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DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality – Enhancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The United Nations’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is, ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. The theme serves to spotlight the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls in digital spaces.

While the theme is largely dedicated to transformative technology and digital education, it also seems particularly relevant given the digital transformation many of us have experienced professionally and personally over the last ~3 years. Technology-driven workplace strategies accelerated as a function of COVID-19 and completely changed the way we connect and communicate. Out of necessity, we saw the emergence of remote work, virtual conferences, and advanced technologies in operations, and from a social perspective, we turned to zoom and other video messaging apps for everything from bread-making, to yoga classes, to social interactions.

Conferences - a foundation of professional knowledge exchange - moved almost entirely to an online format and disrupted the way we’ve traditionally interacted and networked. One silver lining of this new norm was the increased participation of women in this virtual format (compared to in-person). Studies conducted by Manish Kumar, Ph.D, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, looked at the gender makeup pre-pandemic and compared them to registration numbers for online formats in STEM fields. Participation across all demographics increased by as much as 900%. For women specifically, attendance increased by as much as ~259%. Anecdotally, online forestry-specific conferences in western Canada experienced similar trends and saw a notable shift in both total registrants and the composition of diverse registrants. In addition to attendees, the composition of speakers shifted to include more women. In both studies, numbers were most pronounced when participants and speakers would have needed to travel significant distances to attend in person.

The benefits of participating in professional conferences and workshops is well-recognized across the forest sector. Whether you’re accessing them for enhanced knowledge-exchange, career development, or networking, these are critical spaces for all facets of professional development. The pandemic, however, shed light on the systemic barriers and the uneven distribution of opportunities during in-person events. Online formats clearly demonstrated a distinct interest in accessing these spaces, but historically, this interest hasn’t always been mirrored in registration numbers for in-person events. Factors influencing in-person participation across all STEM fields (not just forestry) include, but are not limited to:

  • Women still exist as primary caregivers

  • Persistent wage and wealth gaps create accessibility issues due to cost barriers

  • Organizations typically send senior representatives to conferences. While the representation of women is increasing across all STEM fields, the gender gap remains disproportionately high in senior or director-level positions.

  • When underrepresented groups see imparity, they are less likely to participate

  • Negative past experience, or unwillingness to navigate a boys club

Circumventing some systematic barriers through the introduction of virtual seminars, conferences, and collaborative spaces has increased the diversity of participants. The inclusion of women in all spaces, including digital spaces, results in more creative solutions and innovative alternatives that better meet the needs of underrepresented groups. By no means is the maintenance of online formats a silver–bullet solution! Zoom, despite all of its best efforts, can’t replicate peer-to-peer networking, and falls short when it comes to deepening or strengthening relationships, or opening spaces for complex and collaborative thinking. Moreover, despite the increased visibility of minority groups, this hasn’t necessarily translated to equitable participation. Participation isn’t merely a function of who is in the space, but who holds power in the space.

It’s clear there’s still room to improve our current models to better accommodate individuals from different backgrounds. If you’re part of an organizing team, I’ll complete this article with a few open-ended questions to consider (note - this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Does the organizing committee reflect the demographics of the sector you serve?

  • Is there equitable representation of female speakers and session moderators?

  • Are there rules for engagement? (for example, no interrupting colleagues)

  • Are there mechanisms to enable different forms of communication or questions? For example, anonymous questions are submitted via apps that allow upvoting.

  • Has there been a discussion surrounding childcare options and opportunities?

  • Are there opportunities to review language or advertising materials for inclusivity?

  • Does the event have goals for equity and inclusion?

  • Are there organizational accountability mechanisms in place should there be a complaint?

  • Do networking or social events unintentionally cater to specific demographics?

Written by: Dana Collins


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