IMPACT lineup begs the question: where are the women speakers? - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 22, 2014 8:29 am

IMPACT lineup begs the question: where are the women speakers?

Just two (now four) of IMPACT's nearly 40 speakers are women. Is this the status quo, or should we expect better from the region's tech leaders?

The crowd at a reception for IMPACT, a venture capital conference.

(Photo courtesy of PACT)

As of the middle of last week, just two speakers out of the 38 slated to be on stage at IMPACT, the two-day, annual investment conference from nonprofit PACT, were women.

If you were looking specifically at panelists who are talking about technology, that number winnowed to one. (Olympic swimmer Dara Torres is the keynote speaker on day two. IMPACT often chooses keynote speakers from outside the realm of tech.)

The numbers on racial diversity aren’t much better: three IMPACT speakers are people of color.

Is this news? Not necessarily.

Several of the city’s headline tech events all share a glaring gender imbalance when it comes to their speakers. That is, of course, illustrative of a larger problem, the gender gap in technology, but it does make you wonder: could event organizers make having diverse speakers more of a priority?

At Philly Startup Leaders’ annual Founder Factory conference last year, only one speaker out of 16 was a woman, and she was hand-picked from the audience to join a panel by moderator Chuck Sacco, who, noting the gender imbalance, asked if there were any women founders in the audience. (In 2012, nearly half of Founder Factory’s 14 speakers were women.)

At PACT’s other annual event this year, enterprise software conference Phorum, two of 16 speakers were women, including keynote speaker Maggie Fox of SAP. PACT is one of the region’s premier groups for connecting entrepreneurs and investors.

When we pointed out the IMPACT gender disparity to this year’s conference chairman, Michael Purcell, he said, “You’re the first one to point that out to me.”

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This wasn’t by design, he said, “it just ended up that way.”

Dean Miller, president of PACT, took a different view, saying that the lack of women speakers wasn’t for lack of trying.

“Oftentimes, there’s one option, not multiple,” he said, referring to women speakers. He later added: “Too often our shortlist is very short.” That means that, if a female speaker backs out, PACT is at a loss.

After our conversation with Miller, PACT added two more women speakers (investors Mindy Posoff and Ellen Weber) to its IMPACT lineup.

Miller said it’s a challenge to have a diverse group of speakers, especially with the focus of PACT’s events. They’re looking for experienced entrepreneurs and that usually means “a bunch of older white guys,” Miller said.

He admitted that “more often that not, we’re not successful” when it comes to striking that balance in speakers and consequently getting a stronger discussion with varying viewpoints. He said PACT chose Torres as a keynote speaker this year for that reason.

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That finding a diverse group of speakers for tech events is a slog is something that Tracey Welson-Rossman knows well — she helps organize the annual Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise (ETE) conference (and has written about trying to get more women to the conference).

It’s difficult, she said, and you don’t want to go to the same few people over and over again. It’s more work to “go beyond the regulars,” said Welson-Rossman, whose nonprofit TechGirlz has been sponsored by the PACT Foundation, PACT’s charitable arm. It’s especially hard if you’re looking for speakers with a highly specialized skillset, she added. Out of ETE’s more than 50 speakers last year, just over 10 percent were women.

As for PACT, Welson-Rossman has her eyes fixed on next year’s outcomes, saying that it “shouldn’t be about boycotting, it should be about helping.”

“Is IMPACT a little behind the game? Probably,” she said. “But now that it’s been pointed out, is next year going to be different? Are they asking for help? Are they making progress?”

She also advocates for women in tech to self-promote and make themselves more visible, so that “your name comes up” when people are having these conversations. (Local group Ladies in Tech, which also produces a podcast on the topic, aims to get more women in tech into public speaking.)

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