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Friday, April 10, 2015

Women and Conference Keynotes


How do we get more women to speak at conferences? Or, a more basic question, how do we get more women to make satisfying careers in tech that they want to stay in and grow with? 

I think the two questions are linked. I don’t have simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers, but I do believe there are positive steps we can take. Anne-Marie Charrett and I have embarked on one with Speak Easy. Another important one is to highlight role models for tech-minded girls and women who are actually in tech. One place to do this is at conferences with keynotes by successful women with interesting ideas.

We don’t see enough women giving keynotes at software testing conferences. What’s “enough”?  Well, one would be good for a start! At least one at each conference, in fact.

I hear a couple of contra-arguments here.

One is that most conferences are businesses. Organizers want keynote speakers they believe will be a “draw”, speakers who’ll bring in the punters. And that’s fair enough.

But I look at it this way. Maybe you’re missing out on female punters who’d like to see more people like them. From what I hear and see, there’s a market of women testers out there that you’re not really tapping into. And you’re not attracting nearly enough women to submit track session proposals. Far more men than women are submitting conference proposals, more than seems warranted by the numbers of men and women in testing. 

Are you scaring the women off? Or could it be simply that they don’t see enough other women speaking? They don’t see a culture where women are regularly on the keynote podium. Could it be that in a very important way, they don’t really feel part of the culture?

I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this lack of visible role models were at least part of the answer.

Another argument I hear, primarily from younger women, is, “I don’t want to be chosen because I’m a woman. I want to be chosen for my experience and my ideas.”

You bet your booties, honey. So do I! So do we all. But (at the risk of sounding patronizing) I find young women’s post-feminist optimism shockingly naïve. Because before you can be chosen for your ideas, you have to have been considered. And men – and not only men, sometimes it’s women too – forget to consider women and their ideas more often than you’d think. Scouting for keynote speakers, they may forget you even exist. Still. In 2015.

I don't believe there's a vast male conspiracy in testing or test conferences, all joining together to keep good women down! In many ways, that would be easier to fight. I do think there's a general tendency to be oblivious: not to notice that there aren't (m)any women in the room or on the list, when actually, there should be. Because there are women of significant merit that they forgot to think about.

If it takes a quota to remind conference committees to expand their field of vision, then so be it. We all need reminders. We all have unconscious biases.

I think we are at a stage in human evolution where thoughtful people have to make conscious choices in order to overcome unconscious biases. It's natural for people to gravitate to the other people they feel most comfortable with, which very often means the people who are most like them.

A quota – say one woman keynote per conference – isn’t necessarily tokenism.

Let's say a bunch of people got together to do a job and suddenly realized that there weren't any men in the group. "Oh no", they said. "This looks terrible! People will accuse us of sexism if we don't have a man. Let's ask Paul. He won't make any waves (and we can get him to make the tea)."

But say the same group of people said instead, "Oh dear, this is starting to feel as if we've only looked at women candidates for our group. There's a whole pool of people we forgot to consider, and we know we would do a better job if we were more diverse. Paul would do a great job. He does excellent work, and is well respected in the community.  We know we will all work well together."

The first scenario is clearly tokenism, but is the second? Or is it simply a refocusing on the wider talent pool made possible by a conscious (however belated) attempt to overcome an unconscious bias?

I said on twitter that it’s shameful having no women keynotes at EuroSTAR 2015. I stand by that. The program committee chose excellent speakers. But given the talent pool of excellent women speakers, it's disgraceful that the committee didn’t expand its field of vision and choose at least one.

And it’s not just EuroSTAR, by the way. Take a look at StarCanada, only one other example. There are plenty of others.






5 comments:

damian synadinos said...

"There's a whole pool of people we forgot to consider, and we know we would do a better job if we were more diverse."
Indeed. Unfortunately, your view of diversity seems to end with gender.
Diversity means variety. It represents a range of different things. And there are countless ways that people are diverse.

Consider diversity of race, religion, age, experience, sexual preference, industry, height (Wait, what? You mean that conference only selected short presenters?! How dare they!)

And on and on and on... Balanced diversity isn’t possible. You can never please everyone.

