I was at an amazing conference last week. The combination of a great setting, a warm and welcoming crowd - and a novel format that had us outdoors as much as we were in - led to a feeling of progress and connection that I don’t often get at events with a similar technical context. Something else I noticed was that there were far more women in attendence than I was accustomed to seeing in the tech world more broadly.
Let’s be clear: this is a very low bar to be leaping. In a decade of working in various corners of this industry, and despite lots of observed corporate lip service to gender equality, I’ve found women to be so outnumbered by men as to be nearly anomalous, particularly in the engineering-adjacent patch that is remote sensing and geospatial software.
But last week it seemed that women were omnipresent, delivering many of the technical talks, leading discussions, and providing local beta. At least one breakout session I was in had a greater number of women in attendence than men. So when the time came - at the end of the conference - to itemize the positives and negatives of the experience, I spoke up. I said I was pleased that
. . . the proportion of non-dudes to dudes was much higher than I’ve encountered at other events like this.
When we got to the negatives column, I was corrected. In fact, another attendee noted, the proportion of women at the conference topped out at 25% - not even close to parity, and a sad indictment of my sense of the group’s exceptionality. (And the gender imbalance was a diversity bright spot, considering that nonwhite attendees were all but absent.) I was embarrassed and horrified. My perception had failed me.
I had stumbled on a well-documented cognitive tripwire that seems to afflict me and my fellow dudes. A conference attendee later shared some notes from a few studies on the matter of perception and gender balance:
- Men have a tendency to dominate conversations in groups where women comprise less than a large majority.
- Men tend to think that women are dominating converstions when they occupy 30% or more of a discussion’s duration.
- Both men and women can wildly overestimate the proportion of women in certain groups.
The most biting irony of this situation is that I had come across these studies and statistics before, but still ran headlong into the misperception. I’m confident that now, with the shame of a public insertion of my foot into my mouth, I’m not going to forget to run the numbers in the future.
But what else can be done about this? What about the broader issue that the conference was indeed made up of 75% dudes? It’s one thing to be aware of the limits of our perceptions, but how can we move the needle on equity and inclusion? Of course - in a deeply meta way - whole other conferences are dedicated to this topic. The breakdown of the tech workforce is just a tiny fragment - an echo - of a battle that’s been raging since 1863, 1920, 1973, and a hundred important benchmark dates before and between. Thousands of solutions have been proposed, some have been incrementally successful, others have been abandoned.
Other attendees floated some possible ideas for the next iteration of the conference, but the problem is a hard one. How can we make a gathering of this kind look more like our country?