An open Letter to Women in Tech (Updated)

[This post caused a ton of drama in the internets. If you want to read it, please do, but at the end, please read my follow-up. ]

If you’re waiting for an invitation, I hope you’re not holding your breath.

We’ve just finished going thru the submissions for my iOS Developer conference, 360|iDev. While we had some great submissions from women in the field, the showing wasn’t large. somewhere around 4%. Of the total line up for the conference, those women make up barely 10%

We even went against our long standing policy and invited a few people to speak. We rarely invite anyone to speak. We sometimes have to remind people to submit, but we almost never solicit someone to submit whom we’ve never had speak before. We won’t be doing it again, for the record. Matt Gemmell has an awesome list of women in tech, and Mike Lee has been very vocal in advocating more women be involved in Tech Conferences. We’re glad both are so engaged, now if more women were too. The one thing we disagree with both of them on is this. It’s not our job to pull anyone, male or female onto the stage. We want people who want to be there. Women fought for rights to vote, work, etc, but somehow as event organizers it’s our job to gift-wrap speaking spots for them, and when there aren’t women at our events, it’s our fault. Bullshit.

We pinged two people off Matt’s list. We didn’t pick randomly we asked around for recommendations. We got no reply from one, and the other said “I’m not a very good speaker”. We only did two because frankly we think it’s a waste of my time going through lists of women in tech to solicit submissions from them, especially if they then demure or don’t reply (please see #2a). We don’t want people at our conferences, that don’t want to be there. That’s why we can’t pay airfare, speaker fees, etc (please see #3).

Back to the point, ladies…. you can’t write blog posts about sausage-fests, and too many dicks on the dance floor at tech conferences, and then never show up. You can’t wait for people to include you. That never works. It doesn’t work for men, and it doesn’t work for you. The only way the programming world will get to a better gender mix is for women to stop hiding, waiting for us to stop what we’re doing and invite them in.

If you don’t attend conferences “because there’s not enough women” you’re part of the problem.

You know who’s part of the solution?

They didn’t wait for an invite to speak. The submitted awesome topics, that would be accepted no matter who submitted them (please see #2b). We’re pleased to have each of them presenting at my conference.

The door is open. we’re holding it open, but I’ll be damned if we’re gonna grab you and pull you through the door or try to coax you through it. WALK THROUGH THE DOOR.

(UPATE)

I wanted to add a few things. I’m super glad so many great discussions sprung up, even the ones that attacked my credibility and motivations. If this post had no reaction, I’d be worried about us all :)

1. I shouldn’t have made it about me. I used “I” a lot and really it was about the conferences and the company, which is 50% run by my wife. I think that helped me look even more douchy and ass-hole-ish. I think it made my point harder to see and talk about, which bums me out. I’ve edited the post to be more “we” so if you didn’t see the original, sorry, just assume this one makes me look less like a bad guy… I hope.

2. I got a lot of complaints of being sexist. I’ll be honest I don’t know how that could be inferred from my post, but if expecting women to submit talks is sexist, i’m ok with that. We encourage women to be as active as possible at 360|iDev and 360|Stack. Along with Mollie Rusher host a women’s breakfast to 1. offer women attendees a break from us men, but 2. and most importantly to get feedback on the conference, how to involve more women, etc.

2a. Our sample wasn’t 2. This post has been 5 years coming. Those two were just the latest. I’m sorry I made it seem like an attack on them.

2b. To be clear on our process for speaker selection. The first pass is done without looking at the name on the submission. We do that to help from doing two things. Picking people we know without regard to what they proposed, and taking gender and race ( as much as that can be assumed from a name) into account.

3. Despite Aral’s claims to the contrary we do cover 3 nights hotel for our speakers and this year are trying to an honorarium. From the beginning our aim has been to do as much as we can to ease the burden of speaking. We don’t charge a lot, and we have a lot of sessions, that’s a lot of speakers. That means it’s a lot of money that we often don’t have. We’re hoping the honorarium becomes a standard part of being a speaker at 360 conferences.

3a. If anyone is curious how the money works, since it was claimed I was getting rich at the expense of pro speakers. We do a session on the state of the conference including a full breakdown of income and expenses. You can buy the video here. Email me if $5 is too much to sate any curiosity on my intentions, regarding money. This year was the first time it’s been made publicly available, but we thought sharing it was valuable.

;

That stuff aside, I got some great and bluntly honest feedback. One of which I’ll implement this weekend. We’re going to post a anti harassment policy for all the events. Some will say that’s kind of obvious but it was pointed out that if things happen at our events, we might not hear about it. This is a sad sad list, and I’m ashamed of most of it from the perspective of a guy and a conference organizer. Frankly that kind of crap is whack. If a speaker did that at our events they wouldn’t be welcomed back, end of story. But it was also pointed out that we should be explicit in that stance and encourage anyone who feels harassed to let us know. I will say, I’m happy our events weren’t on that list that I could see.

