How one woman defied the gender gap by achieving a 50/50 gender ratio at a tech conference

Courtney Stanton was sick of going to video game and tech conferences that boasted stock-standard panels of men every time. In fact, she felt that these conferences were so dull that she developed a semi-hatred of conferences in general. In her own words:

“I always end up sitting in a room listening to the same four straight white men agree with each other on some panel.”

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Not only was she frustrated with her own experiences, but Courtney was annoyed with the tired excuse that not enough women apply to speak at conferences. She took matters into her own hands and created a new conference for game developers in her area with the secret agenda to “get as many women on stage as I possibly could.” Her not-so-secret agenda included other aims like making the conference affordable, not including any panels and ensuring the conference took place on a weekend (so attendees didn’t have to take time off work).

Working from the idea that a lack of speaker submissions from women is indeed the issue of gender-biased lineups at tech conferences, Courtney knew what her focus had to be:

“The easiest way I saw for getting more women on stage at the actual event was to get as many women to submit speaking proposals as possible.”

It turns out that this is actually really difficult. Women are notably less likely to sing their own praises, or to see themselves as worthy applicants for speaking positions at conferences. Of course, this backs up the reasoning that not enough women apply–but it doesn’t excuse the resulting gender-biased speaker line-ups. Sarah Milstein makes a great point on this topic:

“If your system of finding worthy students or speakers to promote is to have them come to you and ask, but a solid body of research shows that women won’t do so, you’ve institutionalized a gap”

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So Courtney approached the task of drawing female speakers to apply in a different way:

“I attended events and encouraged groups of women in person, I sought women out online, I met with women over coffee.”

Courtney begged, pleaded and cajoled women she knew and respected to submit applications. She went out of her way to track them down and speak with them individually about their topics of expertise and why they would be appropriate for her conference. Even with all of this effort, she still received more applications from men than from women, though only marginally (8 women and 10 men applied).

To keep the selection process fair, Courtney chose applicants based on their pitches only, without looking at the speaker’s identity or gender. The result was a 50/50 split between male and female speakers, which she counted as a success:

“I’m hoping that the women speaking this year will in turn encourage other women to apply… I’m hoping I run into fewer women who self-reject their ideas before I even get a chance to read them.”

Courtney’s not the only one promoting the diversity of gender-balanced tech conferences (in fact, her efforts inspiring the organizers of JSConf EU), but her post is a refreshing example of someone who is doing more than just complaining about the decisions of others, and actually making a difference.

  • Rob Findlay

    This is awesome. As a bloke who is trying to organise conferences with a genuine difference for the banking industry, I keep finding my speaker list fills with white, middle class guys. I am happy to learn from the approach Courtney took and find great women, and men, that simply deserve to be there. Can she help me with my events? There are some amazing women doing great things in our industry, they need to be celebrated, and for the most part, for that alone.

  • Pingback: What you need to do to get more women at your conference — or company | VentureBeat()

  • Charles Montgomery

    Go Girls!

  • Felicia Slattery

    Thank you for this refreshing article! As a professional speaker, who has appeared on many stages in the Internet marketing arena, as well as a speaker trainer, I tell my female clients all the time we have to GO AFTER WHAT WE WANT. So many women make the mistake of building a website, writing a few articles and then hoping the event planners will come to them, rather than finding the conferences where they can excel at presenting their area of expertise and serve the audience by providing valuable insights.

    Way to go Courtney for taking the difficult and time-consuming task of organizing your own event; not many people would go to those lengths – such an extreme way to get more women on stage in tech (or in any field, really). I always say speaking begets speaking; the more someone is on stage and being seen, the more others will get to know them, and the more they will be invited to speak elsewhere. Let’s keep it rolling for the benefit of everyone!

  • Cath Daley

    Something similar happened to me…..There was an international business Conference in Liverpool UK earlier this year and only 4 out of the 31 speakers were women. When I asked the organisers about why there weren’t more women speakers it I was told “well, there aren’t many are there?” It prompted me to run a fringe panel event called ” How do we get more women in the boardroom?” and got a tremendous response. I am now running a programme called STEP UP & STAND OUT designed specifically to help women leaders develop the confidence to be persuasive and compelling public speakers because we need more women role models with a greater visibility who can persuade and influence change.

  • Sonal Talwar