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February 23, 2007

Women speakers at conferences redux

A few months back, Chris Messina started something of a storm about the representation of women at web conferences.
Many bits were expended on the issue, including by me. I won't reprise all that here, however Jason Kottke has just posted an analysis of the % representation of women at a number of tech conferences, including Web Directions North. We came in just behind SxSW, with 25% of our speakers women.
I'd also point out that two of the four keynote speakers were women, that 1/3 of our workshops were run by women (1 in 3), and that women were represented across a broad range of disciplines (front end development, back end development, user experience, and more).

Kottke writes in summary

From this list, it seems to me that either the above concerns are not getting through to conference organizers or that gender diversity doesn't matter as much to conference organizers as they publicly say it does

Some of the conferences come in with very low percentages for women, it is true. And in fact other groups, like ethnic minorities (which Kottke doesn't mention) are even less well represented.

But, I wonder what numbers Kottke thinks is acceptable? 24%, 33%? 50%? I'd suggest that given SxSW comes in around 30%, and we came in at around 25%, and I know SxSW works very hard on ensuring a diversity of voices, as do we, that 25% to 30% is probably the kind of number right now you might aim for.
Without wishing to sound whiney, but we have worked very hard for the last three years (after an admitted screw up with our first conference) to make sure that women are well represented - not just numerically, but in terms of expertise.

But, Kottke is right to point this out. In my opinion, as a conference organizer, you are, whether you like it or not, putting your hand up as a leader in our industry. You are helping to shape opinions as to what techniques and issues are important, and you send out all kinds messages, that you need to be responsible for. We all draw the line in different places, we all have thoughts as to what is or isn't an important message to present, but we can't shy away from the consequences.

Just on a side note, The Turing Award, is the Association for Computer Machinery's most prestigious technical award. "It is given to an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community. The contributions should be of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field". This year's recipient is Frances Allen. She is the first ever recipient in the 41 year history of the award. That's 0% until this year, and 2.5% overall.

February 23, 2007 | Permalink

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Comments

hey John,

Great post. I think getting a 25% female voice is very well done, especially considering it's a male dominated industry. I know you guys work really hard at ensuring that you get female speakers as well as seeking out new talent and giving them a voice. I am guessing here but I think women are maybe about 30% of our industry so I think WD is very representative of the industry. You also attract a lot of women as attendees, which is great to see.

Posted by: Cheryl | Feb 23, 2007 11:25:45 AM

The problem echoes one of the issues of equity everywhere... what's a fair number for representation? If your industry is vastly dominated by one gender/group etc then is it reasonable to expect 50/50 representation? Probably not! If there are less females in the industry there will be fewer who are willing, able and available to speak at conferences. It's pure numbers. Doesn't mean we should be happy about it or that conference organisers shouldn't strive for equal representation, but 25-30% isn't bad *given the industry context*.

I think all IT/tech industries need more females, but it's a huge issue which starts with culture, media, education and career counselling. IT is still seen as an industry for "geek boys". Talk to any university's IT faculty recruitment officer and they'll tell you it's incredibly hard to get high school girls interested in IT as a career. It's just not cool!

So, from your position as a conference organiser I think you're doing about as much as you can.

Posted by: Ben Buchanan | Feb 23, 2007 2:15:41 PM

I know there are a lot of talented women in the web industry. I know they don't generally attend any events, unless they can be show there is going to be a lot of supporting women there too. I know they generally don't think the conferences are for them and would never dream of speaking at one. They stay off the radar. Which it is very easy to do in the web industry.

Someone, maybe you quoted that the true industry ratio maybe close to 40/60 (female/male). Frankly I think it's a lot higher, we are just not seeing the confirming numbers. Maybe more gender directive marketing is required. I don't know.. don't have the answer, not for this one.

The IT industry period needs more people in general, more women would be great. Like Ben said the IT industry is a geek boy profession. Lets forget about IT. Huh IT just doesn't get the web anyway. All they get is networks, desktops, IT management and IT policies (yes I'm sweeping away the IT industry as a dinosaur).

But the marketing/design aspect of the web can be seen as a very female focused profession. Maybe this is the solution. Defocus on the geek IT boys a little.

If they made the web courses marketing and design (with some tech, hey they all have some tech these days). Then maybe this would be a side door into the web industry. Lets stop thinking old school IT. lets change the paper and the approach.

Posted by: Gary Barber | Feb 24, 2007 11:37:16 PM

Good point Gary - I definitely think that I work in Online as opposed to IT. IT to me means support desk, or big servers and guys that don't wear deodorant and tip their head back to get the last drop of coke from the can. Definitely not a female-friendly environment.

Whereas I think there is much more of a mix in online, especially when you factor in usability, IA, design, etc - I think the 60/40 ratio sounds about right.

Posted by: Cheryl | Feb 24, 2007 11:48:37 PM

Good point Gary - I definitely think that I work in Online as opposed to IT. IT to me means support desk, or big servers and guys that don't wear deodorant and tip their head back to get the last drop of coke from the can. Definitely not a female-friendly environment.

Whereas I think there is much more of a mix in online, especially when you factor in usability, IA, design, etc - I think the 60/40 ratio sounds about right.

Posted by: Cheryl | Feb 24, 2007 11:50:20 PM

I think the fact that you get 40% female attendance is testimony to the wonderful work you're already doing with WDN and WDS particularly in the diversity arena.

It's also great that it pisses all over the claim that "women aren't interested" and that there's no point trying to be representative in the speaker list as there are only men in the audience ;-)

Posted by: Meri | Feb 26, 2007 11:11:15 AM

Meri,

that's 100% right - and it makes me leery of all the "there just aint that many women interested" stuff that has been emerging in this discussion without substantiation.

I'll try to grab exact % of women at WDS and WDN shortly - and hopefully other organizers wil follow suit and publish theirs.

john

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