On women in tech/media cc @benjrooney @iotwatch @rsohoni

I have participated in the women in tech debate over the last few years somewhat from the sidelines. There has been so much said about the issue that I didn’t feel the need to add my voice to what is already a very active discussion. Today I’m choosing to make my thoughts known here because I have again been drawn into the ‘We asked women to be on our panel but they were unable to attend’ excuse, and I think it’s time I got all my thoughts, and some of the various bits of reading that have influenced my thinking in this area, in one place. Also, it’s not something I could have fitted into 140 characters.

The Wall Street Journal is opening up their Tech Café, a pop-up space in London’s Shoreditch, later this week, for the second time. They initially had 4 men on their panel of experts to discuss all things technology – though Ben Rooney, Technology Editor of WSJ Europe says this was not the case in response to a tweet from me on Friday. The entire conversation is here.

I wasn’t making the lack of female representation up; the WSJ Tech Café had not listed Reshma Sohoni on the website from the start, because when they initially listed their panelists a couple of weeks ago quite a few people noticed. Here’s what a group of us said online to my friend Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, founder of the Good Night Lamp and co-founder of the International Women’s Day Tech Showcase in London and an avid women-in-tech supporter, when she spotted it.

I looked to see whether Google have a cached copy of that all-male panel page to prove my point, but since the live page has been updated and still exists, archive.org weren’t able to shed any light on it.

So let’s assume that Reshma Sohoni was indeed ‘on from the start’, and that WSJ Europe forgot to add her name to the webpage till very recently. That doesn’t explain why Kadri Ugand, who Mr. Rooney says is also on the panel, has not been listed yet. But let’s assume that’s also an unintended omission – I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt – after all, event organisers are allowed to edit their speaker list till the day of the event.

Mr. Rooney’s other 2 points were that other women were invited but were ‘unable to attend’ and that these particular women were invited because ‘of the positions they held, not because they were women.’

To me, those two issues are very much intertwined, and are points that have come up in the past in similar discussions as well.

First, the ‘other women being invited but being unable to attend’ excuse is one outcome of the fact that there just aren’t enough women at the top, so the pool of selection is by default much, much smaller.  To understand why the pool is smaller, let’s dial back: the industry is biased against women right from the start. From getting attention as students while at university to getting to the top, the reasons for this are multiple and complex but I’ll call out the one reason for needing to encourage more women in tech (in this case, by actively looking for them) that has nothing to do with gender: it is good for business. In fact, from a media/PR point of view there are lots of interesting angles to consider, starting with these facts: the average venture-backed company run by a woman had annual revenues that were 12% higher than those run by men using an average of one-third less capital, and organisations that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE and 34% better total return to shareholders versus their peers.

This and more in the highlights of a white paper on the benefits of having more women in high tech by Illuminate Ventures.

So because the pool is smaller, organisers will have to search harder. It is DIFFICULT to find women qualified to speak, yes, but it is not impossible by any means. The only reason for not getting enough women to speak on a panel or conference is simply for lack of trying. If anyone would really like to get more women on their panel, please read these posts if you haven’t already: Courtney Stanton on getting 50% women speakers at her games conference after really looking at this issue long and hard and Matt Andrews on diversity in tech in 2013, reflecting on the recent Edge Conference’s complete lack of diversity of speakers. I think it’s admirable that the conference took this positively and now raise funds for Girls Who Code as an acknowledgement of the fact that women are under-represented in tech. I’d also like to commend dConstruct for their excellent line-up that makes no apologies in having excellent diversity of subjects and speakers. Articulate are also coming out with a women’s speaker directory to tackle this very problem soon; I’d urge you to fund it on Kickstarter when they launch the project at the end of October.

Second, Mr. Rooney’s comment that the women he invited were in fact invited ‘for the positions they held, not because they were women’. This is a common argument. Let’s assume that the remaining all-white male members of the panel who were invited were also invited for the positions they held, not because they were men. What was the general criteria for inviting people on the panel? Clearly gender and diversity weren’t an issue. The way I see it, there was a single one, which was ‘positions held’ or level of expertise. Fair enough, we all want qualified people speaking at events. So what positions were specifically being looked at? I ask so that more women can know what these criteria are and put themselves forward where possible and so that people like me can suggest qualified candidates where relevant. It’s the same question I asked Nikhil Pahwa, the organizer of Medianama, one of India’s bigger media conferences last year, who said that ‘no women met his mandate as a curator of the conference’.

