Binders full of Women

You’re looking to improve the diversity of your technical conference. Well, let me google that for you!

Two years ago, I organized a conference called Confident-Coding. We had an open CFP, but only self-identified women responded to it. In one week, 12 women applied to speak.  You’re saying that not a single woman replied to your CFP? You’re obviously doing it wrong.

Only women applied to speak at my conference because of where I promoted the CFP. Where are you announcing your CFP? Reddit? If you promote your conference or job to white males, you’re only going to get white males applying.

With Confident-Coding, I successfully proved a point: If you only promote a CFP to an insular group of people, you are only going to get members of that population to apply.

The Conference wasn’t actually intended as a woman-only event. I just wanted to show it was possible to find AMAZING female presenters.

I promoted the conference thru my regular channels of promoting conferences: I asked my multi-gender network to promote it for me. The interesting thing: most of the cis-men who promoted it did so as a women’s conference. There was nothing that read “women only” on the website. They assumed it was “women only” because of the demographics of the speakers.

Yes, all male lineups look to us women just like all female lineups look to you men.

How do you think your male-only conference makes me feel?

“So, if this all female lineup is for women only, are all male lineups for men only?” I asked.

“Well, that’s different,” was the response I heard from the clueless ones.

“Holy shit, you’re right” was the response I heard from those for whom this was a teachable moment.

Yes, all male lineups look to us women just like all female lineups look to you men.

Are you intentionally leaving out entire segments of the population? Yes, you need a diverse lineup. (see Ashe Dryden, and more from Increasing Diversity at Your Conference also by Ashe Dryden). And, no, don’t ask me to do the job of finding your speakers for you.
Please do your own research instead of asking us to do it for you. Sorry to be snarky, but I already have 3 jobs. Yes, being a woman in tech is 2 jobs. There’s the tech part, and the woman part. I code for 40+ hours per week. That’s my first job. I am also writing 2 books and speaking at a multitude of conference: that’s my second job — which, admittedly, most engineers may not have. My third job? I spend an inordinate amount of time identifying potential speakers for conference organizers who don’t take the extra 5 minutes to do it themselves.

Are you intentionally leaving out entire segments of the population?

“If it takes 5 minutes,” you ask, “why is it a full time job?” It takes 5 minutes to find the right people to refer. It takes a couple hours to compose the email explaining that just blasting these other people who also have 2 full time jobs is not going to work. Then I spend another couple hours making my original email sound more polite than this post.

I take the time in my email response to teach conference and meetup organizers how to ask these not-so-random strangers to speak, and to inform the recipients that this wouldn’t be such a difficult issue for them if they actually had female or otherwise non-cis-white-male developers and developer evangelists at their place of employment whom they can ask. Yes, it’s fine to ask your own co-workers to help you find developers: they’re paid. Don’t have women and non-cis-white-male co-workers? Please hire some. Not only will it improve your working environment and your product, but then you can ask them, instead of expecting all the rest of us “women in tech” whom you haven’t employed, to do it for free.

When we spend that 5 minutes searching, the hours writing the email, and the days writing these blog posts, or educating you on Twitter, that’s time we are not spending writing books/talks or ‘coding for cash.” It costs us money.

Don’t just identify potential female speakers, make sure you ask them to present correctly. For example, only ask me to speak if you’re interested in what I have to say. Tell me why I am of interest. Don’t let me assume that it’s just because you haven’t filled your boob quota.

And don’t just look for boobs. Do you think because you have 20% white women and 80% white men, your conference or employer experience is diverse? Nope. Sorry. Even if you live in Australia, where the population is 92% caucasian, you’re still not reflective of society. You’re still not inclusive. Not even close.

Diversity isn’t just a male versus female thing: it’s a people thing.

You already know if you have no speakers who identify as female, you’re doing it wrong. But you should also know, if all your speakers are cis-gendered white men and women, you’re still doing it wrong. You can still improve. If all you’re speakers were born in the 1980s, you’re doing it wrong? The more diverse your lineup, the more diverse your attendee base will be. The more diverse your conference, the more interesting the conversation will be.

