Women and conferences

I used to not understand the fuss around women at conferences, I thought that we should all just carry on with what we were doing well already and not get caught up in needless controversy. I even wrote a blog post saying exactly that a couple of years ago. I’d never experienced (to my knowledge) any difficulties because I was a woman.

A bit uncomfortable

But then I started hearing more about/was exposed to women who did have bad experiences. And I attended a few events where I just didn’t feel comfortable. It took me a while to pinpoint why I didn’t feel right. I didn’t realise right away that it was the lack of diversity that made me feel singled out. I realised that it was also the reason I felt uncomfortable when I was invited to women-only events. It wasn’t because I want to be surrounded by women, it’s because I want to be surrounded by diversity. It’s unique perspectives that bring more interesting solutions to problems and promote innovation.

It’s hard to know if you’re not being welcoming

At these events where I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t have any bad experiences, it was more that I felt people didn’t expect me to be there; I wasn’t the target audience. So rarely in these situations is there gender-based discrimination, it’s usually just ignorant comments based on stereotypes like “I didn’t think you’d be a developer, I thought girls were usually designers.” It was always the case that the men making the comments or featuring scantily-clad women in their presentations didn’t realise the effect these things might have on the audience, or that they might be alienating people. This is half of the problem, when you’re someone who’s rarely on the receiving end of these things, it’s hard to understand the effect they could have on others.

Feeling special

Something I think I was trying to protect in my defensive blog post was that sometimes I could see the upsides of being singled out. It made me feel special in my uniqueness, like I had something that no one else had, and I got more attention because of it. I’m a bit ashamed, but I’m not too angry at my former self because I think that’s a fairly normal thing to feel, everybody wants to feel like one in a million.

I was also a bit nervous, I didn’t want to have the spotlight put on me for the wrong reasons. I’d done a couple of talks at bar camps, and I quite liked the idea of doing more in the future. I didn’t want to be cast as “the token girl” speaker.

Why it’s worth effecting change

The big deal now is about the amount of women speakers at conferences, and it’s kind of an extension of the “women attending conferences”, “women in the industry”, “women studying computing” problems. The thing is, this is a point where we can actually make a difference.

It’d be very difficult for most of us to effect change in education, but it’s much easier for us to get more women representing the industry at conferences. This could hopefully then encourage more women to attend conferences, which would lead to more women in the industry, women studying computing subjects etc, and the same goes for other minority groups. I don’t think many people would argue that this is a bad thing.

Quotas at conferences, they’re not the only possible solution…

The next big controversy is about how we can manage this. Without resorting to quotas or all women speakers reluctant to accept speaking invitations without wondering “am I only here because I’m a girl?”

There’s currently a big problem with conference organisers who just aren’t that bothered about diversity in the industry. I can understand their hiding away from the issue, because actively trying to improve it is very very hard. There have been a few posts written about how conferences have done this, but the main point is that organisers have been forced to look inside themselves and consider whether they pick their speakers objectively, without bias against minorities. Many organisers ask their friends to speak. It must be an awkward thing if you suddenly realise that, totally unintentionally, all your friends are white men.

Examining ourselves

This is a problem because most people couldn’t possibly identify this in themselves, and then those that do wouldn’t want to admit it anyway. It’s difficult to understand that we (society) tend to favour white men in authority roles (such as speaking at conferences) because that’s what our culture has taught us to want. You don’t have to be a white man to feel this way towards white men in authority either.

Fighting our biases

The way to combat these biases (whether they’re known or unknown, and whether we acknowledge them or not) is to ask conference organisers to review their speaker selection process. Especially if it seems to result in featuring one type of person. Nothing more than that. Quotas don’t help, because that just results in “token” speakers, but men pledging to not speak unless there’s a satisfactory representation of women is helpful, because it’s telling the organisers that diversity is important to them, and that you believe the current lineup isn’t representative of a fair speaker selection process.

Acknowledging what’s going on

It’s not always a problem if organisers used a fair process and it still resulted in an all white male lineup. The important part is that they acknowledge there’s a problem and try to explain why. We all know that there’s not as many women in the industry as men, what we want to know is that people are trying to improve upon the situation, rather than promoting an environment where minorities don’t feel comfortable. Without even acknowledging that a problem exists, the imbalance in the industry will inevitably continue.

