Lack of women speakers at conferences

A couple of weeks ago I asked User Group Leaders why there are so few women speakers at conferences. I received some comments that I would like to share with you.

First I got the statements, reasons why women do not attend/speak at conferences

  • “I’m an ecology/evolution person so our conferences are more gender balanced than elsewhere. In fact we tend towards more female speakers than male speakers in general sessions because there are more female PhD students (60:40). However, there is a big issue with symposium speakers [, …] where speakers have to be selected and invited to speak.

I’ve been organising a symposium this year in the area of computational evolutionary biology and I also run our seminar series at Trinity. I have found it very hard to get female speakers compared to male speakers. Firstly it seems that some fields genuinely do have fewer women. Secondly[,] even in fields where there are lots of women, unconscious bias leads people to suggest male speakers first (I do this too but now force myself to think of equal numbers). All this is before even inviting people! When I do ask women I find that they are much more likely to say no due to a) being busy and not wanting to travel so much b) childcare issues and c) not really seeing the benefit to their career. I also think there is a bit of impostor syndrome going on here where women think they have nothing to say, or are being invited as the “token” woman.

I’ve also found a really weird thing that happens with PhD students of theoretical or computational professors – all the male students do method development, programming etc and all the female students do empirical studies. I myself am more of a “high end methods user” than a competent programmer though I’m trying to improve! …” – Natalie, Ireland

  • “I think the cause of there being so few women presenting at conferences is systematic bias– no single person is consciously discriminating, the system as a whole is. So, for example, if people are looking for “the best” JavaScript developer to present at a conference, the systemic bias makes that person much more likely to be a man.” – Jonathan, UK
  • “From my experience as a student and as a PhD candidate, whenever I was participating together with my colleagues at different conferences or competitions I was the one doing the presentations. […] [A]s you correctly noticed there are very few women in IT Conferences. Two weeks ago I attended a conference in Barcelona and there was only one woman speaker.”  – Andreea, Romania
  • “Unfortunately we do not have girls in our user group. It seems girls and women simply are not interested in listening to our topics. I think it may be counted on the fingers of one hand the number of female presence in our pluriennal activity. If you get an answer to this question I’m the first that would like to know.” – Andrea, Italy
  • “I would love to know that too. I’m not the leader of AIRO anymore (where we had 3 women as active members, but they were not speakers), but I’m the leader of Alagoas Linux DevGroup and there [are] no [women] in this group.” – Arthur, Brazil/Romania
  • Groups (from the inside): some of us who have tried to drive IT user groups have worked on this, trying to address it both in the group and its meetings. But, essentially, we have failed. Even Scandanavia seemed no different, at least at the turn of the millennium.  This often total lack of participation contrasted with many of my earlier (70s-90s) experiences in various other groups.

I see the only way to beat the blockage would be to have minimal representation — say, 30% — of either sex; all groups, programme committees, etc. should attend to that.  That may seem harsh but hardly more so than the other aspirations of any group or event.

Is there anything to learn from foreign-language schools where often over 75% are female?” – Charles, UK/Spain

  • “It’s a pity that so few women are speaking at conferences. More often than not they have more to add than they might think.” – Daniel, The Netherlands
  • “In the 3 years of London Web Performance we’ve never had a female speaker either (although we’ve had some fantastic contributions from female members at WebPerfDays!).” – Stephen, UK
  • “In my career as developer/devops I worked in many companies, but I have to say few women were/are “hands on”, they are normally in product and project management.

Thinking about the university – I studied Computer Science – women were probably around 1 in 10, and very few ended up programming. Most of them went to teaching or doing Project Management. … The fact they feel a minority probably makes them quiet I’d say, and possibly fearing the audience? – Mauro, UK

  • “Our female turnout for meetups would be 1 in 50 maybe? I wouldn’t say how many are female in the total Meetup group (1300 registered) as it’s not tracked.

I agree that the proportion of females in sysadmin is very low, although perhaps slightly higher % of females DBA’s (maybe).

Developers the % of women is increasing, and the % in QA is quite high.“ – Stephen , UK

  • “I would think that the lack of female speakers is due to the fact that there is a lack of females in IT as a general. We are still rare. […] There have been conferences where I was the only woman attendee. Another thing as well is blogs, I personally know only of about 10 IT blogs written by women as opposed to the hundreds out there written by men. Speaking at conferences and public places is not for everybody … and requires guts and a good topic. It definitely is not the lack of knowledge, but the lack of confidence that your topic will be interesting enough […] to listen to.

 [This] is [something]I think about quite often. You cannot be asking about the lack of females in IT[:] it is a much bigger problem – where are the women in science, [boardrooms] or higher positions in the work hierarchy? There are just the few and they even feel the need to write books about it!. [So] definitely the problem is much deeper, it comes from the fact that women still feel […]  [they’re] working in a [male]-dominated area is an act of defiance while that should the most natural thing in the world, but years of staying at home to look after the household made us […] unsuitable for the new age where women are equal with men in terms of what is expected of them if not more.” Kalina, UK

  • “I feel ladies are not speaking because they are not always asked to! Yes, there may be fewer women in the industry than men, but successful and phenomenal women DO exist and they are willing to make a valid contribution!

