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Women Have Something to Say About Technology: Are You Listening?

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Despite tech conference organizers’ claims, there are plenty of women speakers willing to address attendees at their events — provided organizers are prepared to improve their speaker recruitment processes. Increase your reach, your diversity, and your visibility by using these techniques to seek out more women speakers.
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When a new tech conference is announced, people tend to pour over the news, looking to see what value they’ll get out of attending and carefully examining who will be speaking [md] most of us want to know that there’s someone who will be presenting who shares common characteristics with us.

On a surface level, that means someone who is dealing with the same technology we are and who can expand our understanding of the situations we’re facing in that context. But it’s also a question of listening to presenters with whom we can identify on a more basic level. I want to know that someone who is like me in terms of gender, ethnicity, and other background factors can successfully do that sort of work, which is why I, [md] and plenty of other potential conference attendees with varying backgrounds [md] count the number of women and minorities speaking at a given conference, as well as read their bios and websites.

The ‘Difficulty’ in Finding Women Speakers

 It’s rare to find anything resembling parity between genders or ethnicities of speakers and attendees. Lately, there have been plenty of outcries about how different conferences have failed to include enough diversity when it comes to speakers. More than once, conference organizers have responded that few women submitted speaker proposals or that they otherwise had a difficulty finding speakers.

I’ve helped organize a few local conferences and my experiences suggest that many conference organizers do have a tough time finding female speakers [md] but not necessarily for reasons that they might assume.

Every time I’ve been involved in a small local conference (think WordCamps, BarCamps and the like), there’s some sort of initial meeting to get the ball rolling. Someone always asks a question about who the organizers want to hear speak. Everyone starts spouting off names who they consider to be the local experts [md] often friends, because the type of people who are likely to organize a local technology conference are probably going to be considered experts themselves. Those friends/experts will be the first ones approached about speaking putting in a speaker’s proposal. If that social group isn’t diverse, it’s unlikely the organizers will notice a lack of diversity at that point.

If a conference organizer has a specific vision for the event, he or she almost certainly has speakers in mind for a significant number of the speaking slots, leaving only a few to be filled through a proposal process. There are conferences that take other approaches. Pycon in particular fills all speaker slots through a standardized proposal process. But many conferences take a far less formal approach to choosing speakers, especially headliners.

An Opaque Proposal Process

On top of the reality that not all speaker selection is done through the official proposal process many conferences rely on, the process is itself problematic. At the most basic level, a speaker has to know that there’s a call for proposals listed somewhere. Some communities are better about making such announcements than others; some conference organizers send their announcement to every mailing list even tangentially related to the conference’s topic while others just circulate it among friends.

Especially for someone who may be new to speaking at conferences [md] say someone who comes first and foremost from a programming background [md] knowing whether or not to go looking for a call for proposals is a guessing game. Not all conferences use that approach to solicit speakers, so you can’t assume that there is such information out there in the first place. Even those conferences that do use a proposal system don’t have any sort of standardized approach to sharing submission guidelines. Some don’t even link to their calls for proposals on the front page of the conference website, preferring to bury it four clicks away or even on a standalone page.

This isn’t to suggest that every conference should take the exact same approach to speaker selection. There’s such a wide variety of ways to plan a big event that it would be impossible to find a standardized system that would work for every conference, or even for every tech conference. But an organizer can’t blame the proposal process for not bringing in a particular type of respondents if few people know about the proposal process in the first place.

At a minimum, someone looking to ensure diversity among an event’s speakers needs to make a point of informing diverse groups about their calls for proposals. There are numerous women-oriented groups, both those dedicated to particular technologies and those that take a broader approach. If a conference organizer hasn’t at least asked all the relevant women’s technology groups to circulate a call for speakers, I don’t think it’s possible to claim that the problem is that women don’t submit proposals.

Reaching Out in the Right Places

Advertising a proposal process should be a bare minimum, however. Just because a woman knows that a given conference is looking for speakers does not guarantee that she will make the connection that she should personally submit a proposal.

Speaking in public is terrifying for many people. I’ve presented at conferences and led workshops many times and I still want to throw up every time I’m up on a stage in front of people. The feeling isn’t quite as bad these days as when I first started speaking publicly, but I doubt it will ever entirely go away.

For many people, working through that sort of fear may not be worth it. It’s absolutely not a question of gender or ethnicity, but if you aren’t sure that anyone wants to hear what you have to say [md] if no one has actively solicited you as a speaker [md] the struggle may not look worthwhile. Why do something that is so unpleasant, at least on the surface, if you can’t be sure that people will value the effort you put into it?