I’ll post the policy on the company site and link to it from the conferences. So look for that, and let me know what you think of it, what I can fix or be more clear about.

24 thoughts on “An open Letter to Women in Tech (Updated)

  1. Nadyne Richmond

    So let me get this straight: based on a sample size of two, you decided that it isn’t worth your time to issue invitations in the future. And instead of thinking through people who you know or who have met in some fashion and chatting with them about your event and why they might like to take part, you went to someone else’s list, picked a couple, cold-called them, and somehow thought that this would pass as doing your due diligence.

    So let me ask you this: you did say that you “reminded” some speakers who you wanted to submit. How many of those reminders, which are somehow not invitations, did you send out? What was your response rate there? Did you only issue reminders to previous male speakers, or did you include previous female speakers?

    1. John Wilker Post author

      The downside of posting when irritated :) No the immediate sample was two. The overall issue is something I’ve experienced at every event we do, and every time we solicit topics.

      I apologize for my poor word choice there.

  2. Tim

    That makes total sense, because a sample size of two is a perfectly reasonable base upon which to judge what is and is not a waste of your time.

    1. John Wilker Post author

      The downside of posting when irritated :) No the immediate sample was two. The overall issue is something I’ve experienced at every event we do, and every time we solicit topics.

      I apologize for my poor word choice there.

      Those two were the straws to my camel’s back.

  3. William Pietri

    You might be in the right, but if so, I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons.

    First, you seem to suggest that the problem of gender bias in our field is a problem for women. I strongly disagree: it’s a problem for people. Rather than looking at it as Team Boy vs Team Girl, try looking it as Team Antisexist vs The Unfortunate Situation We Find Ourselves In.

    Second, if you are running a conference, I think it is your job to make sure you get the best speakers, which can involve some recruiting. Your assumption seems to be that “most likely to apply” is strongly correlated with “most likely to be good”, which is unfathomable to me; I know a lot of brash idiots and a lot of brilliant shy people. If you don’t like inviting people, fine, don’t do it. But own that as a personal preference without blaming the invitees and without pretending that won’t have an impact on session quality.

    Third, and relating to both of the previous points: did it ever occur to you that the reason not many women apply may have something to do with the sexism in our industry? Why would they apply to speak at a conference if, due to the historical lack of women speaking, they think they won’t ever get accepted? In a “girls suck at math” world is it possible they would need more encouragement?

    You can of course stay on Team Boy / Team Inertia; that’s certainly the easy and convenient choice. It’s your conference, after all, and nobody’s obligated to make the world better. But don’t expect any prizes from those of us who are working to end sexism for sending two whole emails, getting all tuckered out, and then directing a little tantrum at all the women in tech.

  4. Máirín Duffy

    “It’s not our job to pull anyone, male or female onto the stage. We want people who want to be there. Women fought for rights to vote, work, etc, but somehow as event organizers it’s our job to gift-wrap speaking spots for them, and when there aren’t women at our events, it’s our fault. Bullshit.”

    Wow! With an attitude like that, what do you expect? Now they will feel less welcome than ever.

    Please take a look at:
    http://projects.gnome.org/outreach/women/

    You have to reach out to women. If you are running a tech conference and you want a nice, diverse crew of awesome speakers, THIS IS YOUR JOB. The women won’t all drop to the ground and worship you for deigning to spend 30 seconds on an email to them asking them to participate. Remember, you’re *asking* them, not commanding them! Why is this? There’s various theories; what we came up with during the LISA ’12 Women in Tech panel is that if you don’t have a ‘critical mass’ (4% is certainly not it), you’re going to have a chicken and egg problem until you ask enough women to gain that critical mass (probably 12-15%). It’s a vicious cycle where there aren’t enough women to start with, and no one wants to be the rare unicorn in the room who automatically gets treated differently, so no more show up, on and on and on.

    I’m one of those women that does accept pretty much every invitation to attend tech conferences and be a member of a women in tech panel. I’ve been on at least three over the past year. Certainly, *I’d* much rather be known for how awesome I am at my tech speciality and not because I have two boobs and a heartbeat, and the time I take to travel to these conferences to be seen and be female takes out of the time and travel weary I can expend towards speaking on the tech I’m involved with.

    There’s more interesting stuff that came out of that panel if you’re interested in being part of the solution (there’s suggestions for men AND women in there, I think you’ll appreciate that):
    http://blog.linuxgrrl.com/2011/12/08/lisa-11-boston-women-in-tech-panel/

    If that’s too much reading, this one is shorter. I think you’ll appreciate it: I understand you’re irritated because you somehow think it’s unfair that you have to make extra effort to reach to women… please consider the extra effort women in tech have to make every day just to simply get their job done:

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

    I mean, if you were trying to get some super famous rockstar-type guy to your conference you wouldn’t sweat a little extra effort would you? You won’t do that to get more women? Seriously?

