let’s take a closer look at women at conferences

I’m very interested in understanding and incorporating Avonelle’s ideas about women in tech, because I really believe that her feedback is going to help steer us to put a finger on whatever it is that’s bugging us – is it “not enough women in i.t.“, is it “women who are interested being discouraged?“, is it “girls are not getting enough exposure“, or is it just “the ones who are interested are doing it and the ones who aren’t just aren’t and so what!“ (More possible questions of course…)

I’m really glad that she keeps in the discussion even though her views are different than many women who are being vocal on the topic. I have, in fact, met a number of women who have asked me “what’s your point? So there are less women. That’s just the way it is and it has never bothered me at all.“

There is an interesting thread going on over on Robert Scoble’s blog in the comments. There is more talk about #s at conferences and Marcie suggests that conferences can do more to appeal to women. Avonelle asks : why? why do you need to attract more women? And in  doing so, will you change it so much that it doesn’t appeal to men? (I am paraphrasing here)

I want to respond to that (as well as try to draw more people to read that conversation!).

Marcie used the 20% industry figure (which we were told at the Women in Tech luncheon at last year’s TechEd) and compares that to the %age of women at the conference was 5% or 6%. Why wasn’t it 20%? I think that’s all that Marcie is asking. It’s similar to the visibility question. Why do a smaller portion of women developers attend conferences than male developers? Probably a combination of things.

Let’s make an assumption there is a certain percentage of programmers who are interested in attending a conference. I can see no reason at all why that would differ between men and women. So the two most common things that keep the interested developers from going would apply across the board – time off from work/consulting gigs etc. (if you are not fortunate enough to have an employer that sends you) and funding. Again, that should affect programmers regardless of gender.

So then we should still be seeing the conferences split down the gender line in the same way the industry does, right? But it doesn’t. Why?

I think that the one thing that you can’t really affect is the fact that it’s just more difficult (on a number of fronts) for women with children to leave home for a week than it is for men with children. Obviously there are many families that function differently and having one partner leave for a week has the same impact as having another partner leave. Rich and I don’t have kids and we still put the dog in the kennel when I go away to conferences. So this is definitely going trim down a higher number of interested women programmer/mothers than it will the programmer/fathers and there’s not a lot you can do about this. So let’s just wildly say this brings the percentage of women attending the conference from the industry standard of 20% to 15%.

So past that, I personally think that even though many of us feel perfectly comfortable in the mostly male atmosphere (heck, maybe we even thrive on it!), there are a lot of women who just aren’t. So if we loosely categorized this as shy/less confident programmers, I think this will again, trim down the women more than it will trim down the men. Now we are varying from the industry standard of 20% down to 10%. (Again, I’m just making up the numbers here to try to make my point.)

Things like the dancing girls at the Australia TechEd Attendee party and at the keynote or the models at VSLive/MDC and a ball park being the focus of the evening party – things like these, although certainly enjoyable for a good number of women, are probably not very interesting to many others. THere are plenty of fun things to do/places to go that are as appealing to men as they are to women. However, while the folks marketing the conference are trying to drive up the attendance with stuff like this, I think it may drive UP the percentage of men as well as drive DOWN the percentage of women.

Just some more food for thought….


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