What Can Conferences Do To Attract More Women Speakers?

Trisha presenting at JavaOne

Now I've been speaking at (mostly Java) conferences for a while (six years now), I get asked to present at a lot of conferences. Obviously all these conferences are mostly interested in my terribly educational talks, but it's also because I'm a technical woman and there aren't very many technical women speaking at conferences.

In my experience, conferences want to do the right thing - they want a diverse line up of speakers, they want to attract diverse attendees. Often this is not as easy as it may seem, and frequently conferences are Twitter-shamed for not having enough women speakers. When it gets to this point (and often before), conferences frequently ask me for advice on speakers they could invite, and how to attract more women.

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What Can Men Do

Trisha and Dan North presenting

So, I wrote a long email to the London Java Community in answer to an excellent question: “What can men do to support Women in Technology?".

It’s a bit of a brain dump, by no means comprehensive, and is in answer to a specific question in a specific context, but I’ve been asked to make the information public so it can be useful in a broader context. So here it is.

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Are Blind CFPs Really The Answer?

Off the back of yesterday’s post, I received a number of comments and questions around blind CFPs (Call For Papers - usually to get into a conference you submit to a CFP) for conferences. I often hear it said that a blind CFP will fix, or at least improve, the diversity imbalance at conferences.

I don’t believe this.

Firstly, I should caveat this with: this is going to be a blog post based on my experiences and chats with people, and I have zero science to back this up. Sorry. But I do have some numbers.

There are a couple of London conferences that I won’t name (because I haven’t asked their permission not because they’ve done anything wrong) that in some years have received only 2 from around 200 (or more) submissions from women. These conferences have accepted 100% of the submissions from women, and then been open to criticism for not having enough women speakers.

A blind CFP to remove unconscious bias from the selection committee might have resulted in zero women speakers.

Now I know the next argument is that advertising a blind CFP might encourage a wider diversity of speakers to apply. This does seem to work in some parts of the industry (I’ve been talking to women from tech scenes that don’t intersect with mine and I’m starting to see that we have different problems in different segments of the wider development world). But for my world, which is largely Java, with some forays into Agile, NoSQL, Open Source, and Enterprise, the women I speak to aren’t scared they’ll be discriminated against if they put their name on a CFP. Besides, they don’t have anything to lose by submitting and being rejected. They’re more afraid they’ll be accepted, and then they’ll have to give a presentation! No, the women I’ve spoken to in my world don’t submit because they don’t feel ready, they don’t think they have anything to talk about, and they’re worried about the sorts of questions they’ll get asked when they’re standing up there. Those fears aren’t allayed by having a blind CFP.

If there are any fears of being judged as a woman, it’s when we’re standing up in front of people at the conference, and no amount of blindness during the CFP process is going to make us feel better about that.

For me, personally, I find the idea of a blind CFP terrifying:

  • Firstly, if you have such a problem with judging people based on race or gender that you have to anonymise the selection process, I’m not sure I want to speak at your conference where my gender will be blatantly on show.
  • Secondly, when I was starting out as a speaker, I was new to writing titles and abstracts and expected that they would not be good enough to get in. With a blind CFP I would never find out why as I could never ask for feedback on my anonymous abstract. As a novice speaker, I expected my gender would help me be selected, not hinder.
  • Thirdly, as an experienced speaker I know my abstract-writing has not really improved, but I know my presenting has, and I know there are videos of me out there doing a good job as a presenter, this is my audition tape.

When I was starting out as a speaker, I knew there weren’t enough women presenters around. And although I hate the idea of positive discrimination and hate the idea that men might think I got into my position merely because I’m female, I knew that being a woman made me stand out in all those submissions. And I knew that enough conferences would take a chance on me, if only to improve their diversity, and that’s all I needed to bootstrap my speaking career - once I had spoken at enough conferences, once I had videos of me doing that, I would find it much easier to get into the next conferences. And that’s worked. And now, as an experienced (female) speaker, I fear blind CFPs as they won’t know who I am or what I’m capable of.

So that’s my opinion as a female speaker. But I’ve also been fortunate enough to be on the programme committee for a couple of conferences, and after three years or so of speaking at conferences I know a lot of conference organisers. Let’s assume you’re “merely” trying to build the best conference you can around your subject whilst not discriminating against anyone (i.e. let’s assume you’re not going out of your way to actively promote diversity). How can you do this when you only have abstracts and titles to go on?