    1. John Wilker Post author

      Thanks for the links the worst part of this post was all the people who took just enough time to call names and throw stones, but not try to offer constructive feedback. I’ve added them to this weekends reading list.

      Thanks!

      1. Máirín Duffy

        Well, if you toned down the incendiary nature of this post (as I’ve noticed multiple people asking that you do), I am betting you wouldn’t get names and stones thrown at you. The thing is, you may have a point buried in all that sludge, but most people aren’t going to take the time to wade through the sludge because it’s pretty nasty. I’ll join the crowd asking you to please tone down the post, retract it, or post some kind of follow-up. In its current state (even with the updates on the bottom) you’re going to continue to get flak, sorry. :( Glad to see someone pointed to at Geek Feminism; it’s probably the single best source for reading up on this stuff.

        There is going to be a Women in Tech Summit in Boston next month (June 12th) run by the Usenix group btw; I am guessing you are West Coast but hey just in case:
        https://www.usenix.org/conference/fcw12/

        Your blog post may become a topic of discussion there.

        1. John Wilker Post author

          I’ve written an update/mea culpa. some friends are making sure I don’t ass it up any more than I have, but I hope to post it tomorrow.

          You’re 100% right, that what was good in the post largely (thankfully not 100%) was overshadowed by the bad. Such is life, lesson learned.

          I ‘m in Denver, so not west coast but still not close for the conference. That is awesome though and if the post is talked about i hope some of the good parts are included too.

          The Geek Feminism wiki is a great (and from a male perspective) sad read. In reading the list of incidents, some truly made me shudder and wonder what was wrong with people.

          Oh and the update post mentioned it but the code of conduct is live. Would love feedback.
          http://www.360conferences.com/code-of-conduct

  5. Joel Norvell

    You’re attacking women because they’re not coming to your conference? Now there’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    1. John Wilker Post author

      Actually my goal was to attack just those women who publicly bemoan a lack of women in tech but aren’t showing up to be counted. If nothing else though this post showed me that those who know me, got it spot on, with my tone. Those who don’t took it WAY differently than I intended.

      1. George Buckenham

        I bemoan the lack of women in tech. But I’m a dude, so standing up to be counted doesn’t really help the situation.

  6. Yatima

    I’m glad you’re implementing an anti-harassment policy. I am deluged with invitations to speak. I have keynoted two conferences for Fortune 100 software vendors so far this year. I don’t submit proposals, partly because I’m already in demand, and partly because there have been two occasions on which other conference attendees – adult men who should have known better – have made sexual comments to me right before I walked on stage.

    I didn’t report it either time because it wasn’t physical or violent, just gross and inappropriate. But it was unwelcome. Speaking publicly is a challenge. Doing it after someone has just failed to meet standards of professional conduct, whether out of malice or innocent misunderstanding, is a bigger challenge, and it’s a challenge I doubt male speakers routinely face. Those weren’t the only incidents, by the way. They were just the worst.

    Upshot is: I’ll do a talk if there’s commercial upside for my company, or as a favor to a friend in the industry. But if you’re waiting for me to submit a proposal? Demonstrate a consistent record over several years of zero tolerance for harassment, and then I’ll think about it.

    tl,dr: we are coming to this problem from very different premises, but I think we agree on what needs to change.

  7. Pingback: Intentional action needed: How to get more women to speak at conferences

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  9. Wil Moore III

    Dude…you were so close, but then you blew it. I have the feeling that you are trying to do the right thing; however, two suggestions if I may:

    1 – No article posting while upset/frustrated.
    2 – No blaming all women because two didn’t do what you expected.
    3 – No more thinking that it is as easy as “walking through the door”. You’ve got to try to see it from their perspective. It will never get better for them if we take that attitude.

    1. John Wilker Post author

      LOL. yeah i chalk a lot of it up to best intentions, but lots of road to hell :\

      I will say and argue, it also isn’t going to get better if we insist on making special exceptions and allowances. We’re somewhere in the middle right now, I think… i hope.

  10. Chiu-Ki Chan

    You are big assumption here: people magically know about your conference. No one can apply to speak, male or female, if they don’t know about it! Since the existing network of speakers are male, you cannot depend on word of mouth to reach the women.

    Let me give you a concrete example: me. This year I made a resolution to speak at tech conference, precisely in response to people claiming that women are simply not walking through the door. The hardest part is knowing where the doors are! By the time I hear about a conference they are looking for attendees, not speakers. You need to be 3 months ahead of the game to get a chance to submit a proposal.

