Replace ‘women’ with diversity and we can start to make some progress.

By Maura McElhone (Writer, Clinch)

This piece was originally published on the Clinch company blog and also on Medium.

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Dublin Web Summit, one of a few hundred women worldwide who received a free ticket as part of a measure to make the event “as inclusive and diverse as possible.”

A commendable initiative, I thought.

And then I heard it, in sentiment, if not verbatim, from more than one person: “Doesn’t it feel just a little bit “icky?” Going there purely on the “merit” of being a woman?”

I was surprised.

It hadn’t occurred to me to feel “icky.” I was a woman in tech who wanted to attend Web Summit. That I was being given the opportunity to go along for free was great news, as far as I was concerned!

But to others, more seasoned in this industry than I, it wasn’t that simple.

They wondered if, in singling out women for treatment that was different to that of their male peers, the move could be construed as being sexist and yet another contributing factor in the very problem it was, in theory, created to confront: tech’s so-called “women problem”.

Getting to Grips with the Gender Gap

I joined Clincha Dublin-based HR software company in March of this year. In our team of 5 full-time employees, I’m the only female. When I first started, I’ll admit, my initial reaction was not to reflect on the fact that our unassuming little Dublin office is very much a microcosm for the tech industry as a whole.

Instead, I looked forward to settling into a working environment free from gossip and bitchiness. A sexist assumption in itself, and a wrong one at that. Men have their moments, too.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my naiveté and lack of awareness of the gender gap that exists in tech, and startups in particular.

It didn’t take long, however, for me to become clued in.

It was perhaps my third or fourth week with Clinch. Following some press coverage the company had received, we got an email from a female reader. After reading the article, she’d visited our website which was, at that time, still in the MVP stage. She’d had a quick browse, and, on seeing the one image we had up — of the original, four man team — promptly fired off a short and pointed email that read as follows:

“How strange that on your “about us page”, it is all blokes in the pictures.”

With a subject line that read “Are there any women working at Clinch?”, there was no mistaking the sarcasm in her message.

Had she bothered to read our blog, she would have seen the recent post announcing my joining the team, and the subsequent posts, all of which had been, and still are, written by me.

I was annoyed at her oversight. Yes, she’d been too quick to judge, but it was only when I delved a little deeper that I began to understand why she’d made the assumption that she did.

In their recently released workforce diversity reports, both Google and Apple revealed global workforces that are only 30% female. Yahoo employs 37% women, Facebook — 31%, and LinkedIn — 39%.

At this year’s Web Summit (pictured above), of the 130 people to address audiences from the main stage, only 24 of them were female. The audience was 85% male.

It was in light of these kinds of statistics, then, that I began to wonder if perhaps the scepticism in the responses to my accepting the free ticket to Web Summit, was justified.

Women as “The Other”

The more I thought about it, the heavier that ticket in my hand began to feel.

I realised that in taking on this role at Clinch, I had taken on something more than just the role of ”writer.” I was a woman in tech now, and consequently, a part of that broader conversation, of that movement.

I was forced to ask myself: in the fight for gender equality in tech, was I letting down the side by buying into an initiative that further highlighted women as “the other?”

With the lines that separate personal opportunity and industry tokenism now so very blurred, how’s a girl supposed to know what’s right?

I spoke to Catherine Cronin, academic coordinator of online IT programmes and lecturer in Information Technology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Earlier this year, Catherine was named by Silicon Republic as one the top role models of 2014 among women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Ireland.

On my Web Summit ticket dilemma, she had this to say:

“Women are in a difficult situation here. If we accept such gifts, are we complicit in some way? But if we do not accept a free ticket, then we may not be able to attend the event, and to judge the situation for ourselves.”

“I also understand the criticism that this is tokenism. If 100 tickets to a tech event were offered to women for free, and all women accepted and attended, what would change? The number of women attending would be slightly higher, and the event organisers might feel that they had helped to address the under-representation of women. However, if the proportion of women speakers remains low, if “booth babes” are still present, if women do not have an opportunity to be part of the core organising committee, then there is little chance that meaningful change will occur.” — Catherine Cronin, NUI Galway.

While “booth babes” were, thankfully, in short supply at Web Summit, if there were any there at all, the number of female speakers in comparison to men was still low: 96 — “just 19.2% of the total 500 speakers that Web Summit promises at time of writing.

Catherine went on to emphasise the importance of understanding the motivation and intention of the event organisers: was it a PR exercise, or were they genuinely committed to fostering a better, more welcoming culture at their event?

“I might ask what else is being done to increase the participation of women in the event, how the organisers could engage meaningfully with women-in-tech organisations, for the benefit of both. These kinds of conversations and collaborations contribute to culture change.” Catherine Cronin

Conversations and Collaborations

Simply by virtue of being a woman in tech, and Dublin having the relatively small yet friendly and welcoming startup community that it does, I have come across any number of the women-in-tech organisations that Catherine mentioned. They’re formed as a means of offering support and encouragement to women at all stages within the industry, as well as those with an interest in getting a foot in the door.

Such groups are incredibly valuable to women, as a recent conversation with the female-led team at Restored Hearing revealed.

“These groups have created a sense of community for women in the tech industry,” says Community Manager, Chrissy Hughes. “At Web Summit, GirlCrew organised a pop-up group, offering a welcoming space for females at what is traditionally, a male-dominated event. At the same event, DigiWomen created and promoted the #SheDIDit hashtag for people to share stories about women’s achievements in technology.”

And yet, Catherine’s comment about “conversations and collaborations” stuck with me.

I couldn’t help but wonder, how much MORE impact would these groups have made at Web Summit had they been given a speaker’s slot on the main stage, as opposed to a basic stand on the main floor? Had the #SheDIDit hashtag been officially endorsed by the event?

And, let’s be honest, how much more impact would these groups have, with male tech leaders publicly lending them their support, too?

If it is left to women, essentially being treated as “women’s work,” to educate, support, and promote each other, one would imagine that change will be slow to happen, if indeed it does in any real measure at all.

Two Sides of the Same Page

I didn’t write this piece to offer solutions or answers. I wrote it because I wanted to explore the issue — to better understand the problem as well as how we might work to bring about change.

It seems to me that referring to it as tech’s “women problem” is a poor choice of phrase, to say the least. Not only does it suggest that women in themselves are a problem, I think it has the potential to give men an “out,” too. In calling it a “women problem,” are we allowing men to shrug off much of the responsibility for tackling the issue in search of a solution?

Perhaps it would be better to think about it as a “diversity problem,” instead — something that holds everyone accountable.

Because as far as I can tell, gender equality in tech is ultimately dependent on a shift in mindset, not just numbers i.e. more women entering (and staying) in the sector. And that shift in mindset is one that’s required of males and females alike.

Yes, it’s important that women and girls are educated in the merits of pursuing a career in tech, encouraged to develop an interest in STEM subjects, and have strong female role models, but men have a role to play, too, in bringing about change.

They, too, need to go beyond offering just lip service, and step up as educators, as group leaders, and as role models who can challenge gender stereotypes and, in leading by example, promote healthier attitudes toward women amongst their peers as well as younger, more impressionable kids.

Real change takes time, and realistically speaking, it is not our own generation, but the generation below, that stands to be the first to experience a tech industry in which gender equality is the norm. It is up to the rest of us here now, to put in place the measures to ensure that change takes place.

Photo credit: agsandrew via Shutterstock.