Women Only Conferences

Last modified on June 23rd, 2009

So, I gotta ask, and I’m probably going to get raked over the coals for doing so. I’m curious as to why there are so many technology events that focus exclusively on women? Some of them actually look pretty good, and I’m actually a bit disappointed that I can’t attend. In fact, some of the people I really look up to in the community are female, which makes it all the more disappointing that I’m excluded by nature from some conferences.

And that’s really my question I guess — why can’t I attend some of these events? Obviously there are a lot of women in technology these days. I’d be the first to point out that there are still more men (at least, the statistics tell me), but walking around Northern Voice or WordCamp San Francisco, I really couldn’t say whether there were more men or women there, which to me sort of implies it was roughly the same.

It reminds me actually of a time about ten years ago when there was an event in Vancouver called Take Back The Night. Many of the guys in the university found out about it, and wanted to support the cause. I’m not sure if things have changed since then, but at the time we were politely thanked for our support, and told not to show up at the event, as no guys were allowed. Obviously we were disappointed, since we strongly felt that standing up against rape was the right thing to do. It really called into question the nature of the event at that point, since it seemed wrong to have a supportive event of that nature where men weren’t allowed to show up.

And truthfully, I don’t think I could name a single conference that caters to men only. I imagine one or two exist, but certainly not to the extent that I see with regards to women-only conferences. Some people will probably read this and think this post harbors sexist tendencies, but truthfully, I’m just naturally curious. Given that some of my best friends are women, some of the smartest and most influential people in my industry are women, and that there were many women in my engineering classes, it honestly just feels a bit strange to me that we’re still segregating based on sex. In a lot of ways, I almost find that tendency self-defeating — that is, as long as we focus on the differences of groups of people instead of their similarities, we’ll always be creating divides instead of bridging them.

39 responses to “Women Only Conferences”

  1. Laura Roeder says:

    Although many tech events are marketed as being “for women” I’ve never actually come across one that has a women-only policy. Could you be making assumptions?

  2. Duane Storey says:

    Hmm, I dunno, how about this one?


    Maybe they allow men, but most of the verbiage is around only women.

  3. Tris Hussey says:

    Though controversial, it is a valid question. It circles back to is discrimination against the oppressors justified? Is it okay to have a women-only conference because women would like to have a stronger community?

    Is discrimination against white men okay, because white men hold the reins of power?

    I know that BlogHer is a great conference. I know that men are allowed to attended, but only women are speakers (I offered to speak in drag). For all the ire that you might raise with this post, it is without a doubt true that if we had a men’s only tech conference, we would be up to our eyeballs in human rights complaints, whereas the reverse is not true.

  4. Anne-Marie says:

    Blogher Food will be open to male speakers and all Blogher conferences have been open to men and women as was Chicks Who Click (ask George from Crocs).

  5. Duane Storey says:

    So I’m curious then why the marketing is targeted exclusively towards women for Chicks who Click if men are allowed?

  6. Ian Bell says:

    I think the fact that we create conferences which isolate women from their male peers is one of a matrix of reasons why there are fewer women in the industry, and thus organizers determine that we need more conferences focused on women in our industry.

    GOTO 10

  7. Tris Hussey says:

    Exactly Anne-Marie I was invited to Chick Who Click (to attend) and BlogHer. Both conferences were very inclusive that way.

  8. Raul says:

    I had a conversation with Wired Women Society on Twitter about this. One of the potential explanations I can have is that tech (actual tech, not social media, not PR) is still traditionally dominated by men. I don’t have the statistics with me, but I have read a lot about the gender gap (income disparity male/female) and it *is* real.

    I imagine that the number of women in tech is lesser than the number of men. I mean, look at the WordCamps – Lorelle is practically the main evangelist of WordPress, but if you look at the percentage decomposition of attendees AND presenters, it’s heavy on the male side.

