When I got invited to attend a three-day conference about digital creativity, technology and entrepreneurship, I dishearteningly prepared myself to be surrounded by men, sitting beside me and speaking on stage. The first day of Digifest 2016 kicked off on a Thursday morning in April at the gleaming Corus Quay building on Toronto’s waterfront. I got my media badge and headed towards the sunlit lobby. To my surprise, I was not the only woman in the room. In fact, half of the audience consisted of women and the first speaker to walk on stage was not a man, but two young women, one of whom was a woman of colour.
Seeing women speakers marked an important moment for me. Not because it made me feel less alone, but as you may have heard or seen for yourself, conferences have a problem with featuring mostly male panelists. Women are largely shut out from the speakers’ lineup of industry events, especially in male-dominated sectors like technology, finance or science. This has provided much fuel for projects like the 50/50 Pledge, started by Sandi MacPherson in Oakland, California, to get major tech events to aim for gender parity. Meanwhile, Rebecca Rosen has written a letter in The Atlantic asking men to turn down invites to speak on all-male panels. And this hilarious Tumblr was created to capture photographical evidence of the worst offenders where exactly zero women are featured on the agenda. The list includes a panel in Ottawa on library digitization strategies (an industry dominated by women) and another hosted by PayPal on gender inclusion in the workplace (again, there’s plenty of women who can speak about this).
At Digifest, where speakers from around the world are invited to spark discussions on topics like maker culture and interactive storytelling, 10 out of the 25 industry speakers are women. Though it’s slightly short of achieving gender parity, being near parity signals an improvement in the representation of women who get to share their expertise on a myriad of subjects. Getting a fair share at the microphone matters. It adds to the diversity of perspectives that are being presented at any given conference. It also increases the visibility of women as leaders, thinkers and role models. And that visibility creates opportunities for women to grow their business and advance to leadership roles.
The first two women I get to hear speak at the event are Toronto architects Em Cheng and Jennifer Davis. They presented their Play-Full City project, a free smartphone app that lets Calgary residents find forgotten public spaces and use them to play recreational games like hopscotch or bocce ball. The women are new to app development, making this the first major digital-focused event they were invited to speak at.
“What’s interesting for me is that they let us talk even though we’re architects and not digital-specific people,” says Davis. For her, this opportunity lets her showcase her work in front of industry people who wouldn’t have otherwise heard of her or her work. But deciding to say yes to a speaking event like this depends a lot on how it’s organized in the first place. “It’s important to look at the roster and see how many women are actually speaking,” she says. “That to me shows they’re taking a systemic approach to gender representation.”
After overhearing our conversation, a male audience member responds, “You know what? I never really thought about that but you’re right, I want to hear more women speaking at these events.”
For some women speakers, getting a chance to talk on stage means possible funding opportunities for their business. The much-anticipated fourth annual “It’s a Start” competition was held on the last day of Digifest. Ten entrepreneurs are given the chance to pitch their startup ideas in five minutes or less in front of a panel of judges. The top three teams take home cash prizes of $2,000, $3,000 and $5,000, plus they are given mentorship from industry experts and working space at George Brown College’s Digital Media and Gaming Incubator.
Out of the 10 pitchers, four are women and of the eight judges, only two are women. This underrepresentation is not lost on Anna Isachenko, who is the sixth (and first woman) entrepreneur to step on stage. The operations czar behind SPLT, a Detroit-based ride-sharing app for clusters of employees, purposely wore pants to combat any homophilic biases from the mostly male judges. “I’ve recognized that I don’t look like the power figures of the events that I go to,” says Isachenko. “If they’re not used to seeing female figures in higher level positions, it’s harder for them to see how I could be successful at a company.”
Isachenko is used to working in a male-dominated space given the fact that she’s trying to carve out a share of the transportation market. When she is preparing to attend conferences, she always makes sure to do her homework and check out the roster of speakers, attendees and judges ahead of time. “I have to be more alert and more on my toes,” she says. Translation: she has to be ready to get outnumbered by men.
Her prep work pays off. After the pitching portion concludes, the judges pick Isachenko’s business as the second-place winner. She’s the only woman to nab one of the top three spots thanks to her implacable confidence and her company’s impressive market readiness. Before she heads back to Detroit to share the exciting news with her team, Isachenko tells me that though there’s a gender imbalance at most of the events she attends, the fact that she pitched her startup and nabbed the prize is her way of showing audience members and event organizers that more women can and should own the podium. Says Isachenko: “Even if these conferences are mostly men, there is still a way for it to empower me rather than bring me down.”