Do you know what an all under 30 line up look to those who are over 60? It looks just like what a lineup of all 60+ year olds would look like to someone under 30. Yes, ageism is rampant in our industry too.

An all young white male lineup looks to a non-young-white male similar to what a lineup of all eldery Korean women would look to a young white male. No, it’s not “different.” Young, white, straight male is not a norm. It is only the norm for those who are young, white, straight men. Leave out the age, and in the US, it is the norm for about 26% of the population. That leaves out 74% of the population. Why are you intentionally leaving out 74% of the population?

It’s not just about your male to female ratio. It’s about gender, age, race, sexual orientation, body size, social comfort levels, technical abilities, income, everything! Different perspectives provide for much more interesting conversations.

But don’t just pull speakers from other conferences. We don’t need to hear more of the same prominent voices. There’s little value in the view that only those who have spoken before are those who are worth listening to. Instead of asking the same speakers to give the same talk (that is available on Youtube), find out who those speakers listen to. Look at the speakers you were intending to ask: who do they follow on Twitter? Who do their followers follow? Found someone great with imposter syndrome? Take the extra time to encourage them. They’re still said no? Look at who they follow, there may be an uncut gem in there.

Now that you know you have a problem, it’s time for you to solve it. (Yes, you. Sorry, I can’t do it for you.)

There’s little value in the abysmal view that only those who have spoken before are those who are worth listening to.

Ask diverse people in your own company where to target diverse speakers (and where to help recruit other diverse employees). Ask them to cross promote to their LGBT chat list, breast-feeding support group, and women in tech groups. Do you think some of those groups are irrelevant? You likely don’t realize what the average technical woman thinks of Reddit!

Ask your eldest employee. Ask your youngest employee. Ask the transgender woman in your DevOps team. Ask the Latino man in your front end team. And, if you don’t have transgender, Latino or African American persons in your organization in positions of responsibility, fix that too. For example, pay your interns. This will ensure that your interns can be there on merit — yes, that’s a faux “meritocracy” we don’t really have–not just because they can be there because they have a wealthy parent who can fund their eternal education.

Remember, being your personal Google is not part of the job description of any other employees in your agency. When you ask them (and you should), you are burdening them with additional responsibilities. They just did you a favor. Don’t forget to appreciate that appropriately, and return the favor somehow.

Go thru open networks to find diverse speakers. If you get rejected by the 10 most popular female presenters in your industry, keep asking? If you asked the 10 most popular men in your industry and they said no, would you cancel the event or would you continue to looking? Same thing!

If you asked the 10 most popular men in your industry and they said no, would you cancel the event?

Find the top 20 speakers you want for your conference, of all genders, and look at the people they talk to or RT on Twitter and other social media: likely, you’ll find an abundance of qualified people to target. When you ask them to speak, be very specific about why you asked them. I don’t reply to recruiters — for jobs or CFPs — if it’s all about them and not about me. Nope, not narcissistic. I just don’t want to put more thought and time into answering their email than they spent on their initial request.

Make sure your developer evangelism team is diverse, and has no bad apples. Even if he’s an awesome, funny speaker, get rid of the douchebag that discourages other people from applying or staying on in the role. Not getting enough diversity in your application pool? (If you didn’t have an open application procedure, you really fucked up.) Where are you posting?

  1. Do NOT post your job or CFPs to YCombinator or Reddit, because that is what your application pool will look like.
  2. Do NOT “ask your friends” only: they tend to look like you and have similar life experiences.
  3. Do NOT try to target your event for ninjas, cowboys or hipsters.
  4. Do NOT promote your conference as a party. Don’t promote the drinking. Have (and announce that you are going to have) quiet spaces, non-alcoholic beverages on par with the alcoholic ones[1], etc. in addition to the MANDATORY code of conduct.
  5. And, for goodness sakes, do NOT have strippers or “booth-babes” at your event.

There are resources all of the Internet. Take the time to look for them.