    You can always look at this from various viewpoints. I am an openly-gay man myself. But I don’t define myself as a gay blogger (because I don’t blog *only* about gay issues. I am a blogger (and many other things) who, incidentally, happens to be gay. I also sometimes found issue with gay-only events or primarily-targeted-towards-the-gay-community events, but heck, even those are open to men.

    I am not sure which conferences you are referring to, but I was invited to attend Chicks Who Click and I helped with spreading the word about BlogHer Vancouver meetup (even though I’m not a woman). Like you, I’m a big supporter of women’s rights and many of my friends are women. I just think these conferences that are focused primarily on women are attempting to encourage younger women to break through the (still existing) glass ceiling in some industries.

    As you know, my undergraduate is in chemical engineering. The gender gap is huge in mechanical engineering, smaller in civil and environmental engineering. But there is still a gap.

    My 2 cents.

  9. Raul says:

    And on my previous comment, it should have read instead of “those are open to men” as “those are open to heterosexual people”. I meant to say that men are also welcome in many women-focused events/communities. Heck, I’m a member of BlogHer myself 🙂

  10. Karen says:

    The main problem is that most technical conferences “cater” to men, whether they mean to or not.

    Being in the female minority at a male-dominated technical conference can be a bit uncomfortable. Especially when speakers pull shit like this and this.

    The idea with these woman-focussed conferences is to completely reverse the situation, to make women feel like they aren’t alone, to provide a non-sexist environment, welcoming environment and to show them that they have plenty of female equals and role models out there.

    Also, there’s a difference between catering to women and excluding men. I’m not sure exactly which conferences you are referring to but none of the women’s conferences I know of actively exclude men.

    Blogher’s website says:
    “Yes, BlogHer is a community by and about women who blog and yes, our event looks like the living, breathing version of our online presence. But in no way to we exclude or discourage men from attending.”

    And while I can’t find anyhing specific on their website, I have attended Grace Hopper in the past and there have definitely been men there.

    Would you be uncomfortable attending a conference such as Blogher or Grace Hopper because you might be one of the only men there? Because you might be embarassed or degraded by some of the subject matter or discussions? Well, I can identify with you! I have been to “regular” technical conferences where I felt the same.

  11. Duane Storey says:

    @Karen – Well, if you read my comments above, you’ll see one conference where the verbiage seems catered to only women. And maybe men are allowed to attend, but it’s not obvious to me while reading their website.

    And yes, I would be extremely comfortable attending a conference with hundreds of women where I was the only guy (in fact, I think this is one of my dreams!). But I can imagine some people don’t like being in a minority, and I can understand that.

  12. Duane Storey says:

    @Raul – I think it would probably be more useful to look at engineering as a whole. Chemical was dominated by women when I was in school.

  13. Rebecca says:

    Duane, even Blog Her allows men. To think a conference would ban men is ridiculous. The moderator of our panel is male.

    In a predominantly male-oriented business I celebrate chances for women to be showcased. It doesn’t mean they need to be separated but sometimes it’s encouraging (as a women in a traditionally male industry) to see how other women have carved their way.

  14. Rebecca says:

    Also, Chicks Who click refers to the presenters, not the audience.

  15. Duane Storey says:

    Have you read the page?


    So, here’s a quote from the Chicks Who Click website with my emphasis:


    A one-day Social Media Conference for WOMEN incorporating networking, education and empowerment with like-minded WOMEN, achieving great heights in the area of Social Media.


    “… Our vision was to create a conference, a think tank, if you will, FOR WOMEN to come together to listen, teach, experiment and connect with like-minded WOMEN face to face, stay connected through Twitter, Blogging, Facebook or Flickr, and to empower each other in achieving great heights in our careers and journeys; and lastly, to collaborate our efforts as WOMEN in the male-dominated field of technology…”

    Are you reading that a different way? When I read that it sounds like it refers to the whole conference.

