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#IODC18: How’d we do on gender balance?

Round thought cloud with words inside.
Written by
James McKinney
Published on
November 14, 2018

IODC 2018 put more women on stage than men — but the work towards gender equity is far from done.

Since the International Open Data Conference (IODC) 2015 in Ottawa, the conference program has come a long way in terms of gender balance.

In 2016, the conference organizers introduced a code of conduct, a step toward reducing gender-based harassment. We’ve seen gender get on the agenda: IODC 2015 had no sessions on gender, IODC 2016 had one (though during lunch, which reduced attendance), and IODC 2018 had four, including one on the main stage. The share of women on stage steadily grew from 39%, to 42%, to 51%. 30 of the 600 English-language session proposals for IODC 2018 included the word “gender.”

Whom you see on stage, however, doesn’t tell the full story. This blog post takes a deep dive on the gender breakdown of speaker lists.

The 2018 schedule featured 229 speakers and moderators: 111 (48%) women and 118 men. These women filled 173 (52%) of 337 slots in the schedule, while the men filled 161. In other words, each man spoke, on average, in 1.36 sessions, while each woman spoke in 1.56 sessions — 15% more. Note that our counts are based on how people present, not on how they identify, and fail to account for non-binary people.

This means that if you were a woman speaking at IODC, you were working 15% harder on average — a number coincidentally matching the gender pay gap of OECD countries.

Having to work harder than men is familiar territory for women. In the context of a conference, the negative consequences include:

  • Reinforcing the perception that women are less qualified than men, because women are less prepared due to having a higher workload, and/or are invited to sessions to achieve gender parity even if they don’t have expertise on the session’s subject.
  • Limiting women-led organizations’ development, by reducing the amount of time and energy to plan and hold meetings with potential funders.
  • Limiting women’s professional development, by curbing opportunities to meet with other attendees, foster partnerships, and take part in strategic meetings — especially since women tend to be less supported to do so than male colleagues.

This trend — of closing the gender gap in the speaker list by having the same women speak more — has been getting worse. At IODC 2015, women spoke in 1.28 sessions each, compared to men in 1.23 (4% more). At IODC 2016, women’s average grew to 1.41 (15% more), while men’s stayed the same.

The factors that contribute to this trend are not all deliberate. For example, at international conferences, speakers regularly cancel at the last minute due to not receiving visas. The session’s proposer often then seeks a substitute among attendees. If the gender balance among non-speaker attendees is overly male, then when a woman cancels, there’s a higher likelihood that the woman who substitutes will already be a speaker. For this and other reasons, it’s important to offer travel grants and per-diems for under-represented groups, including women.

It’s also important to consider the roles that men and women have on stage. At IODC 2018, the reception had only men speaking — though women were asked to stand next to them, such that the imbalance might not be apparent from photos. Similarly, while the share of women on stage was 52%, the share of women in a speaker role was 50%, while the share of women in a moderator role was 57%. This contrasts with the trend in 2015 and 2016, where women on stage were more likely to be speakers than moderators.

Who introduces the conference, receptions and side-events also matters, for setting the tone of the events. For example, at IODC 2018, the official welcome had one woman and four men speaking. Gender and power dynamics continue to play out in subtler ways like this.

What are some short-term solutions? We suggest conference and session organizers alike to:

  1. Achieve gender parity on the speaker list — not only in each session
  2. Monitor the number of sessions per speaker (e.g. maximum 3 sessions)
  3. Find new speakers, to ensure new faces and voices are seen and heard — and secure travel grants for their participation

There are more than enough qualified women in the open data space; we do not need to overwork the same people — whether at IODC or elsewhere. And it’s up to the people proposing sessions — not only the program committee — to address this issue.

For example, to both find new speakers and achieve gender parity on the speaker list, male speakers can proactively (or be asked to) nominate and support female colleagues to take their place. Hera Hussain, now at the Open Contracting Partnership and a member of Open Heroines, shares her example. Hera entered the open data space through OpenCorporates. At the time, the public face of the organization was largely its CEO, Chris Taggart. However, within a few months, Chris encouraged Hera to take his speaking slots and represent the organization. At first, people questioned her about why she was there and not Chris — but after a few presentations at international conferences, people instead started expecting to see her at future events and started asking her about the organization’s new projects and directions. Through these shifts, Hera was able to expand her network and establish herself as a speaker within the space.

Other ways to encourage more new speakers are (1) to change the conference location to make it easier for different speakers to attend (which IODC does) and (2) to track who has already spoken at prior events and to try to limit repetition. The second requires good knowledge management between organizers, which has been a challenge.

To find new speakers, there are also communities like Open Heroines whose members are talented women from across the globe, to whom you can reach out for speaking opportunities.

There has been progress worth celebrating in the IODC program, and we thank Mor Rubinstein and Katie Clancy for their hard work in leading that progress. This is about building on that progress and taking it further at IODC 2020 in Nairobi.

The program is just one area for improvement; and the gender breakdown of speaker lists is just one metric. We encourage others to contribute their ideas and reflections! #IODC18

Thanks to Hera Hussain for contributing her story, and to Mor Rubinstein for reviewing this post.

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