As moderator at last month’s Women in Design & Tech Leadership Forum, Maren Heltsche led the discussion. To find out more about her work addressing gender balance and get her take on the issues covered, we asked her a few questions. Here’s our Q&A.
What’s your career background, and when did you start getting involved with actively changing the gender balance represented across the digital industries?
I work as a data analyst, developer and project manager. I’m a co-founder of the magazine Rosegarden, and also a co-founder and developer of speakerinnen.org, an international platform of women speakers.
My commitment to actively change the gender balance in digital industries started in 2010. Or better—I was inspired to think more about gender imbalances in politics, economy and society. Until then I thought everything was fine and women had the same opportunities as men to succeed. One year later I became involved in building a local chapter of Digital Media Women in Berlin, and since summer 2016 I’ve been one of the board members of this association aiming to make women more visible.
What’s the story behind speakerinnen.org?
Speakerinnen.org was a project of the Rails Girls Berlin learning group, Rubymonstas. We were learning computer programming and needed a project to work on. The idea of a database of women speakers originated from numerous discussions both online and offline about the dominance of men in the public domain. This call finally inspired us to build such a database during our time at Rubymonstas.
It took us a year to build the platform, and we launched it in 2014. Right now we list around 1400 speakers with a wide range of topics, and the database is steadily growing—both in terms of industries and topics, and also internationally. We get a lot of positive feedback from the people listed, event organizers, and journalists. There’s currently 5 people working voluntarily on the project, as developers and communicators.
Our goal is to make it easier for organizers to achieve a balanced male to female ratio at their events, and we also want to support women in finding the right platform. We hope they will be encouraged by the experiences of other women and see that they too have a contribution to make.
How long have you been working on the 50 percent project, and have any of the featured events reacted to the project?
50 percent was the project that initiated speakerinnen.org. Anne Roth had been counting the ratio of men and women speakers at conferences in her blog for years. Last year we transformed this blog into a database where everybody can count and document the gender ratio of different events.
Currently we list more than 350 events, and we publish the results via Twitter. Sometimes we get reactions on behalf of the organizers, but most of the time we don’t.
Have you noticed a change in attitudes in the last few years?
Yes, definitely, but I’m saying that as an optimist. There are changes for the better, but there’s still so much work to do. I have the impression that event organizers focus more on equality and diversity than they did a few years ago. I think that public pressure and negative feedback urge them to work on that issue.
It’s also great to have male allies who support the idea of diversity on conference panels.
What topics do you want to see being dealt with in the discussion of equality and equal visibility?
Equal visibility and diversity are important on all kind of stages: conferences, media coverage, management boards, and politics. But what’s important for me and what’s often lacking in the discussion is that this is not only a question of fairness. Most importantly, it’s a question of creating the society we want to live in. To tackle this big challenge we need equal participation to ensure different perspectives, ideas and knowledge!