  16. Richard says:

    Based off a banner or advertisement for “BlogHer” or “ChicksWhoClick” I wouldn’t even think to investigate further. In the same way that I wouldn’t call an operation called “Lady Fitness” to inquire about a membership.

    Blaming the audience for not understanding the intent is a bit backwards; it indicates a marketing problem.

    The name itself overshadows the intended marketing message or intent of the committee behind the event. While I believe that both names are rather clever, they need work on advertising that it’s NOT a restricted environment if it isn’t one.

    Maybe “Left-handed Red-Headed Bloggers for Palestine Conference” doesn’t require you to possess any of these attributes, but it’s a fair assumption that you may not be welcome if you show up with blond hair.

  17. Jenn says:

    Great post Duane. I think that both sides of this issue have really great points. Personally, I think the industry has come to a point where women have pretty good representation. I tend to attend many conferences and have never felt like I was part of a major minority. In fact it’s the exact opposite. I found it surprising refreshing how many women present and attend these events.

    I have to agree with Duane that the verbage that he pointed out above could have been more inclusive. I can imagine how I’d feel if I changed women to men in the above passage.

  18. Rebecca says:

    Are you going to start complaining that you can’t do the Paws for Cause walk because you don’t own a dog? 😛

    I see your point, heck I’ve been to a few poorly-themed “women-only” events in the past that were filled with pink fluff, cookies, and aromatherapy.

    However, I also understand that support systems are important and almost every single day someone doesn’t take me seriously as a “women in tech” and think I’m “just a blogger” or that John runs our company — even though I do 85% of the code AND run the entire ship. If there’s a forum that can celebrate and encourage my role in the industry while encouraging others to do the same I’m all for it (even if their website needs to be re-worded).

  19. Rebecca says:

    In the same vein, why is it that at every new media conference I’ve been to in the last year someone has taken the time to note: “wow, look at the all the women here!” Yes, it’s a great thing, but until we can stop thinking that’s something to unique and extreme there’s still a lot of work to be done.

  20. Duane Storey says:

    Well, that’s kind of my point actually. At what point do you stop pointing it out and just accept that there are lots of women in the field as well? Certainly well after the point where you organize conferences specific only to women.

  21. Richard says:

    No, if I don’t own a dog, I don’t “start complaining” that I can’t take part in Paws for Cause. The point is that it doesn’t occur to me to BOTHER, because it would appear to be an event that isn’t targeted at me.

    Now, if Paws for Cause wanted to welcome snakes to the event, they’d have to make an effort to make people know that they’re welcome. You can’t call the reptile owners dumb for not looking deep into a web page to find out if they too can participate.

  22. Dorian says:

    As much as I sneer at puerile antics like the CouchDB talk, and appreciate women-in-technology groups, I’m not so sure about counteracting implicit segregation with explicit segregation. Essentially, I’m saying: have your women-in-technology conference(s) because those are great in their own right, but please think twice about holding them because all the other ones belong to men*. If we’re going to segregate our technical conferences, I’d like to suggest another axis: hold a conference for adults interested in improving their craft and ultimately their business.

    The guys that decorate their slide decks with soft-core porn are really saying something about the tenor of that class of gathering: this is a dorm-room junket; we consider this entertainment, not business.

    (* not saying that’s what anyone is doing, but if anyone is considering doing that, please don’t.)

    (PPS: according to the IA Institute salary survey, there are slightly more women in the information architecture field and they average a slightly higher pay.)

  23. As a black woman who works in a somewhat technical field (usability/information architecture/user experience) here in Vancouver, I have to say on a personal level, posts like this infuriate me to no end. Because I don’t think I can offer anything constructive in this dialogue, perhaps a reading of the Male Privilege Checklist is in order? It might help you understand why, for some women, conferences like this are necessary and desirable: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/the-male-privilege-checklist/

  24. Duane Storey says:

    @Cecily – Thanks for the comment. I can appreciate your argument, although I’d like to hear (and understand) what it is about those conferences you do like and why they’re important to you.

