Women in tech find space to grow at conferences | Crain's San Francisco

Women in tech find space to grow at conferences

The technical world is unmatched in its size and scope. More than 7 million Americans hold a tech job in some capacity, and $1.3 trillion from the tech industry is poured into the U.S. economy every year, according to technology association CompTIA.

Overwhelmingly, men dominate the field and the action in Silicon Valley. But it may not be that way for long. The movement encouraging more women to enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) and aim for the boardrooms has grown quickly over the past two decades, even if the numbers don’t always reflect that.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 25 percent of all computing-related jobs in 2015 were held by women, and only 1 percent and 3 percent of those were held by Latina and black women, respectively. The numbers have actually steadily declined over the past 25 years, after peaking at 36 percent in 1991.

More women than ever are going to college and obtaining STEM degrees. But somewhere along the way afterward, they are deterred. Attrition rates are high, according to NCWIT.org, with 41 percent of women quitting the tech industry mid-career compared with just 11 percent of men.

With the tech world ever growing, the recruitment and representation of women are more important now than ever. Appealing to young girls and women to raise the numbers is only half the battle, however. Companies need to work just as hard at retaining female employees and ensuring they have equal opportunities in the workplace.

Conference connections

One way the tech world is doing that is through the art of the conference. A weekend conference provides the perfect vehicle for attracting new talent, nonstop networking and varied skill-building workshops. And the ‘women in tech’ genre has taken to it like no other.

The most well-known conference for women working in technology is the Grace Hopper Celebration. Founded in 1994 by the women behind AnitaB.org, the celebration drew an initial crowd of about 500. Its popularity has since exploded, and in 2017 more than 18,000 people attended the conference from 81 different countries to hear from 800 speakers and take part in 400 sessions.

The team behind GHC tries to maintain a balance of academia and industry within its attendees. The team reserves about 30 percent of registrations for current college students and spend significant time throughout the year marketing their conference to universities and student organizations.

“Being at a tech conference of 10,000 to 18,000 people where 90 percent-plus of attendees are women is a unique and different experience,” said Elizabeth Ames, Senior Vice President of Programs, Marketing and Alliances at AnitaB.org. “The size, the energy and the amazing things that women are doing really shine through. It is life-changing for many of the women — and is also eye-opening for the men who attend.”

The women of GHC recognize the impact an event like their can have. Every year they aim not only to inspire and educate attendees but also to bring women together to reduce isolation they may feel in their male-dominated workplace.

AnitaB.org also offers events and workshops throughout the year at which “leaders in the tech industry can meet, network, and collaborate on ways to promote diversity,” according to the organization’s website.

Past keynote speakers at GHC have included Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg and Shirley Jackson. The 2018 edition of GHC will be held September 26–28 in Houston and is expected to be bigger than ever.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Diana Initiative, a smaller organization that put on its first conference in 2017. Their organization celebrates the diversity of women in information security and aims to educate the younger generations on pursuing careers in the field.

“It's wonderful to have the support and acknowledgment that we are doing something valued, that we are helping to make a difference. We listen to what our attendees say and [consider] any feedback on what people would like us to do or include,” said Cheryl Biswas of the Diana Initiative.

“We've learned what needs to be done in terms of formal organizational setup and administration so that we are responsible about how we run things. We've put structure in place, registered our entity as a not-for-profit, established a board and by-laws. That may not sound exciting, but a house is only as good as its foundation, and we want to be around for a long time,” Biswas continued.

The Diana Initiative will return for its second year August 9–10 in Las Vegas.

Back in the Bay Area, yet another marathon event for the female tech world is on the rise. Michaela Jeffrey-Madison co-founded the Women in Tech World Series with an inaugural conference in London in January 2016. Since then, the organization has executed or planned events in Amsterdam, Sydney, Dubai, Dublin and Scotland, with more to come.

The most recent outpost from Maddox Events was the Women of Silicon Valley conference that took place in San Francisco from March 21–22. The headlining keynote speaker for 2018 was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, and more than 800 people attended. Jeffrey-Madison knows that putting powerful and positive female role models on stage at her events is exactly what young women need to help them get ahead and make educated career choices.

“If you look at the growth in the number of businesses supporting our series — from 10 to 100-plus in two years — it is clear companies are starting to address gender inequality in large enough numbers to make real change. This makes me positive about what can be done on an industry scale going forward,” Jeffrey-Madison said.

Her organization has also introduced a new Women in Tech World Series Ambassador program. The idea is that tech women ‘ambassadors’ around the world will help the organization maintain the community throughout the year and in between conferences with more regular meet-ups. Having such a group of like-minded women can go a long way for those struggling with female representation at work, and Jeffrey-Madison knows how important that is in all industries.

“As we’ve seen from movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, gender equality is an issue that affects many industries,” Jeffery-Madison said. “Tech also has a long way to go, but we are increasingly seeing the issue being addressed.”Top of Form

February 23, 2018 - 2:27am