Sarah Taraporewalla's Technical Ramblings

JAOO and Women: Attendance at Conferences

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I was going to start this series off talking about filters and the way that connections are made in your brain, but after hearing about the lap dances at the Taiwan Yahoo! Hack Day, I thought I might begin with addressing the issue of low attendance at conferences.

I think one of the biggest concerns that conference organisizers should be worrying about (and luckily JAOO did) is that the ratio of women at the conferences does not reflect the industry - I have heard that between 5-10% is considered good, where as I believe the industry is at about 20% (unconfirmed sources). I don’t want to start of speculating at why the numbers are so low, but what I can share is why I don’t attend conferences.

Conferences are quite expensive for your employer - not only do they need to purchase entry, but accommodation, meals and transfer to and from the conference, not to mention loss of “billable” work. So, usually they can only afford to send one or two people there. I have seen two ways that these tickets are distributed. The first is that the same people always seem to go to the conference. It is noticeably remarkable how many people you see at conferences that seem to be on the “conference circuit” - they have seen each other every month, following the conferences around the world. So, unless you already are in the conference circuit, it is really hard to enter it - as there are currently 5-10% women normally at conferences, and the same people keep attending, then this number won’t change. The other way that I have seen tickets distributed is by everyone-gets-a-turn selection. Lets say the industry average is 20% - then its only fair that for every five conferences that are attended (given one ticket per conference), a company would send a female to only one of them. From that point of view, it does not seem that unbelievable to me that the number of women is low in comparison.

So, I think it is up to conference organisers to think outside the box for different ways to attract females to conferences. For this, I would like to commend the people at Trifork who organised JAOO Aarhus 2009 as they did something a little different. For every full-paying ticket that you bought for JAOO, you were entitled to a free day pass for a person of the opposite sex. This wonderful scheme saw registrations jump from a lowly 3.7% to about 14%. I think that this shows that the arguments around women not able to travel to be not necessarily the driving factor behind the low attendance, and perhaps the key lies in being selected in your company to attend. For me it is certainly true that the main reason I don’t attend conferences is that I believe that the bought tickets should be distributed fairly.

I think, however, speaking at a conference is slightly a different manner. I read today (I tried to find the source, but I can’t seem to find it again) that the difference between a would-be male speaker and a would-be female speaker is that the female thinks “I don’t know everything about [topic], I don’t think I can speak” whereas a male thinks “I know a bit about [topic], I think I will speak”. I obviously don’t know if that is true for all men/some men/no men in as much as I can’t say that it speaks for all women/majority of women. What I can say is that it certainly rings true for me.

As anyone who has known me since I was three can testify, I like public speaking. I am comfortable on a stage, talking about what I feel passionate about. As a female software dev who loves public speaking, I feel that I should be one of those who help increase the numbers - but here’s the catch. I don’t want to get up and talk just because I am a woman. If I ever present at a conference, I want it to be primarily because I have something important to say about technology and -oh yeah- I happen to be a women. But I also don’t feel that I have anything that interesting worth presenting - I don’t know as much as those guys already presenting, so what would I have to give. I don’t know if this is a female trait - I would be interested to find out if others feel like this.

If this assertion is correct (that women don’t feel that they have anything to say), perhaps the conference old-timers could help these would-be presenters in recognising material that could be presented. Another way to know if you have something valuable to say is to go and attend a few conferences yourself - see what other newbies are presenting, and see if you can do as good a job (lets face it - there is no sense in comparing yourself to a Martin Fowler or a Neal Ford - compare yourself to someone who is in the same position as you are).

So, there are the reasons why I don’t attend or present at conferences. How do we adjust this? Well, JAOO certainly has set the standard - I hope other conferences follow suit and find new and innovative ways to get women to their conferences.

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