    I have another question though, since you’ve pointed out that you’re black. Let’s for an instant pretend we’re talking about racial segregation instead of segregation based on sex (and I am in no way trying to be offensive here, just trying to provide another perspective). Do you think a reasonable response to racism and racial segregation is to create events and conferences where only people of certain colours (white, black, brown, etc) are allowed to attend?

  25. Darren says:

    With one exception, I’m ambivalent about this issue. If people want to run events targeting particular audiences, they’re welcome to do so. Given that men dominate the tech field, there’s no risk of discrimination in running a women-oriented event.

    Here’s my exception: the risk of ghettoization that comes with a juvenile name like ‘Chicks Who Click’. To me that name says “we’re just some girls who don’t want to be taken seriously”. It’s hardly a great stride forward in the battle for equality. I wish questions of branding didn’t matter, but in situations like this–where women are a clear minority and seek greater recognition–they do. I’ve spoken to more than one women who chose not to submit or attend the conference based on the name alone.

    The Grace Hopper Women in Computing conference, on the other hand, is a great name.

  26. To answer your question (even though it feels like a derailing tactic): yes, I think it is still necessary to have racially segregated conferences that are geared toward visible minorities. Perhaps your experience is coloured (HAH!) by living in Vancouver; as someone who grew up in the US, I know and understand that there can be beneficial reasons for visible minorities to gather in spaces where they feel safe, where they feel that their issues can be discussed without being viewed as marginal. The journey from margin to centre is a difficult one, and from time to time these discussions need to happen outside of/away from the view of the majority so that we can spend time on building solutions rather than assuaging guilt/massaging hurt feelings.

    This conference – chicks who click – isn’t important to *me*, per se. I left male-dominated corporate spaces for the ultimate female-dominated environment: the public library. But just because I won’t be attending chicks who click, that doesn’t mean it has no value on the whole, or to someone (else) in particular.

  27. Besides, to suggest that these conferences are exclusionary misses the point. We could no more legally prevent you from buying a ticket than we could take a hang glider to the moon. Your dis/comfort is not evidence of our bigotry. And I say this without an ounce of malice in my entire body.

  28. Duane Storey says:

    Well, I never said I found them uncomfortable, I only said I found it disappointing that I couldn’t attend. And I think I could be stopped from buying a ticket, in much the same way I’d probably be denied access to a gym membership at a women’s only gym. Sure, I could fight it, but is it really worth the effort for a $30 conference?

  29. I think Bob Parsons would have a unique perspective on this topic. Let’s hear from him.

    Seriously though, with douche bags like Parsons out there, it’s not surprising there’s lots of conferences catering to women. I have to agree with Darren though, like anything it needs be done tastefully to be respected. Dropping use of “chick” is a good start (see definition #3 below):

    chick [chik]
    1. a young chicken or other bird.
    2. a child.
    3. Slang: Often Offensive. a girl or young woman.
    (via dictionary.com)

  30. gillian says:

    I’m too lazy to read all the previous comments right now, but my theory as to why these conferences might not allow men is because the organizers are older (or, older than me) women who were used to discrimination at school and work in their earlier years and assume that women still need to be shielded from the men who would supposedly put them down.

    I have been lucky that I have very rarely experienced sexism in my IT career, and it’s only ever been from older men. But: I walked out on a new job yesterday because the middle-aged male workmates were alternating between patronizing me and being repeatedly surprised when I could do something with a computer that they couldn’t. When they weren’t joking about how stupid the other women at the company were with their desktops, that is. Sigh. Thankfully that was a new experience for me.

    I don’t like women’s tech groups and conferences because I don’t believe in double-standards or special treatment for women. I can appreciate how far we’ve come from several decades ago, but if we keep celebrating our existence and tell companies to hire more female IT workers it’s no longer equality, but a sort of apology for past wrongs. Which is unnecessary to newcomers who weren’t around back then, and creates the worry to some of us now that we were hired to fulfill a gender quota (a worry which I have shared).

