Dealing With All-Male Panels in Tech

I ask male panelists to share how their fashion choices have affected their careers

One of my bugbears is how we treat women in tech. The issue is especially infuriating given that I work mostly in the Nordics. We lead the world in equality of all kinds. So why do we keep seeing all-male panels at events? It drives me completely nuts.

Speak up, and don’t worry about looking stupid

A couple of months ago I found an appropriate stock photo on the always amazing unsplash.com and posted the following on LinkedIn:

“The next time I’m asked to moderate an all-male panel, I’m going to ask the questions we all really want answered:

– How have your fashion choices affected your career?

– How do you feel your decision to work full-time has affected your ability to be a father to your children?”

As luck would have it, barely a month later, I hosted an event in Sweden and, you guessed it, there was an all-male panel.

Anger has its place

There are plenty of reasons to shout about the unfairness and inappropriateness of this happening in 2018 and they’re all good reasons. To my enormous irriation, I had help arrange this event and so part of the responsibility was mine. I had to react, but shouting is not always the most effective tool.

Try humor

My panelists all accepted that we had to do something. They were game, so we went with the above. The subject of the conference was low power, a topic that is absolutely, definitely geek central. Lowering power consumption to the absolute minimum is a key factor in making modern tech devices perform better, last longer, and do more – even if it doesn’t make the most exciting conference title.

Recognize and apologize

I opened the panel by apologizing for the all-male line-up. The panelists were mostly Swedes, who, to their credit, are pretty good at laughing at themselves. They tackled the fashion question with a smile and didn’t try to apologize for the fact that we had dropped the ball. We addressed the issue without getting sanctimonious.

Pappa Ledig

The Swedes take paternity leave seriously. It’s an integrated part of the culture. Men about to go on paternity leave get high-fives, not frowns. Jokes about men being bad at changing diapers fall flat. After all, what’s complicated about cleaning an infant’s backside? And what’s hard about asking your LinkedIn network for help finding female panelists? We can fix this.

Don’t pretend there isn’t a problem

Don’t accept all male panels. When they happen, address the fact and apologize. As luck would have it, the final speaker was the CEO of a hardware spin-out. Her presentation was the best of the day. Rock on. Let’s make the change we want happen now.

Show Them The Money

It pays to know more than one language: Speak numbers.

I hosted a case competition called the CBS Finance Competition a while back at Copenhagen Business School and it was an eye-opener. The case was the Danish manufacturer Danfoss and the focus was their acquisition of startups. Two things stuck out: it was a boys club and it was all about the numbers.

It’s a pickle party

Do not confuse the society we want with the society we have. All twelve of the participants in the competition were white men in dark suits. There were only two women in the first two rows of the auditorium. Both worked in HR. All of the men wore dark suits, except for the professor, who wore a blue blazer, and a member of the Danfoss merger team, whose suit was gray.

Plan for today. Change tomorrow.

By all means be depressed by the current gender-gap and work to change it, but plan based on fact, not aspiration. Danfoss is an impressive company and they’re socially engaged, but facts are facts. If you’re looking for a corporate acquirer, know that the odds are overwhelming that you’ll be talking to a white man who studied finance. The ratio will change in the future, but plan for the ratio that exists now.

Your focus isn’t their focus – and this makes sense

Startups often focus on team and product. Most corporate investors focus on the numbers. They are buying for very specific reasons and usually have very specific KPIs. They may be how many customers you have or the size of the markets to which your product will give them access.

Like the jury in the competition, you’ll most likely be talking to finance people. Their degrees, surprise, surprise, are usually in finance. The exceptions work in an environment dominated by finance. To them, your product is not something that does A for B, but something that can generate X revenue over Y time. Know how to talk their language.

It’s all about the Benjamins

I ran into an old friend shortly afterwards who used to run an accelerator. After a year off spent working for a corporate, he had spent a couple of months helping a handful of his companies raise money. It had gone well. Why? He’d spent a year working on the other side of the table from the startups.

“You can talk about team and product,” he said, “but it’s all about the money.”