Achievement Unlocked: 20% Women Technologists in IoT
I was looking at an advertisement for a conference on higher education in India where all Vice-chancellors and heads of institutions were invited as speakers. It was shocking to see no woman speakers among all the VCs and Deans that were invited. It kept me wondering whether there are negligible women at the top of higher institutions or the conference organizer did not make any attempt to invite at least some women as speakers. The group was convening to discuss the future of education in India and had no woman included in the dialogue- how do we guarantee that the group will discuss policies which impact girls’ education? How can a group come to a logical decision and decide the future for students in the country including girls without having any voice from 50% of the population? There were several glaring questions that came to my mind: In our country most of the educators at the school level are women. Then why are women poorly represented at higher education level? We have several women school principals but how many VCs and Deans of universities and colleges are women? Are women not taking the real tough jobs or there are very few women highly qualified and even fewer opting for the top job?
I did not know these answers but it drew my attention to the industry where I work in which has a much higher proportion of women compared to a lot of other sectors – the IT Sector. Is the situation better here or similar problem of low women speakers exists here too? I decided to reflect on the past year and look at the speakers’ list of 10 conferences to which either I or my colleagues had been invited as speakers. Here are some surprising results which threw up:
Connected Vehicles 2019 – 2 women speakers out of a total of 51 speakers, i.e. 3%
IoT India Congress 2018 – 0 women speaker out of a total of 15 speakers, i.e. 0%
Data Cloud Summit 2018 – 1 women speaker out of a total of 31 speakers, i.e. 3%
Nasscom Big Data & Analytics Summit – 3 women speakers out of a total of 35 speakers, i.e. 8%
CII Innovation Summit – 8 women speakers out of a total of 67 speakers, i.e. 12%
Machine Learning Developer Summit – 8 women speakers out of a total of 58, i.e. 14%
Cloud and Big Data Analytics – 4 women speakers out of a total of 26 speakers, i.e. 15%
Analytics India Summit – 14 women speakers out of a total of 100 speakers, i.e. 14 %
If we look outside India, IoT World Congress 2018 – 33 women speakers out of a total of 324 speakers, i.e. 10%
Electronics for You, IoTShow.in ( https://www.iotshow.in/speakers-2019/) – 9 women speakers out of a total of 49 speakers, i.e. 18%.
The number of women speakers most of the time hover around 8-10% and in many situations drops to 3%. This is indeed very surprising as the number of women in engineering roles in the IT sector is around 26% ( according to a survey by Belong) though at senior levels it comes down to 7-10%. Shouldn’t be the number of women speakers be the same around the industry average which is 26%? One wonders that what would be the gender mix of the audience in the above conferences and if there are some women what messages would they be carrying back home? How do we develop technology that is unbiased in nature when its only men who are promoting and evangelizing their innovations? Now, there might be a couple of possibilities for this terribly low women speakers’ visibility in conferences: First, women are not coming forward and being vocal about the technologies they are developing and/or are not availing the opportunities to speak up and make themselves visible, and/or the conference organizers are not making an attempt to reach out to more women leaders and giving them the forum to speak as they have no motivation to do so.
So which end do we start tackling the problem from?
If you observe, the last conference example given above is an outlier and it makes us wonder why the number of women is suddenly higher at 18% than the rest of the crowd. The reason is attributed to the organizers’ genuine attempt to include women speakers during the conference planning process. In December @Dilin Anand, of Electronics For You (EFY) magazine reached out to me and there was a ring of authenticity in his ask to me. He reached out to me on LinkedIn and wrote, “In the past 7 years of conferences that I have conducted and observed in embedded and open source, the ratio of women to men has not quite been at balance. I do see a lot of views and opinions aired on the web about this, but I figure its best if my team and I action something about it for our flagship conference. Can you help us reach out to Women in Tech?”
After spending years feeling solo and searching for colour in the drab conferences that I visit this was a clarion call to me. Besides the occasional feeling of exhilaration, while bonding with women co-panelists, I have always wondered why I see more diversity at the workplace than at conferences. Are women not having time to step out and give some of their bandwidth to present sessions to a wider audience? Or it’s the other way round, there are not enough people reaching out to them to speak. The problem could be at both ends but the result is the same- a low diversity leading to incomplete viewpoints. I have also observed a huge amount of respect women in the audience have towards me when they see me on stage and that itself is a reason enough for me to step out and be more vocal on technologies that I work on.
Going back to the call from EFY, I took up the challenge and made couple of calls to @Sanjeev Malhotra, Nasscom IoT CoE; @Venkatesh Kumaran @IESA,; @IEEE chairs, some friends in TI, Cisco and within IBM, posted on LinkedIn, requesting each one to nominate all the women they know who are working in IoT and AI. Many women were nominated, they came forward excited to be part of this and eagerly agreed to be speakers. The outcome is that now we have 18% of women speakers signed up in IoTShow.in 2019, while in 2018 for the same conference the ratio was 8 %. This is when its only one woman i.e. me reaching out to max 5% of her network to make this happen but a strong desire from organizers to reach out to the women and have them folded into the conference objective.
Why wouldn’t all conferences have this target of having at least 20% of speakers as women? Can the organizers take it on themselves to strive towards this goal in absence of anyone monitoring whether it’s a man or a woman who is invited to speak? Can the audience stop being silent and speak up and say that they want to see more women speakers on the stage? Can gender diversity be a new metric of the success of a conference? Can men speakers say it aloud that they would prefer women co-panelists and have them as keynote speakers? Can there be a sincere effort to create more role models in the industry by giving them an opportunity in highly visible conferences? Can each woman technologist take a target on herself that she would speak at x number of conferences this year rather than just attend? A lot can be done only if men and women, both try. Women in Tech, we are waiting to hear from you!
— Shalini Kapoor, Distinguished Engineer at IBM, Director & CTO – Watson IoT and Watson Education at IBM