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The first #DigitalGovWomen unconference: a man’s perspective

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Diversity, Equality

Yesterday I attended the first ever Women in Tech government-wide conference. I was proud to be one of around only 5 men in a room full of women, but it was a shame there were so few of us.

What is an unconference?

It was my first unconference, so the format threw me a little initially. In an unconference, attendees can pitch their discussion ideas to the audience, one-by-one, and once all the ideas have been heard, people choose which discussion they’d like to be a part of.

The discussion topics covered a range of issues, including maternity and promotion. Around 20 women pitched topics they’d like to discuss, and then the men were encouraged to make a suggestion. I wish I had been more prepared, and had a suitable topic to suggest, but instead I only thought of one on my train journey home, which I shall have to now save until next time.

Meri Williams presented the excellent keynote speech. It was honest, moving and hilarious.

Meri’s talk touched on a range of topics, but the two points that stood out for me were the importance of recognising your privileged position, and the ingredients of a motivated team.

What motivates teams and makes them more effective?

Meri talked about 12 predictors of high performing teams, but boiled them down into four categories:

  1. Purpose – do I believe in what I do?
  2. Autonomy – do I have a say in what I do?
  3. Mastery – do I have the skills and tools to do my job well, and the opportunities to develop?
  4. Inclusion – do I belong here?

Being an event about diversity and equality, much of the focus here was in the 4th point about inclusion.

Too often people feel they need to be someone else in order to fit in and get on. Meri cited a study, that suggests people are up to 40% more effective at work when they can be themselves. And as diverse teams are more creative, it’s not only important to recruit diversely, it’s also important to not supress that diversity.

Recognising your privileged position

Meri is white and grew up in South Africa during apartheid. She didn’t ask for the privilege of being white and is aware that she doesn’t deserve any privilege, but understanding and acknowledging it helps her identify and empathise for those who are unfairly underprivileged.

As a straight, white male, I need to question my privilege, which Meri described as being the easiest difficulty setting in the game of life, or having a 300 metre head-start in a 400 metre race.

I look around the digital team at work and feel we’re a pretty diverse workforce, but a point came up in two separate conversations at the conference, which shone a light on something I hadn’t considered before.

And that is, while many organisations can be seen to be balanced in recruitment, in terms of gender equality, there’s something about the typical male characteristic, which seems to favour men when it comes to negotiating salaries or pay-rises.

I can see how this could be true, and I can also see how, because it’s less visible, it so easily goes unnoticed.

Another less obvious privilege, which I hadn’t before acknowledged, was that, in some cases, men might be promoted into a position based on the potential, while women are more often told they’re not yet ready.


In the later sessions of the day I attended a discussion about maternity. At first I wondered whether the group thought I was in the wrong place, but they welcomed me.

My motivation for joining this group was that my wife and I are trying to start a family, and if we’re lucky enough, I hope to one day take shared parental leave. It was quite a selfish motive, but one that I think added an interesting perspective to our discussion.

I learned a lot from this group. I learned that while interrupting a career to have a child is not really seen as an issue these days from a business perspective, to the woman it can be very difficult. One of the women in the group described returning to work as being like starting a new job, but without the forgiveness people give to new starters.

We also talked about the challenge of working condensed hours, and the pressure that can come from having days off each week when everyone else carries on working. We talked about the attitudes different people have about their colleagues working condensed hours, and reflected that it’s more often women that change their working patterns.

Lastly we discussed how it was important it is for fathers to take time off work to help with child care. It was identified that while a father might take a day off for his child’s school sports day or nativity play, he should also be taking the time off to nurse the child when it’s unwell.

In conclusion

As the room filled up at the beginning of the unconference, I was unsure of what to expect. I try to champion equality and diversity, and felt I would be hypocritical by not attending the event – but I didn’t want to stand out as one of the few token males who are just there out of kindness.

I thought the event was excellent, however, and it will genuinely change the way I behave in and out of work. I’ll certainly be attending the next one if I can, where I’ll man up* and make a pitch, and I hope more men will join me in attendance.

*Intentional use of a micro-aggression to highlight how commonplace they are

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1 comment

  1. Comment by PRAVEEN KARADIGUDDI posted on

    Good one Ben, Meri is engaging thought leader. Can't agree more on Maternity/Paternity leave. I am taking off from the 9-5 job till a foreseeable future to be on paternity leave plus looking after a business .


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