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Gender Diversity at BILT ANZ: Our journey so far

By Chris Needham, BILT ANZ Committee Chairman

A few weeks ago over 600 people attended BILT ANZ 2019 in Melbourne.  In short, I will say I was thrilled with how it went, and I’ll provide my event wrap-up in a separate blog post.  However for this post I wanted to address the issue of gender diversity.  Up until now I’ve been fairly reserved on the topic.

Personally, I’m not interested in saying things merely to have others agree with me.  I’m not particularly a fan of the political correctness movement. I don’t like populist dogma. I do, however, like to understand different perspectives on particular issues, and (as best I can) apply critical thinking and eventually form a view for myself.  In doing so, I do listen to others and read up on things, and seek to empathise with those people or situations I’m less familiar with.

Last year at BILT ANZ 2018 in Brisbane, as a committee, we felt it was time we convened a panel discussion on the topic of diversity – and specifically, gender diversity.  We recognised a significant difference between male versus female attendees (and speakers) and figured it appropriate to explore the issue and determine what we could or should do about it.

On the panel we had Justine Clark (Parlour), Elizabeth Harper (CIO, GHD), Todd Battley (CEO, AECOM ANZ) and Glenda Caldwell (Senior Lecturer in Architecture from QUT).  A more detailed write-up of this session can be found in an earlier blog post at: https://blog.dbeinstitute.org/challenging-our-industry-how-bilt-anz-are-helping-build-awareness-of-gender-diversity-in-aec-technology/.

One thing that resonated with me personally was Todd speaking about removing biases, as it was an opportunity to take a different view but also an empathetic one.  I believe that equality and fairness can be different outcomes, and I understood the removal of bias to be different from reversing the bias.  This is because discrimination is somewhat paradoxical.  If you try too hard to cease discriminating against one party, you may fall into the trap of discriminating against someone else. It’s a very challenging thing to please everyone, and to find what can be regarded as a balance.  I’m personally not convinced that a balance is only to be found when achieving an arbitrary 50/50 target for female versus male representation, as this introduces many assumptions about each gender. There is evidence to suggest that in the absence of any bias, a 50/50 split would not be achieved – particularly in STEM.  In other domains, you would be hard pressed to achieve 50% male representation.  The important thing is to improve accessibility of the industry for those who want to join it – and ensure that when they do there is acceptance and regard for them.  That said, I believe it would be a good thing to have a higher proportion of female speakers and attendees – for everyone’s sakes, as well as allowing for choices that suit the individual rather than the gender.

For the committee, we felt that removing bias didn’t mean we were obliged to provide opportunities exclusively to one (underrepresented) gender.  If employers were most likely to send their best full-time employees (on the assumption that would generate the greatest value being returned against that investment), then that represented a likely bias against those who might work in a part-time capacity or who are not employed at all – despite them being the passionate problem-solving people who would be right at home at a BILT event.  We acknowledge that most of these people in part-time or career break situations are likely to be women.  Where men are in this position, they may also be finding it more difficult to get their employer to pay for conference attendance.  So by promoting the scholarship, we provide opportunities for different kinds of flexibility and diversity.

Todd also said he would be prepared to contribute financially towards this demographic change, and as an outcome of that discussion, the committee devised a scholarship program that would make the event more accessible to those who may have found it challenging to attend in the past.  I must commend him as he followed through and sponsored 5 tickets which allowed 5 women to attend that were not even his own employees.  Kudos to Todd for that support, and I hope that next year we’ll see other organisations following suit.

Between these scholarships and an increase in total attendance, we saw a growth in attendance by women from 15% in 2018 to 21% this year.  For a single year’s difference, we were very pleased.  Combined with the increase in attendees at the event, this means we had over 50 more women attending the event, which was a visible difference in classes and at breaks.  Despite this, we’ll continue to keep looking at ways to increase this further.

