Why are more women not speaking at technical conferences? Insights from the WiT discussion at CodeStock
Last 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”:
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:
- 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)
- A guy with less formal education but a ton of real-world experience, who had been playing with computers from a young age
- 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.)
- Lack of role models
- Lack of mentorship/career coaching
- 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.”
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.