Developing inclusion at tech events
After more than a decade in tech, and dealing with my fair share of of being on the wrong side of a male-dominated industry, I find it hard to ‘let things go’ when people do or say things that are non-inclusive for me and those who identify with my gender. These behavious occur subtly day-to-day, though they seems to be exacerbated at technical conferences where there is even less personal connection to those around you. The standard response to me calling things out is generally accepting, though along the lines of “sorry if I caused offense, but here is the context which makes my actions OK, and shows you how wrong your perceptions are…..”
And it is about perception. Other people’s perceptions are their reality. I realise that seemingly-innocent comments were not intended to cause offence, but that is missing the point. As inauspicious as these comments and actions may seem they perpetuate and reinforce the message that women don’t belong, or are not valued for their technical contribution.
I have had many chats with my male colleagues, who are aware of their unconscious bias, see the value in a diverse and inclusive work environment, and are looking for tips on how to send the right message and constructively support the women in their industry. This is for them.
Tips for Delegates
Be open to meeting new people
if you see someone off on their own, consider asking them to join your conversation. When congregating in small groups, leave a gap in the circle to allow others to approach and participate.
I recently read this statement on AlterConf’s website’s Code of Conduct page and was so utterly impressed. My internal-voice screamed, “YES!”. There are a number of times I have actually been edged out of circles as the men in them are just not sure how to speak to me. This makes me feel like I shouldn’t be there and don’t belong, which I am sure is not the group’s belief or intention.
After standing alone for nearly the entirety of a dev conference, out of sheer boredom, I worked up the courage to approach and introduce myself to a guy who was also by himself. In less than a minute the conversation had somehow worked its way around to him delivering the ‘lowering the bar’ opinion. In case you haven’t heard it, it goes something like this: “I get we need more women in development, but we can’t lower the bar”. This sentiment is a whole other blog post, but suffice to say he had just told me he did not respect me or my ability as a developer. After less than a minute. Thank you very much.
Assume women are technical
How would you feel if you started talking to someone at a technical conference, and they automatically assumed you were non-technical? Isn’t it more likely I am a developer at a developers conference, than a business analyst? I know that non-technical people go to these conferences, but they are the minority. People don’t assume the men they meet are business analysts — why would you assume the women are? It just reinforces to me, unconsciously as it may be, you don’t think I am suited to engineering software.
“So what do you do?” is not great, but much better than “are you a tester/analyst/(other-non-engineering role)?” which I receive without fail at every conference. At least it is a step-up from being mistaken for one of the catering staff — which only happened one and a long time ago. I’ve noticed my male colleagues don’t get asked if they are testers or what they do. Usually, it’s assumed they are developers and the ice breaking question is who they work for or the type of products they build.
Let her answer her question
I was recently in a presentation given by an amazing woman who was asked a curve-ball at question time. She answered with succinct insight, and the questioner was satisfied. And yet, then came a male voice from the audience, assuring her “I can take this one…” and then proceeded to try to establish how he had more knowledge than the presenter. By the way, his answer missed the point. Please don’t mansplain. We’ve got this.
Tips for MC’s
Introduce female speakers with reference to her technical cred, rather than her looks
In our society we continually reinforce the idea that girls and women are valued for their looks and how they present themselves, rather than their contributions to their field. From infancy, we complement our young girls saying how pretty they are and our boys for how well they perform.
While you may feel your banter or comments about a woman’s clothing, lipstick choice or nail polish is a way to identify with them and show comradery, it sends the message to the women in the audience that no matter how hard they try they will always be valued first for the way they appear. Again, your good intentions aside, it’s about perception.
Tips for Presenters
Make your content more inclusive
If you are presenting at a conference this is the perfect opportunity to let all the women in the audience know that you value them in the industry. Avoid using the collective pronoun “guys” when referring to your peers or development teams. I understand this is just the way your refer to a group of people, but once again it is about perception. By the same token, “girls” is about as offensive to some.
