’t have a code of conduct until 2014 and still doesn’t cover speaker travel – or even give speakers a complementary ticket.

The other thing we see is that these events focus heavily on the pipeline, with corporate sponsorship from $bigCompany’s, who are hoping to use it to boost their diversity numbers. Often the sponsorship comes with a sponsor speaking slot, which results in an overrepresentation of “Career at $BigCo” perspective, unless organisers are careful to balance it.

Meanwhile, the same companies who make a huge show of commitment to women’s events, run their own events without proper Codes of Conduct, demonstrating that their “commitment” to “diversity” has the depth of a puddle. They hide behind their donations when called out on things like lack of diversity on their board. And they support women who work there being visible in the context of women’s events – not at technical events. A surprising number of big companies support women who work there speaking at women’s events (recruiting! pipeline!), but not at technical conferences. I would know. I used to work at one.

I think we’re supposed to want to do these events, make exceptions because it’s “for the collective” but whilst I think some women still go with this obligation, more and more of us are saying no. And I think that can get framed as selfishness – but I see it as prioritisation.

I left, but I came back, and now I show up every day. That, itself, is an act of activism.

As a manager, I work to try and hire women, and to create a good environment for those I work with. This is an act of activism.

Every time I get on stage as a technical woman, this is an act of activism.

Every other thing I do that helps other women – Technically Speaking, writing, all the stuff I do quietly, the mentoring, listening to women’s stories… these are acts of activism.

I want to see events for women succeed, but I don’t feel obligated to do any more than I do already. So they have to meet my objective criteria for any event that I speak at… and they haven’t been.

The little-discussed reason for some of these issues is because these events operate as fundraisers to support other programming put on by these organisations. Whilst I don’t think there’s any excuse for not adopting a standard code of conduct, this makes strategies that cost money harder to justify. I want these organisations to be successful – even if I am unlikely to personally donate time and money to them in this context as I believe my focus is better elsewhere. Is the option to accept that conferences are no longer the best fundraising opportunity? Or to be more transparent about the fundraising nature and all that it entails – including sharing more about what the money raised goes to cover?

Aside from the financials, the other aspect which – oh, the irony – women’s events often fail at is inclusivity. In the same way that some of the most horrifying things I heard in a corporate setting came from HR, some of the most oblivious comments I’ve experienced at events came from other women… at women’s events. Most recently I asked a question and in doing so alluded to the fact that I don’t want children. Another woman confidently stated to the room that I would change my mind. I was furious.

Is it because by focusing on what binds us together we forget our differences, or assume they are negligible? Is it the toxic line of thinking that goes “I was oppressed therefore I cannot oppress”, which is far too pervasive? Is it because we end up being sold something approaching One True Way to be a woman in tech, when the truth is there are as many ways as there are women.

Regardless of why, there’s a failure of empathy that excludes. How I, a cis-het-white-woman felt when it was suggested that I don’t know my own mind when it comes to kids, is nothing to the ways that women of colour, trans women, lesbians, have felt excluded.

It’s great to celebrate and spend time on the things we have in common, but if we take too narrow a view, we start to erase the differences, which means we start to erase people who we had the best intentions to include. The thing is, intentions don’t go very far. Actions are what matters.

I do not offer any answers here, just some explanation. The landscape has changed, people are expecting more. The conversations my girlfriends and I are having? Those are the outcome.

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