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Rockford Lhotka Guest Blog: Lack of Women Speakers, Why Diversity is Important, & What We Can Do about It

The Calls for Presentations are NOW OPEN for the following events:

We asked Rockford Lhotka, Visual Studio Live! Conference Co-Chair and Modern Apps Live! Conference Chair, to bring to light the lack of speaker diversity at tech conferences and how we can work to fix it. Here's what he said:

It is widely understood that the software industry has a lack of diversity, perhaps more than most modern industries. This is particularly true with gender diversity: there are very few women in the science and technology fields, and software development is no exception. This wasn't always the case, as made so clear by the recent (and excellent) movie Hidden Figures. Or the many examples of women who helped shape our industry into what it is today. We know that there are many women out there whose skills and insights are needed to advance our field, just as the women of the past were so important.

To address this lack of gender diversity, I think it is very important to increase the diversity of speakers at tech conferences. If you are a white male at a tech conference it is easy to see yourself in the role of industry leader – most of the visible leaders in our industry are like you. Similarly, as we get more diversity in the ranks of conference speakers it becomes easier for many other folks to see themselves in the role of industry leader – because they can also identify with the people they see on stage.

THE CHALLENGE

My co-chairs and I have also been advocates for women speakers in our industry and at our conferences in particular. Finding women speakers is a continual challenge, even with our explicit outreach to various women's tech advocacy groups on Twitter and elsewhere on the web.

One challenge with finding women speakers is that the pool of candidates is rather small. This tells me that there is more to do to make sure that our industry can take advantage of all the potential leadership and talent available. In addition to reaching out to women and people of color, we need to find a way to help those who have so much to offer find their voice.

Much has been said about why there are few women speakers to choose from, and there's no escaping the chilling effect that the behavior of some men in the field has on the participation of women. I will talk a little more about other factors, but I can't gloss over this in any way, it’s too important.

Unfortunately, for each example of outstanding female technologists, there are numerous first-person accounts of (to me) inconceivable misogynistic behavior by people and organizations in our industry today, and the effect of that behavior on the career choices of women who have a great deal to offer.

For a long time, I absorbed these stories and came to accept the reality they represent, but didn’t know what to do. I've always believed it is important for each of us to help make the world a better place, in whatever ways are available to us as individuals. As a straight white male, exactly what could I do?

WHAT WE CAN DO

It turns out there are a number of things to be done. One is to actively and vocally refuse to tolerate sexist comments or behavior by others. Peer pressure is a powerful tool, and sitting silently by when people are being cruel is tacit approval. Speaking out is necessary to effect change.

1. Refuse to tolerate bad behavior

In my particular case, I'm a co-chair for the Visual Studio Live conferences, and chair of the Modern Apps Live conferences, and in that context I have a bit more influence. Some years ago I worked with the conference organizers to put in place the anti-harassment policy for the conferences. We were among the first tech conferences to ever have such a policy, and I’m pleased to see that such policies have rapidly become the norm across most events in our industry. I intend to continue to work to create respectful environments where professionals of all backgrounds can be confident that their work will get professional and constructive treatment.

2. Overcome your fear

Breaking into speaking can be difficult enough without active mistreatment based on gender. In listening to women interested in public speaking, I find that there are also many barriers shared by all people.

Perhaps the biggest barrier is the fear of public speaking. This sometimes manifests as a belief that public speakers have a "gift" and this gift is something that the potential speaker just doesn't have.

Studies have shown that many people (women and men) fear public speaking more than they fear death. Whether true or not, it is a hard reality that a lot of people are afraid of, or at least uncomfortable with, public speaking.

If you have something valuable to say, then you have all the talent and "gift" required to speak. Now, what you need is skills, practice, and feedback. Mentoring is also a valuable asset. Just as the person new to computing defeats the fear of "doing something wrong and screwing everything up" as they gain technical skills and know-how, you will defeat the fear of speaking as you become more accomplished.

In my personal case, I was involved in speech and debate from age 13, and remained involved even through university and into my professional life. This has been an advantage to me, because public speaking is a skill, and just like any skill it requires training, coaching, and practice. Recently I had a conversation with a young woman in the Magenic QA group, and she was talking about her career ambitions. She said she recently joined a Toastmasters group hosted by Magenic, because the inability to speak in front of people would limit her career. This is a perfect example of what anyone should consider if they want to advance their career – including the possibility of public speaking at something like a Visual Studio Live conference.

Even if you don’t have easy access to a Toastmasters group, it is beneficial to speak in front of trusted friends or colleagues, and extremely valuable to set up a camera to record yourself while speaking. This sort of coaching can help a person become a good speaker very rapidly. Candid, productive feedback goes a long way.

