Utility Nav

Women in tech — what to do?

The huge success of last month’s Dublin Web Summit helped to focus attention on how few women were participating – less than 10%, and many of those were moderators and not speakers.

Trouble is, there’s nothing new about this.   The lack of women speakers at the Web Summit was also commented on in 2012, and 2011.   In fact, little has changed in terms of women’s participation in science, technology and engineering in a whole generation.

It’s nearly a quarter-century since I called friends and colleagues together to set up the Women in Technology & Science (WITS) network, just as Mary Robinson was elected our first woman president.  Heady days.  Yet, a generation later, we still have relatively few women in senior positions in academia and industry, and on state boards in science and technology.

The pace of change is truly glacial.  So, if we want to see meaningful change, then clearly we need to intervene with a range of initiatives, before society misses out on yet another generation of women’s talent.

Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave is someone who likes to make an impact, judging by his many projects – so what better impact, for his 2014 Summit, than to aim for at least 25% women speakers? And to hit an equitable 40% by, say, 2017?    The Dublin summit has the scope and scale to be an agent of change, and make a real difference.

And so here are a few suggestions on how to achieve those targets . . .

Send out women talent-scouts

If I read Una Mullaly’s report on the Summit right, Summit co-founder Daire Hickey attended events around the world in search of potential women speakers.  This is a good start. . . but, clearly this and the Summit’s other women-friendly initiatives (such as discounted tickets, and events) are not enough.

Elsewhere, Mullaly has written about why most casting directors are women. So perhaps there is a good reason to send some women in Hickey’s place instead — Mullaly herself, perhaps, along with other experienced women tech writers such as Karlin Lillington would make excellent talent scouts.

Mentoring and role models

Ask all of this year’s women speakers to send, or bring with them, another woman speaker for next year. Many women are shy about putting themselves forward, but may be more likely to participate if they are being encouraged and minded by a role model who has ‘been there, done that’.

Many potential women speakers presumably also think the Summit is not for them. Yet the popularity of talks such as the history of computing by Leonard Kleinrock, show that there is potential for a wide range of topics.

Ban the ‘booth babes’

We shouldn’t even have to suggest this.  Since when did Top Ten Tips for Tech Success include hiring some booth babes? If your business is worth bringing to the Summit, then it should not need to sell women’s bodies to attract attention.  Get back to the drawing board guys, and lose the babes.  Figure out what’s great about your business idea, and pitch that. You’ll end up with a better pitch, and maybe even a better business idea.  Your investors and customers will thank you.  So will your mothers and sisters, your girlfriends and wives, and your daughters. Let’s have some respect.

So, in summary

Dear 30-year-old me*. . . The good news, is that WITS will go on to achieve many successes.  In 2013, 10,000 people will descend on Dublin for a techie conference. And a few weeks later, seven (yes, seven!) women’s organisations will gather for a sell-out “women in tech” event later this week, under the hashtag #WeAreHere.  The bad news is that there is still lots to do.  But with the current focus on the issue, here’s hoping big change is on the way.

Mary Mulvihill is a science writer and editor and her company, Ingenious Ireland, develops geeky tours of  Dublin.  She was the founding chairperson of WITS in 1990, and she has edited two books on the lives and legacies of historic Irish women scientists and pioneers.  Before all that, she was a research geneticist and statistician, but that’s another story.  

*An ad reference that already sounds dated 😉

One Response to Women in tech — what to do?

  1. Heidi Jermyn November 27, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Thanks for the post Mary. I also attended the WebSummit this year and noticed that there were very few women speakers and those that were up on stage were usually moderating. I guess I just don’t understand why it is so very very difficult for the WebSummit scouts to source female speakers! Why is it so hard?? It’s especially galling when some of the men on stage were really riding on their so called charm and an impressive job title – with very little to say that was original or even particularly interesting. One guy even had the audacity to comment about his “last minute” slides after a night on the beer. Surely they could have got some better – even a woman! – to replace this kind of quality.