February 12, 2007

RE: Women and Conferences

This again is one of those CC the world posts. Earlier today, a list I'm on for women in tech had this subject line: re: women and conferences.

Someone asked:

I wonder why is this is the issue on which the most energy is expended on this list? Is the future of women in technology truly tied to the numbers of us speaking at conferences?

I replied (and a bunch of folks asked me to blog this reply):

I think it's an important part of what goes on, speaking. There is a feedback loop:

Speak -> be seen as a leader in the topic area and eventually be considered in leadership positions
Be in leadership position - > be asked to speak because of that leadership position in area

If you aren't in the loop you aren't as important as others with similar skills sets and expertise in the eyes of those who fund, engage for consulting, hire for leadership positions, take in PhD candidates or whatever it is that requires discernment between people.

It's not that anyyone has to speak, but it would be great if more women were speaking, because it brings an additional layer of diversity that right now is lacking in many labs, financial firms, development perspectives (the focus of software and websites, etc) and in their leadership circles.

Girls also need strong confirmation through repeated messaging from parents (mothers and fathers) as well as others who can relate to kids but are in leadership positions. Most people are very bad at visualizing. Example: when you go to Ikea they set up a room, so you can see it in person, instead of being asked to visualize something based on items inside a cardboard box and line drawing with measurements. Good contractors even mock up a kitchen in cardboard and shims so the owners can "live" in it to see the traffic and usage patters.

Girls need that same help with leadership. Boys get that help much more often, which is why they can visualize it better.

My dad, when I was little, took me to work all the time. He was a CEO in a company with several hundred people onsite and 45 offices around the world that he established. He used to let me help him write his speeches. I grew up believing I could do that, because he showed me how. And on the weekends, he actually enjoyed spending his time doing things like digging up the sewage system in our backyard and replacing the pipes, or rewiring our bathroom, both of which I did with him, as his assistant, and after a while he let me do the stuff with him as my assistant. I know I'm lucky and unusual to have had those experiences, as well as a mom who was managing partner in her lawfirm as an example, and not everyone gets that.. but I think the "speaker" issue is a huge code word for "...My God, we need to get this together for girls whether they want to be engineers, CEOs, Scientists, Exec Dir.s of Non profits, VCs or whatever." In other words, if girls want it, let's make it possible for them.

Last night I went to a tempura party, and there was a Phd in neuroscience from UCB there, and I asked what she was doing when she's done at the end of the semester. She replied that she would teach because having a lab is out of the question. She didn't want to play the games the boys play to raise all the money and compete in those ways to lead her own lab. %$#@^$%&

This is what I hear from women who would like to start a software company, about VCs. It's too much to play those kinds of games without some mentorship and help, and we need to make it easier. I don't think it's that women don't want to compete, they just want the competition to be about something, not just an arbitrary game to weed out the people with no patience for that game.

I know there are many issues, but speaking is one piece of this puzzle.

We have discussed it so much here (on this email list) and elsewhere that it's loaded with subtext and frustration and expectation and desire and to some degree, the wish to just force the issue through exposure, shame (on conference givers) as well as educating them, and brute force. It may not be the best way, but I think this is some measure of what is happening on our list, where people spend a lot of time talking about the number of women speakers.

My two cents.

Posted by Mary Hodder at February 12, 2007 11:24 AM | TrackBack


I started writing my feedback a comment here, but after it scrolled well off the screen I decided instead to post it on my blog at http://shannonclark.wordpress.com.

In short - your points are very important, I think that a key part is not just how others perceive speakers - but how being asked to speak, being given a voice changes how speakers think of themselves and their role (and potential role) in the industry.


Posted by: Shannon Clark at February 12, 2007 08:34 PM