I've been speaking publicly for decades now, and I still take advantage of opportunities to get coaching or watch myself on video. Again, speaking is a skill, and the only way to improve over time is via training, coaching, and practice.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Speaking of practice, nobody gets a speaking slot at a professional conference without some sort of speaking history. Fortunately, most communities have various meetups, user groups, code camps, and other opportunities to give technical presentations in front of groups. There's no better way to practice public speaking, including the organization of content, various ways of explaining that content, and gaining the confidence that comes with success. When we look at potential speakers for each of our conferences, we look at the speaking history of people we don't already know, and this sort of experience weighs heavily in our assessment.

Everything I'm saying here applies to anyone who is interested in speaking at a conference. But one of the most common barriers I see, is people's fear of being an imposter. Imposter syndrome is quite common, but I've been told by numerous female colleagues that it is more prevalent among women than men.

4. Don’t fall victim to "impostor syndrome"

I struggle with this frequently when talking to people. They’ll tell me some cool thing they've learned, or some interesting problem they've solved. I'll suggest they write a blog, or give a presentation on that topic. To which they'll answer that it was nothing special, or nothing that other people would care about – the fact that I was intrigued notwithstanding.

The reality is that a great many talented developers do know something unique, and have a lot to offer their colleagues in the industry. Yes, I am talking to you as you read this! Chances are, you have sat in a presentation being given by someone else, and realized that there is a whole world of information that you are familiar with that is outside the scope of their talk, and you have wondered why you haven't seen a talk on it. Maybe you have even thought about doing a talk on it; and then talked yourself out of it. After all, if it was important, somebody would have already done a talk on it, right? Not necessarily!

For one thing, you know what you know because you did a project, or solved a problem, or worked in an industry that required you to learn this thing. Your insight comes from your unique experience.

For another, most people have the same barriers to speaking as you, and talk themselves out of putting their ideas and contributions forward.

Many who have something useful to say will immediately assume that their message isn’t important, or they are not the right ones to bring it forward. If you are interested in speaking, and you have something to say, why not work up a proposal for your idea? Even if it and you are not quite ready for Visual Studio Live, there are numerous venues to present talks and get that experience that you will need when you are ready to present at a professional conference.

There are a lot of ways to get started in communicating your contribution to our industry, but they all start by building skills and finding effective strategies. I've written a few of them down here to get us started, but this is only one step in a conversation that I intend to continue as long as it takes for our industry to benefit from the vast array of talent out there in the world.

READY TO SUBMIT? MY TOP TIPS!

I'll close with some advice specific to Visual Studio Live! and Live! 360 - as we mentioned, the current Call for Presentations for the Chicago and Anaheim locations is open through March 24, and the current Call for Presentations for Live! 360 is open through April 10.

As I mentioned earlier, each time we put together the content for a show we look at speakers we know and speakers we don’t yet know. If you are in the latter camp, there are things you can do to improve your chances of being selected – with the caveat that we get several times the number of submissions than we can fit in each show.

#1. Demonstrate experience from other events

Either numerous local or regional events, or other conferences makes a big difference. Our call for presenters (CFP) web site has a place to enter this information, and we also check out potential speakers by looking at their LinkedIn profiles and doing a web search. Having relevant experience visible on the web is a good idea.

#2. Give us at least 5 session ideas

In our case, each speaker gets two talks (with the rare exception of someone getting more). So if you only submit one talk we can't even consider you. And if you submit only two talks, the odds of both being exactly what we need are very small. Therefore, you should submit around five session ideas to improve the odds that your submissions will fit our needs.

#3. Give us ideas for a range of topics

I also suggest looking at our VSLive! CFP and Live! 360 CFP, because we list the sorts of topic we’re looking to have at each event. You can probably imagine that some popular topics (such as Angular or REST services) generate a lot of submissions because a lot of people are enthused about them at the moment. Submitting a bunch of session ideas centered around those popular topics is unlikely to be productive. Mix in some session ideas around other topics we list that seem less hyped now, because it is often the case that we'll get few (or no) submissions on some of those topics, even though we consider them important. At the same time, avoid submitting only "fringe" ideas. I can't give you perfect advice here, other than to suggest a mix of very mainstream, and less mainstream session ideas being helpful.

#4. Submit your sessions by the deadline!

On behalf of myself, my co-chairs, and the organizers of the Live 360 and Visual Studio Live events, I want to be crystal clear that we welcome and value a diverse group of speakers. We've been a pioneer in the tech conference space around code of conduct policies, and we work to provide a welcoming and supportive environment for speakers and attendees of any background. The only thing we ask is that you share our enthusiasm for technology and software development!

Have feedback for Rockford? Email him at rocky@lhotka.net.

Posted by Lafe Low on 03/08/2017 at 2:10 PM


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