This turned up on my twitter feed this afternoon and I wrote a piece, and then chose not to publish it for various reasons, the primary one being it didn’t really get my message through. It is by Maura, from Clinch, a HR start up.
I did not go to Websummit this year, although arguably, I had the time, if not the money. They got into some discussion immediately prior owing to the usual PR gaffe (not uncommon in this country) of using women as eye-candy for their Night Summit thing. They have a staff member working very hard to deal with their diversity issue, and per Maura’s piece, one of the things they did was invite a whole pile of women for free to come to Web Summit. I knew they were doing this but also, chose not to look into it for a few reasons. I already knew that where the real action was, women were noticeable by their absence, and that was on the stage.
I don’t really think it’s fair to ask Maura if it’s not a bit ick being given a free ticket to something just for being a woman. Sure, there’s a quid pro quo in that Websummit gets to feel a bit fluffier about their diversity figures which are, to be frank, pretty awful (but they are trying. Eamon Leonard wrote this on that subject back in September). The reasons for which people get free stuff varies and often, men get free stuff because they are men, but the underlying rationale isn’t as obvious. Being invited to play golf at expensive golf courses springs to mind, particularly when deals are being done. I don’t know if Websummit has done this and I’m not implying that they have; only that men receive things for free sometimes too, and very often it is because they are men. But it is unspoken.
The problem for me is that even if you give a couple of hundred tickets to women to go to Websummit, it does the grand total of nothing to deal with the gender diversity issue that the conference has.
The highest profile woman speaker at Websummit in 2014 was Eva Longoria. She was interviewed by Jemima Khan. Eva Longoria was there because she funds start-ups. Jemima Khan was there as a publisher. The interview, or some of it, is to be found on YouTube.
But…and here’s the but…neither of them are women in tech. Yes, Eva Longoria got invited to talk about her philanthropy and how it relates to technology but…it’s entirely likely we would haven’t seen her there doing that if she didn’t happen to star in Desperate Housewives. And to be perfectly honest about it, if I were to have gone to Websummit, I would not have wanted to hear neither Eva Longoria nor Jemima Khan speak.
The speakers on my wishlist were Rachel Schutt. Padmasree Warrior, Anna Patterson, Tony Fadell, Gavin Andresen, Stefan Weitz, John Foreman, Andra Keay, and Moe Tanabian. You can see the list of speakers here by the way (refers to the 2014 list at the moment, and I’m pretty sure that will change later).
But that’s way of an aside. Women are by and large missing from the stage of Websummit, and where they do turn up on stage, they are journalists, artists, surfers, marketers. Not that many of them are technologists. In fact, quite a lot of the speakers at the Websummit aren’t technologists anyway – seriously, I wouldn’t necessarily go to a tech conference to hear AC Grayling speak, and if I want to hear someone speaking from Aldabaran Robotics, I’d prefer her to be a technology person rather than a marketing person. I recognise that Websummit was pushing Sports and Food Summits as well – I don’t necessarily agree with it to be honest but it’s their business.
There’s a wider, far wider discussion to be had on what constitutes a tech company at the moment because a lot of techpreneurs are running what might best be described as retail companies rather than tech companies. The only reason I consider Amazon a tech company at all is because of AWS. But that’s by way of an aside.
The point I would ask myself, Maura, and people like her, and which I ask myself every day, is would I stand up on that stage or a stage like it to talk about technology. I’m not interested in standing on a stage to talk about women in technology – that’s too meta and it achieves nothing anyway other than to reinforce the problem rather than solve it.
I could take the easy way and say “I’d like Websummit to invite more women technology specialists (as opposed to ancillary support like marketing)”. But there is a hard way too and that is finding out how to be the kind of woman that I’d like to see more frequently on the stages of technology conferences. Talking about technology.