I spent most of this week on mission attending the 2nd International Free/Open Source Software workshop sponsored by the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (and UNDP Riyadh).
Most of these conferences, specially those that have really techie names sch as this one, attract very few women. So I was expecting a 10 to 1 male to female ratio for this one, specially knowing the gender context in the kingdom. After the formal opening of the meeting by government representatives, the key note speakers of the event were to follow.
I was assigned the 2nd slot in this session. So while I waited for the Novell/SUSE speaker to finish his presentation, selling us his company’s products, so to speak, I decided to count how many people were in the audience and, among those, how many women. As the session also started a bit late, I took several photos while people were trickling into the beautiful auditorium.
The auditorium is located in the Computer Research Institute which is part of King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and has state of the art multimedia facilities, including cameras facing both the auditorium and the speakers from different angles. The stage has a large, film-lime screen, which projects either panelists, presentations or participants asking questions. There are also multiple side screen around the auditorium. So it is is difficult to miss any piece of the action -unless one falls asleep.
My counting task was facilitated by the fact the all women were sitting in the 2nd floor of the auditorium, wearing the traditional black Niqabs and Abayat. The auditorium can easily hold 500 hundred people so when I first started to count, right after the session formally started, it looked as if the audience was relatively small. There were close to 120 men in the main floor of the auditorium and 33 women in the second floor -or 26% of the total participants. I counted twice as I was surprised by the high level of women’s participation.
Session moderators and chairs made special efforts to get inputs from the women’s section and specifically requested that questions should be gender balanced. In one of the sessions, it was women who mentioned that they had little to no information on the event itself and knew almost nothing about the many activities that the FOSS project in undertaking.
I later found out that there was a special entrance to the auditorium marked Females Entrance and that coffee breaks in the main lobby of the auditorium, always full of food and drinks, were only accessible to male participants.