Tag Archives: tech conferences

De-mystifying the Tech Conference Experience for Women

pinktilesThose of us who attend tech conferences regularly know the secret – it’s not just about knowledge and learning… it’s also about networking. You spend the day becoming a better professional in your trade by listening to the talks and attending the workshops, but just as importantly, you spend the evenings and breaks meeting other people in your profession and expanding your circle of acquaintances.

This is one of the big reasons why I like to encourage women to get out from behind their desks and be part of the bigger conversation. Watching the livestream of a conference is a step in the right direction from a learning perspective, but you don’t get the real benefit of the conference if you don’t chat casually with them over drinks and food. I come away from every conference with new perspectives and, more importantly, new connections.

It’s one of the reasons women need to show up at these events. We tend to shy away because we are intimidated by the sheer maleness of the events – most of the speakers are men, many of the vendors are men, and certainly most of the attendees are men – men who are sharing their wisdom with each other and building their networks at the same time. We bemoan the “boys’ network” but then we don’t take the necessary steps to be part of that network. They know each other because… well, they know each other. You gotta show up to the dance if you want to lindy.

So, imagine my delight this year, when I was able to partner with Per Scholas and O’Reilly Media to get a group of women from the Per Scholas technical training classes into the Velocity conference at no cost. My hope is that by bringing them into tech conferences while they are still students, it de-mystifies the experience and they learn that there is nothing scary about conferences or the men who attend them.

The Per Scholas Women at Velocity NY 2013O’Reilly did more than just supply some free tickets to the conference, though. They also threw in a spot in their Ignite! talks for Plinio Ayala, President of Per Scholas to talk about their program, they encouraged registrants to donate money to the organization, and they arranged for conference speakers and IT professionals to sit with the student during lunch. For Suzanne Axtell, who manages Diversity Outreach for O’Reilly Media, it was a valuable experience. “Our partnership with Per Scholas was a truly rewarding experience,” Axtell says. “O’Reilly was able to contribute to a very worthy organization educationally as well as financially. Having the students attend Velocity was a great way to introduce women to the tech community. It also allowed attendees who donated to Per Scholas when they registered to see firsthand what their gift makes possible. Given the growing need for STEM workers, the partnership was a good opportunity to expose Velocity attendees and companies to new talent pipelines like Per Scholas.”

The women themselves knew they were being given an invaluable opportunity and they made the most of it. They attended the talks, roamed the vendor booths, introduced themselves to everyone, and talked to the speakers during the breaks. “I didnt want to leave the conference rooms and booths, “ says Elizabeth Luciany. Another student attendee, Kiesha Quaishe, made the observation that the conference “was a very good insight to what occurs in the technology world. It opened and expanded our minds to think outside the box and see what else is in the field beyond what we already know.” Exactly. When we stay within the boundaries of our office environment, we miss out on the opportunity to learn what other people are doing and what’s important to the industry as a whole, rather than just the company we currently work for.

For me, there was only one thing I wanted to result from this opportunity – a new generation of female conference attendees for whom the intimidation factor has been removed. And I got that. When Monique Young said, “if I had the chance I would attend another one so I could be in the know about the growing changes,” I got my wish.

Thank you to Per Scholas for humoring me and my passion for “Women In Line” and to Mary Thengvall and Suzanne Axtell of O’Reilly Media for giving more than we asked for and planting a seed that can do nothing but grow.

 

Musings about mentors

fancyladiesI am not a fan of separate women’s groups for just about anything – anyone who knows me is well aware of that. I just don’t get the need for it. My perspective may be skewed by my exposure to men over my lifetime – I had only brothers, I raised only sons, I worked with mostly males. “Women only” conferences, classes and organizations baffle me, especially because they are all driving toward the same thing – balancing the gender gap. I find this need to segregate an odd by-product of our desire to integrate. Why do we need separate technology classes from the men? It sounds like we need the teachers to speak slower and spell the big words for us. When I ask this question of other women, I often hear the feedback that it’s because women want a safe environment to ask questions and learn things without being intimidated. But that doesn’t resonate with me either – why do we get that luxury when men don’t? And how does that teach us how to navigate in an integrated office setting?

