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Women in Tech Summit gets a lesson in listening to local communities

There was some disappointment over one of the conference's keynote speakers. Here's what went down.

A Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia in 2013. (Courtesy photo)

When the Women in Tech Summit organizers unveiled the speaker lineup for their second annual conference in D.C. (coming March 24), some in the D.C. women in tech community saw a glaring error. One of the conference’s speakers this year (and, at the time, one of just two keynote speakers to boot) is a man.

DataLensDC’s Kate Rabinowitz took to Twitter to express her concerns:

https://twitter.com/DataLensDC/status/824366941129293837

https://twitter.com/DataLensDC/status/824367513853198336

Summit organizers undoubtedly had reasons for making the choice they did, but by giving Rohit Bhargava a keynote spot they inadvertently stepped on very sensitive ground.

Recall — back in November Rabinowitz did some data analysis on female (and non-binary) speakers at #dctech Meetups and the results were abysmal. This prompted Rabinowitz to create wespeaktoo.org, a list of female and non-binary speakers on a range of topics for Meetup organizers to draw upon.

The keynote speaker in question. (Screenshot)

The keynote speaker in question. (Screenshot)

So a conference from out of town (the Summit team is based in Philly, though they do have local volunteer advisory help) makes a faux pas that just happens to underline an ongoing local conversation. What’s an organizer to do?

To her credit, Women in Tech Summit Operations Director Gloria Bell reached out to Rabinowitz and Joy Whitt, asking to hear their concerns. In response to this conversation the Summit organizers issued a statement addressing the whole thing on Monday. “D.C. women in tech spoke up and we heard them,” the headline to the post declares.

In the post the team outlines why they picked Bhargava in the first place — because he is a “strong advocate for women in tech” with a “unique view” — but admits that perhaps placing him in the closing keynote spot was not the right move.

“Based on our discussions, we now realize we had not been as aware as we should have been about the climate of the D.C. tech community and its very real concerns about the lack of women speakers at events held in the area,” organizers write. “Our aim was and still is to always to provide quality, useful programming and never to upset the local communities. We deeply regret creating the erroneous perception that there were not a sufficient number of qualified, amazing women in the D.C. area to help us conclude the conference as a closing keynote.”

Bell told Technical.ly in a conversation that she was a little surprised by the response to the speaker. The Women in Tech Summit has featured male speakers on and off during the course of its six-year history in Philly, and while attendees have asked questions it has generally been easy for the organizers to explain why they made the choice they did. That said, the male speakers of the past have never been in a keynote spot.

And so, under the circumstances, organizers decided to make some changes to the conference schedule.

“We have not eliminated the session to be led by the male speaker that came into question because we still feel very strongly he has valuable information to impart with our conference attendees and that audience members will significantly gain important information and critical skills from his session. We have, however, moved his session to another time slot and will be choosing a woman for the closing keynote.”

As of writing, conference organizers do not appear to have picked a replacement keynote speaker yet.

“It was a very very valuable lesson for us,” Bell said, of the whole experience and her conversation with the various #dctech ladies. “We really appreciate the community speaking up. And not just speaking up, but also being willing to talk to us. There are a lot of people who will complain, but not a lot of people who will actually help you solve the problem.”

The community, it seems, appreciates it too:

https://twitter.com/DataLensDC/status/826442429465317376

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