I am aware of the studies around blind auditions for orchestras. And I understand how tempting it is to try to apply that to our world, since it has had an effect on the number of women in orchestras (but let’s not get too excited here, we’re talking about an increase from 5% to 25% over thirty years…). I think blind auditions would work really well for coding - we can look at just the code, without knowing anything about the physical body behind the code, and figure out if that person is good enough for us. We could even do blind pair programming, using screen sharing and chat (actually that’s a great idea, I think I’ll patent that!). Because the thing you’ve anonymised (the code) is the output you really care about in a programming job. If you communicate via chat you can even measure someone’s communication skills without judging them physically, another vital skill for being part of a team.

But a talk abstract is not the output we’re looking for. Sure, a good title and abstract will attract attendees to the conference and bums on seats in the actual talk. But the output you’re looking for is the presenter - their style, their approach to the topic, their ability to hold attention, their ability to impart information. We’re not always looking for the same things either, an interesting topic presented nervously but logically is fine, as is an entertaining presenter reminding us of fundamentals we already know (and any other combination of strengths and weaknesses). An abstract can’t tell you how good the presentation is going to be. Evaluating a presentation on a blind abstract would be like evaluating those musicians on a couple of paragraphs explaining what they’re going to play and how they’re going to try to make you feel when they play it - the words could sound great, but the musician might not even be able to play the instrument.

The best audition you can have as a presenter is to, well, present. Videos, audio clips, even screencasts. But the problem with presenting is that it’s so freaking obvious that you’re a woman (or other variation on non-white-straight-male). If you can’t objectively evaluate a presentation without taking away the presenter’s physical body (for colour or gender or whatever), then you’ve got real problems. Your audience is going to be faced with that physical body for an hour of their life, and you can bet they’ll be judging them too. You want to be damned sure that you’ve selected a competent presenter, and you’ll need to stand by that choice. Saying “oh, well, they didn’t seem boring in their abstract” is not going to make the audience feel like you did a good job of the selection.

There’s another point about non-blind selection processes, other than the process allowing you to select on presentation ability rather than abstract-writing ability: you can be more active in promoting diversity. I am against “affirmative action”, but if the proportion of women submitting presentations is lower than the proportion of women in the field, there’s something missing. Here are some of the things you can do if you identify a lack of a certain demographic - as usual, I’m going to use “women”, but you could equally argue this for any demographic, even not-enough-C#-developers or too-many-startups-not-enough-enterprise:

And there’s more - you don’t just have to drain the pool dry of known competent speakers-who-tick-some-diversity-box. With a non-blind process you can actively improve the submissions you do have, assuming you’re not one of the conferences suffering from a complete lack of submissions from those people. For example, if you’re looking to increase the number of women presenting at your conference, if you have women submitting but they don’t quite meet your criteria (maybe the abstract is weak, the title isn’t catchy, or maybe the presenter simply isn’t quite ready yet) you, as the conference organiser, are in the perfect position to mentor these people: you can help them re-write their abstracts; you can offer them mentoring and training for presenting. If there’s no record of them presenting but you’re interested in evaluating their ability, you can set them up with a user group to present at - as a conference organiser, you have the network contacts that new speakers might not. You can run sessions aimed at people who have never done public speaking (I’ve run a session like this four times now, at the LJC and at Ladies Who Code - I had over 70 RSVPs for the last London Ladies Who Code session, twice the number of the last LJC session, so there are plenty of women interested in breaking into this field, who are looking for training, who don’t feel ready to present yet).

So, what are my points?

  • A blind process of selection can be applied to something where the output you’re selecting for can be effectively anonymised: music auditions, code, technical writing, etc.

  • A blind process where you select based on criteria that are not the end result will only be effective if it’s the selection process is biased, or if submissions to the selection process are lower from discriminated-against-groups because they fear a biased selection process.

  • For those conferences that are getting very tiny numbers of submissions from women (I’m picking women as the example but you can pick any group you want), a blind process could lead to even fewer selected women speakers. Instead of switching to a blind process, you’re probably going to want to check:

    • the messaging around your conference (remember masculine words like rock star, ninja, competitive, hardcore, challenging etc put women off applying to jobs, the same probably applies to technical conferences)
    • subliminal messages on your website/info (one of the conferences I mentioned, for example, sent out a couple of emails containing photos of previous years’ conferences which happened to only show men - this was not even representative of the conference, but it can have an unexpectedly big effect on the subconscious)
    • have you showcased the diversity of the conference, or previous years’ conferences, with photos, interviews, testamonials?
  • A non-blind submission process allows you to be more active in promoting diversity - instead of hoping that the submissions are representative of the diversity in your community, and that selecting the most interesting talks will naturally lead to improved diversity, with a non-blind process you can track exactly how many women are submitting, address problems in this area early and offer mentoring to those who aren’t quite ready yet. Remember that women only apply for jobs they feel 100% qualified for and take fewer chances, they might need that extra push.