Getting diversity of representation on a panel or event should be a priority for any organizer because they need to be grounded in reality: women make up 50% of the world’s population (therefore of the intended audience) and this should ideally reflect in a conference’s speaker composition. But also, and again, because this is how I’ve been trained to think working in advertising: it simply makes business sense. If you don’t have the kind of speakers represented that people want to see, your audience will start signing attendee pledges not to attend your event, because they’re an educated body of people themselves. The internet does that to you. It’s why I had initially rejected the idea of attending the WSJ Tech Café at all when I saw the 100% male line-up.

For what seems like the hundredth time that people have been pointing this out, I want to appeal to the media industry as a whole myself: if you don’t sort this out, you’ll be painting yourself into a corner because speakers are going to start signing speaker pledges too. I also want to say that this rant isn’t intended just at any one specific person – it is, as Martin Belam has said before, a problem for our entire industry and it is important that everyone in the industry, and specifically media publications with credentials, do their bit to change this.

That bit of the rant is over. But I’m not done yet.

Whether you’re a journalist, planner, manager or anyone in between, watch Megan Kamerick speak at TEDx Albuquerque on the issue of why we need women to represent women in media and then come back to read the rest of this post:

Amongst the very important things she says is the fact that 73% of top media management jobs are held by men, which affect the reporting, programming and campaigns that are created on issues that are relevant to (let’s not forget it) 50% of the audience. A publication’s reporting and stance on the world will affect the way its audience perceives it, its standing in the industry, and ability to influence global discourse. To me it is worrying when influential people and companies distance themselves from the issue like it just doesn’t matter – in 2013. I’m not saying the expertise and qualifications of a candidate don’t matter – they very much do and it would be stupid to suggest otherwise – no one attending a conference wants to see a speaker (whatever the reasons for selecting them) who is not interesting and well-read.

As someone who speaks on stage occasionally and attends conferences I can tell you that the best conferences are those with diverse speaker compositions (and I don’t mean just men vs. women but people from different parts of the world vs. just one, i.e the West – but that’s another topic for another day). It also works the other way: conferences that are 100% female are likely to be as unappealing as those that are 100% male, though they are much less common. The fact is that women happen to be as qualified to speak on the subject of tech and media as men, if not more in some cases. The fact that they are not always sought out the way men are is a failing on the industry’s part.

I come from India, where historically, by and large, women are treated as inferior to men – in the 2012 Trust Law poll by Thomson Reuters, India came second behind Saudi Arabia in how its women are treated. It is an issue which culturally manifests itself in tragedies like rape, female infanticide and dowry deaths. Anyone familiar with the country’s complex historical, religious and political past will know all of this; I don’t want to go into that now.

What I do want to mention is the media’s role today in influencing the future of the country – a country that is seeing worrying amounts of violence against women. Since December’s brutal gang-rape and murder, the media has definitely had a bearing upon the number of instances of reported rape in the country. This in turn focuses people’s attention on other socially relevant issues like the persecution of victims (and hopefully, in the future, the laws of the land), as you’ll see from this video below featuring two media personalities from India, released yesterday:

What does this have to do with a conference line-up, you may ask.

I’ve thought about this long and hard. When we have people in positions of influence (anywhere, but with regards to this post specifically, the media) implying that talented women are difficult to find for any reason, we perpetuate this myth that they don’t exist. That implies they are not worth our time, our respect.

When you do not give women the same respect that is due to men, it becomes a cultural issue.

I’d like to see that change.

Update, 6th October 2013: I did go to WSJ Tech Cafe in the end, where I had a long chat with Ben Rooney about this issue. In short, it all ended amicably; in fact the panel with Reshma Sohoni and Kadri Ugand that Mr. Rooney moderated was especially interesting for them being on it. Mr. Rooney and I discussed the roles and responsibilities of social media in general and the media as an industry, and agreed we live in interesting times as far as journalism and citizen journalism go.

You can watch the panel on how startups can get the most out of accelerators here (registration required).

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