Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Women of Silicon Roundabout conference - an enormous, two-day event at the Excel arena charged with promoting women in technology, and improving the gender imbalance that plagues the industry.
One of the talks I found most interesting was the ‘Win Together’ talk by Jen Grant from Looker. In order to improve the gender imbalance in tech, she suggests, we need more women only networking clubs. I’m not sure to what extent I agree with this, the idea of fighting exclusion with more exclusion seems juvenile on one level, and maybe even patronising. But the women-focused events that I’ve attended I have found incredibly inspirational, and so I have been battling an internal debate as to their place within the industry.
The initial response is that no one would dare create a ‘Men of Silicon Roundabout’ conference - the response would surely involve a public boycotting of sponsors fuelled by a bombardment of aggressive hashtagging - so why is this double standard so widely accepted, and even encouraged?
The fact is women are so incredibly underrepresented in technology that’s it’s an industry embarrassment. The struggle is real. As a whole, I think the industry accepts that addressing this imbalance will be beneficial for everyone, so if these events are doing anything to improve the imbalance, then I don’t think anyone can actually dispute them. And the events I’ve attended really are excellent - I challenge any woman that is becoming discouraged with the industry, and the exhaustion of working in a male dominated sector to attend Women of Silicon Roundabout and not walk away inspired. Everyone that left that conference left with a skip in their step, eager to do their part and help the campaign.
One of the more uncomfortable secrets of tech’s gender imbalance is not the industry’s inability to attract women, but the sheer rate to which women already in the industry are leaving it. My judgement would be that the reason so many women leave the industry is that it can be far harder to find a sense of belonging in a male dominated company, and the need for belonging is intrinsic to longevity in a career. I’m incredibly fortunate at Global Initiative that I do feel a strong sense of belonging to the team that I’m surrounded by - they make going in to work enjoyable; a feeling that I’m conscious to never take for granted. However I realise that many women won’t feel this sense of belonging to the people they work with - it can take years for relationships and trust to develop even in the best of companies. For those women, events like Women of Silicon Roundabout are crucial; if they don’t feel a sense of belonging to their team or company, finding a sense of belonging with a networking group within the industry could be enough to inspire them to stick with it when they are feeling discouraged, and to push through the challenges.
So whilst women are so underrepresented industry then I think events like these should be encouraged, and celebrated for everything they achieve. If they are truly a success, and the campaign is supported by a societal shift in its image of women in technical roles, along with industry outreach programmes, then maybe one day women focused networking events will do themselves out of a job. Once this is achieved, the incredible people behind these events can sit back and bask in a job well done, or find another cause that needs their expertise.
As I left the event on Wednesday the metaphor; ‘diversity is an invite to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance, belonging is dancing like nobody's watching’ really stuck with me. An incredibly uplifting metaphor, which I feel summarises what every company across every industry should strive for - be active in the pursuit of true diversity, create an ingrained culture of inclusion, and nurture a sense of belonging for everyone involved. Companies that achieve this, will surely be the ones to shape the future.