Women at Tech Conferences: Mythbusting

So, uh… for the past few years, we haven’t announced any Gnomedex speakers before opening conference registration to the world – largely because we’ve always taken special care to craft our content around the registered audience. Some might argue that we’re putting the cart before the horse with this approach.

With our limited amount of resources, we have to spend our time crafting content that our registrants hope to see – not what our POTENTIAL audience might want to see. I never really saw speaker selection as male vs. female, but I have been giving special consideration to females who I believe have been making a difference in this digital world of ours (directly in the tech industry or otherwise).

I’m not sure whether this was an oversight or a blatant omission, but Gnomedex didn’t make Kottke’s list of Gender diversity at web conferences. Maybe we’re not considered a “web” conference? Granted, our numbers wouldn’t have likely fared any better than the others, although I can tell you a few things about last year’s construct:

  • Susan Mernit’s discussion was something I don’t think our audience was expecting – but (I thought) turned out to be a welcomed change of pace. Even my mom was compelled to comment (and yes, my mom and dad are Gnomedex staples).
  • Halley Suitt’s discussion was compelling, insightful, focused, and extremely interactive.
  • Tara Hunt’s discussion with Chris Messina helped bring a different energy to the room (not just because of their “couple” dynamic). If I had my way, more couples would be up on stage.
  • Identity Woman’s discussion was completely impromptu – as she was informally voted on stage by the Gnomedex audience!!! Jeez, doesn’t that say enough about the open nature of our conference?
  • Beth Goza was pumped and prepared to proselytize the world with her mad Second Life skillz. She’s been a Gnomedex fan since Gnomedex II – and one of my favorite geeks, period.
  • Our conference leadership team is 50% male and 50% female: Ponzi and myself.

What’s more, I had invited at least *FOUR* other notable women to participate (last year) who either declined, never responded, or couldn’t do it because of scheduling conflicts. It’s not like I didn’t try, people – really. And before everybody starts crying foul, let me give you a couple more statistics:

  • Gnomedex 7.0 is already 1/3 sold out.
  • 95% of Gnomedex 7.0 registrants are male.

And considering we have yet to announce a single speaker for this event, you tell *US* how we’re supposed to move forward. Even if I had 50/50 gender representation, the audience is already skewed heavily male – despite the fact that everybody has an equal opportunity to attend. Even with 25/25/25/25 (male, female, white, non-white) on stage, there’s no guarantee of having equal percentages in the audience.

AGAIN, the opinions of registered Gnomedex attendees hold infinitely more weight with us than those who have (a) not signed up for Gnomedex, or (b) won’t sign up for Gnomedex, no matter what.

Oh, hell… I almost forgot:

  • The only person to register and attend all seven Gnomedex conferences is female (Christine Juhnke). She’s not a blogger, she’s not a developer, she doesn’t live in Silicon Valley, she’s not a technophile, she’s not a VC, and she doesn’t live her life on “Web 2.0” anything.

Gnomedex, by the way, continues to attract influencers before they become influencers – male and female.

22 thoughts on “Women at Tech Conferences: Mythbusting”

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  6. I don’t ever think of it as male/female either, but I saw McClure’s post about it (for Web 2.0 Expo) and assume that it’s hit a chord somewhere. Nevertheless, it’s never a bad topic. Maybe allow gnomedexers to provide a Top 10.0 list of babes we’d like to pony up a preso? :-)
    Two reco’s for speakers, who I’m sure you’ve already considered:

    1) Kathy Sierra… talking about that which she talks about

    2) Betsy Weber… quick intro to the power and ease of use of Camtasia Studio, Screencast and SnagIt… reminding folks that they have all the tools they need to more quickly introduce their customers to the evolving features of their products

  7. Chris, I’m not really sure I understand what you are trying to say here. In one way, I could read your post as “we don’t need to sell any more tickets, we are doing fine, and our audience likes it so why change?” I don’t believe that is your message, but I could interpret it that way. Knowing Ponzi is your partner in this endeavor, I can’t imagine she would send that message. But I don’t want to act on assumption. It is not hard to think that maybe the familiarity of a known group is the draw? Do the guys like it that it is 95% guys in the audience? That is a legitimate thing if it is the intent. Do they notice that there are only 5% women? Do they care? Do you want to attract more women as participants? We are involved in technology and, from a talent recruitment perspective; more of us should be in technology. We have a lot to add. The lack of participation has many roots.

    Maybe it might be helpful to switch the question around a bit.

    How will diverse participants and speakers add to Gnomedex’s already strong value? How will it keep you always attracting the leading edges (yes, plural), and not just the same-old same-olds?

    What if more diversity in your offering started attracting more diversity to your audience? Would that add value and how? By diversity I mean of any type – thought, gender, role, color – I think it is a fallacy to think of this as fulfilling quotas. It is more about crossing network boundaries to expand our learning/thinking. It is about what diversity itself brings: new ideas, innovation, different perspectives that make us think, etc. Have you played out a scenario in your head where there was perhaps a more diverse audience? Something that moves you away from the self-perpetuation of the current make up? Or is that abandoning your core base? Maybe it would be fun to do a little brainstorming and imagine the possibilities? Maybe do it WITH your audience!

