January 2013 Archives

And More on Women Speakers at Tech Conferences

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It is starting to feel like every time a conference is announced, we as a technical community have to revisit the topic of speaker diversity.  I've tried to stay out of all but the most flagrantly sexist of these conversations, but we don't appear to be making real progress.


And that is sad.


It's sad for us, it's unfortunate for the products we work on, and it certainly doesn't benefit the companies we work for.


I think enough people have addressed that this is a problem, and really is a symptom of a deeper dysfunction in our industry. I have no answers around getting more minorities into technology; growing up in a rural area, I didn't get to use computers much until college. What I can give some suggestions about is increasing participation of women in particular in technical conferences. I've given talks at a number of conferences over the years, and have been involved in the planning of a couple of conferences as well.


This year we're planning our second ChefConf, and it's important to me and the rest of our team that we reflect our community in our speaker line up. We have some amazing, diverse peeps in the Chef community, and we want everyone who attends to have a great experience at our conference. We all learn from each other, no matter what our environments look like.  As Operations practitioners, we know that every individual infrastructure is a snowflake, but there is a lot we can share with each other around what we know about atmospheric water at temperatures near freezing.


Before the holidays, I offered up a couple of hours of my time in a Google Hangout with women who have questions or are reluctant to speak at technical conferences. The event was set up by the amazing Suzanne Axtell at O'Reilly.  Suzanne is a Technology Evangelist at O'Reilly and helps O'Reilly's conference teams think about and work toward building more diverse conference communities. She's got a tough job.


We didn't record this first outing, for reasons of privacy to the participants.  In all, about 20 women participated, coming from diverse technical backgrounds.  Many had spoken at conferences of various sizes. Some had been on the planning side of conferences, too, so we had a really good discussion about different approaches for increasing the diversity of speakers at technical conferences.


One of the basic questions I answered was how I got started giving talks at conferences. That first step, putting in a proposal, is often the most challenging for minority speakers.


The very first professional conference I ever spoke at was HPWorld, in 1999, a few months after graduation. I'm not even going to admit that I gave a talk about a project I worked on at school, prepping Linux workstations for desktop use in a Windows LAN environment (laugh it up, fuzzballs). I gave a couple other talks in 2000 and 2001 that were alternately awesome and terrifying, including a mishap with a borrowed laptop that didn't work with the projector.


It was years before I had the opportunity or interest to speak at a conference again. In early 2008, a manager of mine at AOL was busy plotting whatever kind of world takeover he was after and posted a list of conferences on the internal wiki. There was an O'Reilly conference launching for web operations and performance called Velocity. Being on the east coast, in the DC area specifically, I didn't know anyone involved in the conference, and had never been to an O'Reilly conference. I asked him if I could go if I got a talk accepted, and he said sure. So I proposed a talk about speeding recovery from problems in web applications by improving the application logging. My talk was accepted and I was off to everyone's favorite airport Marriott in Burlingame.


I had no idea what to expect, wasn't sure anyone would like my talk, but everything went really well. Actually, it was pretty awesome. The first Velocity was tiny compared to the 2012 conference, but it was full of people with issues and problems so similar to mine. I started thinking about a talk topic for 2009 almost before the 2008 conference was over.


On September 17, 2008, I got an email from Jesse Robbins asking me to join the Velocity 2009 programming committee.  I still have the email, obviously, and I think I wet myself when I read it. I served on the Velocity committee for the 2009, 2010, and 2011 conferences, which was such an incredible experience. It's also an insane amount of work. As the conference grew, so too did the number of submissions that had to be read, rated, and discussed.  The community that sprung essentially out of nothing is amazing, full of smart, fun people who gladly share their stories with us every year.


What the Velocity community isn't full of is diversity. Gender diversity, racial diversity, even age diversity, especially on the Operations side. The internet is basically run by a bunch of white dudes in their mid 30s. I totally love you all like brothers, but getting people outside of that demographic to speak at Velocity is tough. Marissa Mayer keynoted in 2009. In 2012 no women addressed the conference from the plenary stage, which was disappointing.


There is a two-part problem at the base of this. One is on the shoulders of conference planners, and the other on the participants. The issues these two groups face are different.


Planning a conference is an interesting process.  You start with a premise:


We think all people who love widgets would like to come to a conference about widgets, so we're planning WidgetCon2013!