While this year we have specifically focussed on increasing the number of female attendees, the proportion of female speakers is also something we are aware of and remains something we’re active on.  Our process for assembling our event program relies heavily on people submitting abstracts describing their proposed sessions.  It would be impossible to accept more abstracts than what we receive.  I dare say it would also be inappropriate to accept all those we receive from women, simply because they’re women – which would, in my judgement, constitute a bias just like the one we’re trying to remove.  As it is, we already accept less than 50% of all abstracts.

Overall, we saw an increase between our 2018 and 2019 events of 13% from 9% to 22%.

I suspect that an increase in attendee numbers would by and large represent a more welcoming audience for any women wanting to speak but who may not to date have felt sufficiently confident to try.

Panel Sessions

Given some of our panels from this year’s event triggered some online conversation, I figured I should address them here also.

One panel session at BILT ANZ 2019 had a male moderator and nine male panellists.  I know that by numbers this sounds extreme.  To be honest, Twitter was rather reserved compared to what I expected.  It has promoted further discussion on the subject over the days since the conference, but I did want to use this example to make some points.

Some men have taken the ‘panel pledge’, which, according to the Male Champions of Change website, means they may not accept a panel spot at a conference if the organisers can’t show good cause why a woman isn’t on the panel.  Some men have taken a more forceful stance by refusing to participate in any panel if there is no woman on it.

The second position is entirely up to those men, of course, but it troubles me that they may be overlooking some things.

In this instance, the ‘panel’ was a group of speakers all invited to share with the audience the progress or status of their respective industry bodies or initiatives. In effect, the session was structured as a host/emcee plus 9 short presentations – one from each organisation.  In most cases, the options were limited to men.  One woman with a senior position was invited but she delegated her panel spot to a man – to present an update on her behalf.  For another, a female panellist candidate did exist but was not available at this time (but did arrive later and participated in other panel sessions).

I do believe you can still have diversity of thought within a group of men because diversity as a subject is broader than merely gender.  E.g. diversity of experience, organisation type, culture, sexual orientation – all of which may be either relevant or indeed irrelevant to the session’s format, subject and purpose.  This is said without suggesting that diversity of gender should not be a consideration.

Before I wrap up the commentary on panels, I should hasten to add that on probabilistic grounds, smaller panels of all one gender should trouble people less.  The probability of flipping a coin (even chance of head or tails) three times and getting all heads or all tails is reasonable – at 1 in 8 chance.  In fairness, the same thing nine times in a row is less likely.  However, my point is that if the occasional panel (particularly if it’s small) has all men or all women, I don’t believe its grounds to think there’s a huge problem and therefore dismiss it from being worth attending.  As a committee we review and assess the membership of all panels submitted and frequently make suggestions to panel organisers as to additional or alternative members to include on their panel – to address different types of diversity and ensure panels have relevant subject matter experts.

WIB session

Elsewhere in the event program, we provided Women in BIM (WIB) with the opportunity to host a lunchtime discussion.  I attended, specifically to listen and observe.  There was a great turnout – about 30 women and 6 blokes – and was hosted by Rebecca de Cicco.  For me personally, I remain curious and willing to help promote and celebrate women in our industry, and I enjoyed hearing more perspectives and experiences.  I also enjoyed learning more about how I could contribute as a member of our community, as a man and as chair of the event.  It’s in part the things I heard and learnt that caused me to want to write on this topic; hence this blog post.

How people respond

Mark Dobson (our Friday morning keynote speaker) spoke about ‘Influence for Implementation’.  Among other salient points he made were that understanding how decisions are made is a key part of becoming influential.  Nobody has publicly criticised BILT on this issue, though the panel’s optics did raise some discussion.  There’s a lot to be said about how people respond to such perceived issues, and I’d commend the BILT attendees and followers for their constructive demeanour on this occasion.

In the past I have seen rather aggressive criticism of other events/event organisers for certain things deemed inappropriate by the court of public opinion – loosely related to this subject.  I’ve seen people encourage others in a militant fashion to boycott those events because of those criticisms.  At the same time, I’ve also been in receipt of privately communicated feedback and questions about how certain decisions are made.  I have to say, I appreciate the latter much more than the former, and it’s also an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialog.  The discussions on Twitter during the couple of weeks following the event have allowed that, by being civilised, respectful and articulate.

