The gender of conference speakers

February 25, 2007

It must be conference season because Anil is stirring the pot on the old “why aren’t there more female speakers?” debate. I guess I have something to say about this, or at least some mixed feelings to put out there.

First off, I gotta call bullshit on some people — many of whom I respect and like. With one exception, technical (or tech-biz) conference organizers do NOTHING proactive to seek out or push for female speakers — and I wish they would just stop claiming that they do. I am a long-time LAMP dev and author, a founding member of Dojo, leader of a Comet project, a proven scaler of graph-based systems, CTO of a venture-backed Web 2.0 company, vocal proponent of women in tech, experienced speaker at technical conferences, and friends with many of the people who program talks, panels, and tracks. If I’m not being proactively sought out to speak, I can be confident few other women are either. The sole exception — the only conference organizers who make it clear that diversity is a priority by saying, “You need more women on your panel if you hope to get accepted” — is SXSW.

That said… whose responsibility is it to ensure there are plenty of female speakers? If I don’t submit a proposal by the deadline, is it the conference organizers’ job to send me email asking for one? That’s absurd and paternalistic. What I would love though is to see the raw data on how many conference proposals were submitted by women, and what the acceptance rates were, and ideally the comments pro and con. For all we know, it’s literally true that any woman who sends in a proposal will be accepted — and then we’d all have to accept that the problem is on the pipeline side, not the conference side. On the other hand, it’s possible that the data would show that female speakers get disproportionately rejected as speakers at tech conferences. Carson and O’Reilly, if you’re sick of being castigated — will you release the (anonymized) data so we can see for ourselves?

As a conference consumer, I can tell you that I’m only going to two this year: SXSW and OSCON. However, these two conferences illustrate the power or the limits of Anil’s argument. SXSW is the best party and the most possibility-expanding — and it’s totally due to diversity of the speakers and attendees! An idea-sparking conference really benefits from diversity — Etech and Web 2.0 in particular need some color, they seem like the same damn conference every year and not in a good way. But my favorite conference of all is OSCON, which is admittedly the least diverse conference evar. This is where I’d love to see whether Anil’s thoughts would work out in practice. Would a more diverse speaker lineup or track set lead to increased business? It’s hard to say in one year because these things are arranged in advance — if OSCON suddenly had 50% bigger demand due to diversity, they wouldn’t necessarily even be able to accomodate everyone — but it would be awesome to know.

2 Responses to “The gender of conference speakers”

  1. Laura Says:

    OSCON is trying…each track has one female and one male allocated to vote on talks at least. (I am one of said females.) Haven’t done a great job attracting female speakers though.

    I went to linux.conf.au last month and they had 10% female attendees – that’s 70, which is heaps – and a lot of female presenters. I do think we Aussies are pretty far ahead of the US on this. I’m always amazed how much more traditional gender roles are here than they are at home.

  2. Troutgirl Says:

    Oh hey Laura… yeah, I forgot to mention that I did put in for a session at OSCON this year. I was thinking more in terms of how to reach out to more female attendees. Like… my impression is that a lot of the women who DO attend OSCON are DBAs? Are there special sessions that could be provided to cater to them? Or here’s a thought: how about giving a special discount to anyone who brings a female friend or colleague?


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