Author: Nicole Harris (GÉANT)
If you attended TNC15 in Porto you would not have failed to notice that we spent some time at the event addressing the issue of Women in ICT. This focus fitted well with the conference theme of “connected communities” and offered a chance to look at community connections from a human, as well as technical, angle.
Alongside the keynote dedicated to the issue, a Women in ICT panel (see this blog’s photo, showing participants in this session) and informal side meetings at the event, one of moments that stuck out for me came in a lightning talk given by Ann Harding: “Women in Research and Education Networking.” Ann invoked the “Rule of Daves” – that at any given technical event, the number of Daves will exceed the number of women. At the next set of lightning talks later in the week, Ingrid Melve took the opportunity to point out that there were quite literally more Daves than women talking in the session. Across both sets of lightning talks at TNC15 there were only 4 presentations by women out of a total of 31 – a 12.9% representation.
Some people might think this figure sounds OK. When issues of women, or indeed any other minority group, in ICT comes up the rebuttals are normally very similar. “That’s just a reflection of the make-up of the industry”, “it’s not fair to give women an advantage as speakers”, “talks should be chosen on merit and no other basis” or “it’s the fault of the way we teach children to choose subjects”.
I don’t think many of those arguments stand up very well but one thing I absolutely agree with – we should be choosing our presentations based entirely on merit. Another thing I was absolutely sure of – there are many women out there with skills that certainly merited 5 minutes on the stage at TNC16. When I was asked to coordinate the lightning talks for TNC16, I decided I had to do something about it. So I did.
I am very pleased to announce that at the lightning talks at TNC16 there will be 12 women speakers from 30 talks getting our representation up to 40%. This is a great reflection for the conference.
So what did we do differently? Very little.
Firstly, we made sure that there were women involved in the selection of the lightning talks.
Secondly we made sure that there was a robust and fair acceptance process for lightning talks. As these talks are now so popular, we are able to have the luxury to peer-review the proposals in the same way that all other proposals for TNC are reviewed. This ensured that all lightning talks were selected on a purely merit-judged basis.
Thirdly, I personally spent some time not only promoting the lightning talks, but also reaching out to many of the women in the field that I know. I did not promise them a slot, just let them know that the talks were happening and they would be welcome to submit. It was just a series of gentle invitations that gave the hint: there is a possible space for you, this event can be for you, this stage can be for you.
I specifically did not tell the lightning talk selection panel that I was doing this or that I had any agenda to increase female participation. Each of the selection meetings was driven by one topic and one topic only – would this proposal make a good lightning talk?
And that was it.
There are many barriers for women when it comes not only to working in the ICT industry but also to appearing as speakers at main ICT events. Some of the known and documented reasons:
- Women are more likely to decline or be overwhelmed with other commitments (both work and family).
- Women tend to be less confident that they have a good idea or the audience will want to hear it.
- Bias is shown by panels of even the most fair-minded people unless anonymous submissions are used.
- Awards for computing science degrees in the US have DECLINED from 37.1% in 1984 to just 12% in 2010.
With some very small adjustments to our behaviours we have managed to ensure that some of the issues are being addressed. There is more work that can be done, and in the blog I focus on only one minority area, but we are working towards making TNC a truly diverse and inclusive conference.