If you are telling anecdotal stories about teams of people you have worked with, try to find an example that includes women. Normalise female pronouns being discussed as part of dev teams.
“Workplace flexibility is great because my guys can just play World of Warcraft for four days straight and I know they will smash out their code to meet the deadline”. When I hear things like this, it feels like I don’t belong. I am not alone in failing to identify with the 90’s stereotypical avid-gamer with a big beard who’s been coding since they were nine. Its an opportunity to talk about how much you could value the contribution, for example, of a mum or dad who takes a day off to spend with their kids. It also shows men that if they want to break away from the stereotype of what makes an engineer, they will be accepted. We create a more accepted and diverse workforce all round.
Our industry wont change without you, the leaders and spokes-people, actively demonstrating and supporting inclusion to your captive audience.
Be inclusive at question time
For a long time I felt a lot of social anxiety at tech events (little wonder, really). Raising my hand to ask a question at the end of a talk was an avalanche of importer syndrome, social pariah-ism, all crashing down on me at once.… And yet, whenever I had a question that burned so hard I dared to raised my hand, I have never been called on to ask it — if the presenter was a man. It’s not like I am shrinking violet in the back either. I am a front-and-center kind of audience member.
I have even waited around at the end with the congregation of question-askers only to have the speaker walk off when I was the only one left to ask a question. I know I am short, but really?
Having had such experiences, I always seek out the women raising their hands when I am presenting. But they don’t. They will come and ask questions later, but I get the feeling they struggle just like I did. Let’s change that. Let’s answer their questions. Pause for a moment after each answer and wait for the less confident people to raise their hands, instead of picking the first guy who shoots his in the air.
Tips for organisers
Swag for everyone
Many women can pull off the boyfriend look, unfortunately I’m not one of them. Me and a man’s T-shirt don’t mix. Think potato sack. If you are providing T-shirts, please get women’s cuts, and get enough of them. It has been a few years since this was an issue for me personally, so it shows that we have come a long way as an industry, though I still think it’s worth mentioning.
One of the first tech conferences I went to (a rather large, prestigious and well-funded one) we’re giving away T’s at the entry. I asked for a woman’s, and was told they didn’t have any and maybe a men’s small would work. But they had only had a few of those printed and there were none left so please move out the line, and what do you want me to do about it anyway? It’s not really about the free T-shirt. It’s about showing people they belong in your conference.
Stickers are a thing! I’m not a particularly stereotypical developer (clearly!) but my laptop is covered in them. I love my GitHub female Octocat stickers because they show me git thinks I’m a worthy developer too (not to mention the fact Octocat’s haircut coupled with the coffee-in-hand is eerily like me). I know merchandise is expensive and you can’t always have different version of stickers, but please think about how you could make them gender neutral. I have been to a hackathon giving out stickers with — um, shall we say — a well-endowed sci-fi style woman on it. Really?
Publicise your desired Etiquette
The movement toward posting a Code of Conduct is underway, and is such an easy way to reset the tone of the conference. I love these! When crafted with care, they make me feel welcome and that its OK to be my authentic self. Give examples of behaviours you would like to see, like ‘invite others into your conversations’, as well as the standard ‘don’t harass people’.
All of the behaviours I have spoken about are unconsciously done and due to unconscious bias. People have no idea how their actions are affecting the minorities in their industry. If you make it conscious, and give them the knowledge to make it better, they will know how to deal with awkward situations. People inherently want to do the right thing. Help them to know what that is.
The last conference I went to had a fabulous initiative: all the women were invited to a breakfast before the day started. It meant I got to walk into the conference with friends. Even though in the main conference there were only a smattering of women there, we all had a prior history. I knew I wasn’t the only woman there, even though there were only men in my vicinity at different points throughout the day.
We can make it better!
This post was by no means mean to be accusatory. I hope hearing some of my experience and suggestions have given you food for thought in how you can make your industry an awesome one for everyone in it. It’s the industry I love too and you can help me feel like i’m part of it.