November 4th doesn’t just mark the launch of Web Summit 2014, it’s also the day when women start working for free.
Today is the day on the calendar marking the point at which the pay gap between men and women reaches its tipping point. So for the 15.7 per cent that remains of 2014, women essentially work for free, because they earn 15.7 per cent less than their male co-workers for equal work.
While the wage gap won’t be a major concern over at the Web Summit today, the gender gap is glaring. An 85 per cent male audience is matched by a majority of male speakers. Across the three days of the conference, which launched today, 130 people will address the 22,000 attendees from the main stage in the RDS. 24 of them are women. Ten of those 'speakers' are journalists, from business and technology media organisations, on stage to carry the conversations about coding, pitching, and going global.
That leaves just 14 women to shout loud enough for the thousands in the audience to be reminded of what they already know – that the tech industry is in desperate need of a woman’s touch.
The statistics concerning the absence of women in tech are alarming. In the US, the level of female computer graduates plummeted from 37 per cent in 1985 to 18 per cent two years ago. Of the Fortune 500 companies across the Atlantic, three of them have female CEOs. Among start-ups and founders, the very bread and butter of the summit who are gathering in their thousands to rub shoulders and network, women number at just 4 per cent.
That’s not to say that the Web Summit isn’t trying to address the gender issue. On their website, the organisers proudly display their anti-harassment policy, laying bare the rules behind treating everyone with respect. While it might seem ridiculous to be lauding a conference for setting out a list of how not to be a total creep, bear in mind that many tech conferences around the world are renowned for being rife with harassment, to the point that attracting female speakers can be an issue.
And that is the problem. In 2010, Michael Arrington, speaking about a TechCrunch conference he had helped organise, called out the elephant in the room:
Every damn time we have a conference we fret over how we can find women to fill speaking slots. We ask our friends and contacts for suggestions. We beg women to come and speak. Where do we end up? With about 10% of our speakers as women.
We won’t put women on stage just because they’re women – that’s not fair to the audience who’ve paid thousands of dollars each to be there. But we do spend an extraordinary amount of time finding those qualified women and asking them to speak.
And you know what? A lot of the time they say no. Because they are literally hounded to speak at every single tech event in the world because they are all trying so hard to find qualified women to speak at their conference.
Back in the here and now of Web Summit 2014, women amount to 15 per cent of attendees and speakers. And although they are a minority, they're driving a female agenda.
“People tend to put women in boxes,” said actress and investor Eva Longoria, while chatting with Jemima Khan earlier today. “’She’s sexy. She’s smart. She’s ambitious. She’s a mom. She’s young.’ Whereas women are very complex. The greatest advantage we have is that we’re always underestimated.”
Underestimated and undervalued, a fact that permeates through the tech world.
Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher in Standford, the Californian Mecca of the megabyte, writes about women in tech, and says the exclusion comes from two fronts, representing as conscious and unconscious bias.
“Take the boards of technology companies. They are predominantly male. When asked why there are so few women, CEOs say it is a pipeline problem, that there aren't enough women engineers,” Mr Wadhwa told a Standford news service in September.
“But a significant proportion of the male board members of technology companies aren't engineers either. They have degrees in fields such physiology, English, marketing, finance – or no degrees at all. Women are held to a different standard.”
Then there’s the lower echelons of emerging companies, where young men carry out most of the interviews.
“They often ask immature, childish questions that other boys are likely to answer best. Women feel intimidated and discouraged and walk away from these opportunities,” Mr Wadhwa added.
A bigger problem is just the numbers game. Fledgling founders operate a 'like hires like' policy, consciously or unconsciously. The iconic image of web entrepreneurialism is the college dropout in his hoodie, convincing venture capitalists to pour billions into his company – a brood of so-called brogrammers, guys he knew or met at tech conferences.
And when 85 per cent of the Web Summit’s attendees are not female, that’s a lot more men to rub shoulders with.
For more Summit news, interviews and highlights go to Newstalk's The Summit Liveblog.