Why are more women not speaking at technical conferences? Insights from the WiT discussion at CodeStock


microphone-audience1Last weekend at the CodeStock conference, Mike Neel and I ran a session entitled “Why aren’t women speaking at CodeStock? (and other WiT issues)”.  A little background on this session: Mike Neel is the organizer of CodeStock and a longtime champion for Women in Technology.  He reached out to me some time ago and told me that after the call for speakers had closed, I was the *only* female who had submitted sessions to present at CodeStock.  He had wanted to hold a WiT panel or something at the conference as well, but it looked like there weren’t enough women for a panel discussion.  Therefore, he proposed this session as a community discussion and asked if I would co-lead it with him.  As the conference approached, Britt King reached out to me on Twitter and asked if I could publish any insights from the session.  I’m glad he did, as I captured better notes from what turned out to be an amazing conversation.  With the participants’ permission, here are some of the items of discussion and tangible solutions to this issue.  (NOTE: I lay out a variety of different thoughts and opinions from the conversation below, and not all of them are my own.) 

Why are more women not speaking at technical conferences?

  • Small number of women in computing.  Obviously, there aren’t a large number of women in technology to begin with.  Only a subset of these women will be comfortable with speaking, so that may end up being a fairly small number.  The point was also brought up that there are differing numbers of women in different communities; for example, there seem to be more women in the SQL community.
  • Difference in confidence levels.  Multiple people brought up a difference in confidence levels between men and women, and how in general (so as not to be completely sexist) women feel the need to understand things at a deeper level before they’re comfortable enough to speak on it. 
    • I can share a personal example here: several years ago, a male colleague and I were scheduled to present a day-long event with many technical sessions at a large corporation, and we were dividing the session topics between us.  One of the topics was Silverlight, which had just been released at the time.  I didn’t really feel like I knew Silverlight that well at that time…I had read some blog posts, seen a video or two, and downloaded some demos, but I hadn’t written any of my own code with it yet.  My male colleague said that he knew Silverlight pretty well, so we agreed that he would present it.  Fast-forward to his talk: he presented a marketing slide deck to developers (which is never a good idea), didn’t show any demos (since Silverlight is a presentation-layer technology, you can’t fully appreciate it without seeing it in action), and didn’t do so well answering questions.  It turns out that he had just seen the Silverlight announcements, and yet he felt confident enough that he “knew” Silverlight from that, whereas I (with more actual knowledge, in this particular instance) did not. 
    • There’s also a phenomenon known as “Impostor Syndrome”, which is discussed at many Women in Tech conferences.  Many very successful women in the industry suffer from this feeling that their success is because of luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise "fooling" others into thinking you are smarter and more capable than you "know" you are, and someday you will be exposed. 
  • Carrying the weight of an entire gender on their shoulders.  Since women are such a minority in the computing field, a female presenter does stand out.  If she does a poor job, it might reflect poorly on all women, which is a lot of pressure.  The man who made this insight specifically referenced this xkcd cartoon entitled “How It Works”:

how_it_works

 

Solutions to get more women speakers

Here are some potential solutions.  Note that most of this is not really female-specific; these are great ways to attract more speakers or ease people into speaking in general. 

  • Grok talks/lightning talks.  These are short 5-10 minute talks.  Some user groups have lightning talks in addition to the main 1- or 1.5-hour session, so presenting a lightning talk can be a lower-stress way to get people speaking in front of a group on a technical topic without having to come up with content and present a full hour+ session. 
  • Start with co-presenters.  There is less pressure if there are two speakers giving the talk and fielding questions than if you are up there alone.  
  • Consider a panel format.  Same logic as co-presenters…you can ease into speaking by being one of many on a panel and there is less individual pressure on you. 
  • Ask them.  Some of the most phenomenal women in the .NET community that I know (now established speakers, bloggers, user group leaders, MVPs, etc.) started as quiet women in the back of the room at monthly .NET user group meetings.  Then someone took an interest in them, drawing them out and asking for their opinions or help with the user group, and eventually asking them to speak.  Being personally asked to speak is more compelling than a general call for speakers. 
  • Suggest topics.  Instead of the generic “Do you want to speak at a user group meeting?” which is a vague, scary proposition, ask potential speakers if they would be interested in speaking about the MVC work that they have been doing at their company, or their experiences with cloud computing.  The more concrete ask with a topic is less nebulous and may seem like an attainable goal. 
  • Provide starting material.  It was also suggested to provide starter material to potential speakers, so that rather than worry about having to create content and present it, they only have to worry about presenting.  (SIDE NOTE: There are a number of really great “training kits” from various Microsoft product teams that include PowerPoint presentations on the technology, such as Azure, Windows 7, Visual Studio and .NET 4.0, Windows Phone, etc.) 
  • Toastmasters.  Toastmasters is an organization to help grow its members’ public speaking skills.  During meetings, members give presentations and evaluate each other in a friendly environment. 
  • User group with labs and mentoring.  Someone brought this up as a confidence builder.  This is a user group that meets to work on coding projects together (rather than listening to presentations).  They work on open source projects or bring ideas of their own.  There is a lot of mentoring, pair programming, and people helping each other out when someone gets stuck.  There is a projector available, and occasionally someone will connect their machine and let everyone watch them coding for awhile, but this isn’t mandatory.  I found this idea really interesting as a confidence builder, because to many people, live coding in front of others is a level scarier than even public speaking, but the person who proposed this idea said that one of their best attendees was a 16-year-old girl.  Awesome! 
  • Start at the local level.  Speaking is a journey.  Most folks start at the local level by speaking at an internal company Lunch & Learn or a nearby evening user group.  As they grow more comfortable there, they submit talks to conferences and bigger events, and work their way up. 
  • Blogging and other avenues.  At the end of the day, some women are introverts and not comfortable with public speaking.  However, these women can still be role models and established experts in a topic using other means, like blogging. 

 

Why is diversity even important?  Is it really an issue if there are few women speakers?  Are we asking too much of women? 

There was a lot of thought-provoking conversation around these questions and similar ones. 

Why is diversity important? 

Here is why I personally believe that diversity on software teams is important.  I’ll admit…as a girl, I was fortunate to attend “girls in math and science” events and such, so I grew up benefitting from diversity initiatives, but never truly “got it” until my first real job out of college.  I worked on a team with a variety of different people, and among them were 3 people:

  1. A man with a hardcore Unix background (who, speaking of stereotypes, did have a long beard and wear shorts and Birkenstocks even in the middle of winter)
  2. A guy with less formal education but a ton of real-world experience, who had been playing with computers from a young age
  3. A guy near my age (so just out of college) with a strong formal education from a top-tier university, but little real-world experience (he understood the theory but usually hadn’t done it himself)

When I had a problem I was stuck on, I would go talk to each of these three people individually.  Every time, they gave me at least somewhat different answers.  Then, I could take the shortcomings of one solution and use information from someone else’s solution to solve it.  With all of their advice put together, I was able to build the best possible software.  That is why diversity is truly important…at the end of the day, you can use it to drive better business results. 

Now, I realize that these three people were all men, but I would argue that we did have diversity on our team.  In general, having the widest range of types of people on your team will promote more diversity.  I don’t just mean gender, race, and age, but the things that are harder to see as well: introverts and extroverts, young people just out of college and single parents (who have to manage their time super-efficiently), people with different thinking styles, working styles, education levels, work experience, etc.  

Finally, don’t forget that many of us develop software that is used globally or released publically on the internet for everyone.  In that case, having developers that reflect your broad user base is a very good thing.  Everyone brings their own perspectives to the table, and (for example) a single mom will understand best what a single mom needs from a dating website or a website that sells diapers online, etc.  A diverse workforce creates better software and happier users. 

Is it really an issue if there are few women speakers?

Data from one of our Microsoft “Women in Technology” slide decks gives the top three reasons that women leave the computing industry.  (My apologies…the source of this data wasn’t included in the slide deck; I’m trying to track it down.)

  1. Lack of role models
  2. Lack of mentorship/career coaching
  3. Sexual harassment

With the lack of role models being one of the top reasons, this suggests that having female speakers is very important.  One participant made the point that the people who we hear speak at events and conferences often become our role models.  Someone else suggested that it’s important for women to see other women speaking, to know that it’s something attainable for them. 

Finally, Mike also brought up some data from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (around page 84 if you’re interested).  Here are his thoughts, in his own words:

“In short, Gladwell is discussing the threshold effect – an observed effect where over a certain threshold, improvements have no effect.  The example he mentioned was Michigan Law school looking at students brought in under affirmative action.  These students did not place as well as other students on LSAT and other academic measures.  When the school came under political fire for the program, they took a look at how students fared in life after college.  It was expected to find the affirmative action students doing worse than the regular students, and the question was by how much.  In looking at salary, awards, job position held, community contributions, and personal satisfaction levels, they found there was no difference between the groups.  The students were all over the threshold, so the only thing that mattered was the experience and education of going to Michigan Law.

I brought this up as a counter question to "does it matter women aren’t in technology?".  My view is that our methods of measuring qualification are being used far after the threshold is passed.  It’s often asked if a women should be in a technology role, speaking or otherwise, if she isn’t the "most qualified" or "best" person available.  This highly competitive nature is seen all over the industry, not just with women.  We in technology are obsessed with perfection.  The story above however says after a person passes the threshold, they are all equal.”

 

Other Insights

We talked briefly about some other WiT issues as well, such as the importance of mentoring (remember, men can mentor women too) and how to get more women at user groups.  Adria Lomangino discussed some really cool work that she’s been doing, teaching Alice at schools. 

I’m sure that I missed some thoughts, so please add your feedback in the comments below!  Thanks again to everyone who attended; it was a great conversation. 

Comments (19)

  1. Sadukie says:

    Interesting post, Jennifer!  I wouldn't miss my goddaughter's birthday party for the world, though, so I couldn't submit/attend CodeStock.  I'm going to have to write a blog post to comment on some of these points though.

  2. Lisa says:

    Thanks for a great post. I could truly connect. When I presented last year at MobileBeat, I was the only woman to present of the 20 companies selected as finalists for the hottest startup.

  3. Bryan says:

    I supper the article but the correct title should be "Why fewer women are speaking at technical conferences? Insights from the WiT discussion at CodeStock."

  4. Zuly says:

    Nice article. I think the biggest factor by far is your first point, there is a small number of women in the tech field. Now what I would really like to know is why is that the case. Why are men more interested in engineering than women? I think until that changes we will continue to see this trend.

    I posted a similar article on my blog on why there are so few minority owned tech startups. My conclusion is that the difference in cultures is the reason. You can read the full article here: lightpointsecurity.com/…/why-are-there-so-few-minority-owned-startups

  5. Ren says:

    I love this article. It's funny, yet so true.

  6. Liz says:

    Bryan – are you serious? Suppering the article aside – your "correct title" is itself a crock. The title could perhaps do with a little tweak, but yours is nonsense. Fewer than what? Fewer than Before? Fewer than Men?

    Perhaps a reason why women don't get up to speak is that we know that some men are just waiting for us to fail – indeed Girls Do Suck at Math(s).

  7. Mike Molnar says:

    (Sorry if this is a double post)

    I'm the one who introduced the xkcd comic.  I agree it was an spirited and generally productive discussion, and I think this blog post is an excellent summary of the proceedings.  I hope it serves as a starting point to extend and further the conversation.

    Fish don't notice the water they're swimming in.  Because men have dominated the technology fields for so long, there is a tendency for us to operate from a position of unexamined privilege.  Conversations like these force the more self-aware among us to pay attention to some of the inequalities assumed as "normal."  I think that's a good thing.

    Regarding your mention of Impostor Syndrome, I would like to draw your attention to a related phenomenon known as the "Dunning-Kruger Effect."  This is a cognitive bias in which poorly-informed individuals tend to overestimate their fluency in a particular subject.  As the authors themselves wrote, "We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it."  Conversely, there is a tendency for skilled individuals to downplay their own expertise.  I believe this more-or-less precisely describes your experience with the Silverlight presentation.

  8. Mike Molnar says:

    And exactly 3 posts in the condescending mansplaining begins.  That's about par for the course.

  9. jennmar says:

    @Sudukie – I'm glad that you attended your goddaughter's birthday party.  Work/life balance is important, and you definitely prioritized it correctly.  🙂  I didn't really get into the whole "Are we asking too much of women?" conversation, but this does relate…you certainly don't have a responsibility to be at every conference!  I look forward to reading your blog post.  Keep in mind that I don't agree with all of the points above, as I tried to call out in the first paragraph.  When writing this post, I was torn between including everything in the spirit of including all points of view, or removing some thoughts that I disagreed with because it's my blog and I didn't want to defend them.  I decided the right thing to do was go with diversity 🙂 and include everything.  

    @Lisa – congratulations!  Very cool.  

    @Zuly – I completely agree that there is a larger issue of too few women in the tech field.  For this particular session at CodeStock, instead of tackling that huge problem, we decided to focus the conversation on a smaller sub-issue (lack of female speakers) so that we might be able to come up with more concrete, tangible solutions.  But you're right; there is a larger issue.  

    @Ren – thanks!

    @Mike Molnar – Thanks for your participation in the talk and your insight around the xkcd comic.  (I was actually looking forward to re-reading through a bunch of archived xkcds in order to find it, but unfortunately a Bing search for "xkcd girls math" turned it up as the first result.)  🙂  I appreciate you continuing the conversation with your additional thoughts above!

    One last thought (and this is the opposite side of the coin): when I am accepted to speak at a technical conference, I have sometimes wondered if it was because my talks are really valued or because the organizers want to have some female speakers.  That's not a great feeling either.  

  10. Srilu Balla says:

    Excellent Post. I am a female and I am about to give my first presentation and obviously freaking out. Your blog was helpful, but the cartoon puts too much responsibility as if I am representing the whole women clan. Loved your post and suggestions. Thank you.

  11. Amrita Joshi says:

    Great article thanks for writing it. I think another major reason technical women don't speak at conferences is that (in general), women in the workforce are not at good as promoting themselves, advertising successes etc. Speaking at conferences is one form of personal promotion. I have been asked a few times to speak but many times turn down offers b/ i just dont make the time for this type of activity, admitingly making the mistake of missing out on a good opportunity to promote myself and my company b/ I am focused on "my real job."

  12. Cori Drew says:

    What a fantastic, poignant & well-written post!

    Your insights are so relatable. Your last paragraph ("I have sometimes wondered if it was…because the organizers want to have some female speakers.") sums up what inspired my first blog post in March of this year: truncatedcodr.wordpress.com/…/what-me-interesting-are-you-crazy-or-just-being-kind I'm working hard right now on my journey to prove to MYSELF that I'm different – and not just because I stick out like a sore thumb 🙂 It's definitely a journey.

    Thanks again for writing this. I have followed you on Twitter for a while and have so much respect for you.

    I find it very important to have great role models. Thank YOU for being one.

  13. Martin English says:

    Hi jennifer,

     I understand that your working environment may be more 'hard-core' development etc than what most of us do.  I'm heavily involved in SAP.  For some ideas / networking around getting more women involved in conferences and making presentations, chase up @marilyn_pratt or @nathomson – They both work for SAP USA, who are promoting women in their developer / user community (see grannimari.blogspot.com/…/ada-lovelace-day-and-sap-community.html for an example)

    The SAP User Group (ASUG) had a very well attended Women in Leadership breakfast seminar at the lats conference (may 2011) – See http://www.enterpriseirregulars.com/…/sap%E2%80%99s-sapphirenow-women%E2%80%99s-leadership-summit

  14. One thing that impressed me at CodeMash, and that I've commented on before, is that it seemed there are far more female coders in the MS technologies than I tend to see elsewhere.

    I met few women developers when I worked in Java, and the situation isn't much better in the iOS/Mac camp (although that world has a number of small shops where women are represented as designers, co-owners, managers, etc., so you get more women speaking at iPhone conferences, but they're seldom coders, or they're just getting into it).  I've never figured out why it is that there seem to be more women banging on C# and .NET than Java or Objective-C, and I'd be interested to know if others have seen the same thing, and have any idea why that would be the case.

  15. karen says:

    Ingram Micro will be a primary sponsor for the first Women in IT awards in Canada.

    This initiative not only recognizes the brilliant women in IT who have gone unnoticed to date, but it also spotlights the importance of having more women in IT.

  16. Michael says:

    My wife is a brilliant attorney and I see all the issues you highlight with her and her work environment. I work in privacy and security and I'm happy to say that women are very well represented in the privacy field. And the field is better of for it.

    My wife constantly undervalues her skills (and I see women do it all the time). When I watch her work and tackle a program, I am amazed at how brilliant she is. She's a lot more intelligent than I am!

  17. Dorothy says:

    (I landed here from another blog talking about the imposter syndrome.)

    Has anyone mentioned the "second shift" problem in this discussion? Despite a lot of progress over the years, women still perform a disproportionate percentage of "household management" duties. (In addition to the standard cooking, cleaning, laundry, and childcare routines, women also take on more of the work maintaining relationships: coordinating activities, attending social obligations, "being there" for friends and family, etc. This leaves women with a lot less free time than men in equivalent occupations.

    If the boss considers presenting at conferences to be "off book" or "on your own time", a large part of the problem could be that women literally can't find the time. You might get a better response rate if you approach women whose companies specifically allow employees to use work time for career development activities or preparation for technical conferences.

  18. LJ says:

    You're missing one major point that I think is so omni-present and scary that women don't even acknowledge it much themselves. To do so would imply that "it could happen to you." I'm talking about the actual and potential threats to women's safety (physical, professional, psychological) that are totally real but which we refuse to really address (or use victim-blaming to avoid): linux.conf.au, Kathy Sierra, Skud, Elevatorgate, and so on and on and on.

    That is something men really don't fear. It doesn't even appear on their radar, like the danger in walking to the corner store after dark. When women put themselves out there in a field dominated by men, they risk greater attack generally, not just as a representative of the gender. It isn't an irrational, perceived fear: they are in fact subject to greater attacks, more personal attacks, more invasive attacks than men are. You could google or bing the studies that document this phenomenon.

    And while it might be less-than-common to experience rape and death threats, it is not at all uncommon to sit in a presentation by women and hear men mocking, dismissing, ignoring, talking over, or otherwise denigrating the speaker in gendered ways. Those are the lucky ones.

    While it's good to talk about the things we as women have control over, it's not helpful to ignore the things we don't. The latter is more damaging and pervasive.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Men Are Assumed Competent Until Proven Otherwise. Women Are Assumed Incompetent Until Proven Otherwise

    http://www.forbes.com/…/why-is-it-that-women-are-seen-as-less-competent

    technoccult.net/…/women-in-science