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62% of female keynote speakers experienced discrimination at tech conferences

A new report from Ensono asks: Will virtual events and workplace experiences be what the tech industry needs to make progress on closing its gender gap?

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Image: innovatedcaptures, Getty Images/iStockPhoto

Despite making strides in increasing representation for women panelists and speakers, conferences still feature design-biased features that make it more taxing and less comfortable for women to attend, according to Ensono’s second annual “Speak Up” report, “Speak Up 2020: Redesigning Tech Conferences with Women in Mind.”

As with the 2019 report, the study examined how women are represented at tech conferences and the systemic challenges without enough support for women to enthusiastically return. Ensono asked women about tech conference experiences and audited keynote lineups to determine the ratio of male-to-female speakers.

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A deeper look into how unconscious bias in conference design affects women’s experiences is a new feature for 2020, as is a look at diversity beyond gender. Women of color were asked about conference experiences. Ensono also examined the disparities in keynote lineups between all women and women of color.

COVID-19 affected established in-person conferences in a big way, with conferences canceled (SXSW) virtual (TechCrunch Disrupt, Dreamforce), but that doesn’t mean issues revealed in the Speak Up 2019 report were necessarily addressed.

Women are underrepresented

Women made up 28% of keynote speakers at tech conferences during the last three years, and women of color made up only 8%.  

The 2020 report found that 62% of female keynote speakers said they experienced discrimination first hand at an in-person tech conference, and 39% said they experienced sexual harassment. Further, 71% of women who delivered an in-person keynote speech did not feel conferences were designed with women mind: For example, bar stools are often used for onstage seating, but it puts skirt-wearing panelists at risk of a wardrobe malfunction, and the type of microphones used are designed for a (men’s) suit, rather than for a dress. Podiums and projectors are designed for larger men. Bags of swag are often geared toward male attendees. The top three conference features that are not designed for women: 60% furniture, 47% A/V equipment, 42% swag/facilities.

Taking this year’s tech conferences virtual addresses discrimination, harassment, and overlooked wardrobe concerns, but we are not out of the woods yet–not by far.

Despite wearing the challenging-to-don microphone, a McKinsey and Women in the Workplace report surveyed 329 companies and more than 68,000 employees found that 50% of women experienced being interrupted or spoken over and 38% had others take credit for their ideas. Being talked over and overlooked are issues women face, both in-person as well as in the new normal’s remote conferences. 

After failing to include any women-led keynotes in 2017 or 2018, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) finally invited women to give four out of its nine keynotes in 2019. In late 2019, Shoptalk, a major retail conference, announced all 2020 speakers will be women. Keynote representation isn’t everything, as the “average” attendee (usually) finds more valuable experiences on the floor, at booths, breakout sessions and networking events. 

Ensono audited 18 major global tech conferences, over three years, chronicling data to compare with the 2019 Speak Up report, and also surveyed 500 women from the US and UK who attended a tech conference in the past 12 months.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Key findings

  • 59% of women of color said they experienced discrimination at a tech conference, compared with 43% of white women.
  • In 2019, 18% of keynote speakers at tech conferences were white women, 14% were women of color, 68% were men.
  • Conferences may include sessions geared toward women, but lag in providing features that make it easier for women to attend, i.e. mother’s rooms.72% of tech conferences had amenities for women.
  • 56% had mother’s rooms, but only 24% of women surveyed have attended a conference with one.28% had conference-hosted women’s meetups.
  • 17% offered on-site daycare.11% provided a child-care stipend.
  • Room temperature affects men and women differently: 
  • Men perform cognitive tasks better when the room temperature is below 70-degrees, but women do worse.
  • Only 21% of those polled attended a conference with gender-neutral restrooms, which primarily exclude nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, too.

Lack of actionable guidelines for reporting misconduct

  • 60% of women have attended a conference with a formal code of conduct statement, which the report stresses conferences need, with provisions for anonymous reporting–the report specifies it is essential for sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination.
  • Only 20% of women in 2020 were unsure if any conferences they’ve attended had a code of conduct statement, compared with 49% in 2019
  • 84% of women said they believe that organizers adequately publicize their policies
  • Of the 59% of women of color who experienced discrimination, 63% said it was race-based, compared with 47% who said it was gender-based
  • Why women don’t report sexual harassment: 29% experienced it at a tech conference, 29% never reported it, 57% cited a lack of a formal or clear process for speaking up about misconduct


  • 30% of African-American and Latina women said a lack of diversity among speakers would keep them from attending future conferences
  • 80% of women of color said they were the only woman of color on a panel
  • 82% of women with a technical title said they’re more likely to stay with their company longer if they’re sent to more tech conferences
  • 61% of women said their company is more likely to send a man to a tech conference than a woman.
  • 49% of those women said it is due to unconscious bias, and 32% said it is blatant discrimination.
  • 39% of women who have given keynotes said they’ve experienced sexual harassment at an event, compared with 29% of women overall.
  • 62% of women who have given keynotes said they’ve experienced discrimination at an event, compared with 48% of women overall.
  • 45% of women keynote speakers experienced racial discrimination, 43% experienced gender discrimination, and 32% experienced sexual orientation discrimination

Strategies for improvement

The report wraps-up research with four actionable strategies for companies to drive diversity and inclusion efforts through their presence and sponsorships at conferences, promoting more opportunities for women, and creating a more equitable industry environment.

  1. Improve conference experiences for women. For virtual events, they could set out guidelines for representation and etiquette that they expect organizers to follow. They could also enforce consequences by refusing to send employees to conferences that do not meet those standards.

  2. Vet conferences and offer candid feedback. Companies should solicit feedback from employees after they return from a conference.

  3. Provide clear mechanisms for reporting misconduct, for example, conferences could print emergency numbers and other important info on the back of ID badges to ensure accessibility or to publicize etiquette rules for virtual meetings. Badges aren’t just for ID. The report cited at the 2019 Microsoft Ignite conference, attendees were offered badges that displayed how much human interaction the wearer was comfortable with as well as their preferred pronouns. These badges exemplify how simple changes can help conference attendees define boundaries and set clear standards of behavior.

  4. Empower employees to support each other, hold sensitivity training. 

Unconscious bias against women isn’t a problem that will be solved overnight, the report said. “Stereotypes about women exist throughout our broader culture, and most people absorb them at a very early age.” 

Companies, it said, “can take concrete steps to ensure the women they send to tech conferences feel safe and supported and have options to address any negative experiences they encounter. They can invest in internal resources that vet conferences and transmit attendee feedback. And they can equip their employees with the tools they need to support each other at conferences, whether in person or online.”

With these measures, more women will attend conferences and will be likely to return. “And maybe then the next generation of children will grow up with more female scientists, researchers, and engineers—and move the needle a little further toward equality.”

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