Diversity thoughts

The familiar issue of diversity – particularly in terms of those speaking at industry conferences has been raised again. As a female web developer I almost feel duty bound to weigh in! It occured to me that I know why I don’t get to many events, but I’d be interested to know if my experience is typical, or if there are other reasons why women aren’t speaking at or attending events.

Having been on a panel at @media 2006 I have found more confidence in speaking at events and would do so again, however as a woman with a family it isn’t always possible. My daughter is young enough to still need taking care of but old enough to have her own life – we both have to make compromises. So that is the main reason I didn’t attend SXSW as a panelist this year. I could have brought her along, however as the conference is in the middle of a school term and her education is at least equally as important as the things I might like to do, I decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate.

So are women not attending or turning down offers to speak at conferences because they feel they are in a minority, or is it often due to logistical reasons? Can any of those reasons be addressed? For example, if you have a family to work around having a good deal of notice is helpful. If a speaker is travelling down on the day to a local conference – perhaps they could be offered a slot after lunch so they can do a school drop off and still speak – finding after-school care is generally easier. Perhaps multiple day conferences can offer one day tickets so that people who have childcare issues, or don’t want to spend time away from families can just attend for one day more easily and economically? Maybe we need more smaller, grassroots type conferences that are more accessible, inexpensive, perhaps less threatening to people who haven’t spoken in public before – I think that seems to be something which is already happening, there do seem to be far more small events taking place.

I have had conversations with women who have felt it might seem unprofessional if they admitted they had childcare issues to consider, and that people would see them as unreliable or not committed to work. Most people I know who run businesses or work and have children tend to be just the opposite. We have to plan carefully what happens and when, so if I say I’ll be somewhere at a certain time it’s pretty likely I will be, because there will have been a plan rolled out to ensure I can be there! This isn’t an issue for our industry alone, as this article on ScienceCareers.org discusses, the science community has similar issues.

Something else which occured to me on the wider issue of diversity is that many of our events are quite focussed on socialising – in particular in licensed premises! Anyone who knows me will know that I like a pint as much as the next person, but I also know of people who for religious and other reasons are not happy to go to a pub, or would just rather not be at an event which involved a lot of alcohol. Again, I don’t know if that is a real problem for anyone, but might be worth considering.

These are just my thoughts but I do think it is important to find out the real reasons why women are not showing up at tech conferences. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who doesn’t attend for purely logistical reasons and I’d like to stress that I know it is not only women who have childcare to deal with, and there are many men who have exactly the same issues in getting places. Exploring these issues has to be good for everyone, and I’d love to know your thoughts …

Maaike on the 20 Sep 2006:

Hi! Interesting question. I don’t attend conferences because they’re usually in faraway places (I live in Holland) and I can’t afford going there. Another reason is that I don’t want to go there all alone, being shy and all, but I don’t know many web developers (the ones I do know are all male, of course) who’d like to come with me. Of course, that’s not really related to me being a woman.

Caroline on the 20 Sep 2006:

Very interesting…I was thinking of looking into the thoughts of women in the web field for thinkvitamin (although haven’t had the chance :-( ) but completely agree with the lack of diversity at these events.

Lisa on the 21 Sep 2006:

Still hoping we can work on that Caroline if you can fit it in!
I think childcare practicalities, and the usual socialising formats could certainly be factors. It’s something which as conference organisers we can definitely think about.
I noticed a healthy amount of women attendees at @media this year, but dev conferences (which ours tend to lead towards) still appear heavily male-dominated, both in terms of speakers and attendees (disclosure: I helped organise the future of web apps!). Hoping that at future events and of course on Vitamin, that together we can raise the profile of a more diverse range of talent in the industry – that diversity has to be there in the first place though.
Maaike – we normally have an event wiki where you can post about meet-ups, and so this would be a good chance to make sure you hook up with fellow females at an event.

Cheryl D Wise on the 27 Sep 2006:

Typically my issues with attending conferences are two fold. One there is the logistics issues raised by both Rachel and Maaike.

Beyond the child care issue Rachel talks about many of us are stuck in that in-between generation with elderly parents not in the best of health to take care of as well. Both my husband and I are in that situation. Niether of our parents live in the same part of the US we do which means travel to take care of their needs as well.

The second is cost. In additon to conference fees, many developer conferences cost in the four figure range before you add in travel and hotel expenses. Those of us who do not work as salaried employees also face loss of income.

I did attend the Webmaster Jam Session conference in Dallas last week where Andy Budd raised this same topic of the scarcity of women at conferences both during his presentation and in discussions in the halls, etc. I was able to attend that conference because it was semi-local (I’m in Houston) and a reasonable cost. The speakers like Andy and Eric Meyers were ones I wanted to hear. It was interesting to see Rachel’s reference to SXSW since Andy Budd was urging me to attned. While it is another semi-local event for me it is not local enough to make dropping in and out of a 10 day event feasible.

As for speaking on web design or development topics my presentations have been restricted to user groups and other local groups primarily for the reasons Rachel states.

I will admit to having been tempted last year to go to a web accessibility conference held in Scotland in part because it offered child care but my children start school earlier than in the UK so they were back in session. Had it been during our school holidays I would have been very tempted if I could have scheduled additional time as a family vacation.

Niqui Merret on the 23 Feb 2007:

Hi Rachel

Thanks for posting on this topic. I have been wondering for some time now about why women don’t attend as many events. I have always been keen to attend events and I have had the advantage of always knowing people. If I did not know people and go with people I may not have attended so many events. The out of place feelings may be amplified when the event is male dominated. The Girl Geek dinners are a great idea to get women meeting other women in the industry.

I commend you for putting your daughter first. It can be so easy to let work dominate ones life.


Lori on the 23 Feb 2007:

I think the main reasons I don’t speak at conferences more often (though I do plan to speak at a couple this year) boil down to:

- Cost. Whether it’s covered by me personally or my company, hotel and travel expenses are not insignificant.

- Lack of interest in the topics I most want to talk about. I could go on for hours about Dreamweaver extensibility, but most conference organizers find such a topic to have a too-limited audience.

- Lack of incentive. This is somewhat related to the last point. I love what I do and can talk about it enthusiastically with other conference attendees when I do get to conferences, but honestly, there’s not much benefit to me personally in getting in front of a large group and giving a presentation. It adds stress to my life that I don’t need, and I take any negative feedback to heart (and it haunts me for YEARS). Why take the time to find a topic that conference organizers/attendees would get excited about when it just means more work, stress, and time away from doing what I really love?

- Lack of confidence. I always assume that because I’m not Eric Meyers (or Drew McLellan, for that matter), I have no business talking about CSS. I forget that though I know less about it than many gurus, I know more about it than probably 75% of attendees (at some conferences, anyway).

All that said, the reason I probably will be speaking at a couple conferences this year is that (a) it will help my team to get someone out there in the community, (b) none of the male engineers want to speak (!), and © a colleague is doing a lot of the legwork for me. (I’ll still have to write and give the presentations, obviously, but she’s finding the conferences and making the pitches for me, which is something I wouldn’t bother to do on my own.)

Black Phoebe :: Ms. Jen on the 23 Feb 2007:

On Conferences and Diversity

Things are heating up on the “Diversity” and conference Speakers front again and I have decided to blog about a few things that have run around my head for awhile. I will sum it up to start: SXSW Interactive is…

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