Going beyond gender for the agenda

We've all seen tech conference with only male speakers on the agenda. What would it be like to have a conference agenda populated only with women, but not a "women in tech" event? And what can this show us about increasing diversity in tech, not just for gender but for other under-representated groups as well?

women conference

In a time where tech conferences with all-male lineups are generating a lot of controversy over the lack of female speakers, you might wonder what it would be like to put on a tech conference with a high quality, all-female lineup. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to find out exactly that, as I attended Xconomy’s Tech Agenda 2015 in Boston.

The idea behind this year’s conference was simple: Create an agenda for discussing interesting and noteworthy trends in technology. And, secondarily, those speakers happen to all be women. Not a “women in tech” agenda, just women-who-are well-known-experts-in-their-particular-fields line-up. There were speakers discussing data visualization, financing and managing startups, mobile marketing, drones and robots, and computer security: widely useful and compelling topics.

On top of that, the conference organizers did not make a big deal of it being an all-female lineup of speakers. This was not intended as a publicity stunt, trying to draw in more attendees. It wasn’t until the last minute that they mentioned it at all. I spoke with one attendee who didn’t even notice, until the final panel, that the speakers had all been women.

You may be thinking, with the low percentage of women in tech roles, that filling the agenda would be a herculean task. But a low percentage of millions of tech workers is still an awful lot of people to choose from when you’re looking for a few dozen speakers. There is no shortage of excellent choices out there. Speaking with one of the organizers after the event, he told me that filling the panel slots in this year’s conference was no more difficult than usual. There were plenty of women who were happy to participate.

How did it work?

In practice, the content was a lot like you would expect at a tech conference: discussion of a lot of shiny, fun new things. Nothing particularly gender-focused. It wasn’t until the questions for the final panel that anyone even mentioned “women’s issues.” (And the question was about hiring women in tech, which is a problem that goes beyond gender – plenty of types of people are not adequately represented at present)

If the content differed at all from the usual, it was that the focus tended to be less about technical specifications and more about how these technology trends affect actual people and the future of how those people will interact with society: Business owners, consumers and clients, college students, pilots, farmers, hobbyists, mobile users, online shoppers and so on. For me, that made the content feel much more pertinent: I was better able to empathize with the problems discussed, and appreciate benefits of the solutions offered.

There was another unusual aspect of the agenda (that had little to nothing to do with gender, but which I thought really improved the quality of the content): Rather than a day full of one-way presentations spoken at the audience, most of the sessions were “fireside chats” or panels, which were more like a conversation among experts. People in different aspects of the specific industries were able to question each other and offer their own perspectives on what was relevant. And at the end of each session, members of the audience were able to add their own perspectives too. This, plus a relatively short 25-minute time limit, kept everyone very concise and on-point. Checking your email during a session meant a very high risk of missing a juicy tidbit of information.

So what?

I’m not saying we should all start organizing conferences where only women are speakers, as that would be just as lopsided as what is happening in a lot of conferences already. I found this year’s Xconomy’s Tech Agenda to be a fun and slightly stealthy way to make an excellent point rather than being a potential template for conferences going forward.

I felt like this highlights the need to do things a little differently both in how we hire and whom we recruit for speaking at tech events. Doing things the way they have always been done has only led to the same limited groups of people being hired and promoted. Especially given the shortage of qualified applicants out there, it is time to change our tactics to cast a wider net.

Instead of sending job notices and calls for papers to the same lists and sites we’ve always used, perhaps in the coming year we can all include some more diverse groups. Most major cities have MeetUp groups for women, people of color and LGBT programmers. There are also several popular educational initiatives that focus on these groups, such as Women Who Code, Black Girls Code and Code2040. By focusing more broadly, hopefully we can quickly make the current furor over diversity in tech a thing of the past.

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