This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Women in Tech Summit (WITS), the only technical conference series featuring all women speakers.
To celebrate this momentous milestone – and Women’s History Month – producer Celine Dirkes recently connected with Gloria Bell, co-founder and operations director of WITS, on Creating IT Futures’ award-winning Technologist Talk podcast. Bell shared with Dirkes, who hosts the Technologist Tales companion program, how the WITS mission has evolved during the last 10 years, is evolving now, and will continue to evolve in the decade to come.
Dirkes launched the conversation by asking Bell why the WITS mission to educate, inspire and connect women working with technology across the spectrum of industries is critical in the wake of the pandemic. Here’s an edited transcript of their discussion:
Gloria Bell: The pandemic, with forcing us to be at home, being apart from each other, has allowed us to find new ways to connect. [But] it has also forced us to have to reconsider how we develop those deep connections.
[WITS] was fortunate that we were able to take our in-person events that we run across the country and create a virtual event that we ran in 2020, and that we'll be doing again in 2021. And I think having this mission to educate and inspire and connect women becomes crucial at a time when it's easy for all of us to feel very siloed, to feel very heads down in the work that we're trying to accomplish for our jobs, that we're trying to accomplish in our homes, and with our families.
It's easy to lose those opportunities to educate ourselves, and to stay current in our industries, and to stay connected with the other women that work in our industry, and be able to learn something new, and to hopefully walk away with a little bit of inspiration.
Celine Dirkes: Those are awesome benefits. And I'm glad that they've been preserved in this pivot to a virtual delivery. What sort of value do you think that a virtual setting adds?
Gloria: It's interesting that you asked that because we struggled with that question at first.
We had been so dependent on our in-person events and the connections that women were able to make. We joke about the hallway conversations that you have at a conference and how, sometimes, those are the best part of being at a conference. [But] one of the things that we learned [through our pivot to virtual events is using technology] we were able to recreate that.
Our events [had been] very region-driven. We had our Mid-Atlantic event, our Northeastern event, our Western event. And our virtual event let us bring these women that would come to our regional events all together in one location and really cross-pollinate a lot of those connections. We're bringing together women [now] that may not ever [had] an opportunity to connect.
That was a really, really wonderful by-product of having to develop this virtual setting.
Celine: Have you found that pivot to virtual delivery challenging at all, or have there been mostly empowering discoveries like that one?
Gloria: A little bit of both, especially in 2020. Making the pivot as quickly as we needed to make it was challenging. Figuring out how you take the five events that we already had planned in 2020 and pivot them into a single virtual event in a matter of a few weeks was quite a challenge.
But it was also very inspiring and very empowering to realize that we could do something that quickly that was so well received by our community. And then, to be able to continue that into 2021 and to watch our community and our audience continue to want to receive the same programming, to want to receive the same connections, to hear how many women are telling us “We don't care how or where you deliver your event, we'll be there.” [That] has been a very, very empowering thing.
Celine: How has the WITS mission evolved over the last decade? What surprised you?
When we do our programming, we want to appeal to a very broad range of women. We want it to appeal to women working not just in highly technical roles, but we want it to also appeal to women working in non-technical roles, and the women who cross that border. Because there's a lot of roles in technology where women are straddling and working in roles that are both technical and business-related.
The fact that the conference has grown organically to include all those women, and to include a very wide range of career levels has been a very pleasant surprise.
Celine: All WITS speakers are women working in tech, across the business spectrum at multiple levels from students to senior executives. So, how does this approach differentiate WITS from other conferences for women working in tech?
Gloria: We've made a concerted effort over the last several years to seek out the women who are the subject matter experts at that time in that particular topic. And that is really what is our differentiator, we are a conference for women, given by women, run by women with all women speakers.
One of my favorite things that I hear often from our participants is that they'll attend one of our “trends in technology” sessions on a topic they know nothing about. And they walk out of that session understanding something about that topic, understanding why it's a trend, why it's important to our industry, and they understand the terminology.
So, that next time they're involved in a conversation where that trend comes up, or that piece of technology is discussed, they can follow the conversation. They can be a relevant part of the conversation because they at least understand the terminology and they understand the concepts.
It's powerful when you sit in a room full of other women and get to hear from another woman about the work that she's doing. Because the women that speak at our conference are not necessarily women that are out on the speaking circuit a lot. But they are women who are actively working in the areas that they are talking about. They're subject matter experts because they're doing the work in that particular field.
Celine: Do you foresee a day when advocating a woman's perspective in this field won't be as necessary as it is today?
Gloria: Considering that only about a quarter of the jobs in tech are held by women, I don't see that day coming soon.
I am hopeful. I would like to think that some of the work that we're doing with the Women in Tech Summit, and with elevating women's voices, and with giving women an opportunity to learn new skills, and to connect and to build stronger networks, will help us get there.
We're going to continue to deliver what our customers need. But that also means paying attention to what may need to evolve. That may be next year, year after, 10 years from now… we may need something different. We may need to tweak our programming. Our programming now is slightly different than it was 10 years ago. The format of our conference is slightly different than it was five years ago, and in 2022, it'll be very different than it is in 2021.
Celine: As tech becomes more diverse and inclusive, will your speaker list evolve with that? For example, will you include trans women or non-binary people?
Gloria: I'm very proud to say we have had some non-binary and trans people included already in our conference, and we absolutely will continue that in every opportunity that we can.
We have organically been diverse and inclusive. But over the last couple of years, we have realized that it's not enough to let our conference organically have that happen. We have started becoming very, very intentional. Like everyone and like every organization, we can always continue to improve.
Hear more of this WITS 10th anniversary conversation – including the new WITS Connect monthly networking and education series – by visiting here: Episode 47 – Talking WITS: Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of… (blubrry.com)
Technologist Talk is an award-winning podcast produced by Creating IT Futures, CompTIA’s tech workforce charity, where we talk to business leaders, workforce professionals and talent developers about shaping the careers of today’s and tomorrow’s technology workers.