    I am working very hard to find out about the call for speakers. Every week I scour lanyrd.com, click around on twitter, conduct web searches, just to make sure I don’t miss out. That takes dedication, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect everyone to do that.

    As a conference organizer there are a few things you can do:
    * Broadcast your call for papers as widely as possible. Reach out to tech women groups.
    * Extend the speaker network to women by asking all your speakers to recommend female speakers.
    * Don’t give up :-)

    1. John Wilker Post author

      No argument there, and that’s a separate issue event organizers deal with daily.

      Yeah getting a neon sign over the door is a struggle, and you’re right, the boys know where the doors are. I know I personally struggle with that aspect. i reach out via sites like Facebook and Linkedin and even meetup.com but i miss a lot of groups.

      Thanks for the bullets at the bottom. All criticism and feedback is welcome, but I really really really love those who can throw out ideas to help. I really like the asking the male speakers for recommendations. I actually did a similar one with the women in my network asking them, but never asked the men. Next year that’s gonna be a big part of the plan

  11. Laura Higgins

    John, I stumbled across your site totally at random in the long list on the Colorado By Nature/Join the Movement page. I know this thread’s a few weeks out of date, but I’m still prompted to respond.

    First — YOU ARE RIGHT. And — THANK YOU for punching out some direct and honest words. I’m laughing at synchronicity: this afternoon, I’m attending a tech Meetup on “Google Apps” — and I am the ONLY female on the attendee list! I attended a local “Big Tech Association” meeting last month, and was just revolted when the (female) emcee touted an upcoming Women in Tech conference by saying “Adam’s apples are not welcome”. Yikes. Talk about sexist language? What if it’d been a guy saying “cleavage not welcome” or some such BS? One of my team signed us up to attend — and then I read the day’s agenda and cancelled our reservations. It was embarrassing and repellant — a Women in Tech conference that had… NOTHING to do with tech. It was all about “finding your power” and “your inner brand” and “competing with the boys”. It was dated, barefoot-n- pregnant condescending nonsense. (Oh, and they had skincare sales and a boutique, too!).

    I was the Chair of Microsoft’s Women in Tech group, Hoppers (named after Admiral Grace Hopper) in the late 90′s — and I helped found one of the first big women in Internet tech national orgs, so I do have some credibility here. Nowadays, living in Denver — I just don’t participate in the pink ghetto stuff, because I’ve found it’s gotten more and more condescending — BY the very women who’re hoping to “reach out” to women!

    One of your responders in this thread cautioned you that it’s your job to reach out to women. Baloney. Tech is tech; you don’t have to have particular genitalia to participate and thrive. One other responder said something about the challenge of finding out about conference speaking opportunities — THAT I completely agree with. I’ve had about an 80% acceptance rate when I pitch a topic to present at a conference; because I take the time and effort to customize my pitch to fit the audience. That’s not a gender issue, it’s a do smart work issue. Women who are passive shoot themselves in the foot.

    Anyway, I’m GLAD you shared your true feelings — I appreciate it, and I agree with it. Thank God, so do my two daughters in their early 20′s — they both get that it’s all about your capabilities, not your X or Y chromosomes. That gives them an edge, and I’m glad for it.

    Now I’ll need to learn a little more about what you do, because obviously I like how you think. Bravo!

    1. John Wilker Post author

      Hey Laura,

      Thanks! It was a polarizing post to say the least (Posted an update here) :)

      It’s definitely funny that while we (the global we) fight and argue about issues like this, both sides then pull that kind of stunt like the Women’s event. It makes no sense to me. Equality shouldn’t have qualifiers in my mind.

      Happy to tell you anything about what I do. But the short is. Run conferences and a coworking space in Denver, and organize some events around town like Ignite Denver.

      Thanks!

  12. Spokker

    There’s a program to get more women into networking. It’s called the Cisco Networking Academy and it’s offered at many California schools. My girlfriend attended such a program and was specifically approached by an administrator to do so because she was a top student. She never did go into the tech field and became an attorney instead. So that’s how I know about it. Here’s some info on the program.

    http://www.cisco.com/web/learning/netacad/career_connection/promoteIT/resourcecenter/docs/P51-FY09-California.pdf

    Even after over a decade, per 2008 statistics, female participation in this program is only 15%.

    If efforts to get more women into male-dominated industries and activities fails or only marginally increases female participation, will the outreach stop? What I am asking for are performance metrics for both outreach and female participation. At maximum outreach, what level of participation is acceptable?

    Or are there no metrics by which to measure success, leading to perpetual employment for peddlers of nonexistent gender issues?

    It doesn’t help when a guy like John Wilker, who nails it so perfectly the first time, walks back on his comments and bows to the political correctness Gods.

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