Women ETC brings national speakers and mixed feelings to Richmond

Women ETC is RVA’s very own women in tech conference and, yes, I’ll be there, mixed feelings and all.


Over the last few weeks, I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve asked me if I’ll be attending the upcoming Women ETC conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Organized by RichTech’s Women in Technology Forum, Women ETC targets women who work in technology or technology-centric businesses, and aims “to provide professional development, education, and collaboration amongst its participants…by bringing premier speakers from across the nation.” It’s our very own women in tech conference and, yes, I’ll be there, mixed feelings and all.

I’m proud to be a woman with a career in technology. I’m a fan of technology conferences, and I want to find new and better ways to attract women into our industry. But I have trouble with the idea that women need our own conferences to talk about geeky things; it seems to imply that we can’t hang with the guys at “regular” conferences–which isn’t true at all, or that technology conferences organized by men shouldn’t have to be inclusive to women and our interests–also not true. Newsflash: women in technology care about the same things men in technology do, and you don’t have to dumb anything down for us–although you wouldn’t know it from looking at the planned topics for Women ETC.

The schedule reads like a technology conference created by the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine, with breakout sessions that include “Emerging Technology Trends that you Need to Know,” “How to Protect Yourself: Next Generation Cyber Security,” and “So you want to start your own business?”

This is a typical, tried-and-true editorial slant for media targeted to women: the world is a scary place and you lack the knowledge you need to dress yourself, please your man in bed, or be successful in your technology career. It’s condescending, it plays on women’s insecurities, and frankly, it pisses me off. We’re better than this–the speakers, the organizers, and Richmond women who work in technology. I’m already an effective technologist, thank you very much, and Women ETC should be offering content that affirms that instead of content that assumes I’m behind the curve.

But the speaker list is promising. In addition to Arianna Huffington’s keynote presentation, Women ETC will also feature a plenary from former Under Secretary of Energy Dr. Kristina Johnson, as well as talks from accomplished startup veterans like Liz Crawford, the CTO of Birchbox. With tracks devoted to Education, Technology, and Careers, it’s clear the organizers are trying to reach a very broad audience, and the chance to see Huffington in particular is sure to appeal to many people–including, of course, men.

Which raises an interesting question: can men attend Women ETC too? I don’t see why not. While the conference may be “aimed at” women, there’s no reason to assume that men are banned from the premises. Anyone with $100 and a desire to hear Arianna Huffington share her wisdom on “The Brave New World of New Media” should plan to attend–and to stick around for the entire day.

Because when you get down to it, this is an extremely accomplished lineup of speakers coming to Richmond, not just for a conference for women, but for a conference, period. I applaud RichTech for the effort they’ve put into creating this event, though I hope to see them expand the content and the audience in future years. There’s no reason to confine such talented businesswomen to low-level topics like “How to keep your technical skills current when technology keeps changing,” or to limit their audience to women.

Women in technology have lots of wisdom and experience to share with everyone, not just each other. The sooner we embrace that, the sooner we’ll belong to an industry that our sisters and daughters will be thrilled to join.

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Wren Lanier

Wren Lanier likes making trouble and eating bagels, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her wildly inappropriate comments on Twitter.

7 comments on Women ETC brings national speakers and mixed feelings to Richmond

  1. Curiosity: do you feel there’s a right way and a wrong way to do women-centric tech conferences (I know, I know, there are sooooo many, right?) (I’m assuming the answer to that aside is “no”?), or do you think the segregation should end? I’m thinking of things like Alt-Summit, Mighty Summit, etc. Which, granted, are I guess a little different from all-out tech-based conferences….

    I guess my question is: should there still be women’s tech conferences, but with topics identical to the broader less-genderized ones? Or should they just combine efforts entirely and merge?

