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Are Women Presenters (In)visible at Data Conferences?

By Kelle O'Neal

I recently came across a Forbes post by Meta S. Brown, about women being prominent in data analytics but underrepresented as conference presenters.

Brown contrasts the number of women speaking at industry conferences with the fact there are more women statisticians than men. Citing 2015 census data, she says 53% are women. Brown goes on to mention that 40% of bachelor’s degrees in math have been earned by women over the last 40 years, with a similar percentage of women holding actuarial science degrees.

Brown’s driving point with sharing these numbers is this: “If conference agendas shape ideas about a profession, it’s important that those agendas provide a diverse and realistic outlook that reflects the industry as a whole.”

Women Presenters at Data Conferences

She also notes that as a regular on the conference circuit, past events seemed to average around 30-40% women presenters, and that she’s seen that number go down more recently.

I’ve been presenting at industry conferences for 12 years and speak at six or more events each year, so I was interested in Brown’s perspectives. I’m also, obviously, a woman working in the data industry.

At this year’s Enterprise Data World (EDW) conference, I was on a data governance panel and the first question I received was “Why do you like data governance?” My answer was that it’s a great industry for women.

I love the fact the discipline is a blend between the analytical and the creative, between the specifics of data quality and the generality of strategy and communication. I also appreciate that it’s a field where women can excel because of our diverse skill-set and our ability to multi-task effectively — all the while being able to stand out in a still male-dominated field.

Brown specifically cites EDW as having 25% of its presenters as women. Even with that low percentage, she goes on to say that the majority of industry conferences she looked into had even lower numbers.

When I think about conference presenters I’ve listened to or worked beside, I definitely have interacted more with men. And when I consider the clients I work with, most of my key contacts are men.

Perhaps the lack of women presenters is attributed to the smaller number of women working in the industry and those at the managerial level. In a Wired.com article from 2014, the author (a leading data scientist) partly attributes the obscurity of women presenters at data science conferences to the possibility that many of her peers are simply “not in the right places to be seen,” such as academia.

Tony Shaw, Founder and CEO of DATAVERSITY

Tony Shaw, Founder and CEO of DATAVERSITY

Another factor for this underrepresentation could be that not as many women are throwing their hat into the ring to be a presenter. I thought it would be interesting to find out if this is true, so I reached out to Tony Shaw at DATAVERSITY. Shaw is the Founder and CEO of the company and oversees the teams that coordinate EDW and other industry conferences.

“We do look for diversity,” Shaw told me. “In some cases, we look for a better balance of men to women, but we also look for diversity in all respects. Do we have representation from diverse ethnic groups? Do we have presenters from other countries besides the U.S.? How’s the organizational mix, and are we relying too much on presenters from one segment? Really, it’s many factors that shape our decisions.”

Women in Data Governance

I think back on the 2015 Data Governance Winter Conference and how I remember it having a high percentage of women presenters. (I checked and it looked like about 40%.) And I remember the 2015 Data Governance & Information Quality Conference having a similar make-up.

I’m not surprised and do believe there’s a preponderance of women in data governance. So the fact women presenters make up 40% may still not be representative of how many woman are in this specialty area.

Shaw seems to agree.

“In the governance space,” he said, “it’s generally not a problem to find women presenters. What is sometimes a challenge, is to find people in different age groups. We tend to skew to an older generation with more experienced practitioners. In the tech area, it’s important we show representation across age groups, because a lot of the audience we’re appealing to is relatively young — like the Silicon Valley crowd.”

Criteria for Conference Presenters

Shaw went on to say, “As best we can, we’d like our events to be representative of the type of audience we want to draw. We put a heavy emphasis on peer-to-peer sharing and tend to give first preference to people from customer organizations — or from those who published case studies. These people have the experience our attendees look for — that is, people doing similar work or having similar challenges. Who is presenting could be secondary.”

Shaw still believes diversity is important. “If our marketing manager develops a presenter line-up she thinks is compelling, we consider how the home page of our conference site would look with presenters’ photos. We don’t want to see all male faces looking back at us, and in that case we will make more of an effort to balance things out.”

In our discussion, Shaw offered to look back at the number of abstracts he received for potential EDW presenters. He shared the numbers with me, which showed a correlation between the number of submissions and the final number of women selected to speak:

  • Session proposals submitted: 471
  • Session proposals submitted by women: 98 (21%)
  • Final sessions selected: 197
  • Final sessions with women presenters: 44 (22%)

Industry and Conference Diversity

I started in this field 23 years ago when computer science was largely male-dominated. Same thing with consultants I worked with: more men than women back then. Today, I see more women choosing a data-focused career, which I think is exciting. I now have more clients and peers who are women. I’m seeing a more diverse talent pool for people who I might hire someday. And I network with more women presenters at conferences.

I think it’s good to keep our eyes open to the diversity — both in data management and on the conference circuit — and to challenge any inequities we see. Expertise comes in many shapes, sizes, ethnicities and genders. I want to see a more diverse mix of people presenting at data conferences, with new voices and perspectives that can lead our industry forward.

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