Over the last few days, there’s been a detailed exchange on the Progressive Exchange discussion list about the lack of gender balance in technology conference speakers – in particular, the O’Reilly Graphing Social Patterns East DC conference earlier this week. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought of late, and I’m really not comfortable with the implicit assumption that this issue comes down to the fact that there's a bunch of sexist jerks running conferences. This post comes from a post I made to the list, after a lot of consideration.
I think this is a complicated issue, and one that's not going to be resolved just by telling conference organizers they need more women. I can say from my own experience that it's actually darn difficult to find women with expertise in many different technology areas. I've been actively trying to increase the diversity of the Idealware contributor and facilitator pool, and it's not at all easy. In some areas - like online collaboration, or social networking - there are a lot of obvious female experts in the nonprofit sphere. In many others - like CRM, file sharing, accounting packages - I can come up with a dozen guys off the top of my head, but only a few women or none at all.
There's a bunch of reasons for this - many of them centered around the fact that women are less self-promotional, and thus harder to find. Women are less likely to hang out a shingle and be consultants (and there's a slew of reasons for that). Women with the same level of expertise are considerably less likely to consider themselves an expert and post to lists or write articles. They're less likely to be compelled to spend time on things like speaking or contributing to articles to enhance their own profile. If you're organizing a conference, you also have the issue that women are more likely to feel a responsibility to be home with their family rather than traveling. And let's face the facts: there in fact are a lot less women than men doing hardcore IT and technology work (I don't have any hard research, but I'd be really surprised if more than 25% of IT directors are female, even in the nonprofit space. I don't know the area, but I'd be shocked if the same weren't true of execs at Web 2.0 start-ups).
I'm not saying that we're doing all that we can, and the gender imbalance is the way of the world. I am saying that this isn't a simple problem, and it's not going to have a simple solution.
There’s a wiki of female speakers who are interested in conferences, which is a terrific start, and promoting it widely to conference organizers is very useful. Right now the wiki doesn't include many women who focus on nonprofits or work beyond the realm of social media, but if there were, Idealware would certainly use it to try to recruit contributors for our work and events - it would be a huge help to us. I'd also love to see more hard core tech women include themselves, so as to not send the message that women do social media work while men take on the IT and hard core stuff.
I think it's important for women who feel that they'd like to see a better gender balance to list themselves on the wiki - to overcome the feeling (that women are much more likely to have than men, according to research) that they're not qualified enough, and offer the experience that they have. It's on my own list to add myself to the wiki - it's not trivial to list yourself, but worth the effort! And women who want a better gender balance should grow their own experience and reputation by looking to speak more, publish more, etc. Everyone can encourage women technologies to promote themselves more, and mentor women around them to grow more women technologies.
If it's easy to find tons of great, qualified women technologists, then it's much easier to encourage change among conferences. Heck, it's *hard* to find good speakers - of any gender - for conferences, and if there was a ready pool of great women, most organizers would reach out to them just because it was easier.
But right now it's not easy, at all. In my mind, it's not right to put the sole burden on conference organizers to do a bunch of extra work, without those who'd like to see a better gender balance taking some of the burden on themselves to make women in technology easier to find.