Chris Messina has a good post up about women and the Future of Web applications (the conference and the tools).
As far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest opportunities to seize the future of web apps is to cement the necessity of diversity in our processes and in our thinking, not for the sake of diversity alone (deserving though it is) but because the technology that we produce is better for it, being more robust, more versatile and flexible, and ultimately, more humane.
The future of web apps — and the conferences that tell their stories — should not be gender-neutral or gender-blind — but gender-balanced. Today, as it was two years ago, we suffer from a severe imbalance. It is my hope that, in raising the specter of consequences of the lack of women in technology, we begin to make as much progress in stitching diversity into the fabric of our society as we are making in producing source code.
I actually invited participants at Gnomedex 2006 when I was the “MVP” (that is – i didn’t have a schedulled speaking slot but the audience “voted” me on stage to fill a 15 min void for the MVP audience member) to think about these things.
I said that the app builders in the audience should get out of their boxes and start thinking about apps that socar mom’s, and churches and other realms of social civic engagement that could really use some good apps. Places that are not brimming with white guys under the age of 30 (in San Francisco). The audience wasn’t so sure about this idea.
I personally have been asked to speak at one conference this season – Community 2.0 in May. I am working with my speach coach on the talk and very much looking forward to redeeming myself. I worked with her on the last talk I gave at Net Squared in June that went ‘ok’ and I was thankful for that.
I think my story might be helpful in addressing this issue – which is why I am sharing it.
I was tapped by O’Reilly folks to speak at eTel and Web 2.0 in 2006. I didn’t do that great at eTel – I had never given a 10 min speech. I didn’t get any outside voice to help me and I should have but it didn’t even occur to me that one might hire someone to help one in such a situation. I thought I had to do it all on my own.
After the talk they suggested I talk to a speech coach for my upcoming talk at Web 2.0 Expo that they had tapped me to do (that is I didn’t go through the submission process they just asked me) that some of their own hosts of conferences had used – I figured this was a good recommendation. I listened to his advice but it actually failed me – he was not available to help (health issues) but was not clear about how limited his ability to help would be until to late. O’Reilly conferences were not clear with me what the composition of the audience would be (it was a CMP audience not an O’Reilly audience) so I gave the wrong kind of talk.
I was very nervous about the speech – didn’t prep well for (speech coach sort of 1/2 helping (when if I had just been on my own it would have been better) he also encouraged me to push beyond what I had originally said I would cover in the talk – I didn’t sleep that much the night before. I was visionary but that didn’t match what was in the program. 1/2 the audience walked out and I was shaken to the core – basically had stage fright for a year. (here is my blog post following it). There was no talk with O’Reilly folks about what had gone wrong, what could have been better – just silence and never an invite back.
I was “on my own” it was “my responsibility” but I was also in a vacuum. YES it is up to women to take responsibility but if the whole industry is serious about changing who is “always on stage” it also takes a village of – encouragement, good advice, and support.
Women don’t self-promote like the alpha dog’s in the industry do. Sorry it is just true. Ask women in leadership hiring in the software industry. Men over promote their skill set by double when seeking employment (generally) and Women under promote their skill set by 1/2.
I am am getting much better as a speaker. I certainly know what I am talking about in the realm of user-centric digital identity having facilitated over 15 events in the field in the past 3.5 years, doing technical and non-technical evangelism and working on the subject matter for 5 years now. I don’t run around telling conference organizers that I should be speaking at their conferences either. I did apply to RSA to be a Peer-to-peer discussion leader and was chosen to do so for the second year in a row. I also was tapped to facilitate a panel on OpenID, Oauth and the enterprise at SXSW. That is all the speaking I am doing so far this season.
I organized She’s Geeky as a way to address the challenges that we face – both being small minorities at conferences and not many of the faces on stage. She’s Geeky is the most diverse technology conference I have ever been to – it has the most non-white faces I have ever seen at a technology event. Please don’t get me wrong like the woman on stage at FOWA – I love dudes. I don’t think you last long in this industry if you don’t like men, enjoy working with them and can get along in their culture. I also wish there was more women and have decided once in a while to have a women’s only space to geek out in would be a fun thing to support.
I think it is also important to mention something else. As a woman putting yourself out there is risky. I watched what happened to Kathy Sierra – it was kinda freaky. I talked to a friend of mine – another prominent women in tech that week saying how deepy what happened to Kathy had shaken me. She said – well that is what happens if you become prominent enough – you get hate speech and death threats – basically this is what you signed up for if you chose this career path. It is another reason just go about doing my business – working on facilitating the identity community rather then “raising my profile” so conference organizers might tap me. I have had a mild case of a stalker around my work as identity woman a few years ago and I really don’t want another one. Not something guys think about really when they do their day jobs in technology. The latent misogyny is apparently REAL in some corners of this community. We need to know that we have the support of community behind us and won’t be attacked for speaking out against hate speech.
The issues are complex. I hope that as an industry we can continue to address them.
[Note: The sudden requirement for OpenID Website URI’s is way too alpha geeky for me and it leads to Blogger failing and my comment being discarded.]
Thank you for posting this. I only know you through group settings such as the Internet Identity Workshops and a Drupal event. I think of you as just being yourself and doing great. You remind me that what we see is no assurance of what you are experiencing.
I can understand your trepidation around presentations at conferences and other events. It has me wonder what a speech coach provides beyond presentation skills and practice expressing yourself. Thanks for pointing out how little support and constructive feedback there is. (You may be over-estimating how comfortable the majority of geeks are in similar situations, and it would be useful to check with the ones whose presentation skills you admire around what it is like for them.)
Thank you for reminding all of us of the degree to which institutionalized misogyny survives in technology fields, and how toxic it can be. Without the witness of yourself and others like Kathy Sierra, it is easy to be oblivious to what women have to endure. I am ashamed that this is still so deeply rooted in our society.