P.S. Pay all your employees what they are worth, not more to people simply because they asked for it. Otherwise, you’re compensating people for being assertive not skilled.

[1] If you are serving wine and beer in plastic cups, serve water, juice and soda in those cups too. If the beer is in glass bottles, serve high end non-alcoholic drinks in glass bottles: Perrier, Mexican Coca-Cola, even IBC Root Beer (in the USA), whatever. Make your non-alcoholic drinks on par with the alcoholic ones. If you’re offering cocktails, offer mocktails and fresh squeezed orange juice.

You have to ask to get a “yes”.

Note: This was originally posted at Ladies in Tech, April 2, 2013

The first step to speaking at a conference is to ask to speak at the conference. To some people this is self-evident. For me, it came as a surprise: when attending my first technical conference, I assumed the organizers had asked all of the speakers to be there. It made sense to me that, to be a speaker, you had to be ‘internet famous’ enough for someone to ask you to present. Otherwise, how would they find you to ask you?

At SXSW in 2008, I attended the panel “What Women Need to Succeed” with five awesome women speakers. How had they been discovered? Afterwards, I drummed up the courage to ask Stephanie Sullivan, the panel moderator. She explained you aren’t asked to speak. Rather, you have to ask to speak.

Find a conference that interests you. Find their call for proposals. Submit a talk. If you don’t submit a talk proposal, they won’t have a proposal to accept.

Really. It is that easy. I asked to speak. The first 20+ conference I applied to speak at said “yes.”

Apply first. Get permission later!

I know too many women who don’t apply to speak at conferences because they assume they won’t get the permissions or funds to attend. They worry about not having an interesting topic, not getting accepted, and not being skilled enough to talk. They assume the worst and don’t even apply.

Do not worry about any of these things and just apply. Instead of wasting mental effort convincing yourself of impending failure, put that effort into writing your proposal.

Make sure you don’t have any unchangeable conflicts before applying to speak. Other than that, don’t worry about getting all your ducks-in-a-row with costs, time, and permission until after you know you have a speaker slot. Once you’ve been accepted is the time to worry about whether you have a dog sitter.

How about your job? Wait until you’ve been accepted before telling them you are going. Remember, speaking at a conference benefits your employer. The company you work for will likely not only let you go, but may even sponsor your trip. If they require you to take vacation time, or don’t allow you to attend, take it as a sign that it is time to change jobs!

Many conferences list the perks of speaking on their Call For Proposal (CFP) page. Others make no mention of speaker perks. If they don’t list it, it doesn’t mean they don’t offer anything; you just have to ask. But don’t ask until after your talk has been accepted so potential expenses aren’t held against you in the selection process.

Remember almost anything is possible, but nothing will happen if you don’t ask.

How to submit a talk

It may take some time the first time you submit a speaking proposal. Once you’ve submitted your first proposal, you will have the material ready to apply to all other conferences.

To submit a talk, generally you need to cover some or all of the following:

  1. Headshot
    If you don’t have a headshot that you like, don’t worry. When I first started speaking, I used my avatar, which was a cartoon rendition of me. No one complained. Raffi Krikorian of Twitter never submitted a picture for Webstock in 2012; they simply used a picture of David Hasselhoff. Yes, it is better to have a headshot, but don’t let the lack of a good photograph stop you from applying to speak.
  2. Brief biography
    I found writing my biography to be a bigger challenge than writing my talk description. If you’re plagued with writer’s block (especially if caused by ‘imposter syndrome’), have your partner or co-worker do it. Or write a biography about someone you admire in your field. Then use the same adjectives to describe yourself, just change the nouns to reflect your accomplishments instead of his or hers. If that doesn’t work for you, look at the biographies of other presenters on various conference sites and compile them into a description of yourself.
  3. Talk title
    Remember, you are selling your talk. What does the target audience want to buy? Make it short, hip, and engaging, while making it obvious what you are going to cover. If you need help, ask your network, or visit @weareallawesome on irc.freenode.net Tuesday mornings (or anytime).
  4. Short, Medium, and Long description of your talk
    You may need to provide up to three descriptions of your talk. The short or “tweetable” version will be used for marketing. The medium length version is what will be posted on the conference website. This is what is used by attendees to decide whether to attend the conference, and, if they do, which session to attend. The medium length posting is a good place to include catchy marketing phrases. The lengthy detailed version describes what you are really covering in your talk — it is your way to communicate to the conference organizers all the awesome material your attendees will learn in technical rather than marketing terms.
  5. A link to a video of a previous talk
    If it’s your first time speaking, don’t let this “requirement” stop you from applying. It doesn’t need to be a catch-22. Simply omit the field or let them know that you don’t have any talks recorded. Just because there is a field in the online CFP form does not mean all the fields are actually required.