Still addressing how to be more influential, Mark also talked about getting ‘credit in the bank’ with people so that conflict can be avoided, or at least dealt with well.  While the committee are committed to further action on this subject, I suspect that the constructive manner that most people demonstrated regarding this particular panel session was because they are aware that an effort is being made, and change is occurring.  We regard this as an important part of the committee’s work – to be open about our approach and how decisions are made.  To judge the effort of organisers (or speakers) off the back of a single panel – ignoring all else would be improper.

As it was, this year’s event featured a total of 7 panels over three days; comprising 23 male panellists and 5 female panellists (17.8% of total panellists).  Based on efforts made prior to the event by speakers and event committee, not one (in my humble opinion) constituted a ‘token’ placement.

Where to from here?

The BILT ANZ committee is keen to make available more scholarships – both provided by DBEI and through sponsors.  We allow the sponsors leeway in the criteria they use (they may only wish to send women, whereas we are less prescriptive).  This increases female representation among the attendee base as well as the overall size of the attendee base itself.

Another idea we’re keen to explore is that of mentorship programs.  There are plenty already in existence, however, for any women wanting to learn and develop in ways they feel either another woman or a man can help them, we’re willing to help make those connections.  There may be some who find the idea of a man mentoring a woman to be patronising and patriarchal, but to suggest that a man cannot teach a woman something valuable because he’s a man is also sexist by definition.  Moreover, it’s an opportunity for that man to learn something from his mentee as well about her experiences and challenges.  Equally, we have the opportunity to create mentoring relationships the opposite way – female mentors and male mentees.

In terms of large-scale change, I don’t expect this ‘issue’ is going to go away quickly.  Cultural change requires concerted effort in multiple targeted areas, and it requires people to see that the change proposed is good for them – for their own sake.  I don’t think any arbitrary mathematical proportion will define success either, much less 50/50.  I think the success will require change at a society level, incorporating our educational institutions, our governmental leadership and our everyday interactions with one another.  As an event community, we may not be able to undertake something of that scale and complexity, but we can most certainly contribute to a better future where none of us are held back by explicit or inherent biases.  If you have ideas about how we can best contribute to this, please email us at [email protected].

We have already begun adjusting our systems to allow us to conduct abstract reviews without knowledge of the speaker’s identity or gender (so long as there are no giveaways in the abstract body).  We’ve been wanting to do this for a while but hampered by some of the proprietary developers’ priorities to date.  This way we can review speakers and their abstracts independently, further removing inherent biases for all speakers.

If there are future panels that consist of all men (or all women), I don’t think those on the panel or the audience need to feel weird or guilty about it.  I have no problem in people enquiring as to how the panel was devised (in terms of diversity being a consideration), but I think an appropriate measure of change on this subject should be applied to the gender split in the aggregate – i.e. across all panels of an event.  For me personally, if I’m sitting listening to a panel, I don’t care who’s up on stage (even if it’s all men or all women); I’ll be listening and trying to learn something valuable from what they share.  I’ve been encouraging attendees to adopt this mindset in all conversations for the last couple of events, and I think it makes for very fertile ground for learning about many things – whether technical, strategic, or life-based.

The committee is keen to avoid ever appointing a ‘token anybody’ (man or a woman) to a panel.  I think this concept stands to undermine the person appointed rather than promoting or empowering them.  Some merit must still be part of the criteria for selection, and we will continue to find and appoint more women to panels who meet multiple criteria.

For any women out there wanting to speak at BILT, we welcome you to submit abstracts when the time comes (normally around September each year).  The probability of increasing numbers of women speakers starts with increasing the number of abstracts submitted by women. The committee will meet in November to review them and assemble the 2020 event program.   If you are someone who hasn’t presented before but would like to, feel free to get in touch.  You don’t need to wait until September to get involved.

I look forward to the next event in Sydney and seeing a fantastic and diverse event program pushing industry forward.

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