What I learned from the women (and men) at Gluecon 2013

Written by Lorinda Brandon (@lindybrandon)

I never saw another soul in the ladies' room in my 2 days at Glue

I never saw another soul in the ladies’ room in my 2 days at Glue

I can tell you that Gluecon 2013 was a great experience. I love just about everything about software, from thinking about it to building it to talking about it. So, anytime I get to go to a conference that is devoted to the art, strategy and future of software is like Christmas and my birthday rolled together. And the nice thing is, most of us at these conferences aren’t there because our management asked us to go – we’re there because we asked our management if we could please, pretty please, sugar on top go?

It’s the kind of conference where people walk around with Google Glass on, listen to GM talk about their technology without ever describing the car itself, and spend hours coding after the sessions are over. It’s also the kind of conference where you can be in a room of 80 men and see so few women, you can count them on your fingers. In fact, of the 458 registered attendees, only 39 were women. Now, before you assign blame on the conference organizers, I can tell you for a fact that they are as disheartened and befuddled by this as I am. But I cannot help sending up a despairing tweet or two when I am in that situation. Interestingly though, I got no comments back about the lack of lines at the ladies room. That’s a first. Seriously. What happened was a bit more encouraging than anything I’ve experienced before.

First, came the retweets… mostly from men. And replies from people in other sessions who counted the women in their room and reported back. And then the women started coordinating – within an hour, we had organized a women’s breakfast the next morning.

Major disclaimer here: I don’t like women’s breakouts. I want us to be part of the mainstream in technology and I think having women technology groups (or breakfasts) just emphasizes the “otherness” of us. It says we need to congregate together because we have different skills, different concerns, different conversations. But I felt somewhat responsible for this one so I jumped in as well. And I will admit that it added a small subversive undercurrent to the rest of the day, like somehow having breakfast together made us activists.

The next morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up. But I was happy to see there were enough of us that we had to drag three tables together… and discouraged to see that even so, we didn’t even hit an even dozen. 11 women gathered and shared the same concern – why were there so few of us? Of course, we weren’t the sum total of the women at the conference – we were just the ones who found each other on Twitter. We weren’t the same age and we didn’t have the same technical skills. But we had a common bond in that we knew what it was to be isolated at work and we had read all the same articles about how young girls don’t stay with math and sciences at the same rate as young boys do.

I would not have suggested gathering together. I credit Mary Thengvall (@mary_grace) with that. It figures – she’s a community manager for the Velocity conferences so she naturally wants to bring people together. But it was more than that. She struggles with this in her work – how to get women to the conferences? After the introductions, I made my opinion known right away that I don’t like the separateness of women’s organizations. Some of the women agreed with me, some didn’t.

And here’s where I started learning things:

1. Just because we want the same thing doesn’t mean we approach it the same way.

I’ve been at this a long time – I started in software 30 years ago, before there were women’s groups. I have not had good experiences with the so-called ‘women’s leadership’ groups at the companies I’ve worked in (I recall one painful meeting where a female exec lectured us about not being afraid to take a demotion in order to move ahead and not undermining your upward progression with silly things like salary/title negotiations). But that’s not universal. And the women at that breakfast who defended women’s tech groups had a valid perspective – they want to learn and explore technology in a safe environment where their male peers wouldn’t unfairly judge their skills. For them, the ability to develop their skills together and support each other in their quest for improvement was an invaluable opportunity that they did not want to give up.

2. Women don’t have the answer either.

I can’t stop asking the question – WHY aren’t there more women in technology and WHY aren’t the ones who exist coming to the conferences? I asked all of these women, especially the young ones. We have the same facts everyone else has about girls in STEM and percentages of women in the tech workforce, but we don’t know why either. Obviously, this is the wrong group to ask because we chose this field. In fact, two of the women held successful technical sessions that afternoon – Michelle Wetzler from keen.io and Christine Yen from parse. And a third member of our group, Jennifer Davis from Yahoo!, is slated to speak at Velocity later this year. I have spoken at conferences like EclipseCon and API Strategy Conference. So we are most definitely the wrong people to ask. At one point, a couple of us just looked despairingly at each other, at a loss for what to do to change things. I know some of the men who organize these conferences and I know they try everything they can think of to draw women into the events so attendance and speakers are more balanced. They want it to change too. I’m sure it’s terrible news for them that women don’t just have an easy answer for them.

3. There is power in connection.

I told you, I wasn’t so into the idea of the breakfast. That is, until we started talking, really talking. We talked about technology, we talked about girls and science, we talked about Gluecon and its scholarships, we talked about what it was to be the only woman on a team or in a meeting, we talked about what to do about it all. Then we passed our business cards around, took pictures, and went en masse to the first keynote talk. As I said, there were only 11 of us. But when we all walked together into that room filled with our male peers, we felt like an army. And suddenly, the conference seemed full of women. Where I felt isolated the day before, I felt like I was bumping into one of these women everywhere I went. We had lunch together, we sat at sessions together, we all followed each other on Twitter. We were still only a tiny fraction of the population at that conference, but we felt so much larger than before we knew each other’s names and stories.

4. It’s not just about women.

Okay, this is something I knew about men but it was reinforced at Gluecon. In this industry at this time, the men welcome us. The men at this conference cheered on the women presenters in social media, they retweeted our despair and then later our triumph, they talked with us and included us and generally made it very obvious that this was not THEIR conference that we were crashing, but this was OUR conference and they would welcome a better balance.

We left the conference feeling determined, though. And not only determined but with some concrete ideas we’d like to try. One idea is to set up a database of women technical speakers that conference organizers can use as a starting point. Another idea is to create an evangelist network of women who can influence the female technical community not just to lean in but to show up as well. Keep an eye on us – we’re on the move!

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