Is gender really an issue in tech? Dispatches from Web Summit

Eva Longoria at Web Summit
EVA LONGORIA SPEAKS AT WEB SUMMIT. (STEPHEN MCCARTHY, SPORTSFILE)

For many in the technology sector, it’s become painstakingly obvious that the industry’s gender gap is a big problem. Yet, at Web Summit this week, one of Europe’s largest tech conferences, the issue was still up for debate.

Though women presenting at Web Summit increased from a total of 29 speakers last year to 96 this year, that number represents a paltry 19.2 percent of the 500 total slated speakers.

Interestingly, female representation among Web Summit attendees was even more disappointing, as just 15 percent of conferencegoers were women, and just three female CEOs were listed on the Summit’s Top 100 Tech CEOs list of attendees, while seven female investors made the Top 100 Investors list, and six women made the Top 100 Startup CEOs list.

What’s even more puzzling about these numbers is the fact that they’re the result of Web Summit’s efforts to attract more women; in all, they provided €250,000 of complimentary tickets to female developers, designers, and founders.

We’re dealing with single-digit representation here, yet for some reason a number of women and men at the conference—both attendees and speakers—dared to argue that gender equality is a topic better left untouched.

Founders Fund Partner Geoff Lewis, siting on an all-male panel of investors entitled “The Secret to Success,” scoffed when moderator Mark Milian of Bloomberg raised a question about bias against women, minorities, and LGBTs in tech. “A lot of my founders are offended by this question being asked,” he said, pointing to Founders Fund portfolio founder Leslie Dewan, nuclear physicist and CEO of Transatomic Power. “What should matter is the company you’re building… This question is overdone and offensive to women and minorities.”

Milian urged Lewis to consider that less than 1 percent of the technology sector is composed of black employees and that women represent only 20 percent of the tech workforce. General Catalyst investor Kevin Colleran contributed, “The fact that companies are putting these reports out can be interpreted very negatively,” as the numbers are quite low. “But, this is the companies internally crying for help, saying ‘Maybe if we put our numbers out together, we can do something about this.'”

Similar questions arose throughout the summit. After Cathryn Posey, founder of the Tech by Superwomen movement, gave her keynote address, an audience member asked if framing the workplace diversity issue in terms of gender was damaging, as “bullying” is something that can happen to anyone.

And yet another audience member, a journalist named Sarah, asked, “No one asks men that question [about work/life balance]. Should we stop asking women in tech that question?”

Posey responded, “While some people say we should only be looking at bias, there’s a large body of research that showcases that women are by and far running into these issues more so than their male counterparts, sexual harassment being an example.” The real framing issue, she posited, is about moving from an attack state to mutual problem solving.

On the contrary, instead of stopping asking women, we should start asking men, as Milian did on his panel of all-male investors.

Attendees Speak Up about Gender Bias at Web Summit

Audience Q&A at Cathryn Posey Talk

THE Q&A SESSION AT CATHRYN POSEY’S TALK SURFACED A NUMBER OF CONCERNS ABOUT GENDER BIAS AT WEB SUMMIT AND BEYOND. (ERICA SWALLOW, MIT SLOAN)

As one of the 15 percent of female attendees at the summit, it was sobering to be in the lower-than-typical gender minority, and I wasn’t the only one to notice the divide. Men and women took to Twitter to show their concerns, women spoke out at Q&A opportunities, and I heard a number of first-hand accounts from attendees who were frustrated at the disparity.

Sophia Lin, founder of beauty services directory Pamperologist, told me that she and co-founder Matt Badalucco felt out of place as one of the only female-centric companies in exhibition. The team, though, handed out branded earrings and necklaces as their swag of choice. “Startups always hand out T-shirts and water bottles,” says Lin. “We wanted our goodies to be super feminine, vintage, and cute.” It was refreshing to see female-focused goodies, to be honest.

And it wasn’t just the female-centric companies that seemed incongruous. One woman, identifying herself as Jackie and a “grandma in tech,” spoke up at Posey’s session: “Walking around to the booths, people seem to dismiss me, because I’m a woman and because I am the age that I am,” she said. “I just want to disrupt tech and do good. But it’s deflating at times, because people want to listen to the people they want to listen and not to the people who are approaching them and talking to them.”

Pamperologist Swag

STARTUP PAMPEROLOGIST HANDED OUT VINTAGE-LOOKING BRANDING EARRINGS AND NECKLACES AT WEB SUMMIT. (PAMPEROLOGIST)

Another audience member and female founder from New York chimed in, saying that an investor approached her at her startup’s booth. When she began talking to him, he said, “I only talk to top level.” He thought she was a hired booth babe.

Natalie Lloyd, agency partner at web development shop Say Digital and curator of TEDxBrighton, tweeted in response, “Not surprised to hear that a female founder was passed off as a booth girl at Web Summit when so many stalls HAVE hired female event staff.” The founder continued, “I’m a feminine woman. I love dressing up and wearing heels – I feel that I’m coming to this event wearing sneakers. You wouldn’t find me like this in New York. I don’t want to change that. How do we combat those stereotypes?”

That question harkened back to actress and activist Eva Longoria’s main stage discussion during day one of the Summit: “People tend to put women in boxes, she’s sexy, she’s ambitious, she’s young,” she said. “Women are very complex and the greatest advantage we have is that we’re underestimated and so what we can do is just continue to prove people wrong because women are all of those things at the same time.”

