I spent an amazing last Thursday and Friday in Dublin attending Inspirefest2015 (hint the clue is in the name). Many tech conferences promise us inspiration but more often than not the experience is framed in ways we’re not always comfortable with as women in the industry. Here’s how it usually rolls (brilliantly encapsulated by the wonderful Brianna Wu)
Inspirefest2015 couldn't have been more different with over 75% of women speakers. I don’t intend to describe the content of those amazing days since you can access all of that here and I would urge everyone to do just that, but I did want to make some personal observations.
I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in my life that I have been moved to actual tears at an event or conference and that includes a substantial proportion of my career in the arts (probably a more rich hunting ground for emotion than tech). But twice during Inspirefest2015 I found the stories tumbling from the stage hugely emotional though those stories were told by two women generations apart but whose experiences in the end were very much the same.
The first came in the fantastic talk given by 71 year old Northern Irish Astrophysicist, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell describing her student life in Glasgow where for the final two years of her degree she was the sole female in her class. University “tradition” at that time in Glasgow dictated that every time a female student entered the lecture hall the male students would collectively stamp their feet, shouting and roaring until the noise reached a crescendo. There was something in the way she simply said “every day, for two years I dealt with that on my own” that I found profoundly moving.
The flip side of the same coin came on Day 2 from game developer Brianna Wu the subject of so many death and rape threats arising from the Gamergate controversy. While the two women could not have been more different there was an eerie synergy as Brianna described being under constant and horrendous assault on social media to the point of suffering post traumatic stress syndrome. Her roll call of women she considers heroes and why was hugely powerful moving the delegates to their feet for a standing ovation.
The internet allows an amplification of abuse that simply was not possible in the 1960’s in Glasgow but in reality the intent of the stamping feet and social sword are the same. It is to say to women “This is our world, you are not welcome here, you will not disrupt our status quo”.
To find the answer as to why things have not moved on for women in technology perhaps we should follow the money? The talk given by Sharon Vosmek, CEO of ASTIA was brilliantly insightful on this point. Despite strong evidence that companies made up of both senior men and women financially outperform those composed solely of men, male entrepreneurs are 68% more likely to get funding than women. So if the research shows that for companies across all sectors with the most women on their boards of directors significantly and consistently outperform those with no female representation (by 41% in terms of return on equity and by 56% in terms of operating results) why was only 10% of VC investment in Silicon Valley in the past 15 years invested in companies with women CEO's? One can only conclude that its not just unconscious bias - but conscious bias against women. Dame Jocelyn finished her talk on Day 1 with the quote "Well behaved women seldom make history" which was the perfect cue for the wonderfully badly behaved Cindy Gallop to take to the stage to close the proceedings.
In a 30 minute tour de force with more quotable quotes than you could shake a stick at she shared her vision of women making huge exits from start ups becoming in turn women who invest in other women entrepreneurs. It felt like a rallying call for a movement and one that I hope to be part of. "You'll never change the future if you care what people think" she said a sentiment that spoke to the need for women to have confidence and self belief above all else.
On a final note it would be remiss of me not to mention the refreshing and total difference in atmosphere, style and presentation between Inspirefest2015 and so, so many other tech conferences I’ve attended over the years. Instead of the usual young white males striding the conference stage with earpieces cocked and pitches filled with hubris we were treated to speakers who were there to share their knowledge and experience. Or to put it another way - it was never about them - it was all about us.
Ann O Dea and her team in Silicon Republic have raised the bar without a shadow of a doubt not only in Dublin but globally. So for those who say “we can’t find enough women speakers for our tech conferences” I can only say - Really? Really?
Photos by Conor McCabe