Encouraging women to attend your conference

I have just come back from an excellent PHP NW 2009 conference. Yes it was great because of the content, the atmosphere, and the people; but it was also great as I considered it a very female friendly conference. I’ll be blogging about the conference elsewhere. This post is about how conference organisers can support and encourage women at their conferences using the conference as an example of good practice.

PHP NW 2009 was a one day formal conference with a social on the night before the conference and more informal talks session on the Sunday morning, the day after.

Personally I feel uncomfortable entering a room mostly full of men. It’s not that I feel unsafe its just that I feel that many many eyes will suddenly be looking at me, appraising my appearance, my age, my potential skills, all in that single moment. I want to see a friendly face so I tend to gravitate to other women in the room. As I am a member of PHP Women prior to PHP NW I tweeted suggesting we met at the social and had a dinner together. I got a few replies and on the Friday night a few of us had a great curry in a near by restaurant. At least one at the table was a woman who didn’t know about PHP Women but seemed pleased that we were there and she had a group that she could hook up with.

The following day was the main conference. There were both men and women assisting with registration and a fair few of the conference assistants were women. This, to me, made the event less threatening and allayed my nerves. Also one of the main organisers is LornaJane adding to the strong female presence. PHP Women had a visible table in the main conference area which gave us a place to congregate between talks and somewhere for other women to come and find out about the group.

There were a respectable number of women among the speakers. LornaJane gave one of the two talks that followed the keynote; Sara, one of the core PHP developers, had travelled from the US and talked on the Sunday about the new features PHP 5.3; and there was a talk about UTF-8. The women weren’t chosen as speakers because they were women but because they were good speakers with interesting talks. But it all helps. It gives a feeling, to me anyway, that we’re not a curiosity, we’re just developers like everyone else attending a conference which is how it should be.

So you want to encourage women to attend your conference review this check list and ask yourself whether you’re doing enough.

Women Organisers

Try an ensure your main organising committee has both men and women. For one thing you’ll get a more rounded set of ideas due to different experiences and social history but also it should give the conference a more women friendly feel, especially when other women see there are women organisers.

Women speakers

Women are the minority in the IT industry. That I can’t deny. However there is no excuse for having a completely male set of speakers. You don’t have to have positive discrimination or affect the calibre of your speakers by choosing a female speaker as there are plenty of good women speakers knowledgeable in a variety of topics. Have a look at GeekSpeakr for example.

Women staff

Registration is the first time delegates get a chance to decide the tone of a conference. Ensure you have a mixed staff at registration. Also ensure there are some women available at all time during the conference because there may be issues that women are uncomfortable bringing up with a male member of staff.

Personally I don’t really have a problem with the ‘Booth Babe’ but if that’s the only women that women delegates see then that does far more damage than if they weren’t there at all. Try and keep some balance. PHP NW’s ‘uniform’ was generally unisex t-shirts carrying the sponsors logos, jeans and sneakers. Perfect.

Women friendly talks

Strongly encourage your speakers to be aware of women delegates and to pitch their talks appropriately. Unfortunately at one conference I attended this year two of the talks had slides with questionable content for example scantily clad women. Infamously both Richard Stallman and Mark Shuttleworth have been blatantly misogynist recently in their talks. One bad speaker can ruin a whole conference.

Support the women’s groups

The are various groups such as PHP Women, LinuxChix, DevChix, Systers, etc. who would more than be happy to have a presence at your conference. Help them out by having a table or booth in a prominent position and donating a couple of tickets. Such booths give women a focal point to congregate.

Post conference feedback

Finally in your post conference feed back try and get the opinion of women delegates and take note of any ideas they have as to improving the conference for women next time. Please try not to be defensive and if something unfortunate has happened just apologise, don’t try and qualify that apology you’ll just make it worse.

The opinions above are purely my own and I may get some flak from them. Also I know the list is in no way comprehensive or complete. If you have any further ideas I would be interested to hear from you. May be we can produce a definitive guide.

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