Considering the many issues that face women in the geek community, mixed-gender geek groups may want to take special care to run women-friendly events.
Obviously your mixed-gender geek event should be welcoming and comfortable for everyone. This raises the question of why there needs to be special care taken to make a "women-friendly" event, as opposed to an "attendee-friendly" event. There is actually a lot of overlap between a woman-friendly event and an attendee-friendly event, but there's a particular difference: women-friendly and general attendee-friendly behaviour is likely a subset of acceptable behaviours among many all-male geek groups of friends.
Many geek events are run on the principle of being like a gathering of close male buddies, only 100 times larger. Women-friendly events do mean limiting or excluding certain things that are acceptable in your private life such as discussion of sex and sexual attractiveness. This does not make an event men-unfriendly: very few men genuinely need to behave as if they are with their closest, most similar male friends at all times. In addition to women, men with different social styles, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds or all three will also feel more comfortable if the emphasis is not on duplicating the social modes of the organisers' friends on a massive scale!
Events which are particularly time-intensive, especially outside of business hours (such as multi-day hackathons with working hours extending late into the night) are unfriendly to people with other obligations, such as women who are expected to take care of meals and children in the evening, even if they regularly work outside the home during the day. Intensive programming which does not provide opportunities to withdraw is unfriendly to anyone who must breastfeed or pump milk, or who tires easily.
Venue and facilities
Make sure you have:
- women's toilets as easily accessible as men's (ie, if men's toilets are on every floor, there should be women's toilets on every floor), or unisex toilets. See Restroom.
- routes from the venue that are well-lit and populated to accommodation, taxi ranks and bus stops, or a courtesy bus
- at least one organiser or volunteer available constantly during event hours at a known and advertised location to deal with attendee problems. They should be trained and empowered to immediately act on or escalate harassment issues (and medical issues), but should also be able to, eg, give directions, call taxis and similar useful services. Make this separate from a person dealing with event-related questions like registration and scheduling. See: Conference anti-harassment/Duty officer
- a private space where the above person can immediately take someone who needs it, eg someone being harassed or someone having a medical issue. This space should not be doubling as a speaker's lounge or volunteer chill-out zone or similar.
- a very clear understanding of any venue restrictions on children's presence: if your event is to be child-free, this must be advertised prominently well in advance, rather than by turning parents and children away at the door
- a space for parents and children, depending on your policy for children at the event, and in particular an area for feeding and changing babies
Geek events often have women-unfriendly (and attendee-unfriendly!) presentations which assume that all speakers are part of a monolithic group of adult heterosexual men who want to bond over their commonality.
If you are a conference organizer, you can avoid this by following these steps:
- Provide speaker guidelines that explain conference policy about sexual content in presentations; this should be provided at the time of the Call for Papers
- Contact individual speakers reiterating guidelines if any submitted presentation seems likely to overstep boundaries
- Don't invite speakers who have perpetrated or spoken in support of anti-women incidents in the geek community.
- If you must invite them, require an apology for their past actions and agreement to adhere to acceptable behaviour at your event.
- If, despite this, a speaker presents a talk with inappropriate sexual content, conference staff should immediately intervene, and either require the speaker to avoid the sexual content, or stop the talk entirely if such content is unavoidable
- A prompt and well-phrased apology should be made on the conference's website, mailing list, blog, or other major communication channels.
For more information, see Sexualized presentation.
Social events at geek gatherings are particularly tricky to make truly open and inclusive, but are particularly rewarding. An attendee who feels truly included and welcome socially is most likely to join your community long-term.
Large social events are frequently difficult to attend for anyone who is not perfectly healthy and able to compromise extensively on food and drink. In the case of women, a particular concern is women who are either pregnant and therefore likely to tire easily and to need to eat nutritious, high energy food very regularly, or have caretaking responsibilities for children and therefore likely restricted in their social availability to attend anything they can't bring children to. There will be attendees both female and male who have difficulties with after-hours social events for many reasons. Some of them are:
- social or religious practices requiring that they not eat some foods (eg kosher, halal and vegetarian diets) or health problems with similar requirements;
- illness or metabolism problems that require that they eat when they need to rather than wait for a caterer's tardy kitchen (eg diabetes, hypoglycemia);
- pain or disability meaning that they cannot stand for long periods of time, as cocktail parties require; or
- difficulty with having conversations in noisy environments (eg sensory integration dysfunctions or hearing loss).
These are fiendishly difficult to address and likely cannot be completely resolved for any individual event, but here are some steps you can take to make social events accessible:
- hold them in locations that have wheelchair access (these also happen to be more accessible for people who can walk, but only slowly or painfully);
- hire caterers who can cater to common dietary restrictions and who are accustomed to getting them to the same people who ordered them (vegetarians in particular often find that their dishes have been taken by people who didn't like the look of the meat dish that night);
- announce the time that food will be served well in advance to all attendees, and hold the caterer to it;
- allow people with restricted diets early access to buffets to make the first choice;
- make sure the caterers label all buffet dishes with ingredients and dietary requirements (such as gluten-free or vegan);
- split social events into stages (eg opening drinks, then dinner), so that people can attend a part of the event if need be;
- make at least the early evening parts of social events open to children or offer childcare;
- hold social events near the main venue, so that people who need to leave early have a short trip back to their accommodation;
- hold social events at night in locations where attendees will not feel uneasy on the streets — the area should be well-lit, have other people around, and ready access to public transport; and
- don't plan 'kidnap' social events — the ones where people are ferried off to an unannounced location and returned at the organisers' leisure, as these will exclude anyone who has any other plans for that time, or anyone who is unsure whether they might need to leave early for health or other reasons.
Having a comfortable and women/attendee-friendly social event can be a difficult problem when serving alcohol: drunken people in general can be noisy, threatening or harrassing. Specific attendees with known problems in complying with the code of conduct while they are drunk should be excluded from events where alcohol is served. In addition, in many countries serving alcohol at an event automatically excludes children and therefore also anyone who needs to care for children. At the same time, many adult geeks enjoy alcohol and will expect it at events.
Some possible approaches to serving alcohol:
- have at least one event, more if possible, which is all-ages and where either alcohol is not served or is extremely limited;
- if serving alcohol, always serve food;
- do not start serving alcohol until the food is ready (if there is an open bar, open it during or after dinner);
- avoid events where large amounts of alcohol are served to people who are sitting down (effects of overindulgence such as difficulty walking are more apparent when someone has to stand to get more alcohol);
- consider serving very little alcohol, but hold the event in an area where attendees can go to bars or pubs nearby afterwards.
If you have large numbers of under-age people at your event, do not try to cater to all under-age people with exactly the same events. Teenagers from about 15 years old and up will have quite different social requirements from younger children attending with their parents, who are different again from toddlers or babies.
The best way to prevent harassment at a conference is to establish, publicize, and enforce an anti-harassment policy. One suitable for open source conferences can be found here:
It is a very good idea to have some conference organisers or volunteers at social events who are sober and there specifically to represent the event organisers, to keep an eye out for anything starting to go bad, to hear complaints and to help attendees out with other problems (finding the taxi rank etc). Give them identifying t-shirts or similar, and have a special place set aside at your event as a base where one of these people can be found at all times. It should be quiet, well-lit and easy to find.
Providing childcare at your event will make it more accessible to people who care for kids, a group which is disproportionately women. For more detail, see the main childcare article.
For sample event guidelines for women (and attendee) friendly events, see Event Guidelines.