So, no. I don’t believe that implementing a blind CFP will address the lack of diversity in conference speakers. I know it helps in some circles, but I personally think that conference selection committees should a) be much better at identifying their own biases and actively attempting to overcome them b) be active in improving the diversity of their conference, and c) be offering feedback and mentoring to those who are not quite ready yet in order to improve the overall ecosystem.

Diversity isn’t going to accidentally happen when we stop looking at gender and race and other visible you-don’t-belong-here cues. Diversity is only going to happen if people fight for it, and if we actively train, mentor, and support those trying to break through the barriers.


I wrote a follow up based off responses to this post, covering additional questions raised.

Should you notice I’m a woman? Should I care?

So, following on from my observations of being an outsider at FOSDEM because I’m not an open source developer, I do have another story to tell where my female-ness is actually relevant.

I’m going to give specifics, but it’s not to name and shame or anything like that, it’s just that anonymising it will probably erase some of the subtleties.  But I’m not telling this to make anyone feel bad, because this is not an oh-poor-me story, this is just the way it goes sometimes and I want to share what it feels like.

At JFokus (a conference I really enjoyed, where I got a chance to spend time with some awesome people) I was on a panel (well, game-show really) about static vs dynamic languages.  Not unusually, I was the only woman on the panel.  Also not unusually, one of the reasons I agreed to take part is to do my bit in demonstrating that women have technical knowledge too (in my opinion, it’s important where possible to avoid a stage full of white men of a particular age, and I’m in a position to be able to do something about that).  And, as per usual, I was a bit nervous about this in case the only woman on the panel also turned out to look stupid, but hey, looking stupid is one of the risks of this job.

During the session, my gender was mentioned twice - once with “ladies first”, and once to specifically point out that our static-languages team was somehow superior because we had both genders represented (well of course we’re better, I’m on the team). Note that neither of these was derogatory at all - both were, in fact, positive towards me, and I wasn’t troubled or offended by them. I’m used to people noticing and commenting on my gender.  I got used to it in the same way you get used to your commute to work, or dealing with merge conflicts - it’s something you do, it’s not always comfortable, but it’s no one’s fault and they’re not out to get you.

I didn’t really process how the gender-mentions made me feel until after, at which point I was drained from giving yet another new talk that day, as well as the surprisingly physical panel discussion. But afterwards, when I was back in my hotel room packing for yet another plane journey, I was thinking “is it normal?".  Was it inevitable that someone was going to notice/point out that I’m female?

Was it down to my choice of clothing?  I debated long and hard with myself about wearing what was definitely a ridiculously short skirt for a session like that, but in the end I decided I didn’t want to wear jeans like everyone else, and wearing tiny skirts is something I find fun. But I did think I’d be behind a table and it wouldn’t be too obvious.  Should I worry that much about what I wear?  I used to plan what to wear for work, I used to love dressing up for going out with friends, so over-thinking my clothes for a conference is part of who I am.

And one of the reasons to wear the skirt is because I’ve found myself wearing jeans and t-shirts more than ever.  I think the combination of travelling a lot (I hate packing, so packing a couple of pairs of jeans and a bunch of t-shirts makes life easy) and being part of a tech company where that’s basically our uniform has lead to extreme laziness in my clothing choices, and I want to change that.  Who wants to look like everyone else?  Not me.

So back in that hotel room, at the end of a long day, knowing I have to get up at 5am the next morning to get on a plane to New York, I felt drained.  I felt… vulnerable? But if I dig down to find out what’s really making me feel not-cool, it’s not because a couple of people noticed I was a girl.  It’s because I was tired, because I was on display, because I had been worried about my choice of clothes, because drawing attention to yourself is not terribly British, because I didn’t know if my new talk was any good.

It’s easy to blame impostor syndrome, or something similar. And maybe this is what impostor syndrome feels like. But I’m pretty sure every conference speaker, whatever their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, has felt this way.  I don’t think it’s because I have two X chromosomes and I’m in a male-dominated environment.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from this experience.  I did want to share it so that other people know what it feels like.

