I'm involved in a number of women-centric IT discussion groups. About twice a year the topic of conferences comes up. Namely why do so few women (proportionately) attend/present? It's a good question.
I've organised a couple of conferences and tried really hard to encourage more women to get involved. On the whole I wasn't notably successful. So I've done some thinking and offer the following as some reasons why technical women aren't attending technical conferences.
By and large women are still responsible for running their households. This means that in order to attend a conference she has to make alternate arrangements for
whereas a man can usually just expect those things to happen. This is even harder when the conference isn't local.
For any person who doesn't spend their free time programming, or playing with operating systems etc the thought of spending vacation time on attending a conference may appall. While this applies equally to men as women, men who aren't running a household typically have more real free time than women who are and thus might view a conference as a nice change rather than even more work.
It's therefore a common response in our discussions that these women don't attend conferences because they have more important/relaxing/useful things to do with their holidays. In some cases this may involve visiting and caring for sick or elderly relatives, a task overwhelmingly assumed to be the responsibility of women.
For some reason I never understood, it was unthinkable for most of the girls at school to walk across the playground on her own in order to go to the toilet or get something from her bag etc. Likewise, when it came to subject selection (even for the last 2 years of high school) most girls chose subjects based on who else was doing them.
I have a suspicion that conferences might be similar. Since none of my friends are going to the conference, why would I? Who would I talk to? What if I got lonely? This is not to say that technical women aren't capable of acting independently, otherwise we wouldn't be in the field of IT. However, women appear to be taught that it's not cool (for women) to go things alone and pressure from friends and family often helps to reinforce this. Who else (that you know) is going to the conference? Who will you talk to you if you get bored? Aren't you afraid you'll be lonely?
Men don't have this problem. They can be certain that there will be lots of other men at the conference and with the way that men make friends it's very unlikely that there won't be anyone to talk to.
Women cannot be certain that there will be any other women at the conference. Further, women typically make friends differently than men (preferring one-on-one or small group conversations). This can lead to them feeling awkward and lonely even while appearing to join in a friendly (large group) conversation.
It's not just conferences which are underpopulated by women. It's user groups, trade magazine subscribers, online forums. Women all around the world are working in IT and not getting involved. Maybe they don't want to be "geeks" or they'd rather spend their free time doing more interesting things. However this means that it's very hard, as a conference organiser, to get women to hear about conferences. You can't attend a conference you don't hear about.
The other part of this one is that lots of people, women included,
aren't aware that they are the target audience of a certain conference.
They feel that they're not good enough, that they wouldn't understand
enough, or that the topics aren't interesting enough. This leads to people who would otherwise get a lot out of the conference, not attending.
Of course the above are all generalisations. There are many technical men who don't go to conferences and there are obviously some technical women who do. Not all women run a household and some who do are willing to let things slide for a week if necessary. Some women find it easy to start up discussions with complete strangers and join any group while some men find it impossible.
However, special cases aside, the above reasons form some serious problems for the conference organiser. Fortunately some of these have solutions.
Many women say that they'd love to attend conferences if their employer was willing to pay for at least some of the attendance cost and/or allow them to attend on company time. Conferences are often pitched at attendees with promises to improve their skills. This is true, but perhaps more conferences need to offer a separate line of advertising to employers about how employee attendance at the conference will help them.
Fears of going alone to the conference can be allayed a little by stressing the social aspects of the conference in the advertising literature. If there are catered meals mention this and that this is a great chance to meet people. Throw in a talk, session, panel discussion, BOF or other event covering how to network. Advertise it.
Provide abstracts of talks as early as possible. This allows prospective attendees to realise that the talk with the exciting title of Starting again is actually of interest to them as it covers how to start a business, or perhaps how to refactor code...
The unawareness issue is a big one. It's not enough to just tell someone that a conference is happening, you have to make them interested. I get conference spam in my email every day and I really don't know how they heard of me. I'm not interested in any of them.
To make someone interested you have to get them to realise that the conference does apply to them. This is more easily done if there are relevant user groups you can invite rather than individuals. It's also good if you can get these people so fired up about the conference that they invite all of their workmates, friends and family. The best way to do that is to be an active part or supporter of the user group to begin with.
These are some reasons women have for not attending conferences. I'm sure there are further individual reasons too such as bad experiences, highly specialised fields and consistant bad timing.
Why do you/don't you attend conferences?