Digital Entrepreneur Awards

Digital Entrepreneur Awards shows how to lose sponsors and alienate your audience

Industry awards are getting noticed for all the wrong reasons, just look at the Digital Entrepreneur Awards

A regional tech awards dinner went national this week when The Guardian and The Times (amongst others) reported that one of the night’s big winners, the University of Bradford had decided to return their award.  

Why? Because the organisers of the Digital Entrepreneur Awards in Manchester had chosen female burlesque dancers and a ‘sexist throwback’ host to entertain their guests. 

What started as a tweetstorm of protest on the night, quickly became a national PR disaster for the organisation who initially offered a half-hearted acknowledgement of the issue.  This turned to an unreserved apology when they realised it wasn’t just one or two ‘snowflakes’ complaining, but essentially a whole industry, and most of their potential guest list and sponsors for next year’s (as yet unconfirmed) event.  

Even disregarding the current media climate of reporting issues of gender inequality and sexism, you could ask yourself how an organisation representing an industry which so painfully under-serves women could get it so wrong? Women make up only around 17% of the tech sector employees in the UK, and only 24% among influential tech figures. There are numerous organisations whose mission is to tackle the imbalance in the stem industries, and this was an almighty missed opportunity for the Digital Entrepreneur Awards to be a flag bearer for sorely needed inclusivity.  

It’s not the first organisation to misread the climate and mindset of their audience. Last month UK Construction Week issued a climbdown after one of their key exhibitors was slammed for choosing a Las Vegas theme for their annual event, complete with half-naked showgirls. In the construction industry where women make up only 12% of the workforce, the theme was seen by many as reinforcing ingrained prejudice and taking a step backwards from any hard-won progress towards inclusivity.  

While it’s clear that there is still much work to do to address gender and other forms of inequality across many sectors of UK industry, the reaction to both these events is heartening and shows that there is at least the appetite for change. After all, the initial outrage came from within members of each industry’s community.  

Awards ceremonies clearly don’t have to be this way. It was refreshing to be a guest at the Social Enterprise UK Awards last week (the day after the Digital Entrepreneur Awards), and witness a room full of passionate charismatic people celebrate a booming industry without resorting to sexist or demeaning entertainment. Of course, you wouldn’t expect that from an organisation like Social Enterprise UK – they know their audience. The reactions of guests at the Digital Entrepreneur Awards, shows that they clearly do not know theirs.  

It’s perhaps even more important for sectors that struggle with diversity and inclusivity to acknowledge these issues and pay closer attention to how they present themselves. This lack of care and self-awareness harms not only the reputation of the organisation itself, but of the wider industry and makes it even harder for those pushing for positive change.