On tech conferences and the amazing invisible women

I spent most of yesterday at our local BarCamp, a free “unconference” where the organizers, speakers, and attendees are pretty much all the same people and speaking slots are open to anyone who shows up on the day of the event with a presentation they feel like delivering. They’re lots of fun and generally attract a fun, fairly diverse crowd. It’s all very self-driven–if you feel like attending, you attend, and if you feel like presenting, you do. And if you decide on the spur of the moment halfway through the morning that you want to present, you throw something together and sign up for an afternoon speaking slot.

Of course, we all know that women, particularly women in tech, aren’t interested in presenting. There aren’t many women in the field anyway, they never volunteer to present, they’re always afraid of speaking in public, they lack confidence, they never think they have anything worth proposing, probably something here about having babies, and that’s why they’re vastly underrepresented on the speaking rosters of tech conferences and events. This is a universal truth. If you look at similar events on a much smaller scale, what you won’t see is representation commensurate with the average gender breakdown in the field, and active presentation and participation in areas like search engine optimization, Web design and development, social media and marketing, community-building, or startups and entrepreneurship. Except for the fact that everything I just said there is complete bullshit, women just aren’t interested in tech conferences.

“Why don’t women speak at tech conferences?” is at least in my top-ten favorite questions, somewhere behind “Where are all the women bloggers?” and “Why aren’t there more women CEOs?” And like those questions, it usually seems fairly rhetorical. The above concerns are mentioned, conference organizers shake their heads and wish that women would be more proactive in asking to get involved, women sigh and go proactively start their own tech conferences where they proactively present their proactive presentations, and everything quiets down until the subject is raised next summer.

If only there were answers to those questions.

Why should I go to the effort of finding female speakers? A qualified speaker is a qualified speaker, right? The list of answers to that question are epic, but I’ll try to hit a few of the high points.

1. Your speaker lineup sends a message to attendees about the nature of your target audience. Attendees are more likely to see a conference that caters to them in a speaking roster that resembles them. For white dudes, it’s generally not a problem, and they’re more likely to see a lineup of white dudes as “the most qualified speakers the organizers could find.” Non-white non-dudes frequently see it differently. Consider: Say you’re organizing a conference called White Dudes in Tech, and the speakers are all white dudes. Makes sense, right? Now say you take that same lineup and move it to a conference called Folks in Tech. You’ll probably have a slightly more diverse crowd, but you’re not going to bring in a lot of new attendees with a lineup that speaks largely to the same old crowd. If your goal is to reach a broader audience, it’s worth the effort to diversify your speaking roster a bit. (If your goal is to keep gettin’ what you’re gettin’, it makes sense to keep doin’ what you’re doin’.)

2. Women frequently have different experiences coming up through their careers and thus offer new perspectives, suggestions, and solutions. It’s always nice to hear from someone with whose experiences and work you can identify, but if you’re looking to make changes or progress beyond a plateau, getting new and different information can be valuable. You may find a solution to your problem from someone who was forced to address the same problem coming up from a different direction. Or you may just get the same information coming out of a different face–either way, you aren’t losing, and you might win.

3. You can’t know you’re getting the most qualified speakers if you keep going back to the same well. Your current dude-heavy well of choice isn’t representative of the field and could be missing some of the strongest voices. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women account for 24.8 percent of the tech field and 20.2 percent of the programming field. And no, that’s not a ton. But when you’re looking at “The World’s Best Speakers” at the 2010 Future of Web Apps conference, and only 14 percent of them are women; or the O’Reilly Web 2.0 Summit in 2010, which was about 10 percent women speakers; or the 2010 TechCrunch Disrupt conference, with fewer than 10 percent women speakers; you have to wonder if there isn’t someone in there who’s awesome but heretofore unheard. And you have to wonder if conference organizers really are looking that hard.

I contact women to ask them to speak, but they’re all exhausted/burned out from speaking at all the other conferences. “We were going to talk about open source, but Linus Torvalds was booked up, so we decided not to.” It makes sense that many of the usual go-to female speakers would be a bit burned out, because they’re the only ones who ever get called. But is it likely that those are the only qualified speakers on the topic? Or could it be that organizers tend to go back to the same List Of Speakers Who Are Women every time? When Linus turns you down, ask him if he can suggest anyone else who might be qualified to speak on the subject, and he’ll probably–well, he might tell you to fuck off, because I hear he’s kind of prickly. But when a female speaker turns you down, ask her for her suggestions. Even if you don’t ask specifically for female speakers, she’ll probably be able to point you in the direction of a few knowledgeable, qualified voices the conference circuit hasn’t heard from a lot.

