IT'S A SAD TRUTH that tech conferences aren't known for their inclusive, female-friendly vibe. Turn up to an app or hardware show and more often than not you'll be surrounded by men in suits, with a sizeable proportion of the women working the stands as company reps.
The situation has been gradually improving over the last few years as diversity-in-tech initiatives have gained traction, and I'm happy to say that even in the time I've been attending MWC and similar conferences, the reduction in 'booth babes' - glamorous women hired to essentially decorate a stand rather than, you know, have any product knowledge - has been noticeable. But some brands still use them, and worse, there's still an undercurrent of sexism that can sting female attendees.
The worst single example of sexism in tech I ever encountered happened at MWC, wherein a company rep in branded uniform suggested I'd need to flash my breasts if I wanted to see their new product. The same world-famous brand repeatedly skipped me in the queue to try said product, and didn't let me in until I kicked off about being overlooked for suite dudes. This was a few years back now, but while nothing so objectionable has happened to me (personally) since, I've still left every tech conference with a mental crate of examples of sexism in the industry. I'd wager so do most of the other women on the show floor.
There's the massive phone brand that fills its booths with models in pretty dresses, who stand there freezing from the air con as men pitch the actual products. There's the telecoms provider whose female staff wear skintight dresses and truly enormous heels while the men lounge around in their suits and brogues (I once asked said brand why they do this, and got the very angry response that the women pick their own clothes. Interesting, given that they were wearing exactly the same items from head to toe). There's the audio brand that every damn year has a ridiculously loud DJ and a load of gyrating women in hotpants (the DJ is always male and fully dressed, of course). And so on and so on.
Each little thing you see wears you down a little. But you hold your head up, march over to a stand you're interested in - and the rep goes straight to your male colleague, who works in ad sales while you're the freakin' editor. The first conference I attended, it took my male coworker going for lunch for me to realise that I hadn't been approached by so many brands because they were interested in our publication, it was literally because there was a man next to me. When he disappeared, so did I, effectively.
To give the GSMA - the company behind MWC - their due, they do seem very aware of the issue and have been busily coming up with initiatives to try to redress the balance. Speakers for 2018 include HTC chair Cher Wang, UN Foundation CEO Kathy Calvin, Intel VP Caroline Chan, Microsoft GM Dr Rashmi Misra, and Nokia CSO Kathrin Buvac. That said, out of a total of 37 keynote speakers, just nine are women. That's not even a quarter.
There's also a scheme called - cringe - Women4Tech. This "offers attendees strategic sessions focused on championing diversity in the mobile and tech industry," with a keynote by Emma McGuigan, group technology officer at Accenture. Despite the crappy name (are we still doing '4' instead of 'for'? Really?), this does sound like a useful addition to the programme. Again, though, it's far from ideal: its webpage actually highlights its 24 per cent female attendance in 2017 as if it's a good figure. It might be in comparison to other conferences and previous years, but it's still not actually good, is it?
Maybe women, diversity advocates and general good eggs of the tech industry should take a(nother) lesson from #MeToo, and realise that if we want things to change, we have to BE the change. Whether it's attending MWC, giving a talk, inviting more women to your events, amplifying their voices or even confronting your creepy male colleagues (please do this), every step towards gender parity in tech is a positive one. Because tech isn't for men - it's for humans. All of us. µ
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