23 July 2023

How to survive: Conferences

Have you ever been to a large tech conference and felt ‘othered’ – we know that it is common for our members and thought we’d talk through some of the issues and some possible solutions. Trigger warning ** this may have some slight stereotyping to try and accentuate the issues

On Arrival

It’s a big conference its primarily made up of people that aren’t like you, in most cases in tech it’s primarily male and you are a lone woman. We are basing our observations on that particular scenario, it may work for others such as genders, class, ethnicity, lgbtqia+, etc.

If you are the woman who or how do you engage?

Let’s face it, it’s not easy. The industry stereotype is not that far removed from reality when you look at deep tech especially so it’s not like you are entering a festival full of fun chatty people.

What you can do

  • Go with someone: use your networks and reach out to partner with someone and go together so you’re not alone. May be worth checking out your network for suitable people that you actually want to spend a day at a conference with before sending this out too widely!
  • Speak to the people at the stands: they may ignore you as they don’t have ‘you’ and ‘tech’ linked in their database in their head .. move on and find someone who is interested in chatting. Half of them are desperate for people to engage with them, they’re not at the banksy dismal land exhibition, they really are generally that bored!
  • Initiate a conversation: – there’s always others there that are equally nervous, catch their eye and break the ice by saying how uncomfortable it is for you at events like this, ask them what their interest is in the subject then point out that you will be following them around like a mad stalker all day now you have someone to engage with **try to avoid a weird laugh (out loud) at this ‘joke’ as it may unsettle them**. Interestingly this often seems to be acceptable and you walk away with a network contact at the end of the day. If they seem too keen on the idea I suggest walking away, fast, and not looking back or having eye contact again during the day! **they are most likely used to this reaction so won’t make a fuss**
  • Do NOT just hit the free bar before lunch … especially if they have your name. Mostly they don’t offer the drinks until the end and by then you’ll have made a hasty exit.
  • Find another woman to talk to: ‘othered’ persons will often congregate in groups so they can feel more comfortable and share war stories of working in the industry – in this case, or if you’ve gone with someone in your network, then the after conference bar is definitely worth the stay!

The Others

It’s not all just about you – there’s the ‘Others’ to consider as they have feelings and insecurities too. A lot of people in the tech industry are not used to speaking to anyone other than their monitors and are also pretty uncomfortable

  • It’s uncomfortable for the ‘Others’ but at least they are with their tribe, once they’ve got past the initial fear of arrival, they generally walk around until they find a group of at least 3 people and just stand in that group, unspeaking and unnoticed. Eventually, someone will notice them and either realise it’s a colleague they’ve worked with for 10 years previously whose name they’ve forgotten or simply ask them a question to break the silence since the initial grouping has stopped talking. Once that ice is broken they are generally okay as most of the day is made up of listening to people talk on stage and then they have a common theme of discussing how the speakers were generally wrong and how they know better.
  • A woman enters the room and starts conversing with a lone conference attendee. Bearing in mind how difficult it was to integrate into their actual same tribal group this will strike fear into a lone conference goer. Instead of fitting in with the crowd they are now the guy (let’s call them Bob) chatting to a woman. Now he no longer fits in and is outside of the tribe and risks being shunned as an anomaly.
  • Bob – also isn’t sure if it’s safe to talk to the woman – does it look like he’s chatting her up? What is she doing here!?
  • For the Bobs out there – please bear in mind that most women either have to be new to the industry and unaware of how painful conferences are – you’ll most likely not see her at a conference again. Alternatively, she may be amazingly good in her field, a speaker, or basically, the woman who wrote the book on the subject and knows she has to attend these events as part of her job (you may find her slumped at the bar at the end of the day just glad another one is over)
  • What do you speak about? … well apart from the social niceties such as sharing a name and job/company, she’s most likely wanting to discuss the conference subject as that’s why she’s come. Avoid discussing, how she looks, her relationship history, whether she has children and you should be on safe ground.
  • Why should you risk chatting with her? Conferences are about learning about the subject, the latest initiatives/languages, etc, and also networking and careers, which is why it’s a shame that so few women attend. She may be your next colleague or even boss, she may even share some great insights into the subject matter. She’s very unlikely to be there to hook up or discuss where she hangs out at the weekend


Conferences are difficult for most of us, there are others that love them and thrive on them. For the ones that it’s difficult for, as an industry we should work towards ensuring that they have a safe and welcoming time at the conferences. There are plenty of sites and codes of conduct around to try and ensure that these are key aims for the events, however, not everyone reads the conference codes of conduct.

So always look out for the lone souls in the room and help them engage, if you don’t get on with them then simply walk away (best to introduce them to another group rather than leaving them standing), but most of all be nice!

Oh and a last point – please DO NOT follow the few women around taking photos of them for your next event as it’s uncomfortable … a pet hate and one often bought up with our members. Fix the problem, don’t stalk!

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Please note that the observations have been made by the writers attendance and speaking at conferences in the past. Also through watching male behaviour when attending a GirlGeekDinners, where men are in the minority and may often be the only one in the room.


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