The end of June saw the 2018 Women of Silicon Roundabout conference. It was a two-day event at the ExCel in London. I attended both days and, overall, had a very interesting time, though the event wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
The Build Up
According to the website, the organisers expected that the Women of Silicon Roundabout conference would hold the opportunity for attendees to:
Be inspired and energised
Meet like minded people [sic]
Achieve long-term business success
Build diverse and inclusive organisations
Maximise your potential
A series of talks were scheduled in a range of locations, on a range of ‘tracks’ ranging from the future of technology to deep dive tech workshops and personal development. The range of talks on the Agenda was huge; they really did cover all their bases, and there should have been something for everyone.
Perhaps it’s just a conference thing, or maybe because of where I sit in the tech industry, but I was rather underwhelmed. I came away drained and exhausted, not inspired or energised, I didn’t get technical, and I don’t feel any more likely to achieve my maximum potential or long-term business success than I did before. For me, Women of Silicon Roundabout 2018 didn’t deliver on any of the criteria it promised.
There are a few reasons why this really missed the mark for me.
1. The Event Floor
I don’t know where this event thought it was targeting itself, but I think the floor pitched itself wrongly. I was expecting this to be a knowledge sharing event for professionals, where we could go to learn about things going on in the industry.
It actually seems to have been a recruitment event. I can count on one hand the stands that were there to talk about what they were doing in the tech industry, rather than advertising their current vacancies. Of those few that were there to talk about what they are doing, more than half were recruitment agencies – so what they were doing in the tech industry was advertising other peoples’ jobs. I spoke to everyone that exhibited (I made a point of this) and all but one company asked what sort of opportunities I was looking for. The one company that didn’t was a sister company of the one I work for – and they seemed to have received the same memo I did…
How the disconnect occurred, I’m not sure, but in my experience, companies don’t usually send their employees to recruitment events. And yet, everyone to whom I spoke had been sent by their employer, and everyone had the name of their organisation on their badge. Now, maybe there’s the odd manager that has no proper reason to fire that annoying woman on their team, so sought to encourage her to move on by sending her to a recruitment event, but this can’t be everyone.
2. The Talks
So, if we weren’t sent for the exhibition, it must have been for the talks, right? Maybe… there were a lot of them, on a whole load of subjects.
I found the ‘empowering women in tech’ talks a bit patronising, to be honest. There’s only so many times a woman can stand up in front of a room full of women and say ‘you can do this despite the fact you’re a woman – and I know that because I did’ before it stops being empowering and just sustains the discourse.
I know I can do it. I am doing it, thank you very much. Can we talk about something else now? This really drives at a much bigger issue for me that pervaded the whole event, more on this below.
Fortunately, the talks did go beyond ‘yes we can’. Lots, maybe even most (I don’t know, you’d have needed a time turner to attend them all…) had nothing to do with gender. I don’t think I got the best out of the talks; I approached the lists thinking of the problems I have, and given that I seemed to be the only person in the building concerned in any way with document automation, I was more interested in the collaboration and the career building stuff than in discussing the relative merits of development tools I don’t use and have never heard of.
While this seemed sensible at the time, in practice, the talks I attended were at best a successful woman standing up to say ‘this worked for me’, but mostly erred on the side of ‘just wing it, mate’. Worst of all, several seemed basically just to be an ego trip; ‘look at me, I’m so wonderful’. There were a few interesting points made, but nothing revolutionary; nothing that justified two days away from my desk.
There was so much on, I couldn’t have gone to everything if I’d tried. This isn’t in itself the end of the world, but the talks were so heavily front loaded that I missed several things in which I was interested because I just couldn’t find them. It was lunch time by the time I’d found my way around.
3. The Target Audience
I recognise that this event was not aimed at me. I sit in a very small corner of the tech industry, and one that so happens to be very progressive in terms of gender balance.
I am in tech, but I’m not a software or games developer, which seemed to be the definition they were using for ‘tech’. So, I turned up dressed as if I were meeting a client, in a suit, complete with jacket and high heels, to find the rest of the attendees were true blue coders. And to a (wo)man, they wore the stereotypes like badges of honour. Never have I seen so many girls with blue hair in one place (and I’ve been to Comic-Con). The dress code was anime tees, jeans and converse. I felt like an impostor walking around that hall – but I don’t begrudge it them.
There were a couple of positives that came out of the Women of Silicon Roundabout conference.
Firstly, it was nice that they could fill a room with companies that recognise their gender disparities and want to take active steps to address it, even if those steps were awkward and heavy handed.
Building on that, I was pleased to see the Tech She Can initiative by PwC. This initiative is designed to get business – and particularly women currently in tech roles – to engage with the next generation to improve gender balance in the industry in the long term. This was the only meaningful discussion that I saw engage with the challenge of solving the problem of gender disparity in the industry – and in a way that might actually yield some interesting outcomes.
Last but not least there was some pretty good swag. I now have a collection of tote bags bearing feminist slogans, more camera caps than I have laptops to put them on, and I have replenished my stash of pens. Three of the stands were even giving away some very nice notebooks; the kind with ribbon bookmarks and elasticated pen holders.
Overall, I think the Women of Silicon Roundabout event rather missed the mark. The idea was there, but the execution was lacking.
I find the ‘come on, girls, we can do it really’ message patronising. So long as we talk about gender as a problem in these terms it will continue to be a problem. The gender pay gap, the gender imbalance, the way women are sometimes treated – or made to feel like they should expect to be treated – are real problems. But if we persist in talking about this in a way that insists that gender is recognised as a problem, gender will continue to be a problem…
Having targeted their audience with the title of the conference and got a load of Women of Silicon Roundabout in a room, it would have been nice if we could have moved beyond the patronising chit chat and got on with something substantial. After all, they did manage to get hundreds of women who actually work in technology in a room together. But the fundamental assumption behind this conference seems to me to have been that women in technology are so fragile that they need to be reminded that they are capable.
Or maybe I’m just missing a reality of working on software and games development.
I’ll be interested to see how the conference develops over the next few years. Hopefully, we will see them get over perpetuating unhelpful discourse, and start doing something meaningful.