Inequality recap: women, tech conferences, and objectification

The latest year-end report on gender inequality in tech reveals bias against women continues to be an issue within the workplace – and the technology industry as a whole. Will the 'Boys Club' ever truly be dismantled?

Last month, a scandal involving the well-known DevTernity developer conference – caught advertising fake AI-generated women to cover up its lack of female tech speakers – only highlights the continued disparity between genders in the field.

The conference scandal (more on that later) coincidentally erupted the same week the Web Summit group released its annual 2023 State of Gender Equity report, a global survey of women and their experiences in the tech workplace.

The survey found that although progress has been made overall, there is still a long way to go when it comes to females enduring bias in the male-dominated field.

According to the Dublin-based organization, which hosts several tech conferences at various international locations each year, over half of the women surveyed said they had experienced sexism in the workplace within the last year.

What’s more, the number of women who believe their workplace is not taking appropriate measures to combat gender inequality has also close to doubled over the past year, the study found.

And, more than three quarters of the respondents said they felt they needed to work harder to prove themselves because of their gender.

Web Summit 2023 State of Gender Equity report
Web Summit 2023 State of Gender Equity survey results.

“Seeing an increase in those who report having experienced sexism in the workplace in the last year is disheartening in 2023,” said Carolyn Quinlan, VP of community at Web Summit.

“We hope that this kind of research can breed some positives, and that it will push workplaces – and women within these workplaces – to broach these topics and make progress in these areas,” Quinlan said.

Web Summit does point out that while women’s participation at tech events has expanded year over year, overall there is still much that can be improved.

The for-profit organization is “constantly innovating and finding ways to increase participation from women in tech in each of our host cities,” said Web Summit Communications Associate Jenna Clarke-Molloy.

“We are wholeheartedly committed to achieving genuine gender parity at our conferences,” Clarke Malloy said.

In fact, a record 43% of attendees at Web Summit’s latest tech event – held in Lisbon this November – were females, while 38% of the event’s speakers (besides being real people) also identified as women. Both are an increase from the previous year. Not too shabby.

Exhibit A: the objectification of women

In the meantime, the DevTernity event, originally set for December 7th, was eventually canceled by its founder (and rightfully so) due to the backlash from industry folk, ticketholders, and other speakers, which had played out publicly for days on social media.

Incredulously, the founder even tried to argue that he did nothing wrong promoting fake female speakers to fulfill a diversity quota, calling it an innocent oversight, even though he was also outed for using the exact same fake profiles in previous years – and getting away with the ruse by having the non-existent speakers “cancel” their appearances at the last minute.

That the founder was unable to connect the dots and understand, aside from straight out deceiving attendees with false information, using an AI-generated female to fill a role that an actual ‘real’ woman could have easily filled is a slap in the face for those in the field fighting to be taken seriously.

Whether the founder was too lazy to research legitimate female speakers, too cheap to shell out for the cost, or simply doesn’t believe women have anything to contribute to the tech world doesn’t really matter – the message is clear.

Objectifying women is still a thing among the ‘bros’ of the industry… and, ironically, also present among the AI-powered LLM (Large Language Model) chatbots we continue to train using data that has been proven to perpetuate the sexualization of women.

A sea of tech bros

The entire debacle and survey brought me back to this years Black Hat USA conference held in Las Vegas this August, which I was lucky enough to attend for the first time.

Touching upon my own observations as a female attendee, I also sought out and spoke with numerous accomplished females there about the challenges facing women in the industry.

One of my first observations, before I even descended into event territory, was that two of the three Black Hat keynote speakers – CISA’s Jen Easterly and Maria Markstedter, founder and CEO of Azeria Labs – were women.

Another kudos to the conference for having Darpa’s program manager, Perri Adams, speak following Black Hat founder Jeff Moss’ kick-off keynote, even though the majority of the room got up and left during her quick 15 minutes on stage.

I felt hopeful, even though walking into that first keynote ballroom was possibly a rude awakening.

I can only describe it as a sea of tech bros, rows and rows of them, all wearing the same uniform of khaki pants and button downs, Black Hat bookbags on their shoulders, as far as the eye could see.

Black Hat keynote male attendees
Image by Stefanie Schappert

For me, the rest of the Black Hat conference was fairly the same population split.

Sadly, most of the women I spoke with at the event seemed to be either PR persons there to rep their clients or the token PYT manning vendor booths and giving out free socks on the business hall floor.

(Although I did hear through the grapevine that the practice of hiring non-techie females as eye candy on the business floor was starting to be frowned upon in some circles.)

