One of the people who commented on my recent post on sexism in high tech made a very good point. Beth noted, "What's our take away. What do we want, exactly? It'd be easier to speak to both sides if we had a clear objective."
I'm far from an expert on effecting social change. In fact, I'd probably have been voted "Least Likely To Protest For A Cause" when I was in high school. But I do think we need to identify some concrete steps we can take to combat sexism at tech conference.
As usual, I recommend drawing on analogous successful efforts that took place in the past. Here's two concrete steps, one reactive, and one proactive.
1) We can take a similar approach to sexism that we took to hate speech and sexual harassment--draw a line, and punish those who cross it. Both hate speech bans and sexual harassment training are far from perfect, but both evils have declined greatly in this country during the past 20 years.
In practice, this means that conferences could adopt a clear set of guidelines for what is unacceptable behavior. I'm not the right person to write these guidelines, but if wiser folks did write them up and conferences started adopting them, I think it would make a huge difference.
First, people would have clear rules to help prevent them from unintentionally offending or harming others.
Second, any women who felt uncomfortable about a situation would have clear rules to cite, which would help put the "lighten up" argument to rest.
Third, anyone who wanted to argue against the chilling effect of speech restrictions would have to explicitly explain why he disagreed with a rule against mocking people using gender stereotypes, or telling sexual jokes in a public setting.
It's not so easy to be tough when *you're* the one being asked to defend your actions, especially if they violated an explicit and official rule.
UPDATE: It's not even that hard to come up with a policy. The Geek Feminism wiki already has a boilerplate one you can adopt for your particular conference/co-working space.
2) We can take a page from the NFL's playbook when it comes to speakers at conferences. The NFL has the Rooney Rule which was established in 2003. The rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions before deciding on a hire. At the time the rule was instituted, there were only 2 minority head coaches, and there had only been 5 more during the entire 83-year existence of the NFL.
Since then 13 more minorities have been hired as NFL head coaches, and if you count coaches with multiple jobs, a minority has been hired as an NFL head coach 18 times since 2003.
In other words, before the Rooney Rule, the NFL hired a minority coach every 12 years (7 in 83 seasons) and afterwards, the NFL hired an average of 1.8 minority coaches per season. That's a rate that's over 20 times higher. That's palpable progress, without resorting to quotas.
One thing we could do is to adopt an unofficial Rooney Rule for panels; all panel organizers ought to invite at least one female speaker. She might not accept, but that dramatically increase the number of invitations extended to women.
These are just two simple suggestions, but they are concrete, and I think they would go a long way toward making the overall environment in our industry more welcoming to women.