  2. Thank you so much for this. I looked into going to this conference and beside the keynote speaker found nothing in the other events that interested me or even seemed advanced enough for my level. I’ve been working in technology companies right next to the boys since I graduated college and though I like the idea of having a women focused event I also want the content to compare or even go beyond what you find in other tech conferences. I got the impression this conference was for the women who wanted to get up to date on technology and not for those of us who live and breathe it everyday.

  3. Sonali on said:

    Wren – as one of the organizers of the conference, I feel the need to respond to many of your criticisms. First of all – of course, Men can attend and many have chosen to. You’ve made several huge assumptions – that the conference is exclusionary or somehow “dumbed down” in order to appeal to women.

    1. The conference is named Women, ETC because it is organized by the Women in Technology Forum of RichTech. In addition to the fantastic speakers, the conference aims to brainstorm ideas and specific actions to encourage more young women to reach for careers in technology. The numbers of women signing up for Engineering and Technology education has remained stagnant, despite barriers to entry falling away. Research suggests that girls are self-selecting from a career in Technology – our goal is to change mind-sets. If Technology is about influencing and creating the future, then we certainly want women to be active participants. While we agree that larger numbers of young men and women technologists are needed, the factors influencing young girls are distinct and need to be addressed.

    While there are many tech conferences that women and men attend – there are relatively few that seek to address this core problem.

    Your most insulting comment is the Cosmo reference – So on the one hand you agree that we have experienced technologists attending and speaking at the event, yet on the other hand you also state that the content of their talks will be dumbed down just because you disagree with how the sessions are titled??? So what is wrong with asking the question”So you want to start your business?” Sure you can read about it online and educate yourself in other ways, but isn’t it also interesting to hear the perspectives of those that have actually done so?

    One of the hallmarks of being an effective technologists is having an open mind. I am glad you are attending the conference and hope that you will write a follow up article on all that you got out of it.

  4. In regards to women-centric tech conferences: I like events like the 3% Conference (http://www.3percentconf.com) which makes women’s underrepresentation the core issue of their conference. I also like how explicitly inclusive they are, including men as speakers and as people who should attend. I’m not sure I’d say that women in tech conferences should end altogether, just that they have to evolve to meet the needs of a new generation.

    In regards to Cosmo: taken as a group, Women ETC has titled their presentations from an editorial slant that assumes a lack of knowledge on the part of attendees. Lack of knowledge about emerging technology trends, lack of knowledge about cyber security, and lack of knowledge about how to keep up with rapidly changing technology are just a few examples. To be honest Sonali, I find that assumption *deeply* insulting, particularly when taken in the context of wider gender discrimination based on the assumption that women lack skills and knowledge. Hopefully the organizers will take this feedback to heart and create content next year that affirms the skills and abilities of attendees instead of assuming we lack the knowledge we need to do our jobs.

  5. Hey Wren, it seems like a number of your objections to the conference stem (oops! No pun intended!) from the way it has been marketed (name of sessions, web copy, unclear call to men). Obviously, there’s no content to judge yet. But you make some fair points. Interestingly, when I clicked over to the 3% conference mentioned in your reply to Sonali, the first thing I saw was a session about “Where are all the Donna Drapers?” Well, that seems like kind of a mixed gender message, no? But it’s probably pretty good marketing. Anyway, I think we should give the RVA Women in Tech a little more credit. Actions speak louder than words. I’m not seeing any other female technologists stand up and put themselves on the line to pull off a big event like this. I think it’s the first of its kind in Virginia. And while I too can hang with the boys just fine, thank you, I’m proud that Richmond, VA (not exactly a bastion of female leadership and progress in a few categories) can showcase technology in a way that puts women front and center as the organizers and focus. Kudos to Sonali and the rest of the Women in Tech team. I’ll see you guys (which, where I’m from, everyone) Friday.

  6. I heard the conference on Friday was amazing from quite a few attendees. Did it meet your expectations? Did it open some new and rich conversations in technology community?

  7. Mary Lynne on said:

    Wren…As a conference organizer, I look forward to hearing your feedback, good or bad. Do you still have mixed emotions?

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