How to make tech-meet ups more women friendly?
A couple of years ago, I started regularly attending tech Meetups. A Meetup is an event hosted by some company on some technical topic, where a community of industry professionals gets together to talk about their work, learn new things, and build their network. Sometimes I’m there as a participant, nowadays increasingly often as a speaker. It’s quite fun: I get to talk to new people, make contacts in the industry, and just have nice evenings.
Depending on which meetup I go to, the audience differs a bit. At the Java User Group in Bonn, my first-ever meetup (thanks for organising Stephan!), there were a lot of middle-aged developers in button down shirts that talked about “design domains” and “contract-driven testing”. At React.js & React Native Meetup Bonn, where I gave my first-ever meetup talk, people were more “hip” and a little less serious. At TypeScript Berlin, the Meetup hosted by Prisma’s wonderful Natalia Woroniec, also the Meetup where I gave my most recent talk, the crowd was a lot younger and very entrepreneurial. Tech Meetups: women are severely underrepresented
What do all of these Meetups have in common? They were heavily men- dominated. And actually, with this characteristic, they are very representative of tech Meetups on a more general note. Here’s some numbers of the past couple of Meetups:
These counts are not based on the actual gender of the participants (which wasn’t disclosed) but rather on my interpretation of the participants list on the Meetup webpage. For reasons related to a lack of adequate data, gender was assumed based on names & profile pictures. Obviously, I cannot surely know anyone’s gender identity on basis of their name and a photo – I can only take an estimated guess. This estimated guess points us towards a direction. And this direction looks grim. It suggests a women representation hat hovers between five and ten percent.
Some Women experience Tech Meetups as hostile
I hear people saying Simon, that’s to be expected! There just aren’t that many women in tech! And they are obviously somewhat right as there is significant underrepresentation of women in tech, as anybody who ever worked in a tech job probably experienced first-hand. At the same time, there are not no women in tech either. According to industry association Eco, women make up 16.8% of German tech workers. That’s an embarrassingly small number, but compared to the Meetup numbers, it’s almost double! What are the underlying reasons?
Turns out, there are a lot of reasons. Chloe Condon wrote about What It’s Like to Be a Woman at a Tech Conference, and it strongly hints towards a very toxic climate at many tech Meetups. In her article, she explains why “as a woman, I don’t feel welcome at tech conferences”. Whether it’s swag shirts that were printed without thinking about women, being announced as “THE WOMAN” by catering staff, or having to prove one’s competences to the present men constantly. According to Chloe Condon’s experiences, it is the abundance of these experiences that make women feel alienated, like they don’t belong (1).
Tech Meetups need to do more for gender equity
Full disclosure: I am a white cis man and don’t know how it feels to enter a Meetup as anyone else except for the person with my identity. But based on a growing body of research and those women who do share their experiences ever tirelessly, it seems to me that Meetups are not gender-inclusive spaces at all. As studies indicate, as a woman, working in tech is hard enough on its own: Gender bias adds pressure to women, urging them to extra-perform in order to fight extra-scepcisism. We know that the same behaviour and skillset is perceived differently in women.
If lucky, being underminied decreases after some time, once a woman in tech has “proven herself”. This is unjust and puts women at a major disadvantage. And this dynamic also presents itself in an amplified way at Meetups, where the whole point is to meet new people and to convince them of your competence.
I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of this myself. At a recent Meetup, one attendee afterwards referred to one of the presenters as “die Kleine” - a German, derogatory term meaning “the little girl”. Not only did this comment imply that he didn’t take the presenter seriously, it also made visible a strong sense of entitlement and power imbalance in these spaces. It is this power imbalance that also stopped me from speaking out. Although his language was clearly sexist, I didn’t know how to call him out. He was a lot more senior than me and highly influential- and I didn’t feel safe criticising him. In hindsight, I should’ve definitely spoken up. And at the same time I wonder: did the others around me feel the same way?
Sexist remarks create a toxic culture in tech spaces
As a man I can’t be the victim of sexism. Spaces that acknowledge and don’t call out sexism make me feel uncomfortable too though. Comments like the one I describe are horrible and make me not want to go to Meetups anymore. I thus wonder how we can all collectively grow an awareness and create safer spaces in the tech world.
Next to this obvious example of sexism that poses greater questions about allyship and men’s responsibility in the fight against patriarchy, there’s another reason why Meetups see less women attendees: They happen after work, in the free time. Free time? As we know, women perform 2 hours more unpaid household & care work every day, so as a consequence they have less time to spare, also to go to Meetups. This is immensely unfair.
I could go on about other structural issues that make Meetups less appealing to women. However, I believe that these first two issues that we touched upon already offer big leverage points to making Meetups more gender inclusive. Going to Meetups is great for learning, meeting new people, networking & career growth. All of which are useful to people of all genders, so it’s a shame that the tech world does so bad at including women.
Things everyone can do to contribute to a safe(r ) tech Meetup culture
If you’re a Meetup attendee, and you’re a man, you can act upon this by intentionally making women feel welcome. If they’re at a Meetup, chances are they’re interested in its subject! So talk to them about the latest new feature of TypeScript, rather than about “how it is to be a women in tech”. If you witness another man being inappropriate, speak up, even if it’s not easy. If you found an inclusive Meetup, bring along your non-men friends.
If you’re a Meetup host, you can make an effort to find women to speak at your event. You can promote the event among women to boost women participation, encourage them to bring along friends. Since women often have less free time to spend on a Meetup, try holding the event during standard working hours. Another idea I’ve shamelessly stolen from the Prisma Meetups: Communication stickers for participants clothes, that indicate how interested you are in talking to others.
This way, all participants can align on what they individually want to get out of a Meetup.
As you can see, Meetups have a problem with women representation, but there are ways to act upon this. It is also a question of awareness and a willingness to change. If you have other recommendations & ideas, let me know and I’ll add them to the list! About Simon Simon works as a Software Engineer and studies at Hasso-Plattner-Institute. He’s interested in creating welcoming and respectful work environments and communities.