Form an orderly queue, ladies
March 19, 2008 11:30 AM   Subscribe

How do things change (or do they change) when an IT conference is attended by 50% women?

On April 12 in San Francisco I will be giving a talk at LugRadioLive on how to really get more women involved in the open source technology world. Normally this kind of talk is about grrl p0wer and computers and finger wagging about bad behaviour. My presentation is going to be different. It's a very fun look at how to make technology friendly, how we can really get more women using technology, and how important it is to the World Domination [tm] of open source software.

The talk itself is called, "Form an orderly queue, ladies." I've been working on it for months (literally). The basic description goes like this:

"A slightly raucous but very fun look at female participation in open source computing. This presentation includes a subversive tour of the well known articles and statistics about women in open source and finishes with tangible solutions that really do get more women engaged in technology. Drawing on personal experience, Emma will present you with real solutions that have worked in her community. Explore absolutely new ways of thinking about the gender gap and learn how to take the next step towards really increasing the number of women in open source computing."

One of the points that I make in the presentation is that group dynamics shift when the gender balance shifts. The open source world is dominated by men. (A recent European study showed that 98.5% of all developers were male, a slightly older Japanese study shows the same numbers.) There are likely a million reasons for why this is. This presentation is not about those reasons. I care more about thinking in new ways to change the future than I care about analyzing the past. In one version of the presentation I asked the audience to count the total number of people in the room and then to double it to show what would happen if the room were 50% women. I've removed that section. I want to show it with real people instead of making it a hypothetical exercise. I want the room to be double the size because it is 50% women.

Assuming that it's actually doable, do you think it will really change the dynamics of the event?
posted by emmajane to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are you asking if anyone has been to a 50% female tech conference? Because I'm pretty sure no one has, unless it was a particular kind of "Women in IT" event.

If you're asking for opinions, I think it would change the dynamic of such a conference mostly due to attendees having a wider range of roles. Fewer developers, more designers/UI/community managers. Tech conferences aren't usually hotbeds of stereotypical male behavior anyway.
posted by nev at 12:25 PM on March 19, 2008

Is this an interactive presentation or a workshop where people get into groups and debate? Or is it you speaking and running through slides with a Q&A at the end?

I'm asking this because I'm wondering how much group dynamics there will from the start. As someone(female) who has often given (traditional running through slides, IT related) presentations and attended another few, I would say the gender distribution of the audience has impacted more on my own attitude as a presenter than as an attendee.

I guess it depends on what the solutions you are presenting are, but don't you have any way of simulating one of them with the audience? (I'm assuming 50% women is the desired result and not the strategy)
posted by lucia__is__dada at 12:37 PM on March 19, 2008

In one version of the presentation I asked the audience to count the total number of people in the room and then to double it to show what would happen if the room were 50% women. I've removed that section. I want to show it with real people instead of making it a hypothetical exercise. I want the room to be double the size because it is 50% women.

Can you clarify what you're asking? Doesn't doubling the number of people, just, um, make the audience larger? How does this analogy relate to open-source computing? I'd like to help, but I'm not sure what you're asking here.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:51 PM on March 19, 2008

Not IT conferences, but how things change when a CS department goes from 7% women to 42% women - Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, relating the experience of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science.
posted by needled at 1:24 PM on March 19, 2008

When I attended ISSTA 2006, there were about 30% woman in attendance. I remember because a found it striking enough that I took take the time to count.

ISSTA an academic conference with a solid industrial presence. While I would think that few in the audience would consider themselves members of the open source community, lots of the paper presented during the day talked about a piece of code released under an open-source license. So, technically, they are open source coders.

Unfortunately, I have little clue about why this particular conference had such a ratio. Perhaps you will think of something.

The Brown computer science department is also remarkable in this respect. Both undergraduate degrees and graduate degree programs seem to welcome about 40% woman, when I counted. You might want to contact the chair there, ask them for the official gender ratio numbers, and their thoughts on why they are such.

While I was at Brown, I had the honor of helping the TeachScheme project, designed by Matthias Felleisen, Robert Bruce Findler, Matthew Flatt, and Shriram Krishnamurthi. TeachScheme is a philosophy of how to teach programming, a curriculum, a programming language, and a IDE. The feedback they received from the students indicate that females prefer the TeachScheme approach to a traditional course in a ratio of 4:1. Females were also much less likely to drop the course, and more likely to continue to the second course, than if they had taken a traditional class. Males also preferred the TeachScheme approach to a normal class, but the difference was not as striking as for females. You can find the description of the approach and speculation on why it was particularly palatable to female in the paper and on the testimonial page.

I mentioned two venues where the gender ratio was somewhat even. I have also been to many conferences where the ratio was comically slanted, such as the time when I spotted a lone girl amongst the hundreds of guys present at HOPE 2002.

I don't want to destroy your thesis, someone more perceptive than me might observe differences, but I don't feel that gender affected the group dynamics so much. At least, it was so on the side of the gender divide that I can observe. Having more woman certainly brings a bit of fresh air. To make a heavy generalization, male techies do have similar personalities. The added diversity is welcome.

Packing 50% woman in a room and open-source conference certainly would be a remarkable stunt. If you reach that number, you would be in a position to get the women in the audience to open up about their experience. I'm sure it would be insightful to the second half.
posted by gmarceau at 1:33 PM on March 19, 2008

Who is your audience?
Who will your audience be?
Will this make sense to the audience you anticipate?
Will they know what to do when the hidden wall of women developers (the mind boggles!) is revealed?