    More importantly, how can you, as a known, trusted conference organizer, use that trust to expand the edges of what you are doing? I think listening to your audience is absolutely essential. But you can bring a particular added value. Find out WHAT they want to know/hear about, and then reach beyond the known circles for people who can speak to that. People trust you, so you don’t have to have just the big and familiar names. You are in a unique position to take risks and go beyond.

    How do you/we spot the leading edge folks who are outside of our normal networks and orbits, particularly those outside of your current participant base? In your case, if 95% of participants are men, and *if* the assumption that “like tend to suggest like” is true, then your requests might miss a whole bunch of good things. Sort of using our own blinders and missing the full view.

    I know that is more work. You have to vet out people you don’t personally know. Find out if they are both smart in the domain area AND good at communicating and interacting. It is harder than going with a known quantity. But damn, because you have such audience loyalty, you really have their trust. You can do things other conference organizers can’t do.

    What if you had a number of “mystery” people – known perhaps in an adjacent field to technology who have a vision. The work that Bre and Brady have done at Ignite-Seattle and the 5 minute presentations offer a format that gives you a low risk way to inoculate the group with new ideas and take risks on lesser known thinkers and doers. Just think of the possible delight and surprise!

    Some of the people you might want to corral in this year are the people doing amazing work with new technologies in education, particularly some of the far out librarians. The folks bringing tech and art together – man, I can see how businesses can extract some ideas here that they can use in their contexts. There is a very edgy and smart people talking about digital ethnorati. What about people working on tools that transcend language barriers – our biggest customers aren’t going to be speaking English. Are we paying attention? What about technology in different areas like health. What would a health widget look like. What about technology for us rapidly aging baby boomers – money to be made there. Who is paying attention? Talk to some of the very cool people using technology in international development. The intelligence about mobile phone applications outside of the US make us look like wimps (me in particular – I’m a mobile phone idiot).

    Would more diverse people choose to attend if they thought that there were some strong new voices? Knowing that a conference attracts a 95% male audience would attract some women and disincline others. But knowing it was a more diverse audience would for sure make me more inclined to sign up. And for once, I think I’ll be in town during Gnomedex.

  8. Jeez Chris, not you too. It makes NO difference if they are black-white-male-female-young-old or pink with puce polka-dots. As long as they have contributed SOMETHING to enhance what is already out there now. THAT my friend should be your only concern, if the others want to be wishy washy PC and ignore the improvements of people just because of that word “diversity”, then they deserve to fail or not sell enough in tickets.

    Teachers and Nurses for example are two female majority positions. Do you see anyone demanding that these awards given for good nursing be “diversified” and some given to the small amount of males in the fields JUST BECAUSE they are males? And thereby passing over someone that may be a whole lot better then the male, just because she is female and they have their “quota”?

    The same thing here Chris..if a female makes a fantastic improvement or discovery and she is willing to come, try and get her for a speaker. If not, then move on and get someone else. And if then you happen to have a majority of the speakers male, so freaking what!

    In picking speakers just because of their sex, and not because of their accomplishments, you are doing a MAJOR disservice to your readers as well as the people who attend Gnomedex. And if this is how it is seen, then I can bet that attendence will start to drop until you wont even have enough to fill a hall, let alone pay for the costs.

    I know I will stop coming.

  9. Like Nancy I wasn’t sure what you were saying, and what myth you thought you were busting. As i’ve told you before, I think your conference and its success is partly an indicator of your and Ponzi’s personal network and reach. For example: even though I know you guys I wasn’t aware you’d even opened registration. Why? Probably because I’m not keeping up with my feeds these days…point being it’s hard for people who don’t already know about your event (or any event, let’s be clear) to learn about it and become motivated to attend. Word of mouth is a big driver, and that means you’re getting to two degrees of separation usually.

    Further: I’m not sure why the gender ratio of your attendees seems to be leading you to a conclusion about who should be your speakers. Women are constantly told that we shouldn’t mind or complain about going to conferences with mostly-male speaking rosters because all we should care about it whether they’re competent.

    On the flip side, then, why should a mostly male audience *dictate* or *justify* a mostly male speaking roster? Are you saying men only want to hear male speakers? I don’t think so, but again, I’m with Nancy, and I’m not sure I get what your message is…except that your success must mean you’re doing everything the best way there is to do it.

    Now maybe all of these conferences being criticized have a goal like the flip side of one of BlogHer’s goals: to promote and give exposure opportunities to male speakers. If so, all i ask is that such events are as open about it as we are ;)

  10. Hey, Chris. I have been waiting for many years for Gnomedex to come to Washington, DC or, at least, somewhere within 300 miles. I’ll add one more female to the brew when that happens! Brie in DC

  11. It seems that whenever someone mentions women at tech conferences, some guy has to use the word “babes.”

    If “babeness” is what tech guys really want in the women at their conferences, perhaps they should contemplate the reverse of the coin: eye candy for the women as well.

    A recent barCamp in Rome was an excellent example of what you should be doing to get more women to sign up for your conferences. See http://www.beginningwithi.com/tech/barcamproma.html

    (NB: Tongue in cheek… mostly…)

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