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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.