And so, when selecting presenters, rather than considering the myriad ways that people are diverse, perhaps consider only 1 factor: merit.

It shouldn't matter if the presenter is male or female or old or young or gay or straight or in banking or retail or tall or short. The only thing that should matter is their message. If their message has merit (is worthy, deserving), then they should be chosen to present.

If the pool of candidates to choose from stinks, then address that problem (you touched a bit on that in your post). If the selection process is broken (biased), then address that problem.

But, suggesting that a presenter should or shouldn't be chosen because of their color (whoops, I mean gender), is silly.

Fiona Charles said...

Thanks for your comment, Damian.

You wrote "your view of diversity seems to end with gender". Well, no -- it doesn't, and I'm fully aware of the rich variety of humans encompassed by the term "diversity". Certainly I believe that all qualified humans should be considered on equal terms, whatever the position or speaking slot.

But that's not what this post is about. As the title says, it's about Women and Keynotes.

damian synadinos said...

Thanks for the prompt reply, and sorry for the personal tone. I intended to make it less so, but accidently posted an unedited version. Sorry for that.
“But that's not what this post is about. As the title says, it's about Women and Keynotes.”
That is one of my primary concerns. I think that “too few women speakers/keynotes at conferences” is, indeed, a problem. But, I also think it is just one symptom of a much larger problem. I’m not sure exactly what that larger problem is (or, obviously, what a solution might be), but some root cause analysis might help identify it. And if the underlying problem can be identified, addressed, and solved, it might also help solve the problem of “too few women speakers/keynotes at conferences”, as well as many others.
So, focusing on the symptom seems like too narrow a focus, to me.
I truly want to see more women speaking/keynoting at conferences. Or, to rephrase, “I truly want to see more people of diverse gender speaking/keynoting at conferences”. Equally as much as I’d like to see more people of diverse races, ages, industries, and many, many other attributes speaking/keynoting at conferences, as well.
But, solving the problem for “women” alone might not help all the others.

damian synadinos said...

(Unsure if my last comment was submitted successfully. In case, here it is again)

Thanks for the prompt reply, and sorry for the personal tone. I intended to make it less so, but accidently posted an unedited version. Sorry for that.

“But that's not what this post is about. As the title says, it's about Women and Keynotes.”

That is one of my primary concerns. I think that “too few women speakers/keynotes at conferences” is, indeed, a problem. But, I also think it is just one symptom of a much larger problem. I’m not sure exactly what that larger problem is (or, obviously, what a solution might be), but some root cause analysis might help identify it. And if the underlying problem can be identified, addressed, and solved, it might also help solve the problem of “too few women speakers/keynotes at conferences”, as well as many others.

So, focusing on the symptom seems like too narrow a focus, to me.

I truly want to see more women speaking/keynoting at conferences. Or, to rephrase, “I truly want to see more people of diverse gender speaking/keynoting at conferences”. Equally as much as I’d like to see more people of diverse races, ages, industries, and many, many other attributes speaking/keynoting at conferences, as well.

But, solving the problem for “women” alone might not help all the others.

Fiona Charles said...

Ooops - now I've published both your duplicate comments.

Damian, I think we're in agreement about this topic conceptually, but disagreeing on the means to address it.

But -- how shall I put this without sounding angry? -- I'm a woman. I believe utterly in universal human rights but I'm tired of women's rights always coming second to some greater good.

Oh, the Bolsheviks said, women's rights. Yes, but just let us fix society first. And on and on it goes, in many different places.

Someday, I hope we’ll reach a point where the issue of diversity of any kind on keynote platforms (or anywhere else in the world) is completely irrelevant. We’ll see conferences where the keynotes are given by any combination of qualified women or men of any colour, ethnicity or religion; or disabled people; or gay people, or…

But we aren’t there yet. Meanwhile, I think conferences like EuroSTAR need to try harder. At the moment, I think the available talent pool in 50% (or is it 51%) of the population is a good place to start.

You fight the battles you want to fight. I wish you all the best with that.

I'm first going to carry on fighting this particular fight for the half of the population that has been put down for centuries.