We’ve heard the criticisms that there were fewer black women speakers than white men at Grace Hopper Celebration in the past, but event organizers heard our complaints and created an entire conference pathway and new grants for “women of color from underrepresented groups and women from untapped pathways.”
We feel better now that our panels include hijabi and transgender women. The work done by women of color and others to broaden our understanding of diversity and inclusion in these spaces cannot go without recognition.
But at the end of it all, my question after a long day of panels and handshakes is, why? What are we really doing here? What ideas are we planting and fostering behind our massive paywall? Are we breaking down barriers for future generations, or simply congratulating ourselves for reaching the upper echelons of women who have vaulted them? Are we pushing to change toxic systems, or asking women to change themselves to navigate them?
Who are we benefiting and elevating with our efforts?
What we can say about the majority of corporate women is that we are currently wealthy and educated. What we can say about many corporate women in the American tech sector is that we are white or Asian-American, heterosexual, abled and a plethora of other dimensions of privileged. Through most of our women in tech events, we self-select into a space where others are educated like us, or aspire to be educated like us, and erect barriers to the tune of thousands of dollars and up to a week off from work/school. Conferences tout scholarships to offset the cost of attendance for the up and coming generation of tech women, but often times those students are required to show existing proclivities to STEM.
Extending resources to students who already have exposure to STEM biases our outreach to those with privilege already; low-income schools in California are four times less likely to offer AP computer science A courses than high-income schools, according to an independent study done by the Kapor Center. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a case to allocate resources any other way when these events rely on corporate sponsorship and attendance and a business case must be made for return on investment (re: tech talent pipeline).
The following is a (non-comprehensive) list of recommendations for improving the way we build power as women in tech:
1. Increase economic accessibility by supporting smaller conferences
Attending a conference costs more than its ticket price, so increasing accessibility must be more comprehensive than offering scholarships. Some examples of questions to ask ourselves as organizers: will attendees with mobility needs spend more than others for their travel and lodging? Are students who receive financial aid more fearful about taking days off?
At first glance, these questions seem like they can be addressed by throwing money at the problem — more scholarships for disabled and lower-income attendees, easy! But trying to level the playing field in this manner is an exercise in futility; bringing a few lucky underprivileged people into our space does little to address the underlying hierarchy. A better way to look at it is to ask how we can make the benefits available to those of us with privilege equally accessible to those with less.
Smaller, regional events usually cost less to host and attend and spread value more widely. New speakers can practice leadership, attendees can network with professionals in their local area, and students can receive more attention and mentorship. Resources move into local communities and nonprofits instead of into recruiting pipelines for tech giants. Some examples of regional conferences targeting minorities but with more granular goals are CodeNewbies, AfroTech and Take Back Tech. These are the efforts we need to support if we want to effectively grow power in our communities that don’t already have it.
2. Focus on systemic change
If every takeaway from your event is how women can change their actions, then it might be a shallow event. Women and others are not held down because we cry at work, or because we take maternity leave, but because of how those around us perceive those things. Challenging ourselves to change our perceptions is more difficult but ultimately more valuable than stifling our authentic choices and personality to be more convenient.
It’s important to ask ourselves why we, a group of traditionally mistreated professionals, are gathering. Why are we sharing our stories of vulnerability and to what end are we building our collective strength? Marginalized people coming together helps consolidate our power so that we can change the system we’re in. It’s a form of collective action — when dozens of women want maternity leave, their employer is more inclined to provide it than when one woman asks alone. When multiple women talk to each other and realize they’ve been harassed by the same co-worker, they feel empowered to do something about it. We organize and gather so we can change injustices.
Conversations where the whole room may not agree with you can be more impactful than the ones that earn you the most laughs and nods. Challenge your audience; discomfort is where we grow. If you’re holding an event for allies, make them earn the title of ally. Catch yourself when you fall to the instinct of making everyone feel good when your goal is to make a difference.
3. Support grassroots-led change instead of corporate-lead change
Let’s not forget who the greatest winners are after a Women @ Qualcomm weekend, a Microsoft Women in Technology Event or Grace Hopper Celebration — the event organizer.
They recruit from the highly qualified pool of attendees while cultivating positive PR for valuing diversity, gaining much more overall than any one individual, though a single person may stand to gain from the opportunity. Companies have made a major push for students and employees from underrepresented groups to stay in the “tech talent pipeline.” As from any affirmative action, there are positive outcomes from that, but there are also studies that find that the pipeline has not addressed deeper issues with workplace cultures, power asymmetries, and harassment.
Put another way, companies often recruit diversity in ways that bring value to themselves without taking responsibility for the quality of life of those within the pipeline. It’s important to remind ourselves that these are not purely philanthropic goals for corporations and that recruitment and retention are to their benefit. At the very least, we're entitled to substantive policy change in exchange for our labor.
Grassroots and community-led change is better than corporate-led change if our goal is to empower and further the opportunities for women. We must create opportunities for leadership and support efforts that truly build our strength. We should be fearless in asking for real change. By all means, do the work within the companies and within the mainstream conferences if that empowers you, but be wary of the ways that you might be keeping power in already powerful communities and keep your goals in sight. Don’t be afraid to ask why, even for things that seem to have the best of intentions. Even well-meaning systems can perpetuate harmful power dynamics if those of us within them aren’t constantly questioning and pushing back.