It all started because of a bathroom Tweet.
Something serious for 1sec. Every ladies room I've been in was near empty. Although I'm grateful for the gender inequality that affords me quiet, empty bathrooms at these conferences, I'd take a long line at ladies room instead for a change #AWSreInvent #reInvent #reinvent2017
— lin classon (@lin_IRL) November 27, 2017
Lin Classon, director of public cloud product at Ensono, was at the Amazon Web Services conference in 2017, where she did what she’d done before: snapped a photo of an empty bathroom. With 40,000 people at the conference, she found it odd that the women’s facilities were empty and pristine.
She’d done this before, at another conference, but this Tweet had traction, gathering attention from women at the gathering and even internationally who could instantly relate – some of them Tweeting back photos of themselves in empty bathrooms at their own tech conferences.
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I have mixed feelings about this fantastic, completely EMPTY *ladies room* with lounge chairs & power outlets at a conference attended by ~50k #AWSreinvent2017 #reinvent2017 #wecandobetter #GirlsInSTEM pic.twitter.com/KvWECVPbYm
— lin classon (@lin_IRL) November 27, 2017
While an empty women’s room was nice, she told Ladders, “I would rather have traded the convenience for more women and the conference and in the industry in general.”
Attending conferences is important for people in many industries, and especially in tech. Classon attends two to three per year due to her role. First, there’s the direct matter of her job: “I need to understand the new technologies coming out, the new services our partners are rolling out,” she says. But there’s a secondary purpose: It’s a place “where you actually exchange ideas with your colleagues, and where you are building your network. You go, get your name out there. It helps you as you evolve along your career path.”
That’s why so many women in the industry are speaking out about how tech conferences are not friendly or representative to women.
Ensono, the company Classon works for, recently created a report about bringing more women’s voices to tech conferences – with more female keynote speakers, panel members, and attendees. The tech company surveyed, via a third party, 500 women from the U.S. and the U.K. who have been tech conference attendees.
For context, women hold 25% of computing jobs, by some estimates, with the representation of U.S. women in tech remaining flat over the last three years, according to McKinsey.
- On average, women made up 25% of all keynote or standalone speakers in the past three years. “Twenty-five percent is an average,” Classon says. [In some years], there were conferences where there were no female keynote speakers at all. Can you imagine what kind of message that sends out to women in our industry? Almost like, “You don’t belong here.” What kind of message are you sending to women who are just coming out of school and just choosing their career path? I always say, ‘You cannot believe what you cannot see.”
- There was only a 4% increase in the number of female speakers in tech conference lineups from 2016 to 2018
- Yet, 76% of women are more likely to attend a conference with a keynote speaker, panelist, or other types of program that features a woman.
- The “lone woman” problem: 70% of women survey who have sat on a panel at a tech conference report being the only woman.
- Sexual harassment is also a problem at conferences, with some creating a “code of conduct” for attendees as a result. For some reason, being at a conference with a code of conduct means a woman is more likely to experience sexual harassment.
Attending conferences – which are instrumental in professional development for men and women alike – is particularly difficult for mothers.
According to the report, the following had been witnessed by attendees:
- Mothers room – 26%
- Childcare stipend – 19%
- On-site daycare – 22%
- Conference-hosted women’s meetup – 29%
- Sessions geared towards women – 35%
- None of the above – 30%
“In the beginning of my career, when my kids were a lot younger and I wasn’t comfortable leaving them with somebody for three days, I would always go back to my manager and say, ‘You know what, I can’t go,'” said Classon. “Having kids and raising kids, we are forced to make the decision.”
If you have to skip conferences, “you’re on an uneven playing field,” Classon says. “I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing a lot of people in your industry.”
Classon suggests conference organizers could raise female attendance by providing accommodations to take care of children. After all, “We should never assume childcare will only benefit women,” she says. She says she has never seen on-site daycare in all the conferences she has attended. She also suggests offering a stipend for childcare for those leaving kids at home.
Ultimately, she said, it’s about everybody. “Having stronger female representation onstage is definitely the step towards true inclusion.”
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