Possible conclusions:

  • When you’re tired, it’s easy to blame the first thing that springs to mind for your lack of shiny-happy feelings
  • When you’ve got a lot on your plate, seemingly-innocuous (even those driven by positive intentions) comments or actions can increase your stress levels
  • Don’t think too much.  It can drive you mad.

JavaOne: The Problem With Women – A Technical Approach

Yesterday dawned, with a sense of foreboding (actually it dawned with me coughing my lungs out, but we’ve heard enough about the sub-optimal state of my respiratory system this week).   On this day, I was giving the talk I was dreading when I got asked to do it.  It’s the talk I actually put more work into than any of the other sessions I was presenting at this JavaOne.  It was the Women In IT talk.

It’s timely, given that conference season has one again led to cries of sexism and discrimination.  So although I really hate banging on about the subject (you’d never believe it from my blog) it’s still necessary to cover.

I feel, and have felt for a long time, that the way we’re approaching the “problem" of the lack of women techies is just wrong.  Obviously painting stuff pink is just not going to cut it (I hope that’s obvious).  I think the fundamental problem is that we keep thinking about women.  While that should be great for someone like me, it actually triggers a whole bunch of gender stereotyping in our poor human brains which prevents us seeing the big picture - the fact that we’re not attractive as an industry for women suggests we’re losing a whole heap of talent because of some sort of image problem.  We just don’t see the other missing minorities, or we’re not comfortable talking about them.  I mean, can you image running a session about attracting more black people into programming?  I suspect there would be uproar in singling out a minority based on something as arbitrary as skin colour.

To be fair, even before the session there was a tiny bit of controversy:

It is nice though to see guys (because indeed this was someone of the male persuasion) getting upset at the thought of someone taking a shot at the girls again.  I think it probably would have been a little more helpful to the session if they’d put my name on it…

Maybe the publicity helped, because there was a really decent turnout for the talk.  I’m terrible at estimating numbers, and of course I completely forgot to take a photo of my lovely audience.  But I’d say there were… 60? 80? people there?  Between 50 and 100 anyway, and seemed like a roughly even split of men and women, and there were people of different backgrounds.  Which is great, it’s more women than you normally see at a conference, and more men than you usually see at an event talking about “women’s issues”.  I really love running sessions about this subject with guys there, I’m of the opinion that talking about this with just women is almost completely useless, and isolates us from the rest of our community.

I took the novel approach of actually trying to treat the problem the same way coders treat any problem: break it down logically.  So I had the problem, the requirements, a retrospective, and the aim was to come up with a list of tasks going forward.

Georges Saab from Oracle was great as our “Business Analyst” - not only did he outline the business value in increasing diversity in the workplace:

  1. Greater pool of talent to hire from
  2. Happier and more productive employees
  3. Greater retention rates

He also gave examples of how this is a bigger problem than just “Women in IT” - he spoke about being the outsider as an American who had relocated to Sweden, and how he benefitted from being in a country that recognises a father’s rights when his daughter was born there.

At LMAX we’re super-Agile (something we’ll actually be talking about at Devoxx this year), so the logical thing to do is to have a retrospective.  The question was somewhat fluffy - tell me about working as a techie, specific points about being female not essential.  So as with all our retrospectives, we covered good points, bad points, questions and ideas.

<aside>Incidentally, loads of people there knew about Agile methods and many were using them at work. Does this mean that agile is now more-or-less the norm?  Does it mean that companies that encourage people to go to conferences are agile or agile-friendly companies?  Or does it mean that people who care about people (i.e. those that go to a session like this) are more drawn to Agile methods? </aside>

(Yes, I’m wearing trainers to present, for the very first time! Thanks to Cecilia Borg for taking the photo)

((Also, special super-thanks to Stephen Chin who saved my presentation by sneaking in with a flipchart, stand and pens literally seconds before I needed it))

Everyone in the audience came up with really great points about working as a techie.  The thing I found most interesting was that very little of it was gender-specific.


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  • "Pink it and Shrink it” marketing campaigns, allegedly for women.
  • How do you get into the job?  Entry and career paths unclear
  • Micromanagement
  • The hours
  • Lack of mentoring/role models
  • Booth Babes (they are bad for women, but they are bad for men too - very demeaning to assume that guys as bright and successful as techies are drawn only to boobs)
  • Salary discrepancies
  • Brogrammers stereotype
  • Education pipeline – women doing “computery” subjects decreasing from about 13 years old and onwards (UK numbers)
  • Pressure to be visible when you’re a woman/minority
  • You’re seen as a woman first and a techie second
  • Time drain to keep current, 90% of what you do is learning new stuff not using skills you already had


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