More on that women and visibility issue …

Shelley Powers is rightfully (in my opinion) annoyed by some of the points that Kathy Sierra makes in her post on How to Speak at Tech Conferences. Most of Kathy’s points (which she gathered from conference organizers)  are really valuable to anyone who is interested in speaking at conferences – eg don’t wait for an invitation, find ways to get speaking experience (hint hint user groups) and try to come up with presentations that you would be willing to pay money and lose many days of work to see yourself. Many more good points and I definitely recommend them.

Where the red flags came up for Shelley and me, in turn, is Kathy’s seeming lack of patience for people who say they just can’t get to conferences. I think she is being extremely unfair and this is one of the points that raised Shelley’s ire. This was in relation to the suggestion of attending conferences so that you can get a feel for what they are like – a very good practice if you want to present. I am in a very fortunate position for going to conferences. Not only am I self-employed, but I have no children, a husband who is happy to have a break in which he can eat as much Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with ketchup on it with nobody complaining (barf), and a lot of connections that enable me to negotiate free passes and room shares thereby reducing my cost to airfare and some lodging. I usually pay with my time rather than cash out of my pocket – though it is getting harder and harder to find that extra time to “pay” with. And yes, I know how fortunate I am.

But this is hardly the norm for what people have access to (shoot me – it’s a dangling preposition). No matter how desperately someone wants to go, they are often dependent on things like employers’ willingness to send them or at least give them the time off to go, spouses and kids that are willing to live without them for a week. I imagine this is typically (thought not across the board) much harder for women than men. Some of these things are just plain old insurmountable. And I think that it is just not fair to write them off.

There are still a lot of women out there that want to point fingers at men and say “it’s your fault – you are holding us back.” I don’t agree with this at all. Sometimes we just hold ourselves back – and perhaps this is really all that Kathy was trying to say. But it is still important to acknowledge the barriers, whatever they may be – money, opportunity, time, flexibility, etc. – and not go to the other extreme of  “it’s your own damned fault”.

Back to her sub-context, which is on getting more diversity in speakers. There is no question that it is a challenge to find women speakers to invite – and gender is only a tiny step in diversifying. I used to give friends who are conference chairs big shit when I would see the speaker list and no women speakers were there or maybe one in 40.. The response I got was a) we only knew 5 women to ask and b) none of them responded. Or maybe there was one. But whatever. So, it gets back to the chicken and the egg problem of visibility and knowing that there are plenty of women programmers out there. The same proportion of how many of those programmers have the skill to teach probably applies to men as it does to women, then we filter again for who has the ability to do that much travelling. There are still more things that whittle down the pool, but what is represented is still a small proportion of who is probably able and willing.

There is one more barrier that whittles down what is left: shyness and fear of public speaking. And though this is just as prevalent in men as in women, the fact that it appears that conference speaking is a men’s game likely makes it much more difficult for women to get past this problem. That is one that I try to work on with women that I know. Just keep encouraging them. I believe that there are more women in the Vermont.NET user group than probably any other group in the country because of this. One of the women in my group will be doing the INETA Launch presentation at our January meeting. Another will be doing this month’s .NET newbie session. The first of these two women has also attended a conference in the past few years. Her husband is also a programmer and very supportive of her getting out there. The second of these two women (hmmm – her hubby is a programmer, too, come to think of it) has a baby, so travelling is pretty hard though she did manage to go to Code Camp in Boston this past month.

So I realize that I am completely rambling (oh to have the eloquence and power of Shelley’s words) and have landed at a typical juncture for me: visibility of women in technology.

I have said this a million times and won’t shut up about it. I truly feel that the more women see other women standing up, making themselves heard and being good at it, the more they will consider that they, too, can do this. Visibility and encouragement are the keys.

Still, do read Kathy’s post – great advice if you are interested in speaking at conferences.


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