CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION BEYOND WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL MONTH CO-CREATING CHANGE FROM SILICON VALLEY TO EVERY VALLEY
March 2019 was a powerful month of storytelling around #balanceforbetter. Women’s History Month continues to not only elevate and celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world, but also highlight the challenges and barriers that persist, without reason, to place hurdles in the way of women who are striving to dream, create impact and thrive in society. With respect to the world which I can speak too, technology, we continue to see the same bleak data and hear the same frustrating stories that indicate that the needle on diversity and inclusion has only moved a millimeter– not even an inch.
While the numbers remain discouraging, we do have to recognize and applaud the small disruptions in the status quo. Yes, there are a few victories to highlight, which include more intentional data collection on the STEM pipeline, more inclusive story sharing and rethinking how institutions can do better by involving diverse talent and perspectives. In fact, by looking into the problem, new data and research has enabled the media to place a high beam on the lack of women in STEM, the lack of women reaching higher levels of leadership, and the absence of women in thought-leader positions i.e. speakers and panels at conferences.
The small victories are commendable, but we are stuck in a cycle of one article after the other, across a number of contributors and publications, showing that the technology sector is in boom, and yet, there is a women and under-represented groups problem. A 2018 Atlassian report indicates that a lack of intentional action is the culprit. And to think our tech sector prides itself on taking intentional action to solve problems quickly. We have the numbers, we have the stories, so let’s take some action and solve for diversity, inclusion and equal representation (and pay!) that has confounded our work environments and society for so long.
So, let’s all of us, however we may identify, take the power and energy from the month of March to the next! And so, what better way to continue the conversation than at conferences? In my view, the best way to solve an issue has always been to listen to stories from the communities most affected by the issue to learn how to lead or support change. That is, solutions must be catalyzed and driven by community and what better platform to reach hundreds if not thousands of people, than conferences which have become ubiquitous?
An upward trend of tech conferences should mean that there are more opportunities for diverse speakers and new keynote speakers and panelists. However a study by Ensono shows that on average, only 1 in 4 keynote speakers identify as female and only 30 percent of panelists are women in a given year. The number of keynote speakers has not budged and the number of panelists is only slightly higher than when the issue was first brought to light in 2013.
An upward trend of tech conferences should mean that there are more opportunities for diverse speakers and new keynote speakers and panelists
Let’s create space, opportunity and more importantly, for those of us who don’t see folks like ourselves present at the table or on platforms, let’s take the mic, shall we?
YES! Pass the mic! I’m waiting… and waiting… WAIT, no, thanks.. I don’t want to be the token women on panel!
–> Call to Action: If you know excellent subject matter experts, email organizers prior to the conference and highlight names of thought-leaders. If you’re an organizer, look to the number of resources at your fingertips such as searching the Women’s Speaker Initiative or partner with the 50/50 pledge. Expand your search by reaching out to community-based organizations that do the on-the-ground work to create inclusive expert tech communities. Many of us are putting together resources to help conference organizers help the tech ecosystems that they wish to move and inspire. The waiting time for the mic to passed is up. We’ll politely take the mic and help you pass it along.
OK, OK! WE KNOW WE HAVE A GENDER PARITY PROBLEM AND WHATEVER WE DO, THE NUMBER WON’T BUDGE!
–>Call to Action: Diving into the (macro) data to lift (micro) stories and data to set new standards. The only way to make the numbers budge is to hold tech spaces (conferences, work spaces, after work spaces) to a higher standard of inclusivity. But it’s important to ask your community why and continually improve key indicators. As someone who plows through data to uncover interesting truths to make “evidence-based” improvements, it’s evident that you can’t solve problems at their root by recycling aggregated stories and data. However, if you build your understanding from the micro-level and start to involve individuals and elevate their stories, then you enable those most affected to use the tools that actually work, to change a broken system. By understanding your own environment and community and commitment to reform, a domino effect takes place. This domino effect is often called systems change which comes in the form of setting an example for other systems to take note and to commit to reform as well.