  31. Kasia Fink says:

    To be honest, I’m not sure you’d really want to go to those conferences, Duaner. Whenever there’s an intentional female focus, it only naturally follows that the content *will* be affected. Even if the topics are universal, they’re discussed from a female perspective and in female terminology, and unique female bonding experiences will be had.

    That’s not to say these events are any better or worse, just different. And that right there pretty much sums up my take on the gender issue: men and women are different. I wish we could finally accept that and move on. Absolutely equal, but different. It’s great when we can share things between the sexes and it’s great when we can bond with our own sex over the things that make us unique. Both are experiences to celebrate. This goes for races also.

    And (because I know you’ll ask) yes, I do think that if you want to have your very own men-only blogging conference, you should be allowed to. Unfortunately I agree there would probably be a significant segment of society that would tip back their heads and howl but for the record, I personally would certainly (happily) leave you to enjoy your male bonding… and would invite our groups to join together at some other event.

  32. Duane Storey says:

    @Kasia – that’s fine, I totally appreciate that perspective. I briefly thought about organizing an all-male conference, but when I thought about how pitiful the after party would be, I quickly abandoned it!

  33. Milan says:

    there is a difference between discrimination (women allowed only type of events) and targeting a certain market (women population that are into hi-tech) for your product (conference). These conferences are targeted to women population which is ok as long as it is not discriminatory (i.e. men are allowed).

  34. Review the Male Privilege list that Cecily posted for number 18 and especially number 45:

    “45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.”

    That’s why I believe women-centric and -slanted gatherings are essential. Maybe this doesn’t happen everywhere, but I work in the environmental field, where there is a heavily weighted female:male ratio, and still, in any gathering, it seems more likely that men’s points get made and voices get heard. I have no grudge against the gender, this is simply an observation.

    I don’t suggest we ban men, just make it a space to ensure that women’s voices are preferred, to overcome this interruption tendency (which is partly due to women being socialized to allow interruptions, and not to interrupt).

  35. Laura says:

    I wonder at these defensive posts that seem to pop up every six months, as if women were somehow exploiting or victimizing men by having women-centric online communities and events. As others have noted, men are not excluded. Case in point: BlogHer, where from the first conference men have attended.

    Meanwhile, in these “disruptive” times, count all the women featured in this conference:


    When women’s voices are largely ignored or overlooked in the mainstream events, women-centric events can make a whole lotta sense. The reason you don’t see men-centric tech conferences is perhaps because so many of them already are by default.

  36. Duane Storey says:

    @Charlene – sorry, unless you can provide some research to back up your assertion that women and men are “socialized” differently with regards to interruptions, I simply don’t buy it. At every conference I’ve been at recently, there were as many questions from women in the audience as their were men. And in fact at WordCamp San Francisco one of the speakers was called out in front of everyone by a women. Just because someone decides to put that item in a list doesn’t make it true.

  37. Just like saying that we’re “excluded by nature from some conferences” doesn’t make it true. 🙂

    Much as many of us would like it if gender equality in technology fields (and conferences) were a reality, in many cases it still isn’t. The balance is more even at the events I attend, but I always hark back to Dori Smith’s 2005 post about women in the technology industry:

    “[Google’s] ‘Technical Recruiter’ […] talked a lot about how cool it was to work at Google, and all the benefits, etc. And he looked straight at me (I was sitting near the front) and made a point about how they were trying to hire more women. So I raised my hand and said, ‘If you want more women, try describing the company in a way that doesn’t make it sound like it’s hell on earth.’

    “You see, he’d been doing the whole ‘We make it so you never ever have to leave here’ schtick that’s so popular in tech. […] what appeals to guys right out of school drives people like me in the opposite direction.”

