by Karen Lopez
We in the data world are fortunate that we have a higher percentage of female professionals than other IT specializations. We also tend to have more female attendees and speakers at Enterprise Data World than other conferences I attend. However that doesn’t mean that we are doing well in ensuring female speakers understand the value they can bring to all events — user groups, SIGs, meetups and conferences.
I run a local tech user group (Hello, TorPASS members!), I attend at least a couple dozen DAMA, user group and local events a year and I speak at conferences internationally on a regular basis. My travels allow me talk to attendees and speakers about my observation that we have wonderful professionals who just aren’t speaking at events.
I get that not everyone wants to speak and I realize that some people just shouldn’t speak publicly. Everyone has experiences to share, though. And I want to hear them. The primary way we share all that in IT is via blogging, speaking and writing status reports. I bet you can guess which of those I think are better options.
Last week was Enterprise Data World 2014, held in Austin, Texas. I was asked to present a Lightning Talk, Yet Another DataChick Rant. I spent my five minutes talking about why women choose not to speak at events. Since I had only 5 minutes, my talk focused on the reasons why women don’t even apply to speak at events and what we can do about them.
Before I address the issue, I want to point out that all gender discussions tend to leverage stereotypes to discuss differences in how we all look at the world. That’s always fraught with over-simplification of complex issues. This shouldn’t stop us, though, from talking about real-world issues. So some caveats: not all women are the same (in fact, I’m the poster-girl for not being much of a girl), these things also apply to men, not all events suffer from a lack of female speakers, we shouldn’t force women to speak if they aren’t interested in speaking and having no female speakers might not be the sign of a bad conference. Each one of those statements could be a post on their own. Someday.
Why Women Aren’t at the Mic
I’m sharing here a few of the reasons why women don’t apply, which is only one of the many reasons they don’t speak. But much like lottery tickets and winnings, if we can’t get women to submit abstracts, it’s going to be more difficult to get them up on the stage.
There are bad people on the Internet. Shocking, I know. They tend to attack women more than men, and are much more violent and abusive when they choose to attack. I chose not to get into the types of things they do when they attack, but there are numerous stories out there, many of them frightening. I asked Twitter before the event if there was a name for this female-targeted trolling, but turned up nothing. So I coined dame shaming, an attempt to make women feel worse than others, just because they are women. It’s not that rare to see trolls attacking female bloggers and speakers based on their appearances (fat, ugly, non-dateable, old, etc.). This sort of personal attack has led even prominent writers, speakers and bloggers to delete their works and retreat to a less-prominent role in the community. You can find horrific stories out there, but most are not safe for work, so I won’t link here.
But if you have ever dealt with Internet or real-life bullies and trolls, you know how hard it is to keep standing up. I know a few female speaker who have pretty much given up getting back on the stage. That makes me sad.
Imposter Syndrome: Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.
We all feel this phenomenon from time to time, but women tend to experience it more. In fact, I had at least 4 women come up to me after my talk and explain to me that even though they understood that this was a false belief, they really did think they weren’t good enough to speak. Snap out of this ladies (men, too)! Humility is a good trait in a speaker, but most women take this way too far.
Expertise & Catch-22
Women, more than men, tell me that they believe that one must be an expert before they stand up and share their thoughts. I hate to tell this deep dark secret of the speaking circuit, but you need to know that most great speakers would rate themselves at most a six out of ten on the subjects the present about. Seriously. In fact, the best speakers know that they don’t know everything. It’s the bad speakers (and consultants) who rate themselves eleven out of ten on everything.
Women also tell me that they don’t want speak because they don’t have any speaking experience. I’ll let you process that for a minute. Yes, a head-scratcher for sure. I understand why people don’t want to speak at a big conference right off the bat, but they tell me this about small user group events. The way you get speaking experience is to speak. And the way you get to be a better speaker is to speak more often
There are other reasons, which I will post about next, along with a some actions we can all take to get women (and men) up on the podium more often. Meanwhile, what other reasons have you given or hear about why people won’t apply to speak at events?