Women Can Give Tech Talks Too

Tracy Roesler bio photo By Tracy Roesler Comment

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Last week, this article came up in my news feed: Think There Aren’t Qualified Women in Tech? Here are 1,000 Names. No More Excuses. In case you were curious, my name wasn’t on it. That’s probably for good reason too; many of these names include co-founders, senior engineers, and upper level management. It wasn’t just a list of every female who also happens to be an engineer.

I have mixed feelings about articles that discuss the seeming lack of females that speak at conferences. One on the one hand, it seems fairly representative of the field in general. Fewer women in tech leads to fewer women speaking at conferences. I’m willing to bet there is a correlation statistically based on those smaller numbers. On the other hand, I agree that there needs to be a better push to have women better represented at these conferences.

I don’t want women to be given the “soft talks” either. Let’s not treat women like they are at Mormon General Conference, and only let them speak about family and primary. They need to be doing deep dives and speaking about technical issues that might seem “in the weeds” for those of us who simply cannot comprehend.

I don’t know if the lack of female speakers at conferences is in part due to a lack of submissions – several conferences have a call for papers, or a lack of instigation by the conference committee. It could be a little bit of both.

Perhaps women are not submitting. Personally, I don’t ever feel like I have anything useful to add to the technical world within the context of a formal conference. Nobody really cares to hear about making changes to Python Models, or leveraging Puppet. Often, I feel my days are too full of small, minute changes, and not large overarching projects. I would not be surprised if others feel that way.

The problem persists in other STEM fields as well. In 2015, a mathematician ran the statistics on the 19:1 male:female lineup at his conference and determined it to be more than mere chance. (cf. Why are There so Few Women Speakers?) Nature posted an editorial in 2016 showing relative rates of prevalance of women within a field, and then representation of women at conferences within that field. The numbers are, surprise, statistically anomalous.

One was on memory mechanisms in health and disease, 
a subject that the NIH grant-winner list suggests 
has a base rate of 42% women. It mustered only 2 female 
invited speakers in a line-up of 17 — just 12%. The other 
was on tools and protocols for handling big neuroscience 
data, a subject in computational neuroscience, which 
has a low base rate of just 17–20%. The organizers managed 
to find no women at all to include among the 14 invited speakers.

Another downside: apparently even when women ARE invited to speak at conferences, they get paid less than men. This one guy mentioned that at one conference where he spoke, he received $4,000 while a female African-American speaker was offered NOTHING (cf. Its Time for Conferences to Stop Underpaying Women Speakers). So not only are women not being represented, they are being grossly underpaid.

Thankfully, there are starting to be some reversals in this trend. Some conferences are taking active steps to invite and encourage female speakers, e.g. BiasWatchNeuro, CallbackWomen. And people are developing lists where you can find talented women to speak, like the first article above, the The 50/50 Pledge, and thenextweb.

The rest is up to us. We have to be more aggressive about submitting talk suggestions. We need to put aside the idea that our work isn’t interesting, relevant, or useful enough to others. When I was younger, I used to give talks all the time when I was doing programming/physics at NIST, and a big part of that was due to encouragement from my colleagues. We need to goad each other on; we can accomplish great things, and our projects are equally worthy of discussion.

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