Lately, I have been pondering some of the dynamics that have been in existence for so long and why we haven’t managed to change them. One of those is what has been referred to as the “boys’ network”. For those of us women in a male-dominated industry, we feel that network all the time, cheerily bonded together and oblivious to us outsiders. But I believe we have unfairly demonized that network, giving it ulterior motives and suspecting it of cult-like secrecies we women aren’t privy to. The reality is… the guys just know each other. We’re busy networking in our own little secret societies and ignoring the larger fact that, by doing this, we aren’t interacting as part of that network. They go to the conferences, they sign up to speak or lead workshops, they gather at venues where they can meet, learn, and develop connections. They aren’t excluding us… we just aren’t showing up.

And then we end up with a self-perpetuating problem: women don’t go to conferences because there are no other women there and they feel intimidated. I blame part of that feeling on the fact that there are so few female speakers on stage – women can’t identify with the overall tenor of the conference when it is primarily male speakers. Hence, the launch of the @WomenInLine mentor program, where we try to match aspiring female speakers with coaches who can help them find the right conferences to submit talks to, prepare their speaker submissions, and put together their talks. The goal is to provide a male or female mentor for women who want to speak. Yes, I repeated myself. Because I violated my own principle of integration by focusing specifically on aspiring female speakers instead of just aspiring speakers.

And a close friend called ‘bullshit’ on me. :-)

I’m paraphrasing here but he basically said: “Don’t you think you are implying that women are weak and therefore they need mentors to help them and men don’t? Don’t you think the perception is that men can manage without help and women can’t?”

Yep, this is exactly what I have been railing about for decades now (and he’s been listening all these years). I’ll admit he gave me pause and made me reflect harder on what we’re doing here. So what led me to using @WomenInLine this way? Let me see if I can explain (and in the process remain convinced that it’s the right thing to do).

This blog has mentioned #WomenWhoTest before – a group of us who all want the same thing (more women in tech) and occasionally get on the phone to figure out how we can make a difference. In one of our calls, we talked about why there are so few women speakers at tech conferences. I pointed out that I talk to conference organizers who are all saddened by this as well and tell me that they want more women and often have more women on the agenda… but women either don’t submit or worse, tend to cancel more than men so the conference ends up losing the few women they schedule anyway. We talked about why that may be and theorized that, while public speaking is terrifying for men and women equally, women feel more comfortable bowing out of hard professional situations. I remember attending a “women’s leadership” talk at one company I worked at where a high-ranking woman at the company told us that it was okay to step down the ladder occasionally so you can work your way up again. I couldn’t imagine a man giving or taking that advice but it seems more acceptable for women to walk away from professional challenges and do something ‘easier’ for a while. Like getting the professional vapors, I guess, and fainting gently on the corporate veranda until it passes.

In her insightful article about raising boys vs girls, Jump! Magazine founder, Lynn Schreiber, talks about how we raise our boys to stay and fight in the face of aggression but we raise our girls to walk away and avoid situations that smell of danger. Nothing smells of danger more than public speaking or professional politics… and my feeling is that we are so busy raising nice girls that we have inadvertently created nervous women. To be fair, women have not had the opportunity to rise to high corporate levels or speak at conferences until this past generation so it’s not like we’ve had time to incorporate it into our DNA yet. We’re still learning how to do this.

I certainly don’t want to portray women as needing help more than men. I do, however, want to provide women with whatever safety net and encouragement they need to face the challenge and be a role model to other women. We need to learn to stick it out when the going gets harder, not walk away. And we need to learn how to be powerful professional voices so it comes naturally to our daughters.

I guess that’s why, when #WomenWhoTest started mulling over what we at the ground level could do to help, it seemed natural to open @WomenInLine to providing mentorships. My hope is that it’s temporary… that in another decade, people won’t even remember that we had to go to extraordinary measures to get women on conference agendas. My hope is that we stop even thinking about conference rosters in terms of gender ratios because it’s become a non-issue.

Until then, a little leg-up is okay.