Women in Technology

Dom kicked up a women in technology debate again recently.  I’ve seen a few responses, from one chap who thinks women have achieved equality already to a woman who doesn’t think girl’s brains are generally good for “programming” – and someone else who thinks there isn’t a problem as long as you’re thick skinned enough to put up with a sexually hostile workplace.

The main gripe appears to be with “women only” conferences, such as the Women on the Web conference, organised by a group called Forward Ladies, or the Geek Girl dinners.

I think a fair summary of his, and some other commenters, opinion is that these “women-only” events don’t help the effort to get more women involved in technology. Comparing it to positive discrimination in many ways.

Women Friendly

The way I see these events is more “women-friendly”, rather than “women-only”.  With Geek Girl dinners, this is explicit, as men can attend at the invite of a women. A simple, but generally effective heuristic to select for friendliness to women.

With Women on the Web, it’s less clear, but nowhere does it state men are not welcome.  The same goes for the Forward Ladies membership terms and conditions. I’m not sure how Dom knows this event is women only (I’ve emailed Forward Ladies for more info).

Until I’m shown otherwise, I’m assuming the Women on the Web conference is women-friendly, not women-only.  Of course, if you browse the site you see photos of women, and all the past speakers appear to be women, and this might not be that inviting to men – but how inviting do you think Infosec is to women, with photos of rooms full of men, and women in skimpy clothes giving out leaflets? Perhaps all the speakers are women because they just don’t get many men interested – maybe men just  need to be thicker skinned and ask to be involved.

As an amusing side note, after checking the Infosec url was correct I caught sight of this year’s branding – hundreds of what I assume are just people, but they happen to be using the pretty well established symbol for “men” (let’s not get into that though).

Infosec conference logo


You only have to see the turnout of women at Leeds Geek Girl dinners compared to the turnout of women at Leeds Geekup to know there is a demand for these women-friendly events. For whatever reasons, some women are more likely to go an explicitly women-friendly geek event than another random geek event. Of course women should be encouraged to come to all events, but not all events are equally friendly to women, and it’s often difficult to assess how friendly they are from outside.

Social Groups

Women are a social group  – they’ll often share some common experiences and outlooks due to their sex – due to society’s treatment of them as a group of people. This goes for men too. And gay people. And geeks. Etc.  When you see women in this way, you’d expect some of them to organise and attend these types of events. Most social groups do.

Geek Girl Dinners just have a convenient way of selecting women-friendly people: women, or men invited by women. Of course, not all women are women friendly  – that is just a stereotype, but it seems to work for them.

Largely though, I think if you name things and brand things right, you get the people you’re hoping for. Maybe that’s why Infosec is a sausage-fest.


Forward Ladies has confirmed that men are welcome to Women on the Web, and are welcome as members of Forward Ladies too. They also run 50/50 events “to which men are specifically invited”.


I’m tired and will comment more tomorrow but I never state that Women on the Web is women only, infact I think I state that I’m not sure if its woment only or not

john says:

Dom, your post does say:

if your going to promote these women only events and run them, then make sure you let them know about the events where anyone is free to go

I clearly remember THINKING that I wasn’t 100% sure if it was women only… but that was a 900 word blog post! my mistake

Imran Ali says:

As one of the co-organisers of the Leeds GGD, it’s heartening to see that someone has pointed out the obvious in this debate.

Women are voting with their feet – regardless of gender or access issues, GGDs clearly meet a need and I’m really happy that we’re able to meet that need and help make a difference :)

You’ve had plenty of time to comment your feelings on the blog Imran and I’m not even going to joke about the fact that a bloke is co organiser of a geek GIRL dinner ;)

as I said on my post, if all the girls at the geek girl dinner voted with there feet and attended geekup they would out number the blokes at least 2:1, they would still have the majority and the local community would be a better place for it.

Piggynap says:

Hey John,

I take your point about men being welcome at women’s events, and you’re right there must be a demand for them otherwise so many women wouldn’t go!

When I talked about office banter, I didn’t mean it made for a sexually hostile workplace. In my experience some men – usually youngish, single blokes – don’t really know where to draw the line when it comes to discussing women. It’s not deliberate on their part and the rest of the time they’re great fun and great workmates. I think it’s probably management’s job to set the boundaries – if the manager doesn’t care then the behaviour continues.

I don’t think this is a problem specific to tech however. I’d like to think that if there was any real sexism or if the jokes went too far it would be dealt with just like anywhere else.

Liz Cable says:

Hi all,

I’m Liz Cable of Reach Further, and am organising the Women on the Web conferences, and series of seminars http://womenontheweb.wordpress.com for Forward Ladies, a networking group of 3,500 women in Leeds and West Yorkshire, who run their own businesses http://www.forwardladies.com

I chose to run this event through Forward Ladies because I wanted women to be absolutely sure they are welcome. Men are welcome to be members of Forward Ladies, and to come to the events too.

My motivation is simple. Three facts:

1.According to a 2009 national computer centre survey, 1 in 5 women over 45 have never been on the internet.
2.Only 6% of businesses in Leeds are owned by women.
3.The average age at which a woman starts a business is 42.

This means, to me, that there is a group of women of a certain age with the aspiration to start a business, but a lack of knowledge, and they need supporting.

That’s it. I hope you can support me in supporting them.

The fact that you are able to Twitter and to blog about this, means that you have a voice that they haven’t got. Yet.

céline says:

Best post I’ve read on the subject so far, John. Thanks.

Helen Harrop says:

Great post John. This truly is a song as old as time and it’s complicated by the fact that within each social group you have a myriad of differing (even opposing) experiences, perspectives, motivations, judgements etc … i.e. individual human beings! No social group would mobilise if those individuals didn’t share a perceived need for embracing their wider commonality. And of course we are members of multiple social groups so none of this is operating in a vacuum … Which only goes to complicate things further.

It is also an issue which does not always submit to simplistic logical analysis. The Leeds Girl Geek Dinners costs £15 to attend. GeekUp is free. I attend both and would find it hard to explain why I feel motivated to spend £15 to go to Leeds Girl Geek Dinners. I also wouldn’t know where to begin in justifying why I think it is a good thing to anyone who can’t see the value or thinks it is somehow damaging to the very cause of female geeks.

I thought you might be interested to know that Sarah Blow has recently posted a post that touches on some of this stuff and discusses the recent publication of a ‘European Code of Best Practices for Women and ICT’

Peter Cooper says:

And gay people.

Gay Geek Dinners here we come. And how comes there aren’t any Black Geek Dinners?

Dave Nicoll says:

I hope your post, Peter, is tongue in cheek. Clearly this is not about minorities, it’s about redressing the male/female balance in I.T. and the creative industries.

While the Leeds GeekUp group are a lovely bunch of people, I can understand why women would prefer their own forum. As guys we generally talk about “guy stuff” once we’re bored with computers, so by the same logic women would prefer to talk about “girl stuff”. I know that’s a bit of an over-simplification, and not all you geeky girls read Heat magazine and talk about shoes (or do you? :), but you get where I’m coming from right?

As for the Hodge implying that Imran’s motives for starting this female-only forum are questionable, I only have one thing to say… sounds like you’re jealous you didn’t think of it :P

john says:

And how comes there aren’t any Black Geek Dinners?

I don’t know, ask an economist.

[…] thought we should moving away from if we were going to be seen as equals in this profession. But as John Leach put so well: You only have to see the turnout of women at Leeds Geek Girl dinners compared to the […]

Leave a Reply