I CAN’T FIND SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS FOR MY CONFERENCE THAT ARE WOMEN…
–>Call to Action: Along with the resources for organizers shared above, it is critical to reach beyond your own network and community and partner with community-based organizations to ask for help in diversifying panels as well as highlighting and elevating those organizations. You and your organization can’t reach the people you need without the help of others who are day in and day out interfacing with the people and voices you are seeking to include within your conversation. So, just because you did a google search and you did not find a speaker within the first 10 search results, or the first few experts are too busy to join your event, it doesn’t mean there aren’t abundant subject matter experts willing to lead conversations. Ask the community leaders where these experts are to bridge the introduction and conversation.
I’LL SKIP ON THIS CONFERENCE. I’VE ALREADY HEARD ALL THESE THOUGHT-LEADERS SPEAK
–>Call to Action: I commonly hear from friends and colleagues that they will not attend ‘this conference or that’ because the speakers and perspectives are repetitive. It is important to not only cast a wide-net in the search for established experts but also create opportunities for experts who have not been given a platform in the past. Personally, as a frequent attendee to ‘this conference or that’, I’ve noticed that many of the speakers (male and female) are the same as previous conferences I’ve attended–across the nation and around the world. Conferences serve as vehicles of fresh perspective and insight that are intangible on other platforms. So seek out new voices, new speakers who haven’t spoken before, and more importantly, find perspectives that move the conversation forward, instead of recycling conversations on an endless loop!
AS A MALE, THERE IS NO PLACE FOR ME AT WOMEN’S CONFERENCE OR A WOMEN SPECIFIC PANEL. I DON’T WANT TO INTRUDE.
–>Call to Action: Reaching gender parity in audience and learning spaces is key to effecting change! When I’ve promoted a women’s panel or conference, I always make sure that my industry friends and even close friends, regardless of gender know to attend. I ALWAYS get texts and emails from folks who attended highlighting the value add they derived from attending the panel or conference. This is also why I enjoy supporting Persian Women in Tech (the case study below). Persian Women in Tech is very intentional about not only creating a space that is comfortable for speakers to share authentic stories, but the organization also does a great job at marketing their events to diverse attendees to come and learn how to be better allies or just come and learn about technical topics in general. As the attendees diversified, so did the initiatives of the organization which hosted its first WoMENA in Tech Conference last February.
**NOTE: While in the case of Persian Women in Tech I use diversity to represent gender and ethnic identities, diversity does not end there. We must also be intentional about being inclusive in representation and consideration of identities with diverse abilities and life experiences– even if they aren’t always visible or disclosed.
The Persian Women in Tech Approach: Inaugural WoMENA in TECH Conference 2018
I am proud to advise a nonprofit, Persian Women in Tech, that truly gets it. From its founding, PWIT has provided a critical and positive space for women of Iranian heritage to gather, share stories, and empower one another to thrive in a sector that is experiencing the continued exit and decline of women. PWIT was founded out of a need to connect Persian women to more technical opportunities. To our delight, many women and men with MENA heritage have participated in our community and have helped us build stronger networks to accelerate, support, and propel women of diverse backgrounds in the 12 national and international cities that we have a presence in. PWIT has used the powerful force of storytelling and mentorship to target both explicit and implicit bias against women. While we elevate Persian women in tech through speaking and professional opportunities, our events have always been open to ALL people in the technology space. PWIT has built community, partnerships, and friendships based on one simple foundational value–pay it forward. Our members, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or other, come into the space to give, rather than receive. This is why as a community we have grown so fast and have catalyzed a number of positive changes.
Our core philosophy seeks to ensure that our women and girls all over the world, regardless of the media, flawed societal narratives, and unfounded perceptions, have the equal opportunity to THRIVE–and not only in the areas of STEM but multiple disciplines required to advance our economic, social, and political spaces equitably in parallel with our advances in technology.
SO, HOW DID THE INAUGURAL EVENT GO?