    The personal computing and electronics technology industry is young, just over 30, and it was built by men. It’s still structured the way we men structured it, and that will probably change over time, but it hasn’t changed very much yet, even in places where women are becoming a larger proportion of the field.

    Just as it’s worthwhile for there to be meetings of women in other male-dominated fields, from politics to the military to construction, it’s worthwhile for women-focused events in technology to exist. Just as it would be worthwhile for there to be men-focused events in librarianship, early childhood education, and esthetics.

    Take Back the Night is also not necessarily the best parallel. The whole point of that event is for women to feel safe, as women, without men’s involvement. Those of us men who support their cause have plenty of other ways to help, except in that specific context.

  38. Ruth Seeley says:

    I’m going to weigh in here on several fronts: as a woman ‘of a certain age’ as the French say; as a woman involved in a female-dominated profession that most definitely has a glass ceiling (there is still not a single female at the head of a single global PR firm in mid 2009, although it is a female-dominated industry); and as someone who worked on an extremely aggressive affirmative action program for aboriginal people in Ontario.

    First, I agree with what @darrenbarefoot said – I think the title of the conference would automatically have turned off any woman over the age of 45 and would have given an unfortunate impression to many men of all ages. I don’t believe co-opting a term means you’ve reclaimed it and cleansed it of its negative connotations – and that is as true of both the ‘en’ words as it is of the word ‘chick.’

    Second, I think there’s a way to celebrate and focus on the contributions women have made in the tech field without any hint of exclusion. I think the ‘Take the Pledge’ effort on Ada Lovelace Day (organized by Suw Charmain-Anderson) did this nicely. I have no idea how many of the, what was it, 1500 or more people who wrote blog posts celebrating women in science and technology were male or female. My anecdotal review of posts suggests men enthusiastically responded to the call to action. And it is primarily men who are reacting negatively (in public anyway) to GQ’s current ‘Rock Stars of Science’ effort – on the basis that the scientists celebrated are overwhelmingly male, middle-aged, and white.

    The aboriginal affirmative action program I was involved with was the Ontario Native Justice of the Peace Program, which encouraged people of aboriginal ancestry to get involved in a positive way with the justice system and provided them with four weeks of judicial training. Interestingly, after the program had been running for a few years, non-aboriginal justices of the peace became enraged and began alleging ‘reverse discrimination’ because they themselves had received no training at all prior to becoming JPs. At first I thought this was incredibly childish. I now think the complaint was valid although the strategy adopted was reprehensible.

    There is always, I think, a time lag between the possible and the actual, and it isn’t until something has actually occurred that we truly believe something is achievable. I was very torn during the last US election: I wanted Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and the election (although I’m not sure she could have won the election) so women would know they really could become head of state of a North American nation (let’s not talk about Kim Campbell, ok?). I wanted Obama to win for the same reasons relating to race.

    I think you have to be very careful about alienating any of your allies when you’re trying to achieve redress or celebrate progress. And for that reason alone, I’d rather not see conferences called ‘Chicks Who Click’ or even ‘Women Who Compute’ or copy like that quoted from the conference web site.

  39. maclover says:

    The success of women (and blacks) in technology doesn’t depend on separate conferences, but integration into the white male dominated mainstream. Carly Fiorina of HP, and John Thompson of Symantec prove this, they are aggressive, headstrong PEOPLE who have staked their claim. Those who claim white males often have unfair advantages could be right, but remember, they also compete against one another. If glances or snide remarks scare someone from achieving, they probably aren’t CEO material either. Woman and blacks have encountered physical harm throughout history that is exponentially greater than the ‘uncomfortableness’ they feel at these conferences now, yet they endured, so why be intimidated all of a sudden? If you look at the mexican immigrant plight – their willingness to be counted IN is what made a difference for them – they didn’t form separate neighborhoods, they took over the ones they moved into. Similar to a small town boxer who only fights locals, the real test for women isn’t their small town local conferences, it’s the vigor they have in the big city against the men – I admire people who stand up to be counted.

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