Then you either hang out a Call For Papers or start inviting people who are awesome at widgeting to come give a talk. You discuss what kinds of talks the widgeting community would be interested in hearing. You look for the people on widget forums and mailing lists who seem cool, because no one wants an asshole on stage at their new conference (unless you're planning AssholeCon2013, of course).  If you've put out an open CFP, you'll probably get people you know and people you don't know, and it can be scary to take a gamble with an unknown speaker at your conference.


Not every conference planning committee has the self-awareness to look at their speaker list and recognize that everyone on it looks alike, especially if they all happen to look like the dudes working in your office. Big conferences have people like Suzanne to help them with that. Putting your speaker list together with no diversity sends a strong message to the minorities in your community:


There is NOT A SINGLE ONE OF YOU who is WORTHY of OUR conference.


This creates fission in our communities. It makes minorities feel even more excluded, even shunned. Hopefully it isn't the message the organizers actually wanted to send. Conferences made up entirely of invited talks seem to suffer more often from speaker homogeneity, though it's certainly possible to build a non-diverse roster from an open call for papers.


The situation is self-replicating. Year after year, the less diversity you show in your speaker list, the less likely you'll be to get talk submissions from diverse candidates. When I look at conferences I might want to speak at or even just attend, I look at the speaker lists from past years. Obviously I want to know that the conference is worth my time and money, but I also want to know about the community represented by the conference speaker list.  A homogenous speaker list, year after year, tells me that the community could be insular, hostile to diversity, and maybe made up of people I don't want to be around. There have been multiple accounts of harassment of women and other minorities at technical conferences over the years, so sometimes even attending a conference feels like sticking your neck out if the committee running the event isn't explicit about supporting diversity and not supporting harassment.


Being a diverse speaker is fraught with another set of challenges. We held the hangout to talk about the things that make women, in particular, hesitant to speak at technical conferences.  Some of the topics were gender neutral, like not really knowing what to talk about. That's not an unusual feeling, and not limited to diverse speakers, though for various reasons women tend to struggle with these issues more than men.  


There were a couple of other messy topics that came up. One of which I had never thought about before:


How do I write my topic proposal for a male audience?


That's a loaded question, so let's unpack it a little bit.  There's an assumption here that the committee is all male, and that being male means that the expectations for talk proposals needs to be presented in a way that dudes will dig. What it says about your conference, though, if you're on the planning side, is that part of your audience doesn't think you're picking talks on their technical merit or topic interest in the community. There is always some editorializing in the job of choosing topics for a conference. The committee is telling the audience "here's the stuff we think you will think is interesting". If your potential speakers feel they have to tune their proposals for a male point of view, you're shooting diversity right in the foot. You can imagine what it would mean to your speakers if they were expected to present for a white audience, or an upper-middle class audience. Some people are obviously going to be at a disadvantage if they represent other demographics.


Another topic was one that I have thought about, as it pertains directly to an Operations conference and audience, and that was the topic of "disaster porn". It's not the "porn" that people were concerned about, but the ability to get up in front of an audience of strangers and say "hey, I did this and it failed" or "I fucked up at this". For myself, I can say this is not something I can do. Someone on the hangout put some terminology to it, "stereotype threat", which is the threat of affirming a negative stereotype about one's group. Being a woman technologist, and having faced a few assholes along the way who were convinced that women could not, in any way, be successful technologists, it's really just not in me to stand up on stage and confess to screwing something up, even if I then put on my superhero cape and fixed it. Someone in that audience will think


That woman screwed up that project, all women will screw up technical projects.


I don't want to feel responsible for putting credence to that stereotype.


I would love to see more diversity in the speaker lineups for all sorts of technical conferences.  I've been the diversity enough times to know that it's tough to get over that initial fear of speaking, the hesitancy around potentially being a token, or the belief that what I have to say isn't interesting or technical enough for the audience. I realized after a while that I needed to stop looking for women speakers to be my role models and concentrate on making myself a better role model for other women.


They best way to get over all of those fears is to just get out there. Speak at meetups and user groups. Give lightning talks. Join toastmasters if you want more structured practice.  Give brownbags or other more informal talks at work. Reach out to diverse speakers from past conferences if you have questions about a specific conference. Join Suzanne's G+ group, "Technical Women Speak Too"[1].  If you're not ready to speak yourself, you can help conference organizers find diverse speakers.  You can also be a supportive audience member by attending technical talks by women and giving constructive feedback.


Don't wait until next year or until you think you have the perfect topic. You don't have to be the world's foremost widgeter to talk about your experience with widgets; not every Python talk is given by Guido van Rossum. 

[1] https://plus.google.com/communities/101818001236662563704

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