The 50/50 Pledge to Get More Women Speakers at Tech Conferences

Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin
Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

When you look at a typical tech conference program, how many of the speakers are female? The leaders invited to present, mentor, and spark discussions in front of hundreds or thousands of industry peers can skew predominantly male. This is despite the fact that women are heading up advances in tech in organizations around the world.

But a very cool new initiative by Oakland, CA’s Sandi MacPherson, the 50/50 Pledge, aims to create gender parity among speakers and presenters at major tech events.

MacPherson is the founder of Quibb, the news sharing community for professionals. She says through Quibb, she saw accomplished women in tech applying for membership, sharing articles, and writing insightful comments. And yet event producers were constantly coming to her for names of women who could speak at their conferences or be on their podcasts — which was especially challenging as she didn’t have a great way to search her databases by gender. As a female founder, she was also repeatedly being asked for her perspective on women in tech, and to encourage more women to found companies of their own. “I felt that answering [these] questions again and again was not a good use of my time,” she says. “I didn’t know if it was actually changing anyone’s opinions, moving the needle in any way.” She realized that she could instead spend her free time “working on a project that has a much bigger impact than me talking to one person at a time.”

And so on May 30th of this year, she tested out the idea of creating a database for women in tech, in a very Lean Startup sort of way. “I sent out a random tweet late on a Saturday afternoon,” she says, “and got lots of positive feedback.” After asking followers to “please add yourself and share!! I’m starting a directory of women in tech to speak at events,” it only took a few weeks for 1,000 women to register with the 50/50 Pledge.

“I realized there was a real demand for this,” she says. “At the same time, many event organizers reached out, all wanting access to this list.”

The 50/50 Pledge now boasts a database of close to 2,300 female leaders, according to MacPherson. These women work at large tech companies (GoPro, Facebook, Dropbox, Uber, Cisco), and smaller startups (Keen.io, Intercom, DocuSign, Yik Yak), or they hold tech roles in more traditional industries and companies (PS, Disney, GE, Neiman Marcus). Their titles range from founders to VCs, partners, data scientists, heads of engineering, and beyond. Anyone who identifies as a woman can sign up with the 50/50 Pledge database.

MacPherson makes a note of the new women being added to her list, and when opportunities arise, she pings the appropriate people for speaking events. Organizers are starting to reach out too. We worked with her for our recent Lean Startup Conference, and we’re committing to the 50/50 Pledge again for our 2016 flagship conference and inaugural Lean Startup Labs series. MacPherson’s other partners include Nir Eyal for the upcoming Habit Summit and the folks at CMX West Summit.

MacPherson is selective about the conferences with which she partners. She first speaks with the organizers to understand the event and the audience as well as the group’s history with gender parity. If the hosts are invested in taking the pledge, she emails organizers suggestions for speakers. She then emails the chosen candidates, and if the women are interested, she connects the two parties. “It kinda works like a professional double opt-in intro,” she says.

Keep in mind that MacPherson is working on this initiative as a side project to the company she started. “I could be doing a lot more and moving faster,” she says, “but I’m still in the learning stage … It’s still really early. I’m excited to see where it will go and how it will grow.”

For now, she says her focus is on the tech industry — since it’s the world she knows best and where her networks are the strongest — and she’s targeting conferences because that’s where she believes she can make the most impact.

“You literally are giving a woman a stage with an audience of hundreds or thousands of people, where she is an expert, given immediate clout, seen as role model,” she says. “The ripple effect of a conference is very large,” she adds, noting the word of mouth and press that happens around speakers at prestigious events.

Even as an initiative in progress, the 50/50 Pledge is an important step in creating gender parity at high profile events. MacPherson says that although she isn’t a conference organizer herself, in talking to producers she’s learned that these sorts of gatherings are naturally biased towards male speakers because they’re based on men’s networks, a habit she’s working hard to correct.

“A list with a third party is an easy way to look outside your network,” she says, “with gender diversity as your explicit goal.”

For more information about the 50/50 Pledge, check out the website for the initiativeLearn more about the 2016 Lean Startup Conference and Labs series here 


Written by Jennifer Maerz, Contributing Editor of Lean Startup Co.

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