On Saturday February 10, 2018, Persian Women in Tech held its inaugural Women of MENA in Tech Conference to highlight the profiles of women of diverse backgrounds in tech and to ignite the conversation about support, role models, talent, opportunities and how companies, organizations and individuals can help change the dialogue and break new grounds in Diversity and Inclusion. Dr. Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space explorer set the tone by sharing her journey from Iran to America, and her childhood dreams of stars and the world beyond ours. Dr. Anousheh Ansari said to, “continuously educate yourself, and expose young girls to the world so that they see the opportunity that they can be changemakers.’” You can’t be what you can’t see. That’s why conferences are important and that’s why diverse reach and attendance are critical!
The conference echoed a unifying arc that as technology becomes more integrated in our society and creates a new paradigm, it is up to us to be intentional about equity, inclusion, and diverse representation in the space. The 2018 Women of MENA technology conference was, and continues to be, first of its kind, bringing together speakers and attendees that have been powerful catalysts of change, coming together to connect and evolve ideas of bettering the technology landscape from within Silicon Valley and beyond. In the panel on How Organizations are Transforming Workforce Cultures, Pamela O’Leary, Diversity & Inclusion Expert, said it best: “What we figure out here in Silicon Valley has ramifications around the world.” So let’s be intentional about diversifying the message we send out here in Silicon Valley and watch it change the world even more profoundly than the technology we create here. And so, to make sure that these messages resonate beyond Silicon Valley, the WoMENA in Tech Conference will be held in a different global city each year.
“What we figure out here in Silicon Valley has ramifications around the world.”
-Pamela O’Leary, D&I Expert
You see, the founder of PWIT, Sepideh Nasiri expanded the impact of the organization, by creating a space for not only Iranian women and men but the entire MENA region as a whole. Nasiri asserts that, “as our movement blazes through the traditional rhetoric and expectations of Silicon Valley and the tech industry across the globe, we rally ALL stakeholders to set the stage for more diverse participation in the workforce.” So far, what Nasiri has accomplished with PWIT and the WoMENA in Tech conference is to ignite a fire in every missing voice to step into the leadership required to change the conversation, the image and the opportunities available for all technologists. Nasiri continues “without representation, you do not have the voices to drive change. It is our responsibility regardless of gender as organizers, as company and community leaders to be intentional about setting an example and catalyzing change.”
“As our movement blazes through the traditional rhetoric and expectations of Silicon Valley and the tech industry across the globe, we rally ALL stakeholders to set the stage for more diverse participation in the workforce.”
-PWIT Founder, Sepideh Nasiri
We All Need to Come Together to Build Community
–>Call to Action: We can’t go at this alone. Let’s ensure accountability to make sure that conferences and the learning spaces we curate as organisers are purposeful and intentional in sharing a diverse range of perspectives. Beyond calling out the lack of representation, we can encourage our colleagues to apply to speak and/or with their permission, share their profiles with organizers. Additionally, we need to create a company culture that invests in their employees to speak, attend or volunteer at conferences as well as to sponsor conferences that are getting the diversity and inclusion piece right! Individuals and companies need to lead by example! Change happens from grassroots as well as top down. So, pass the mic, take the mic and let’s together, build a more diverse and inclusive 2019 and beyond.
As Persian Women in Tech states on their website, “our technology landscape would not exist without the achievements and contributions of incredible tech women pioneers throughout history—and the communities and teachers who support them. When we all support, assist, and encourage each women’s achievements, incredible things happen, and new ground is broken”. On June 22nd, 2019, Persian Women in Tech is breaking new ground in London at the iconic London City Hall. Join the conversation. We need your voice!
Companies: How are you moving the needle on Diversity and Inclusion? Speak. Exhibit. Sponsor.
Article Contributors: This article would not be possible without the contributions of Sougol Shoushtarian who captured key quotes and insights from the inaugural event on February 10, 2018.
I would also like to acknowledge Ali Jeffery Razfar, our 2018 photographer for the wonderful images sprinkled throughout this article.