Would You Take A Pledge to Not Speak at All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences?

I saw this post yesterday, A Simple Suggestion to Help Phase Out All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences. And, I wondered what I would do, if I was male.

Let me provide a little more context. I had a conference call with some of the Prag editors just a couple of weeks ago. The Prags publish three of my books. They are looking for women authors, and the reason behind the conference call? A tech conference was cancelled because someone realized zero women were speaking. As in zero, nada, null. My reaction was, “Why the heck didn’t they call me?”

I’ve been the only woman on otherwise all-male panels at tech conferences. I speak the way I write: with authority. You’re not surprised, are you? I don’t have trouble getting a word in edgewise. The only problem with panels is that sometimes there are too many people on a panel, and then it’s difficult for anyone to get their thoughts in. I almost always get mine in.

I speak at technical conferences. For example, I’m a repeat speaker at SQE conferences and on the No Fluff Just Stuff/UberConf conference tour. In fact, I only speak so far, at technical conferences.

But, taking a pledge doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, since that’s only one solution, it’s a trap. It exacerbates the problem. I would hope, that if I was a man, I would still have the same problem-solving skills I have now.

Any pledge you would take, depends on where you are in your career. If I was starting out, and no one knew me, who cares what pledge I took? A panel moderator would say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and ask the next person on the list. My self-sacrifice would be meaningless. Yes, that a cynical answer, and all too true.

If you were recognized in your career, maybe you have more pull. But I know something about conferences. The speakers and their topics are what is key. So it’s not so much that it’s women. It’s the topic and the recognition of the speaker that pulls people into the conference.

Even if five people gave the same answer, “Is there a woman on the panel?” the moderator might not realize the subtext. But, if you then said, “Gee, did you ask any of these people” and rattled off a list of names, you might have more influence with the panel organizer.

If you really want to change the world, you would go to the conference organizer with a panel proposal, before the conference program is set, and say, “Here’s a list of people for a panel. There are 2 men and 2 women aside from me. Waddaya think?” Now, you’ve got conference organizer’s ear, and the speakers have a shot of sending in talks.

Instead of the what I wouldn’t do, let’s think of things we can do. In the spirit of the Rule of Three, here is what you might do:

  • Take this pledge to not speak at all-male panels at tech conferences
  • Offer the names of women you would like to see as panelists
  • Keep a list of names of technical woman speakers so you can offer them at any time, off the cuff
  • Propose panels of women technical speakers to conferences when you have a chance
  • Go to other conferences, where they have more women speakers (boycott those conferences with all-male panels)

There, that ought to get your creative juices flowing. I bet you have many more ideas. Maybe you’ll post them in the comments.

Here’s another proposal. Ladies, would you like a “speaker’s bureau” for women tech speakers? It’s in quotes because I don’t know what it looks like. I’m thinking initially of a web page, where we post our information, and people can see us. If you are interested in this, email me. The more low-tech this is, the cheaper. The more high-tech, the more expensive. Clearly, these people need a way to discover “binders” full of women. Let’s give it to them.

14 Replies to “Would You Take A Pledge to Not Speak at All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences?”

  1. It seems like there is so much being done for “awareness” about this problem, but not many people are actually doing meaningful things to fix the problem. Kudos, to you for pointing out the seemingly idiocy of “boycotting” and moving towards more productive means of giving women a voice. However, I think the bigger question is what is happening in schools/society that is making women not choose technical careers? When the industry started it seemed to have nearly as many women as men..

    1. Derek, when I speak at international conferences, there appear to be just as many women as men in the field. At least, there are at conferences.

      In Hiring Geeks That Fit, I have a reference to the issue of hiring women. In a nutshell, we hire people just like us. See Simard, Caroline and Denise L. Gammal. _Solutions to Recruit Technical Women_. Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

      And, we have a problem of people not selecting technical careers, not just women. However, there is a problem that happens in middle school with girls. They start to lose interest in math (just when it gets interesting!). There are an insufficient number of female teachers who understand it. It’s also the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset, as Linda Rising discusses. If you’ve been praised for being smart, not for taking a chance, and now, you have to take a chance and possible “fail”, why would you?

      Our western culture starts to sort girls early into “safe” careers. Although, I think going into a STEM career is much safer than any nurturing career could ever be. Much better financially too.

      I wrote about this long ago, here:

  2. At work, I’m the only woman in a group of 20 developers. At Finnish testing and agile conferences, I tend to be a regular presenter. It never occurred to me that I could be there because of my gender, I’ve been confident enough to think I actually would have something to say.

    Some weeks back, I did this little exercise of thinking through who I would want to hear if I could organize a conference – and tried to make sure to recognize also women as I realized I tend to have more exposure to listen to men. I realized it takes a little bit more effort to make a long list of women. I can immediately name you and quite a few others, but like myself locally, I feel I’d like to find new people worth listening to.

    When I go to a larger international conference, I notice my pattern is either to hang in the hallways or go listen to the “guru”. I feel it’s not gender diversity we need, but diversity of seasoned and less-seasoned speakers. And that might help with the gender diversity as well, to get more people to take the places where you learn by trying. More people is more women as well.

    1. Maaret, yes, we need more, period. Well said! I am sure you are not speaking because of your gender. I am sure you speak because you have something interesting to say and because you say it well. (Nice to meet you.)

  3. Thank you Johanna – I have alwasy enjoyed your presentations for your expertise in presenting and on the topics. But as a woman, I do think there are things we should actively do to make a change – and your list is a great approach. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I have the same problem with this approach as I do with any other form of positive discrimination. I want the best person for the job regardless of gender. In the same vein, when I attend all female technical meetings (which I now sometimes do) should I be refusing to attend unless a man is invited?

  5. There has always been more men than women at tech conferences. And yes, the number of woman is growing. I love speaking at conferences and have a tech background. I really dont see how signing a petition is the right way forward. I know there are good intentions behind it – but it seems a bit backwards. Its easy to find awesome female tech speakers – if you’re struggling I would guess you are not that connected to the tech community…. and that is a whole different problem.

  6. Attending an event, or speaking at an event, or choosing not to do so – because of irrelevant personal attributes like sex, race, religion, ethnicity, etc. is frankly assinine (this is assuming that people are not being deliberately excluded which I can’t imagine is the case today outside of places like Saudi Arabia). If I attend a panel in which Johanna participates, it’s not because Johanna enables me to check the “female” box, it’s because I can depend on Johanna to say something worth hearing.

    1. Kenneth, thank you. Even when you and I disagree, which sometimes occurs, it’s not because of gender issues. Often, it’s because our project context is different.

      And, if conference organizers are not going to find people worth hearing on panels, that’s a different problem, isn’t it?

  7. What an interesting post! I have to say my opinion is the same as Sharon Potts – I want to listen to a well-qualified speaker regardless of gender. Working in IT for 13 years, I have grown accustomed to the imbalance. Even though there are some aspects that cause me to hope there will eventually be a gender balance, I don’t think I’d necessarily boycott a meeting just because a woman isn’t speaking. Drawing attention to the imbalance does give me a little bit of courage to start sharing my point of view, though.

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