    If you want, you can include a link to your Github account, or to an article covering a similar topic, showing that you know how to explain the topic. But remember, don’t over explain yourself or make excuses. Tell them what you are capable of, not what you are lacking. The only harm in submitting an incomplete application is they might say “no.” But they may also say “yes.”

Thinking it through

When it comes to the talk title, tweetable description, medium description, and detailed description, I actually complete those in reverse order. I find explaining what I am going to talk about in great detail is easier than coming up with a catchy title.

It might help to write an outline or timeline for your talk, but keep it to yourself. Remember, you are selling your idea to the reviewers, not explaining your thought process to them.

Less can be more. Reviewers, like site users, don’t like to read. Make your description as short and to the point as possible, outlining expected attendee takeaways, thinking of it as a marketing piece, not an itinerary.

Stuck? Get inspiration from conference talks accepted the previous year.

What topics should you submit?

When I was recruiting proposals for a JavaScript conference last year, the response I received from a few women were statements like “I don’t know JavaScript well enough,” “I don’t have anything to talk about,” and “No one is interested in what I have to say.” Bullshit!

Whatever you work on is a perfect topic to suggest. Just because you think what you do is easy, that doesn’t mean that other people don’t find it challenging and want to learn how to do it. If you find it easy, you likely know it well enough to present. Do you attend sessions on topics you’ve mastered? Or do you attend sessions to learn new things? If the reviewers think it’s dull or too basic they can always say “no.” If someone knows your subject matter as well as you do, they’re unlikely to attend.

Submitting multiple proposals

Unless otherwise noted in the CFP, it is okay, and often a good idea, to submit more than one talk proposal.

Many women don’t submit multiple topics because they fear wasting the reviewers’ time. Reviewers might actually view you as both versatile and excited about presenting. And they might enjoy picking their favorite out of the few. Submitting multiple talks gives you a better chance of being accepted for at least one topic.

Be a risk taker, not a rule follower.

Getting rejected.

If your proposal is rejected, your ego may be a little hurt. Don’t take it personally. The conference proposal reviewers likely gave your talk a thumbs up or down in less than one minute. Then they moved on to review the next proposal. They may have already decided on which talks they wanted and just did the CFP for show. You don’t have to tell anyone. They’re not going to tell anyone. Just remember, they’re the ones missing out on your awesome talk!

Getting accepted!

You asked to present. They said yes. Awesome! This means they want you. They may have taken three days or three months to say yes. You can take a few days to accept. It is okay to turn them down, as well; you might have applied a while ago, plans change. They should not be adding you as a speaker to their lineup until you have confirmed that you are willing and able to speak. If they picked all four sessions you submitted, it is also okay to tell them that you only want to do one or two.

If the conference organizers wanted your talk enough to accept it, they will likely pay for your flight and hotel. Also, conference fees are generally waived for speakers. I do not speak at conferences that charge speakers to attend. You and the other speakers are what makes the conference worth the conference fees. They need you. Remember that. It is completely acceptable to ask for the financial assistance you need to make speaking at this conference possible. The worst thing that can happen is that they will say “no.”

Once the conference organizers have agreed to your terms, you can accept their invitation. Congratulations! You are now a speaker.