Standing up

Campaigning for diversity is the final controversy. It’s not a fun topic to discuss, and people are very easily hurt if they feel as though they’re being attacked or accused of gender discrimination. Unfortunately this results in all sorts of people reacting in ways that aim to shut up those who are trying to address the imbalance:

  1. Both men and women have said that men’s opinions on the matter aren’t as valid as women’s opinions. This is sad. While men may not have been able to experience the bias against women first-hand, that shouldn’t mean that they’re not allowed to fight for the equality that they believe in.

    A great analogy from Martin Pilkington “…But you’re not allowed to speak out on women’s rights as you’re not a woman! Nor animal rights as you’re not a pigeon!” (https://twitter.com/pilky/status/294468887246938115)

  2.  I’ve seen a few women on Twitter imply that it’s not a problem because they haven’t had bad experiences themselves. This is the camp I used to fall into. Because it wasn’t affecting me, I didn’t want to draw negative attention to myself. It’s ok if you haven’t experienced something and so you feel uncomfortable standing up for it, but to deny that something exists because it hasn’t affected you seems very self-centred.
  3. This is the one that I had feared for so long, and it finally happened to me a couple of weeks ago:

    “Well she certainly wasn’t a ‘token girl’ at our second event, but she appears to want to be branded as one” (https://twitter.com/leydon/status/294457218114408448)

The best way to shut women up about equal rights is to suggest that they’re only doing it for selfish reasons.

Nobody wants to be the token speaker

I enjoy speaking occasionally, but I’m really more of a fan of attending conferences. I don’t want token women speakers to exist, let alone have people suggest that I am one, and that I was only asked to speak to fulfil a quota.

Keeping on standing up

I’m still going to fight this one out, though. I want to make the industry a more diverse, interesting and inviting place, and I want to set a good example for those that come after us. I know that I’m quite a confident person, and I feel like I’m in a better position to stand up for us than many others, and I don’t want to waste my opportunity to do so.


Note

There are people who write about this subject in a far more analytical, less emotional, way. If you want to know more, I particularly recommend Aral Balkan’s, Faruk Ateş’s and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s posts. I’ve included some that I’ve found very useful below:

14 comments

  1. I really like this article much. You mention the most valid points and problems we currently have (won’t limit that to our industry as this appears in many more industries the same way).

    Just to add one thing to your personal experience: I am sorry about this, this tweet is unnecessary. But as a male (it just doesn’t matter I want to say with that) speaker who is not known very much and new to speaking you get such comments regardless of your gender. I also got some very disappointing comments on some talks of me. I do think this is very unpleasant to people who speak because they want to share something. People are taking ones self-confidence with such statements.
    Spoken for most speakers (I am assuming here) I don’t think they want to be speakers because they wanna be rock-stars but because they want to share something. Criticize them by just tweeting / writing such crappy statements just shows how poor-minded the person is who writes or says this.

    btw: Can you set line-height in textarea back to normal? hard to write here ;-)

    Reply

  2. Traditionally, I’ve always leaned towards the school of thought that says “The population is evenly split along gender lines, women are just as talented as men, therefore the number of women in the industry/on boards of directors/speaking at conferences should automatically balance themselves, without any need to do anything about it.” That works well enough in theory, but if, as seems to be the case, it isn’t balancing well, then I’m happy to do what I can to adjust the situation. For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, having not experienced them myself, (some) women seem to need, or at least appreciate, female role models. Therefore, it seems to me that for the tech industry (conference speakers etc) to balance properly, we first need to reach a critical mass of female role models. If this is something that can only be achieved by actively considering the gender of speakers, then so be it.

    Regarding your point about male views not being as valid as female ones: I think a lot of men (myself included) feel that expressing opinions on this subject is a little bit like a rich MP talking about what life is like for the poor. Many of us would quite like to take more of a stand on the issue, but I think we need to be invited to do so by women first. Otherwise we feel like we’re barging in on a conversation of which we’re not currently a part.

    Reply

    • Mark, please do speak up. We need all the good men like yourself to take a stand on this – otherwise we’re too easily dismissed in some quarters as “those shrill women”.

