Progress and patience: Increasing female participation in technical conferences

Karen Coombs


The Code4Lib Conference is an informal group of library technologists that attracts international participation. While it’s an awesome learning and professional community, it also has had the same gender diversity challenges and opportunities as many other technology events and groups. When the Code4Lib Conference first started in 2006, I was one of five women out of 80 attendees, and of the 17 presenters that year, only one was female.

Now the nearly 450 attendees at the event are much more equally divided by gender. Around 40% of our community identifies as female, and at the 2017 conference, 43% of the speakers were female.

I’m proud of the improvements we’ve made, and I think if we continue to focus on a few key activities, we’ll see even more progress.

I’ve had the honor of participating in every annual Code4Lib Conference since 2006. As such, it’s been great to see—and have been a part of—our improvement in gender diversity. Going from roughly 6% to 40% in terms of both attendance and speakers represents real progress. It certainly exceeds the number of women in “computing occupation” jobs, reported to be around 25%.

OCLC has supported Code4Lib as a sponsor from the beginning. Within OCLC, about 70% of OCLC Research staff are female. These women lead many of our research efforts—from social science research work to computation-intense data mining and transformation projects—and they’re an internal resource that has helped us as we reach out beyond OCLC to other women in technology.

What have I learned from more than ten years of working to make Code4Lib more diverse? And what do my female coworkers at OCLC say is helping them do the same for other events and programs? Here are a few of our top suggestions:

  • Support caregivers of all types in our communities. When my son was born four years ago, my needs as library technologist changed dramatically. But working for an organization that supports telecommuting, has a family leave policy, and an on-site lactation room was a big help. I was also thrilled when Code4Lib added a subsidized childcare option to the conference three years ago. These types of services aren’t just helpful—they signal to women that their contributions are valued, make them feel included, and help promote work-home balance.
  • Plan and prepare now for future success. Code4Lib and other conferences spotlight people who have been given the opportunity to do interesting things and make significant contributions. But preparation to be in a role like that begins long before invitations go out. At OCLC, we see women in all levels of management and professional roles. Nearly half of our employees are female. The OCLC Women’s Network is a vibrant group started by women in technology to support professional development. Efforts like these provide the foundation for future success down the line.
  • Double-check the “credits.” Ideas that women have in group settings are sometimes initially overlooked. This may be due to there being fewer women in tech leadership roles or it may be because of differences in how we work (top-down vs. collaborative models). Paying special attention to noting all research, product, and creative ideas is important.
  • Spotlight diverse voices. When women see each other publish and present, it helps them view library technology as a viable and interesting career path. But that’s not just about focusing on specific opportunities. Writing, putting together good presentations, and public speaking are all skills honed over many years. Provide your staff with resources, training, time, travel expenses, and the flexibility to be more involved and more visible.

To support the last point, we are offering a new scholarship for a woman to attend and participate in this year’s Code4Lib Conference. The OCLC Women in Technology Scholarship provides up to $1,500 to support a woman’s attendance. The only requirement is that the awardee participates in the conference in some way: by presenting a prepared talk, a lightning talk, or a poster session, or leading a breakout. To apply, send an email describing your reasons for applying to by January 12, 2018. The recipient will be announced by January 25.

The library profession is a place where inclusion is a high priority and where gender diversity is both respected and promoted. I’m optimistic that within this narrower slice of library life we can learn from our institutions as a whole—and from groups like Code4Lib—about how to apply these principles when it comes to technology roles as well.

Update: And the winner is…

OCLC is happy to announce that the recipient of the OCLC Women in Technology Scholarship is Esther Marie Jackson. Esther is a Public Services Librarian at the New York Botanical Gardens where she has worked on several coding projects including a bibliographic web-scraping program written in Python and a visitor/gate-count application written in Ruby. She is a Teaching Assistant with Girl Develop It NYC and a classroom helper for Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry.