Rant in the Key of Women at Conferences

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The under-representation of women who work in technology is an important issue. It’s not one that I know how to fix. But one of the ways that it shows up, is in the lack of women who speak at conferences. I don’t know why women don’t speak at conferences in general; speaking for myself, I’m just not that great at public speaking (:

In the past couple of years, I have been to two stellar conferences (Webstock ’08, in Wellington; and BitNorth, just outside Montréal) and a few more that were okay-I-guess. This is what the gender breakdown of the amazing conferences looked like:

Webstock
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BitNorth
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♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂ ♂


I speculate that when conference organizers care about trying to fix the hard problems, they’re going to care about all of the little things that go into a conference.

I am not going to this one.
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I mentioned the absurd gender disparity of this conference to a (white, privileged, technical, male) friend of mine, in what turned into quite a surreal conversation.

me: (I count three of ladies.)
him: heh
that’s pretty common
ON one hand, i’d like to see a better balance
On the other, I’m kind of tired of hearing about “women in open source”
me: Did you, uh, complain about hearing women talking at conferences?
him: I complained about hearing about women talking at conferences about women talking at conferences

I am horrified that he felt that the content of womens’ talks was some how a way to rationalize the lack of women at a conference. I am also horrified that women feel the need to speak about their place in the technical eco-system that there is a perception that it’s the only thing they talk about (I don’t think I’ve ever been to a rah-rah women in technology talk, but I have heard women speak on all sorts of technical subjects). I remain horrified that he thought this was a position that was worth vigorously defending; and I have The Fear that this is a common perception.

And that makes me really fucking angry.

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8 thoughts on “Rant in the Key of Women at Conferences

  1. I think part of the problem is once there’s a heavy preponderance it requires a huge effort to get anyone to think outside that status quo – Education at Vic has the opposite problem (95%+ female skewed), and any queries as to whether this may be a problem hits much the same talking points as the converse in tech: men don’t want to be involved in education, we can’t make people be interested, what’s wrong with it anyway, and so on and so forth.

    Of course, there’s always outright tardery to exacerbate matters, such as the whole Rails pornstar debacle (which at least helped spur me to migrate off Typo 4.0…).

    An auxiliary problem is engaging people in the field in such a way they don’t feel like they’re being blamed if they haven’t done anything blameworthy so there’s not a defensive reaction.

  2. As a woman in an unrelated field, I have an awareness that men being falsely accused of Doing Bad Things is an issue; which seems like the kind of life-changing risk that is worth avoiding if you are a man thinking about education.

    I also think that as a ladynerd, that if anyone had tried to overtly and directly push me into the tech field, I probably would have dug my heels in d: But that’s another blog post.

  3. I was thinking less of the balance in the education field and more how comfortable incumbancy seems to become past a certain overwhelming point – the ease with which people seem to settle into the mindset past some (poorly defined) point where it becomes “natural” not to see women/men/Polynesians/etc in a given field.

    Stephen was very keen in his time at the Elves to try to make a point of recruiting outside the white male nerd box, but hit the problem of finding people who weren’t in that box and could do the job. I suspect that would be a common complaint for anyone trying to improve the workplace, but conferences shouldn’t have that problem, because you don’t need to own the talent pool that’s presenting. It’d be interesting to see how the organisers of the sucessful examples you cite went about it compared to the more normal conferences; were they lucky, or did they work at getting a more diverse range of speakers? Are some topics better than others?

  4. Dude. It’s crazy early over there. I don’t usually see life from NZ for some several hours.

    I guess it would be vaguely interesting to figure out whether there are any fields which there is an even gender balance – maybe it’s not a tech thing, but it just seems like a tech thing because that’s where we notice it most.

    Webstock invites its speakers to talk; but I’m not sure how much of a conscious effort they make to even out the numbers. They do seem to have about 25% women pretty consistently, though.

    BitNorth was really diverse in all directions. There are a lot of tech people who go, but there was also a strong librarian contingent (not all women!). Talks were also all over the place (:

    (If someone wanted to hire a woman to work with me, just because they were a woman, irrespective of their ability, I would probably have a grumpy if they turned out to be incompetent. Curiously, incompetence in colleagues who are women bothers me far more than incompetent men)

  5. Couldn’t sleep. It happens on an annoyingly regular basis.

    On the hiring front, yeah, there’s gotta be a baseline competence, or you’re just harming, not helping; if you’ve got two good people saying, “Well, another woman in the team would make for a more balanced environment” is a fair call.

    Hiring an incompetent because she’s a woman is a terrible decision, and will likely just turn everyone off on the idea of trying to diversify their workplace, since they’ll translate “diversity” to “hiring idiots”.

  6. I work for the Wellington office of an AU software company. We have 19 staff, 17 male… It makes for a somewhat interesting dynamic.

    I think the type of work I do lends itself more to guys. In particular, we do a fair bit of travel, which means longer hours and being away from home. This being the case, women who (somewhat by default) are the ones who mostly look after the kids aren’t really in a position to be regularly be away. That, coupled with the fact that we mostly hire PMs and technical consultants which have a male bias anyway, means we just have more boys.

    I think if I had young children, I would not want to be doing my current job. The one other female in the office has a 2 year old, and I think she finds it hard.

    Fortunately, for the most part, my boss hires clever people who just happen to be male, so it’s a good environment to be in. But one or two more females wouldn’t go astray.

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