      I agree with Amber that it’s easy to be insulated from this even as a woman. I’ve never been threatened or publicly insulted like many women I hear from. To be honest I’m fairly thick-skinned and when I’m aware of sexist behaviour towards myself, tend just to find it hilarious.

      It’s something, as you can imagine, that Andy and I are grappling with with Digpen. Part of me can’t imagine anyone behaving like this at one of our conferences. I’m tempted to say that the atmosphere here in the South West is quite different, and we’re wary of making a big deal of “zero tolerance” in case that makes people think we do have a problem. At the same time, we want to make it clear that if there is ever this kind of behaviour at a Digpen event, or we hear of anyone treating our speakers badly (whatever their gender), we won’t stand for it.

      Reply

      • As you can imagine, Sophie, I’ve been thinking a lot about DigPen in this context, not least because it forms the bulk of my recent conference experience. I’ve certainly never witnessed any sexism there, and I wonder if that is down to the crowd or the history of the event. Obviously DigPen has never set out to be female-orientated, but between being founded by Frankie and now steered by you, it’s always had a strong female presence on the stage. I have two ideas about why this may have made a difference. 1) An event that has a strong female presence from the outset might be less likely to attract the sort of men who don’t respect and value women in technology, and 2) (more importantly) the presence of women standing on that stage from day one has provided exactly the sort of role model for women that I was talking about above. This may have given other women confidence to both attend and speak at the events, without worrying that they won’t be received well. Of course it could simply be that everyone connected to DigPen is just so damn lovely ;-)

        Reply

  3. Hi Laura,
    I must say, I’m at a loss for words, partially because (kind of like yourself) I never *really* was exposed to any bad behaviour on conferences. But more importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, because I am stunned by the braveness you have to keep fighting despite the fact you’ve never had any real setback during conferences. Don’t get this the wrong way though, I’m sure nobody wants to be called out as a token, I’m sure, but I’ve seen people write crazy stuff on the internet as well, and yours seems still bareable compared to them. Yet, despite this, you still fight back, even if it was just to defend those whom are truely being bullied. Now that.. that’s a noble thing. It’s why I’m proud to know you.
    Keep fighting Laura, we’re behind you ;)

    PS Hope I didn’t say/write anything offensive here? Sorry if I did.

    Reply

  4. Ian

    You say “we all tend to favour white men in authority roles (such as speaking at conferences) because that’s what our society and culture has taught us to want” – do you really believe this sweeping, generalisation of a statement?

    Reply

  5. @mark As for me, I would not think of it along those lines – some of my best friends are women, or gay, or have a disability. I live with a woman and a baby daughter. All these people are part of my life and are what shapes me. I would never deign to fight for their rights (apart from my son and daughter as they do not have a voice as yet). However I will fight for *my* right to be surrounded by diversity. I will fight for *my* right not to be surrounded by hatefulness, or labeled as hateful because my neighbour is.

    Reply

    • Hi Neil, that’s an interesting idea. I’d never thought about having a right to diversity around me. Kind of makes sense in a way though, if you accept the argument (as I do) that diversification results in an enriching experience.

      Reply

  6. Thanks for sharing this. You have some good insight about this. It’s just a shame that our community is filled with this crap. We’re supposed to support one another, have passion for what we do and share it to grow the community. These old-world views about gender have no place. Lea Verou made a comment to me recently that she saw (in Europe, at least) that the southern part of Europe was more sexist than the northern part. We have to put a kabash on ignorance and make it well known that the community won’t tolerate it.

    Reply

  7. Having started my first speaker bureau in 2004, I realised a number of years later that most of my speakers were male. Nothing wrong with that, except I found I was always shortlisting men. Only solution was to form a women’s speaker agency which I did. Voxy Lady Women’s Speaker Bureau. And..no I don’t discriminate I also represent men on my now re-branded original bureau.

    What amazes me the most about having a women’s speaker bureau is how many requests I get for my speakers to speak for FREE!!! And yes, even from corporations who could easily afford a speaker. We don’t do free because our speakers are all seasoned professionals who need a fair exchange for their expertise.

    Reply

  8. Nice reading you’re taking a negative and making it into a positive, not just for your self, but also for people who would in a similar way feel left out.

    Additionally, I am prepared to take one for the team, reviewing the appropriateness of the scantily clad women images.

    Best Regards,
    Peter

    Reply

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