It’s sexist to try to find female speakers. Our job is to just find the best presenter on the subject, male or female. No one’s telling you to kick a qualified man out of a speaking slot just to fill it with a less-qualified woman. But it wouldn’t hurt you to take a minute to see if your definition of “qualified” sounds kind of similar to “I’ve heard of him/her before.” That six to ten percent of potential speakers who are currently at home watching Doctor Who and developing Android apps rather than sitting in a hotel watching Doctor Who and honing their conference presentation may well be more knowledgable and better qualified than that guy you have on speed dial. I’m not saying you have to hunt her down like the magnificent black-maned Cape lion, but realize that the extra effort to fine new voices and new perspectives could actually benefit your attendees.

(h/t to Sarah Milstein for getting me kind of het up about the whole matter.)

8 comments for “On tech conferences and the amazing invisible women

  1. Amber
    August 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I want to throw in one other thing here: tech conferences ain’t cheap. Attending an IAB seminar is like $500 per person. With that said, typically only managers and executives go. Aside from a few notable exceptions, very few tech companies have women executives. Therefore, women are not seen as equals, because really, in a CTO’s mind, what can he possibly learn from a product manager?

    As a woman that works in technology, I find myself jumping from large companies to small ones so that maybe I’ll glean a small particle of knowledge so valuable, that one day I can become a Director of Operations. I’m skeptical, though.

  2. catfood
    August 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    As a cis/white/het male, I helped organize a tech event that, yay!, seemed to be about 50% women when we looked at the crowd that showed up.

    There weren’t “speakers” per se, but the most visible participants were pretty much all white guys. We have to work on that for next time. A lot of the issue this time was the “We know this guy” theme you mentioned, but the neat thing is now we do know a lot more women among this year’s rank and file who are clearly able to step into leadership and presentation roles.

  3. K.
    August 8, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Where my petite trained to be a nice girl little self could not push through the wall o’nerd (said with nothing but affection, nerds are generally my favorite) to get to the board and post my idea until slots were more than full. It was a physical impossibility. \

    (and at ours, there were maybe 8 women. Seriously).

  4. August 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    http://www.lotusblossoming.com/about.html the link is about a free online seminar with asian women speakers. it seems very positive and it is for free. it also starts today i think. i won’t be able to participate live because i do not have internet at home, but they also say a recording of talks will be up at the site for 48 hours after. i am not in any way associated with the event, although i will sign up for it today; it was linked in a post by a woman whose judgement i trust. she is not asian, but my confidence in her led me past the “new agey” (for lack of better vocabulary) feel of the sight that may have turned me off if i was more skeptical. hopefully maybe you might be interested in this also.

    clearly this is * not* a purelye tech conference, live, but there are bloggers, and women who own their own businesses, and it is entirely online, so i thought it might be okay if i shared this.

  5. B
    August 10, 2011 at 10:02 am

    I am a geologist. I am female. I speak at conferences. I haven’t noticed any lack of female speakers at the conferences I attend. I can’t tell you percentages but it seems about average for how diverse the profession is, which is to say it is male dominated, but not exclusive. Our topics do cross over into tech topics as we use a lot of hi-tech gadgets and software that is limited to our profession so we need to share with each other to find out the latest and greatest. Do you suppose I am blind to the problem or the problem is worse at the tech conferences?

  6. Robert Merkel
    August 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    B, the problem is worse at tech conferences, and throughout the tech industry.

    My undergraduate programming course has 70 students in it. There’s one woman.

  7. Glot
    August 18, 2011 at 7:56 am

    My company has a female CIO. We had a “women in tech” meeting with her, and when one of her bits of advice was that it was alright for a woman to put on lipstick while at the conference table, I had to devalue anything she said. I think she was trying to say we can be feminine and techie simultaneously, but I can think of fewer things that will lose any respect my cohorts have for me that such a personal thing to do in front of them.

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