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Inclusion at tech conferences may have a long way to go yet

20 Oct 2020

From ‘design bias’ to a lack of representation, inequality at tech conferences is alive and kicking, according to Ensono’s latest report.

Diversity, inclusion and equality are still massively lacking in many workplaces. This may also be the case for conferences, according to the most recent Speak Up report from IT service management company Ensono.

Speak Up 2020 looks at the findings of a survey Ensono carried out in December last year. As well as auditing 18 events, it surveyed 500 women from the US and the UK who had attended a tech conference in the past 12 months. Of the respondents, 81pc held a technical role in their company and the majority were in middle management.

Ensono said that 59pc of women of colour reported experiencing discrimination at a tech conference. For white women, that figure was 43pc.

Inequality at tech conferences

The report highlighted the potential for “design bias” in tech conferences. It gave the example of onstage barstools that are often used for panel discussions, which can put people who choose to wear skirts at risk of a wardrobe malfunction.

Microphones designed for lapels can also present problems, it added, as these can be difficult to attach to dresses. “Distractions like these add up over time, making it harder for women to get the most out of their conference experiences,” the report said.

Aside from stage set-ups, many tech conferences also lack amenities such as mother’s rooms for people who may be nursing.

‘Organisers have got to have the opinion that an event will be great if it has equality’

Ensono’s vice-president of culture and people for Europe and Asia, Jill Gates, told Siliconrepublic.com that event organisers must pay better attention to these elements. They need to consider what their set-ups say to women attendees and speakers, and whether it will put them off.

This should extend “from the choice of venue to what we’re doing with regards to microphones or keynote speakers and the facilities made available to people”, she said.

Representation and harassment

In terms of representation, white women made up 18pc of keynote speakers in 2019 and women of colour accounted for 14pc. Men accounted for the remaining 68pc.

Of the women Ensono surveyed who had given keynote speeches, 39pc said they had experienced sexual harassment at the event, while 62pc said they had experienced discrimination in general.

“That’s a pretty shocking statistic,” said Gates. “And something that we need to take into account as we have this pause [due to Covid-19 restrictions] to make sure that future events do not see repeats of this shocking behaviour.”

Ensono’s report said there is a critical need for a clear and informed code of conduct for speakers and attendees. Last year, 60pc of respondents said they had attended a tech event with a formal code-of-conduct statement.

However, 29pc of total respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at an event, and 37pc said they had witnessed sexual harassment. According to the report, almost one-third of those who experienced sexual harassment didn’t report it, with more than half of those citing a lack of formal or clear process for reporting misconduct.

We need to reflect now

Of course, attending tech conferences in person is the cards for most people at the moment with Covid-19 restrictions in place around the world. According to Gates, it’s important that we take this time to reflect on what has been happening.

Moving forward, she said conference planners must take accountability for catering to the needs of men, women, people with disabilities, neurodiverse people and “every diversity requirement that they can possibly manage”.

“This is a good time to reflect on design in the future for when we go back into some sort of situation where we will be at these events again, even if it’s on a smaller scale,” she said. “It’s a chance to get into some really good habits about how we set them up and how we work with the people that are running these events for us.

“Or, if we’re attending the events, making sure that we can understand what the rules and regulations are before we agree to take part.”

Making tech conferences safer and more inclusive

At the root of overcoming these challenges, Gates said, is recognising that equality makes for a great event. “[Organisers] have got to have the opinion that an event will be great if it has equality because the client base is more likely to be equal.

“They’ve got to work on equality in terms of having a balanced set of keynote speakers, panels and attendees, and pushing back if they if they get a request for an all-male delegate list.

“And at every level there need to be rules for reporting. Women need to be encouraged to go because they feel it’s safe. So, we need to know what will happen if we’ve got any concerns or something that needs to be addressed.

“For women, it will be reassuring. But it will actually help men to wake up to the fact that some not very pleasant things have been happening out there and this has got to stop.”

What can you do?

If you experience sexual harassment or discrimination at a tech conference, Gates emphasised that the worst thing you can do is to try and carry it alone.

From a HR perspective, she said, people need to report incidents. A good place to start is someone within your own organisation, such as a supportive leader or a member of HR. Depending on the severity of the case, it may be necessary to involve the police.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination of any kind and these options are not available to you, public supports include the Irish Human Rights and Equality CommissionSafe Helpline, the Irish Network Against Racism, the Workplace Relations Commission and SpunOut.ie.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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