Women, conferences, and the importance of voice
Posted by shannonclark on February 13, 2007
My good friend Mary Hodder has a important post today on her blog Napsterization about a discussion on women speakers at tech conferences.
Speaking as a man who organizes conferences (and who is proud that many of my keynotes and quite a few of my speakers have been women) this is one important point.
Speakers get a lot of prestige – but they are also very vitally given a voice and encouragement that their point of view, their expertise and their experiences are worthy of a larger platform and stage.
Especially today when even speaking at “small” conference can have a huge impact (via blogs, online podcasts/videocasts, etc) this voice is very important.
But the impact is more than just external – it is also very much internal. Whether you are on a panel or giving a keynote speech – you, as a speaker, are being given a lot of feedback that you are worth paying attention to – and that you are at least a peer of those on the panel with you, with the others who have been invited to speak (and/or attend) at the conference.
Yes, I’m a man, grew up with male (and female) positive role models – but the mere act of being invited to speak, or even being invited to an “invite only” conference is a powerful one – it gives me confidence that my ideas, my voice is worthwhile.
I learned programming in no small part from my mom, who has been programming since the 1960’s. My grandmother had a highly successful career as a real estate developer and manager of properties she owned in LA. I grew up in a home with very strong women role models, it has shaped my views on women (may have also made it harder for me to get a date but that’s a different though perhaps related question).
I think that more people in general – and especially many many more women and minorities need to be encouraged that they can and should have an impact in the technology and new media worlds – and from those worlds on the larger world of business (and the world writ large). Technology perhaps more so than any other field should be a neutral ground – one where it is the quality of your mind and your ideas – and as technology becomes ever more crucially about social interactions around and using that tech, it should be an area where skin color, ethnicity, gender, class, or culture should only be assets for you – and not liabilities. Where you should only be limited by your imagination – and your ability to spread and share your vision with others.
Online there are 100’s, indeed likely 1000’s of people whom I interact with and get to know long before knowing anything personal about them – often not even knowing where they are, let alone their age, gender, sexual preference, skin color, class etc.
But, as many people have noted, all business is personal. And personal prejudices and assumptions do come strongly into play as we interact with each other.
In part this is why Mary’s point is so important – when we – both women and men see women in leadership roles, as speakers given a voice and platform at industry events we often experience the intersection of diverging assumptions and prejudices. i.e. “few women are leaders in the tech world” vs. “the speakers are some of the leaders and important voices in the tech world”.
And this shaking up of assumptions and preconceptions is important – not just for young women but also for men and women of all ages.
At Gnomedex last year I was passionate, perhaps too passionate, in my opposition to a comment and a discussion that said something like “it is only the youth who get the Internet and we old folks can never understand them” – writing off both anyone old and our abilities to see the world from many perspectives and views. I feel very strongly that what is so vital and important about the Net is the ability it has to help break down barriers and preconceptions – you can interact with people, admittedly via a machine and limitations of those machines – but without the limitations that our prejudices give us.
My grandmother, in her late 80’s, is online as much, perhaps even more at times, than I. She goes online to play bridge. Her partners (she plays on one of the many free online games sites) do not need to know where she lives or how old she is, rather over time they merely learn how good she is (and in the case of bridge what bidding systems she uses).
I have my own set(s) of prejudices – different I suspect than many of my peers – but present none the less. Some are political, some are religous, some are about how people live – but as I am aware of them I also try to challenge them, to give myself (and especially others) a chance to see beyond these assumptions and prejudices.
A silly one perhaps (but not unrelated to my point above about not getting dates) was (perhaps still is) that for what ever reason – and against all cultural cues – I’ve never been very attracted to blondes (whether natural or dyed). Somehow I make an assumption in my head – a foolish one indeed – that “blondes” do indeed tend not to be very smart, tend to be shallow, and thus tend to be less interesting to me. Foolish not just because my last love was herself dyed blonde when we met, but because I am making a snap, prejudgement about people based one admittedly highly changeable aspect of their appearance.
We all make these snap judgements – from photos, from clothing, from smells, from written language and verbal interactions. But in business (and in our personal lives) we also have to step back from these prejudices and learn when to question them – learn to give others (and indeed ourselves) a chance to prove them wrong.
I am not always very aware of my impression on others – occasionally, but often I care very little (usually to my detriment) but I very much assume that people paint me into a box. For most of my life this has not been a particularly popular box to be in – I freely (and gladly) admit to being a geek and a “nerd” – but even there my various facets, interests and sides may often go unnoticed by those who make a snap judgement of me (much as I probably miss a lot in others when I do likewise).
Yes, in high school I was the captain of the chess team (3+ years in row in fact), and yes, I took a lot of honors math and sciences. So I fit into the “math & science sf fan geek computer loving nerd category” with more than a bit of ease. But at the same time I also took French, a lot of philosophy, honors English and history classes, and was an editor of the school literary magazine.
Moving forward nearly two decades (I graduated high school in 1991 – albeit at the age of 16) I still am faced with this dichotomy of aspects of myself – and of the people I find myself knowing. I find it all to easy to think of different “worlds” of people I know – one world of the “tech folks” (certainly larger here in the bay area than it was in Chicago) perhaps epitomized by industry events and parties such as one I attended last week where a bunch of people – mostly men – played Wii boxing against each other at a friend’s startup’s offices using a projector so we could all watch, another world of people I know through business, others through science fiction fandom, others through shared interests in writing, etc.
In my own mind and in how I project myself outward I do see myself shifting in different contexts – or more often than not retreating into myself, hiding behind iPod ear buds or a magazine when I’m out in public, behind the armor of my Crumpler laptop bag.
I started a blog comment a few weeks back, which I never posted, to a post by Mark Cuban arguing against the Suit as a business requirement. My point, which I think is very relevant to this ramble, was that clothing does indeed shape other’s impressions of us (and for many people that is what they focus on – how the clothing will be seen – what other’s will assume about you from it) but equally – and I think even more importantly, clothing shapes our own perceptions about ourselves.
When I am in scruffy clothes, in the generic uniform of a tech geek/nerd (tech conference t-shirt, jeans, laptop messenger bag) it takes much more effort to project forth my other sides – to project forth the confidence in my business acumon, my artistic/design interests, my potential attractiveness to others (in my case of the opposite sex – though any attention is flattering and too rare). However when I am wearing clothes that fit, that are comfortable, that are not just thrown on – perhaps a custom suit made for me in India, or one of a handful of designer shirts I own, heck even as “simple” an act as wearing socks which I didn’t buy from the bargain section of Ross but instead paid a bit more for ones that don’t tend to have holes in them on the third wearing – I am that much more able to project forth my confidence in myself, in my ideas, in the interest others will have in my views.
We all build ourselves from the feedback of others. After I have talked with people who then give me positive feedback I am that much more able to talk with others about what I am thinking, about what my views about the future are.
When as I conference organizer I give someone a chance to speak, yes I am giving them a platform, but I am also vitally asking them to take their voice seriously – to have confidence in themselves and that people will want to hear from them – to respect and react to their views.
We should all strive to find ways to give more people this voice – to listen to others and in turn to be listened to by others. Perhaps then, we will listen to ourselves as well.