Conference organisers should make the decision to increase the percentage of women speakers (based on merit and not gender of course!)” – Chisenga, Zambia

  • “The funny thing is that our meetup has only 3 women out of 67 members! Amazing, isn’t it? I’ve attended also some conferences last year and I noticed the same [as] you. Very few women speak at conferences. My explanation about this is that in our world (computer science, software development, etc.), the majority of the professionals are indeed men – women don’t love this kind of professions but I don’t understand why – so it’s normal to see more men. However, I strongly believe that women are much better to speak at conferences[.]They have a different speaking style and I always prefer to attend a presentation by [a] woman rather than [a] man.” – Patroklos, Greece
  • “According to me, it’s [female] culture. [They] think that [they’re] not able to do all [the] things that a man can do, including in technology fields.” – Yvan, Cameroon

 

Then I got the blogs I should be reading, the groups I should be attending  – it might be a good idea for all of us to read these blogs or attend these meetings/groups.

  •  “In the geek feminism blog you can find some posts that talk about why there are less women giving talks at conferences.

The reason why the Code of Conduct [is] so popular now in conference[s] is thanks to the work of the Ada Initiative. See https://adainitiative.org/what-we-do/conference-policies/ And http://adainitiative.org/2014/02/howto-design-a-code-of-conduct-for-your-community/” – Ana, Spain

  • […] we have launched an initiative to highlight this very issue called ‘Women in IT’ which was born from sessions held at UKOUG Apps and Tech conferences last year.

Specifically we are looking for women who will speak at Special Interest Groups […], act as a mentor to other women in IT, link with BCS’s Computers in Schools initiative , and ask women in IT to write a short piece about their experience. The key objective for this initiative is to act as a positive catalyst for change, to support and encourage women in IT.” – UK Oracle User Group, UK

  • Have you seen this paper? It discusses the issues and data.” – Natalie, Ireland

 

And now my views

Reading through these comments it feels that men are baffled by the lack of women in their groups and women do not join because they are not asked to.

Who talks more?

Contrary to popular belief, we know that women do not talk as much as men in a mixed group (see Coates, Jennifer (1993) Women, Men and Languages, 2nd Edn, London: Longman). Women’s talks are often referred to as gossip, chatter, nag, rabbit, yak and natter. You must admit that this will not encourage women to talk at User Group Meetings or conferences. Not only do we believe that women talk too much when research shows that men on average talk more than women, [this] also indicates how women and women’s activities have tended to be undervalued.

Conclusion: Women do not feel comfortable speaking to a mixed audience as they feel pressured by men through centuries of being told that their conversation is rather shallow.

Interruption and dominance

It also appears that men will interrupt a woman far more that they will interrupt another man. These findings seem to show that men act as if they have more right than women to speak in mixed-sex conversations.

Conclusion: Women are used to be interrupted – so why bother?

Use of diluting phrases

According to Lakoff (Lakoff, Robin (1975) Language and Woman’s Place, New York: Harper & Row) women use linguistic forms that dilute assertion – sort of, like, I think, kind of showing that women are less confident than man and feel nervous about asserting anything too strongly. Other studies claim that women prefer to avoid conflict and so use forms which, by being less direct, allow disagreement to take place without confrontation.

Conclusion: Women are afraid to upset their audience by stating clearly their opinion.

I found some of the comments a little too patronising – I am a woman after all. I found other comments a little too close to the truth – women do not go to meetings because they do not have the time due to childcare, housework, family care. Should we then look at our upbringing and see where our society is going wrong?

  • baby boys in blue, baby girls in pink
  •  jewellery for baby girls
  • young girls being told off for being boisterous when little boys are praised for being competitive and pushy

Our society has role cast women – is that why they do not speak at conferences?

Game time

Thank you Stephen, London, for pointing this out.

Conference Speaker Bingo: a bingo card full of excuses for not having more female speakers at STEM conferences

—-

PS. Some of my research was taken from Thomas, Linda et al, (2004) Language, Society and Power, 2nd Edn, Abingdon: Routledge

PPS. Just learn that Debian are organizing MiniDebConf Barcelona 2014 –  where everybody is invited but talks will be by women only.

Other resources

  • Tech is too important to be left to men!’, Europa, 6 March 2014 – A European Commission campaign to celebrate women in ICT and inspire young women to get involved. Includes some interesting (if perhaps worrying) statistics
  •  ‘Tokenism’, Geek Feminism Wiki – Overview of ideas of tokenism at conferences
  •  Dudman, Jane, ‘Five myths about why there aren’t more women at the top’, The Guardian, 8 March 2014 – Points 2 and 3 are particularly worth reading: point 2 mentions unconscious bias and 3 dissects the argument that able, clever women are already visible, so the women who don’t make it just haven’t tried hard enough
  •  Gahran, Amy, ‘Women at Tech Conferences: Look Beyond Tokenism (comment to Scoble)’, Contentious.com, 2 August 2005 – Another blog discussing tokenism, and dissecting the argument that there is no bias involved in choosing speakers – they are purely chosen on ‘merit’
  •  Kantor, Jodi, ‘Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity’, The New York Times, 7 September 2013 [BEHIND A PAYWALL] – Like ICT, Business Studies is another field with few visible women. This article explains the changes Harvard Business School made to encourage a better learning environment for its female students – not only was there a gap in grade achievement, but female students weren’t speaking or being nominated for awards. This not only covers the method but also the result – it was extremely successful but some male students weren’t happy with the experience
  •  Urbina, Michael, ‘101 Everyday Ways for Men to Be Allies to Women’, Michael Urbina, 26 July 2013 – A lot of male commenters write about how they wish the situation was different. This is a list by a male feminist of the ways men can be more aware of the effects of patriarchy and how they can help
  •  Williams, Zoe, ‘Why female techies in the 21st century face a stone age work culture’, The Guardian, 7 March 2014 – Overview of the problem of the shortage of women in ICT, possible causes
  • Henson, Val, “HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux” – This article is 12 years old but unfortunately it could have been written yesterday