Why I Created a Digital Conference Where Only 4% of Tickets Are Set Aside for Men

Changing the tone by turning the tables

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No men allowed. It’s the common thread, the secret sauce so to speak, behind every one of our meetings in every city. Now a national organization growing at a pace we can barely contain, Women in Digital is on a mission to connect as many women on the tech and digital side of advertising and marketing as possible.

And we have found it most productive if men are only in the room on select occasions. This year, there will be one such occasion: our national conference in October.

“4 percent of tickets are reserved for men, reflecting the percentage of women who held CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies in 2016.”
Alaina Shearer, founder, Women in Digital

Every year, we plan to pick a new statistic and use the numbers to flip things around. For example, at this year’s conference, only 4 percent of tickets are reserved for men, reflecting the percentage of women who held CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies in 2016. If we sell out, that will be 36 men out of 900. The number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has, since we began planning our event, risen to 6.4 percent—a number still so far short of where it should be.

One of the men attending this year’s Annual Women in Digital Conference will be Nate Rogers, the vice president of marketing and communications at OhioHealth, a system with more 10,000 employees in Columbus, Ohio, our headquarters city. He was also the first man to buy a ticket to this year’s conference.

Nate, who has been one of our most ardent supporters since we launched Women in Digital in June 2016, told me that being part of a scant minority of men at a conference focused on women in marketing and tech “allows you to feel true empathy for the other 51 percent of the population you should be working with, who may or may not be in roles they should be in.”

“I understand some men may feel awkward being in the minority, but you don’t gain empathy and learn if you don’t feel awkward sometimes.”
Nate Rogers, OhioHealth

“Don’t assume this is only a women’s issue. It’s a human issue, and guys need to take advantage of the opportunity to show their support. I understand some men may feel awkward being in the minority, but you don’t gain empathy and learn if you don’t feel awkward sometimes,” Nate said, adding, “and wake up bro, if you think it’s society’s fault and not your fault—you are society. Jump on it, man, it’s us!”

There’s still so much work to do, and we need each other more than we know.

For most of us, a Women in Digital meeting is the first time in our professional careers we are among women only. Sure, there are women’s groups and organizations, but none are so honed in on our profession. Without men around, we have a chance to openly and honestly discuss the state of gender bias within our industry.

For example, what other professional women’s group can truly address the pain and frustration that comes in dealing with a room of mansplaining developers? Or the absolute degradation of a CEO calling social marketing “cute, just like you”? Or the feeling you get upon returning from maternity leave to find your seat at the power table effectively downgraded? These are just a few of hundreds of stories and experiences I have heard while traveling to Women in Digital events.

Now with nearly 400 members, we have launched in 17 cities, and more are on the way in 2018. But we’re not kidding ourselves. Not for a second do we believe we can do this without men at the table. In fact, we’re intentionally using a few of their old tricks.

We’re learning how to treat our relationships with each other as men do—business and power come first. But we’re not men, and never will be, so we do it in our own way with a tremendous amount of empathy and understanding. Beginning with individual and personal experiences from speakers or city leaders, our events then move into a favor exchange. We call them our Asks and Gives—with the male equivalent traditionally being known as the Good Old Boys Network.

The impact has been profound, and these favors are exchanged daily on our members- and women-only Slack account. Our members also have peer circles and meet once a month to confide in each other on issues too sensitive for a public setting or larger group.

OhioHealth was one of the first corporations to buy group memberships for over a dozen women on their digital team. Nate says as a leader, he’s seen a huge and positive impact on his team: “Our digital team is two-thirds female, and the fact that they’re seeing and engaging in conversations about gender in digital is awesome. I’m seeing open dialogue about what needs to change and open dialogue about what we’re doing right and what we could do better, which is incredible.”

It’s those “awkward” conversations that need to happen in order for change to truly occur. And if we as women, as men or as corporations and agencies keep brushing gender bias under the rug, one thing is for certain—nothing will ever change.

This year, we hope beyond hope that all 36 seats for men sell out. Because we have a lot of questions, and they have so many of the answers–more than they may realize. But most of all, we would hate for a little bit of awkward to scare them off. After all, we’ve been dealing with it for quite some time now.