Taking the time to actively recruit women speakers is well worth it for conference organizers. If nothing else, it’s possible to score a real coup by finding a new speaker with something impressive to say who hasn’t already become a common draw on the tech conference circuit. It doesn’t have to be a particularly difficult process either, though actively recruiting does take more effort than posting that call for proposals and hoping that a few women will stumble across it.

Recently, I put together a workshop for PyLadies Portland, the local section of a national Python users group specifically for women. We sat down together to brainstorm topics each of us could speak on, in addition to putting together each of our proposals to speak at PyCon. We happened to know someone on the committee to choose speakers for PyCon, so we asked him to come in and talk us through how PyCon speakers are selected and what sorts of topics the committee is particularly interested in. It would have been just as simple (perhaps even more so) for a conference organizer to contact us and ask to set up a time to talk to our members and solicit proposals. Most organizations are open to an opportunity to help their members get chances to speak beyond our group.

Beware an Uncomfortable Culture

Making the effort to improve awareness that a given conference is looking for more diverse speakers can be a matter of picking the low-hanging fruit. It’s an approach to practically guarantee that more women will submit proposals, at least at first. There are certain factors that can discourage women from coming back to a conference a second time.

Conference organizers need to be aware of the culture at their events. Having a code of conduct is a necessary first step; there are both speakers and mainstream attendees who flat out refuse to attend any conference that has not created a code of conduct policy. Given that such policies are the most visible opportunities many conferences have to affirm that women will be safe from harassment, publishing a standing policy makes many women feel safer at an event.

But actions do speak louder than words. Certain conferences have earned reputations as unsafe spaces for women to attend. There is one major conference that I attend because it’s crucial for the work I do [md] but that I don’t feel comfortable at when I’m alone. If there are different conferences covering the same topic, I recommend other women attend those instead, especially if they plan to speak (which draws far more attention than just being the only woman in the room).

While few people discuss those reputations in public forums, word gets around. When one woman has a negative experience speaking at a conference, the other speakers she knows tend to hear about it eventually. The ripple effect will make many women uncomfortable attending that event in the future, even if they’re invited to speak. Unfortunately, that reaction creates a downward spiral, especially because it’s rare that someone publicly explains the situation.

In contrast, XOXO has earned a very positive response for how the conference/festival handled an incident of harassment. Specifically, the organizers immediately revoked the offending individual’s conference pass. The next day (the incident happened at an evening event), the organizers took the stage and addressed what had happened, while preserving the anonymity of the individuals involved. XOXO clearly indicated the behavior was unacceptable and preserved the privacy of the woman who was targeted. She chose to discuss the situation publicly, in a blog post that received some serious attention and discussion after the conference/festival ended. She explained that she almost hadn’t reported the incident [md] that she’d experienced something similar before and had essentially been blamed for being the victim of an assault. The difference between her two experiences is a testament to the culture that XOXO has created and why the event had far more women in the room than many tech events.

Funding Speakers

We would all like to think that our lives outside of work are perfectly egalitarian, but the reality is not so simple. Women are far more likely to have responsibilities that make traveling for several days difficult. The most common is caring for children, but women are also far and away more likely to be responsible for the care of an elderly parent.

On top of those responsibilities, the simple economic truth is that women often have less money to pay for career development, including conference travel, because women earn less money in the first place. Conference attendance scholarships solve the problem in part, but many tech conferences (particularly in the open source community) see a free ticket as reward enough for speakers. A few conferences even require speakers to pay for their tickets on top of paying for travel.

If a woman can’t afford to take on a speaking gig, it doesn’t matter if she’s got something great to say. She won’t even consider speaking in the first place. Paying for speakers does make it easier for women to attend. There are plenty of arguments against paying speakers, including the response that doing so will make the entire conference more expensive overall. But if finances are the barrier preventing a conference from accessing the best and most diverse speakers, even just providing a conference scholarship to certain speakers could help.

An Ideal Conference

The reality of organizing a conference is that it’s hard to see what isn’t there. Few people can easily train themselves to notice a lack of diversity in a list of names, so they attempt to use a check list to make sure that at least a few speaking slots go to people who aren’t white, able-bodied, straight males. But that approach doesn’t really lead to great conferences [md] it just keeps those conferences from facing a public outcry.

But there is a better way: Rather than adding diversity as an afterthought or a characteristic to look at once a conference organizer has the key topics covered by expert speakers, it can be a central planning tool for choosing topics in the first place. In technology, there are always people using hardware and software in incredibly interesting ways. More often than not, those people come from more diverse backgrounds than the expert speakers that audiences see at every conference throughout the year. Putting a premium on that diversity and setting out to specifically recruit speakers with different experiences to discuss can bring the question of who is speaking front and center.

Attendees will still look at what big names are headlining before buying conference tickets. But, as long as we see more people like us mixed in with the names we recognize, we’ll be happy to support conferences with some new names on the speakers list.

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