Smart Women Know Smart Women: How to Attract and Retain Women at Tech Events

By Rebecca Croll, Director of Content

Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code on stage at Startupfest.

This is by no means a revelation, but it’s one of the keys to unlocking parity — in your network, your events and in the industry: smart women know smart women.

Now the phrase by itself seems obvious enough, but after 7 years of working hard to ensure parity during our events, both on stage and in the crowd, we know first hand that it isn’t so easy, but it has been worth every single effort. Why have we gone to this trouble? Because we want to see on stage what we want to see in the industry, and that meant doubling down from the very beginning. It’s been a focus of ours for so long, it’s become easier over the years and just part of who we are.

The tech industry is notoriously challenging for women but we’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s most impressive tech innovators and champions over the years like Sarah Lacy*, Kara Swisher, Melinda Richter, Kimberly Bryant, Jana Eggers and Rana El Kaliouby… but to list all of them would take a while. (You can check out our entire list of speakers from this and previous years here.)

*Sarah Lacy’s talk on “Silicon Valley’s Morality Crash” is really worth a watch.

For at least ten years, pundits have been saying tech startups are overvalued and poised for an economic crash. It never happened. Blame low interest rates and an influx of foreign capital. Instead, arrogance, bro-culture, and bad behavior was rewarded with unprecedented amounts of capital and almost no oversight. The result has been Silicon Valley’s first morality crash. It’s not an economic reckoning: The bad behavior of companies like Uber and venture firms like Binary Capital is causing the implosion of once untouchable figures in Silicon Valley. Here’s what happens next and how to make sure you aren’t collateral damage.


So what have we learned that could help you find, attract and welcome more women to your company and events?

Take a personal approach.

Women aren’t a category or a segment to be treated separately, but it’s in working with women that we’ve developed our very personalized approach when we reach out to any speaker, no matter their gender identity. It’s important to us that each person we work with feels like they’re an individual, not just part of some big content machine. We want to know who everyone is, beyond what they can speak about, and we work hard to develop those relationships as we’re working with them.

Make sure women feel welcomed, represented and have a good time!

Janice Taylor, CEO of Mazu said it best in a piece she wrote about her personal experience attending tech conferences:

For the last 5 years I have pursued with a vengeance building my start up. From the humble beginnings of Saskatchewan to the golden grail of Silicon Valley, I have travelled, networked, stalked speakers, and attempted to get that one introduction that could make all the change in the world. Standing in line waiting to meet the preeminent expert to ask them my question only to have them ask: Are you the waitress? Can you get me a drink? What hotel room are you staying in? Oh aren’t you the woman who has had sex with athletes to get your pro sports contracts?!!!

Yes all true stories…all happened at tech events…and I have several more stories!

So what makes for a successful and inclusive event? Here’s Janice’s checklist:

Meaningful Conversations? Check!
Respect from my fellow speakers? Check! Check!
Respectful Audience? Check!
Still had Fun? Check!
Diversity of speakers? Check!
Overall Positive Respectful Atmosphere? Check!
More Topics for Women? Very Clear attempt!
Sexual Innuendos by Slimy Investors…Not once! Crap, I must be getting so old! Kidding!
Best Tech Event in Years? Absolute Check!
Faith Renewed? One step at a time!

We know we still have much room for improvement and we continue to strive towards greater diversity and representation, but have set in place some policies and checklists over the years to help us attain our goals: we not only plan awesome parties, events and opportunities for women to network and pitch during Startupfest — after all it’s a festival, but it also means we have a strong Code of Conduct that we reinforce. In other words, we don’t tolerate &%$holes of any kind. We also collaborate with Laurus Summer Camp to provide speakers with access to awesome facilities for their kids aged 3–15 and encourage all of our speakers to bring their kids (everyone should have some fun!) And we work hard to keep “manels” to a minimum (panels consisting entirely of men) as to ensure a diversity of panelists for the majority of our talks and competitions — something that is not always easy to accomplish in some cases, but it’s still a guiding light for us which is appreciated by our guests, speakers and community.

Smart women know smart women.

When you offer women a good, fun, safe experience that amplifies and supports them, you increase your odds of unlocking their personal networks. And those networks are IMPRESSIVE. Smart women attract and connect with other smart women, which isn’t rocket science but definitely has that strength and power. We truly believe that this is the key that has made our job easier in the last couple of years and why just today, our latest speaker announcement consists of mostly women (we didn’t plan it that way)!


Women have much more to talk about than work-life balance.

In order to inspire women, we have to represent women in every dimension and showing them killing it at what they do: their research, discoveries, innovations, inventions, startups, multinationals, investment funds, you name it. We want to showcase women that are doing it well so that other women recognize themselves in our speaker lineup (because we see you, you’re out there), stand up and stand out.

You’ll find a really diverse age range, too, from 15 year old teen girls pitching incredibly sophisticated software to veterans of entrepreneurship. Some of our most memorable staples are our Grandmother Judges. These women mean business and their keen sixth sense for picking winners has always impressed everyone who has met them, and as the fastest growing group of online users, they know a thing or two about tech and usability.

PlanetRate pitches to the Grandmother Judges in hopes of earning their prize.

Gender parity is not a topic, it’s a value.

Lastly, we truly believe that gender parity is not a topic, which is why we don’t really talk about it (until now). Women represent over 50% of the population, and the numbers of women in STEM have been increasing even though they still account for a small percentage of tech company founders and investors. We really want to see that change, so we’re going to keep working as hard as we do to amplify and shine a light on the impressive women in our industry (feel free to tag some of the women who inspire you in the comments below or write to us on your favourite social media platform).

EDIT: Corrected Janice Taylor is CEO of Mazu (previously Just Be Friends).