Women-only conferences: Progressive or traditionalist?


I've been recently hearing more and more about women-only tech & blogging & business conferences. Frankly, the more I learn, the more I find myself torn.

As a young woman in tech, I fought against a bunch of evils including reverse ageism and gender stereotypes. I've been ignored for being the youngest, for being the only girl, for not being technical enough, and for being too technical. Generally the reaction when I open my mouth has ranged from "she doesn't know what she's talking about" to "does anyone know what she's talking about?"

At those times, I've benefitted from support systems: networks of likeminded folks with whom I could commiserate. I've found both male and female mentors; the main criteria for me was that they take an interest in helping me learn and grow. Gender neutral.

Which is why I wonder about these women-only conferences. I know how frustrating it can be as the only woman in a bunch of men, trying to get my voice heard. But this trend toward gender-specific events seems to be a throw-back to the past when men were men, and women were women.

I do agree with detractors who claim that if a group of men tried to throw a men's only event, they'd be annihilated for it. And I also understand the perspective that in many tech conferences, men rule the roost and women have trouble getting their voices heard.

But I'd like to suggest that maybe this is because the event organizing committees aren't considering the needs of the two audience segments when putting conferences together? If a conference committee could be struck with a mandate and terms of reference that ensured a balanced representation, and if the conference could be led by women and men together, in the spirit of learning and sharing, then I don't see a need to segregate the genders.

Back in the day (say, 5 years ago) women needed a conference all their own. Absolutely. We weren't being recognized in tech and social media. But things have changed. Instead of holding a She's Geeky or BlogHer-style event, why not push the envelope and do something more? Show that it's possible to bring the genders together. There's always the risk that being women-only might get the event perceived as just another mommy event.

With a clear mandate to focus on specific themes and equal representation, then the question of gender should no longer be a driver for the event. The mandate can include an expectation of equal time spent on given issues, equal voice given to both genders.

I believe that it's possible to share the spotlight if we work together to set the tone and goals for the event. Events like She's Geeky, Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference, BlogHer and BlissDom may have their place but I'd like to see a gender-neutral, diverse, inclusive event where Daddy bloggers, mommy bloggers, girl geeks and boy geeks alike can share ideas and innovate together.

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