“Booth babes are strictly prohibited”, I read in the information booklet in advance of our exhibition at one of the world's biggest web conferences – the Web SUMMIT 2014.
Part of me was surprised that this information explicitly needed to be inked and part of me got a deeper feeling of why it still is important for women to stick together in the tech community.
Peering at the speaker stage in between of all the men blocking my view I could barely get a glimpse of the actress Eva Longloria as she looked at the crowd and spoke: “I can see there are a few women here. There aren’t many women in the tech space, thus you should all be mentors to other women!”
With only 15% female speakers at the conference it reminded me of seeing the TV series Silicon Valley, illustrating the overpopulation of guys in the IT world. And no wonder the guys where amazed by the girls there, because the girls attending were strong and passionate women with guts. And when we met we supported each other by sharing thoughts, network and best practice. I also met a lot of women building products and services for other women, yet there were so few of us.
“In tech we are the minority and it is always the minority that gets the hard time”, software engineer Louise Deason expressed in Wired Magazine 5th of August 2014, referring to the female population in the tech industry.
Maybe this is the reason why one girl, named Sarah Lamb, said she was tired of being the only woman attending technical events in London August 2005. Sarah founded what is called Girl Geek Dinners (GGD), an informal organization that promotes women in the IT industry. She might have been alone at the time, but today – 9 years later – the organization spans more than 24 countries and 80 cities all across the globe!
Sarah, as many other girls in the tech industry, had lots of nice male colleagues to discuss techy stuff with. What she did not have was a meeting place where she could discuss geeky tech stuff with girls – where girls were in majority!
With Girl Geek Dinners she decided to challenge the traditional gender balance at informal tech events. She would not exclude men from attending events and she would still like both women and men on the stage. Instead she introduced the traditional dating principle inverted. Any man could attend, but only as a formal invited guest of female attendees. This would ensure that women were never outnumbered at an event.
With the GGD initiative more girls than ever before have joined the tech event space. Apart from the rules of gender balance there is not much that differentiates the concept from any other IT meetup or tech event. Thus there must be something in the “girl power” movement that has drawn women to these meeting places.
“Net Girls” is another global organization for women working in IT and infrastructure. It is an informal organization without a website and the purpose is to create a waterhole where no men are allowed. A place where women in tech can support each other and reflect upon challenges in a high tech space.
Emilie Carlsson, Marketing Manager at MediaTek Labs, whom which I met on my plane heading back home, told how the initiative first started: “In the beginning the Net Girls got together to make the environment more secure because the men where hitting on them all the time sending sexist comments. At a conference with 80 people, there was a Ted Talk and I had a talk myself. A question I got was: are you married? You are very pretty, so if not I will marry you. My first thought was: what am I wearing? Something that has encouraged them to say so? This would never have been acceptable to say to a man. And I think it is even harder for younger women, because you don’t know where the limits should lie and how to react”.
Like me, Emilie had also been exhibiting at the Web SUMMIT and she had been busy talking with thousands of people at the MediaTek booth. Still, she had noticed there were no female speakers at the Machine SUMMIT stage this year. There might be something to the “mentor” message. As there are so few women in the tech space it is our job to be visible and speak up. Thus we need to celebrate all the great initiatives and support each other when we do so!
On 12 November, Girl Geek Dinners in my hometown Trondheim celebrates its one-year anniversary. GGD Trondheim has managed to build a society that one year later has inspired more than 400 girl geeks, which is quite good relative to the size of the city.
As a tech female I have experienced lots of strong and brave women speaking up at conferences and in the innovation space, and the females are growing in numbers year by year. I believe we should celebrate anyone that accomplishes great stuff in the tech community, be it a man or a woman. However, I feel sure that the female communities help build stronger ties and support between women entering the tech space, thus growing stronger day by day. It is all about supporting and encouraging girls when they think tech is fun, and we need more of it – much more!