While Web Summit did host an exclusive pre-conference dinner for a small number of international female leaders to chat about encouraging more women into tech, there was little official activity around women’s issues, save for a talk here and there. Attendees, though, self-organized through two key unofficial groups, including WowCrew, a 268-member Facebook group organized by women’s community GirlCrew exclusively for Web Summit attendees, and DigiWomen, which ran a #SheDIDit social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter to collect data about sentiments towards women leaders in technology. DigiWomen founder Pauline Sargent plans to publish a report on the topic soon.

Men Voice Their Concerns Online and Off

Nasdaq Opening Bell

WEB SUMMIT FOUNDER PADDY COSGRAVE IS JOINED BY LOCAL POLITICIANS TO RING THE NASDAQ OPENING BELL. (NAOISE CULHANE, SPORTSFILE)

Several men showcased their concerns for the gender disparity while at the conference. Irish media entrepreneur Niall McGarry tweeted a photo of the Web Summit’s leadership team alongside Irish politicians and influencers ringing of the NASDAQ opening bell from the Summit’s stage, commenting: “As an image to send to the world this pic is almost great, but where are the women?” Granted, if you look at wider shot images, such as the one tweeted by the US Embassy in Dublin, there were indeed women on stage, though mostly bunched together on the fringes. While likely unintentional, the implicit social constructs of Irish society may be the culprit at play for Web Summit’s lack of diversity. McGarry in a follow-up tweet said, “This is a pic to represent Ireland, if you get me. Not a dig at the Summit. Politicians, mayors, etc., all men sadly.”

The interest of young men at Web Summit in this gender issue was particularly heartening. After Posey’s talk on how to encourage more women to pursue technology, two male college students approached her to ask about how to run tech organizations at their schools to attract more women. One of the men, a student organizer in his university’s computer science department, asked about getting more adult men involved in the conversation, “It’s tough finding men who deserve to be on stage talking about these issues, he said. “Grown men in Ireland don’t talk about this. Where do we find them?” Posey, after expressing her gratitude for their action as young male advocates, assured them that more men than they think have an interest in a more diverse world.

These students’ concerns echoed another male audience members question of Posey during Q&A period: “As a man, I’m worried about my wording when talking about diversity issues. Even though I may not mean anything wrong, I’m worried I’m going to say the wrong thing. Any advice?” Though I didn’t catch his name, he said he ran an organization at Brown University to teach women how to code.

If we look around, there are many male advocates, like these young men and like the many founders and investors taking a stand to make technology a more equal place. Posey explained, both on stage and off, that men are critical in solving this issue. “There’s a precedent that if you’re a man that doesn’t have a perfect record on this issue, you shouldn’t speak up. That’s not true. We need everyone to speak up. We need to move beyond women talking to women about this issue,” she says. “It’s not the goal of feminism to replace men. The goal is to make sure that women have an equal opportunity to contribute. We need men by our side, too.”

Solutions for a More Balanced Tech Industry

Female Attendees at Web Summit

FEMALE ATTENDEES SELF-ORGANIZE VIA SOCIAL MEDIA FOR A GROUP PICTURE. (ERICA SWALLOW, MIT SLOAN)

While Web Summit’s lack of female voices left me feeling anxious about the future of the international technology industry, many ideas for solutions were contributed during on-stage and off-stage conversations, which is a sign of engagement.

Eva Longoria challenged every woman at Web Summit to become a mentor for a young girl interested in innovation. Cathryn Posey called on leaders of female-activism organizations to bring men into the conversation, as attendees and as speakers at events. Getting more men involved starts with bringing more high-profile men to the stage to advocate and support the cause, she says. We also need to diversify how we see women and minorities in media, Posey suggested. “In media, we don’t portray women as competent or as working in tech. We need more women leaders in media to inspire young girls.”

And when it comes to work/life balance, it’s a question of redefining work for everyone, Posey says, not just women. “Men struggle with the same issue,” she says. “It’s not a sole-woman issue. Balancing work and having time for family is tough.” If we begin framing parental leave as a family priority, not a female priority, and begin encouraging both men and women to leave work at reasonable hours to see their families, the tides may change. As long as we frame work/life balance as a women’s issue, women will continue to be overly criticized for prioritizing their families or non-work activities.

Michelle Paluso at Web Summit

GILT GROUPE CEO MICHELLE PELUSO IS INTERVIEWED BY CNBC’S SEEMA MODY AT WEB SUMMIT. (STEPHEN MCCARTHY, SPORTSFILE)

Michelle Peluso, CEO of Gilt Groupe, in her center stage interview with CNBC reporter Seema Mody, advised moms and dads everywhere to make sure they spend their time on the things that matter most. She says she asks herself, “Is my time consistent with what is important to me?” On creating more opportunities for women in tech, she says. “Women look up. Women need other women mentors who are doing a great job, balancing work/life. Find those top women that others can look up to,” she suggests to entrepreneurs and business executives hoping to build more diverse teams. “They’ll be tremendous role models, even inadvertently.”

All in all, the Summit shed light on the issue, both as evidence of the problem and purveyor of solutions. If any larger theme is taken away regarding gender at Web Summit, I hope it’s that there is indeed a massive divide and that we can all work on fixing it together. “The work we can do to add value is to put on our problem-solving hats and not make it about attacking individuals,” says Posey. “But about attacking systemic issues that are the root of the problem that’s holding women back.”