Black Hat, DEF CON, and ‘Hacker Jeopardy’

As a minority attendee, I made it a point to check out a Women in Security and Privacy (WISP) meet and greet, and then stopped by the Women's Society of Cyberjutsu booth, an organization of which I was a current member.

The meet-up, led by WISP board members, co-founder Elena Elkina, and Event Liaison Alyssa Coley, was held in a room that could easily fill a few hundred attendees.

About a dozen or so women and a sprinkling of men were sitting around one lone table when I walked in.

Most wanted to stay nameless sharing their experiences with the group.

The non-profit’s mission is to advance women and underrepresented communities in the security and privacy sector, but also to help other organizations who want to be more proactive but may not have the tools or resources in place to do so.

RSA, Black Hat, and DEF CON are considered some of the more progressive tech conferences when it comes to gender diversity, according to the two women, who have been partnering with Black Hat for about seven years now.

“One of our goals is to bring awareness to the industry,” Elkina explained.

“Very often, we're not aware that we're doing something that includes discrimination. We all have some type of bias. Sometimes it's very apparent and intentional, but the majority of the time, we're not aware it's happening,” Elkina said.

DEF CON Hacker Jeopardy Web Summit 2023 State of Gender Equity report
Poster for Hacker Jeopardy 2023. Web Summit 2023 State of Gender Equity survey results.

Black Hat gives away hundreds of scholarships each year to WISP to allow more women the ability to attend the event.

Although Elkina said the Black Hat partnership has been wonderful, she also acknowledges its not so easy implementing change.

“I think Defcon is a little bit easier because it's a little bit more alternative. Black Hat is such a corporate structure. It's such a huge machine, well established with a lot of money and sponsors. So it does take an effort to change how it operates. But they're trying,” Elkina said.

“Still, there have been issues at DEF CON, like Hacker Jeopardy. Where some of the questions were very sexual, very uncomfortable,” said Coley.

Coley is referring to a publicized issue that took place at DEF CON’s popular annual game show parody back in 2016.

The scandal was said to involve a trivia category labeled ‘Dicks,’ scantily clad women removing pieces of clothing for each correct answer, and yes, women wearing strap-on dildo’s.

Even ChatGPT describes Hacker Jeopardy as “an ADULT show with vulgarities and alcohol consumption.”

Imposter syndrome, intimidation, and safety

There are also safety issues regarding female attendees, especially first timers who have reported being intimidated by the female to male ratio, some of the women said.

“Not necessarily that they are going to be attacked or harassed. But just not feeling confident,” Ekina said.

Although, some of the women did say they had been followed by male attendees at previous events, or inappropriately contacted on social media long after the conference had ended.

Because of this, some of the female attendees have begun to register for the conferences using fake names, others avoid attending networking after-parties alone.

“I turned off my LinkedIn when I came here, and it might just need me being paranoid, but meeting strangers, especially male strangers, and giving out any socials of mine, it's an icky thing for me. A lot of the time, I get the attention I don't want,” one woman said.

Web Summit 2023 State of Gender Equity report 2
Web Summit 2023 State of Gender Equity survey results.

Others at the meet-up described having experienced or witnessed blatant gender bias.

This year, a WISP member who was trying to get to the expo floor to open the WISP booth was refused entry, even after showing her staff badge, while her husband and several other men (all white males, she was Asian) sauntered through the doorway without even being asked to show ID, Coley said.

“It was like 9:40 or 9:50 a.m., right before it was going to open to everyone. And her husband had this big, giant suitcase filled with swag. Wouldn't that be a little bit more suspicious?” she said.

Another woman pointed out that because she is a younger female, whenever she attempts to introduce herself to people at a conference, “they always assume I'm in sales, despite me being an engineer.”

To help solve these issues, WISP scholarship recipients get assigned a more senior attendee to mentor them at the events. They’ve also created a community room where “women can come and hang out in a safe space.”

“You don't need to make big, huge changes, but it's important to be heard,” Elkina said.

“I feel like it's getting better because we observe, we tell everyone, ‘if you don't feel safe reporting, tell us. We'll report on your behalf because we want to make sure we speak for the community,'” Elkina said.

“We want to make sure those conferences are safe and not only available to people who may not have $5,000 to attend but also provide the opportunity to network and actually benefit from it,” she added.

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Inequality recap: women, tech conferences, and objectification

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prefix 5 months ago
Or maybe just have the education and skill set. This anti male is honestly annoying. You obviously didn't have an issue being hired and you shouldn't be hired base on race or sex. So, stop trying to be hired due to be a woman.
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