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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
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: