(Please note: I want to address the lack of racial AND gender diversity at tech events. However, in this post I plan to make assumptions – as a woman – about women (already dangerous), and place some of the blame on women themselves. I would not be comfortable saying these things about other races, since I wouldn’t have personal experiences to share. That said, my goal is still more racial and gender diversity at events.)
Tech event coordinators have been getting a lot of shit lately about their speaker list: that it’s a white washed, testosterone infused boys club. A lot has now been said on the issue, but it’s important to me, so I wanted to chime in. Ironically, I feel this is an issue that needs less blogging and more action (as Cathy Brooks also ironically says). Shouting into the void just seems to anger one side or the other, and isnt changing many people’s minds. Organizers, female speakers, and leadership lists all need to take responsibility, rather than push it on. This post includes:
- A summary of the debate and POVs, as I understand them.
- What conference organizers need to be doing.
- What women who care about this need to be doing.
- Why is this important?
1) The Debate
So, no one (of merit) is saying women shouldn’t be speakers. The basic organizer debate boils down to “I don’t want to choose a speaker BECAUSE she is female. I want to choose based on merit and accomplishment.” and “There are incredibly accomplished women out there, you need to actively pursue them and not just wait for them to submit a speaking proposal. Diversity takes work, and conference organizers need to allocate time for it.”
Stephanie Bergman has a wonderful post on BlogHer 2009, and the risk that comes with sticking women on stage just to have women. In a nutshell, you risk finding people who aren’t really experts, and set back the entire movement to get women onstage. Let’s avoid this.
The debate itself is also dangerous. Now, when attendees see an African American on stage, or a woman leading a workshop, they may question if this was really the best speaker, or if its just politics at work. Essentially, it’s the Affirmative Action debate all over again. And as an organizer, I NEVER want to sacrifice quality for diversity. Ever. There are women out there with unique experiences and incredible knowledge, who will teach attendees new things. You just have to work a little harder to find them.
2) What can organizers do?
It’s one thing to start a petition saying you demand an organizer have more women; it is good to raise awareness of the issue, and call out events (like O’Reilly’s) that garner press, have huge production teams, and set the bar for all others. It’s another to set unreasonable standards. I think, in a field roughly 25% women, having 20% of your speakers being female is pretty darn good. I think having an event of entirely white men is terrible. As an organizer, some things you can do include:
- Be aware of the issue: think about it while you design an agenda. It’s easy to be all male: I have received 65 speaking submissions for SNAP Summit. 2 of them are from women. If I want qualified speakers and a balanced roster, I need to do some research.
- As Allyson points out, contact Girls in Tech, Women 2.0, WITI, and dozens of other organizations.
- Look at the agendas for events hosted by the above organizations, as well as BlogHer and She’s Geeky. These can be great leads.
- Diversify your team. For FailCon, I’ve got a female assistant, an African-American PR rep, and dozens of student, women, and minority groups working on outreach with me. This has been, thus far, one of the most creative and exciting teams I have worked with, and I have already begun reaching groups and speakers I never talked to before.
- Check online for Women Leaders of 2009, Top Entrepreneurs of Color, etc. These are great people to reach out to: they’re probably experts AND they diversify your agenda.
3) What can women do?
For FailCon, we have reached out to easily over 20 female speakers. 15 of them responded to our emails, only 3 of them said yes. As I mentioned, of the 65 speaker submissions I’ve received thus far, 2 of them were for females. Does it sound like OUR fault this conference is mostly masculine? So, what can women be doing?
- Come on ladies, as Susan says: promote yourselves! Kaliya Hamlin, from Identity Woman, points out “Women don’t self-promote like the alpha dog’s in the industry do. Sorry it is just true.” (Kaliya goes on to give some great speaking suggestions for women, and prep advice for organizers in that article, so I’m just picking at details :\.) But I still feel compelled to point out that women need to start putting themselves out there more, that we can’t hide behind this stereotype that we are not aggressive all the time. My speaker submission rates continue to surprise people; hell, they continue to surprise (and sadden) me.
- Come up with an inspiring, relevant, unique, and informative topic and start submitting it. If you get a “no,” don’t complain, but instead politely ask why, and for help making it stronger for next time. Usually, my “no” is because I got 5+ submissions just like it, because it wasn’t relevant to my audience, or because I wasn’t compelled by the topic.
- Promote each other! Rather than write organizers to complain about their agenda, email them a number of speakers you feel would make it stronger. I LOVE getting those emails: they are more positive and inspire me to help.
- Maggie Fox also has some great, concise tips on how to get noticed on Technically Women.
4) Why is this important?
A lot of people argue that it will fix itself; that as more women get into the field, the numbers will even out. Too bad the ratio of women is dropping in tech. Why? Well, one thing I’d say is a lack of role models.
Some do say that tech just isn’t for the estrogen inclined; that whether it be society or evolution, women aren’t fit to take the risks involved with a startup, or do the math involved with high tech. One of my (many) issue swith this is that it is cyclical logic. If we keep saying this, we discourage women from joining, so we assume women aren’t fit to join, so less do. We miss an entirely new perspective on the issues we all face. I have frequently found that the startup teams I meet that seem most balanced and likely to succeed are 2-3 co-founders, one of which is a woman. I’m not arguing the two genders are identical. It is in fact our differences that make it important we all be recognized. If women are making up easily half of your users (as we see in blogging, online gaming, and twitter), shouldn’t you have a few women on the team?
And finally, it is an issue of understanding. I hate the casual remarks I get now and then: “You have a pretty good hand shake for a woman” or “I don’t need to get into the details, I don’t think you’d understand” or “You know, getting women on stage will get the boys there!” (Yes, Ive had all of those said to me.) No, I am not being a “too sensitive” when I get irked by this, but I don’t fully blame the men who say these things, either. How many female equals do they work with? How many women have challenged one of their ideas, or countered them in an argument? How often have they had to try a different tactic to reach an understanding? We need to work together to create the most innovative software and useful social media tools, and to do that we need to be able to communicate with one another in a respectful manner. Hearing these experienced and confident women on stage will be the first step for both genders.