By removing the wall to reveal that that class has doubled in size and is now > 50% women (assuming at least one woman showed up for your initial talk) you'll accomplish the following:

-have gone through the logistical nightmare of setting this up
-still have a room segregated with men on one side, women on the other (you'll have to come up with a solution for that)
-perhaps have diminished the importance of those women who did show up in earnest (you'll have to address that as well)
-accomplished what again?

Go back to the who is your audience? question and think about it some more.

I think you'd be better served by finding dev teams where the population is biased towards the female gender and having them talk about their experiences, interactions, how they are different and how much they are really the same, rather than creating this artificial show that sounds like more effort than what the outcome would be worth. But then, maybe I don't know your audience.
posted by furtive at 3:21 PM on March 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great follow-up questions and feedback so far!

The presentation is essentially a talking head presentation. There are five parts to it:
(1) intro of who I am (featuring silly photos of me and of Dame Edna);
(2) summary of some of the stats and documents available regarding women in open source;
(3) why women are important to increasing the market share of open source software;
(4) how I affected change in my own community; and
(5) 10 steps to change.
At this point there are still 190 (ish) slides which would work out to a 1.5h talk using my presentation style. I'm working on getting this pared back as I only get 45minutes + Q&A.

@needled: the Unlocking the Clubhouse book is fantastic! A few others I can recommend include: The Sexual Paradox (just released); Women Don't Ask; and Glass Houses: Saving Feminist Anti-violence Agencies from Self-destruction. And of course countless Web sites as well. Angie Byron has also done her presentation on Women in Open Source at a number of conferences. It's excellent and also completely different to what I'll be doing.

@furtive: I love the idea of the hidden wall. How *amazing* of a stunt would that be! Like a magician's trick! It's completely not feasible for this space though. ... And it's really important to me that the audience be integrated. One of my bug-a-boos is when women segregate themselves into their own groups. (Although I do support female-only science/math classes for young girls.) Segregating by gender is not the right way forward for the open source world.

The question is: "If open source was evenly split male-female would behaviours change?" Part of the reason why I have to ask is because I have really not felt discriminated against in the open source world. I've never felt limited and I've never felt threatened by my gender. Of course there are a few exceptions where someone was a dink, but it didn't in anyway deter me from participating! I'm certainly more likely to get weird comments walking down the street! And I am part of a very tiny minority (1.5% of contributors are women!). According to many other women, my experience of an overall warm and fuzzy experience with open source software is not typical.

I've written the presentation assuming I will be delivering it to a room full of (mostly) men. Even that gives me pause for thought: other than history, why do I feel the need to tailor my presentation to men? How would I change my OWN behaviour if the conference were attended by more women.

I think I've addressed most of the requests for clarifications... but please add more comments if I missed your point!

PS If you are in the SF area or know of others who are...and especially if you're a woman... I'd love it if you came to the conference!
posted by emmajane at 4:53 PM on March 19, 2008

Perhaps, with the college entrance levels lopsided towards women, you might want to explain to the men why they shouldn't be concerned -- for themselves or their sons -- by your proposals?

Sorry if that fails the PC filter, but there you go.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:32 PM on March 19, 2008

The question is: "If open source was evenly split male-female would behaviours change?"

Ah, I see. Well, assuming that much/all communication in open source communities takes place online, then one aspect of behavior that might change (or need to change) is language style. Researchers have for some years (Deborah Tannen is the leader here) studied gendered language use, and although some people sometimes find the strongest claims questionable, there have been enough studies to show at least some trends/patterns in use, patterns which seem to hold up in computer-mediated environments (see: this article or this article for a more critical, nuanced view). Susan Herring has also done a lot of work on gender and online interaction.

Also, not language, but related to gender, collaboration and software design, see this article

Finally, from a public speaking perspective, it's always a good idea to adapt your presentation to your expected audience, b/c you want them to *listen*. If you want to convince them that you're right, then you need to try to understand where they are coming from, and what objections they might have (so you can overcome them). It also may be that there are things about open source that keep women out (ask those people you know who have had issues) but the men may be totally clueless about (b/c theirs is the dominant culture in this field).

I hope that helps.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 5:54 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @DiscourseMarker Thanks for the excellent article suggestions. I've scanned through the titles and am looking forward to reading them in depth. I'm especially looking forward to reading Breaking out of Binaries after having an interesting experience in IRC a few weeks ago.

@trinity8-director You're right! Men should be concerned as well. They should be concerned because *overall enrollment is down* in computer science courses at the college level. Where are the young men and why aren't they even applying into these programs?
Perhaps the men are starting to realize some inherent problems in the way the comp sci programs are structured that have been obvious all along to women? Maybe it's something else entirely though...
posted by emmajane at 6:49 PM on March 19, 2008

Here's a thought. IT is a profession that (often) cares little about credentials but much more about performance. It is possible the men are finding they can jump right into the workplace instead of toiling away at college, with the idea of working their way up to whatever level they are interested in.

So, instead of more school, they 'play' with what interests them in high school, gathering knowledge and experience along the way, then go straight to work. I doubt there are studies along this line but might make for interesting question for you to pose the group.
posted by trinity8-director at 9:51 AM on March 20, 2008

« Older How versatile can an undercounter bottle cooler be...   |   Help with travel!!!! (berlin - prague - Munich) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.