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Please Stop Asking Me to Speak About Women in Technology

Please Stop Asking Me to Speak About Women in Technology

I was recently recommended as a pinch-hitter keynote speaker for a Linux conference by a friend who wasn’t going to be able to present due to a scheduling conflict. She put me in touch with the conference organizers, and they reached out to me with the exciting email subject “We want YOU to keynote [conference name]!!”

I’ve been doing a lot more speaking in the past year, and was happy to step in to help out. Speaking at conferences makes me enormously uncomfortable, but I’ve been told I’m good at it, and I promised myself a long time ago that I’d never say no to an opportunity just because I was scared.

I replied to the conference organizers with an introduction of my background, and the types of things I usually speak at conferences about: programming, risk, security and privacy, and empathy, mostly. (A weird mix, I know, but that’s my jam.) I provided samples to some blog posts and speaker decks they could take a look at to see what might work for them.

They replied (politely) that they were hoping I would talk about increasing the number of women in technology.

My heart sank.

Oh.

I replied (also politely) that I don’t typically present on women in technology issues, and asked how they would feel about  a “diversity in tech talk”, instead of one aimed just towards women in tech, since my position tends to be one that empowers all that feel disenfranchised, not just women. It’s definitely not the talk I would have wanted to give at a Linux conference, as diversity in tech is something I care about but I’m far from an expert on it. When I’m speaking at a technology conference, I prefer to talk about, well, technology. But I was trying to be flexible, out of respect for my friend who had recommended me.

I received an email reply shortly after that explained that they “decided to go another way” with the keynote – and the “other way” was apparently finding another woman to keynote about gender diversity in tech.

This is their conference, and they certainly have a right to stay focused on what they want to accomplish with it (although I admit I don’t understand how diversity in tech – which includes women – would be contrary to that).  Maybe they found a speaker more qualified to talk about women in tech. It wouldn’t be hard to do, since I have literally never presented on women in technology in my almost 20-year career, but it seemed like a pretty abrupt gear-change given their initial enthusiasm.

The assumption that of course I’d want to talk about women in tech “because VAGINA!” is incorrect, and I find it a little bit shitty, to be honest.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and something tells me it won’t  be the last.

When I present, I present about technology. There mere fact that I have a vagina does not make me qualified – or interested – in presenting about women in technology. I am absolutely not criticizing the women that do choose to present on this topic. I think their work is important and valuable – it’s just not my thing.

My position is that the best way for me to be a role model for women (and men) in technology isn’t to give talks about being a woman in technology, but to kick ass and take names at being a technologist, and to give great presentations on technology topics. This is my way of showing men and women in technology that women are as capable and badass as the bros.

It’s the same reason I always agree to speak at conferences even when I know I’m a token.  I frequently spend my own money to fly out to speak at conferences that can’t afford to fly me out or cover my hotel, and I do this because it’s important for men and women to get used to seeing women at the podium, demonstrating their skills as an authority in technology. If we can get a few more women on that stage, maybe we won’t feel like such a rarity anymore, and the perceptions of us in technology will shift.

Women are not psychically connected at the fallopian tubes, and my experiences in tech will not reflect the experiences of a vast majority of other women in tech.

I’m happy to talk to you about my thoughts on gender and equality issues. I’d love to grab a beer with you and tell you my experiences, and relay the experiences relayed to me by my fellow chicks in tech. I’ve even been known to get a little ranty about it on the Twitters, and occasionally blog about it. I care deeply about diversity and equality, but I want to level the playing field in society, not just in tech. And not just for women.

Simply being a woman in technology doesn’t automatically make you qualified or interested in presenting about women in technology. It’s not some sort of ZOMG Uterus! club, and the assumption that it’s the only thing I’d be useful at talking about is a problem for me, regardless of how well-intentioned you are in wanting to bring this topic to the forefront at your conferences.

If you want women to feel less like outsiders in technology, try having a few of them speak at your conferences about *gasp* technology.

Technology is my passion, and while it’s far from the only thing I care about, it’s the only thing I care to speak about in conferences. Yes, I’ve had a vagina longer than I’ve been in tech, but only just.

So yeah, I’ll be your token for now. But I will not give a presentation on women in technology.

So, please, stop asking.

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About snipe

I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist, and the former CTO and CSO at a business innovation agency in New York City. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...
  • Nadyne Richmond

    Such an awesome post. I especially agree with your point that it’s important for the audience to get used to seeing technical women giving kickass technical talks. There’s value in the women-in-tech, and the greater diversity-in-tech, conversations. That doesn’t mean that ticking off that diversity checkbox means that the individual is the right person to talk about the topic.

  • Nadyne Richmond

    Amusingly, the ads on this post for me right now include “6 engagement rings with amazing little details”. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on engagement rings.

    • http://www.snipe.net snipe

      LOL Sorry about that. Not intentional, I promise.

      • Nadyne Richmond

        You posted about women. Of *course* the accompanying ads are for engagement rings. What else could the ads be about? The list is limited. Tampons, botox, daycare, …

      • http://www.snipe.net snipe

        AND BABIES!!!!!111!!one!1

    • Pedro Osório

      I see no such ads. Also, ads are targeted based not only on the content but also on the users (and their online behavior).

  • Kate McDonald

    I maybe have jumped up and down a little reading this. I work as a Unix/iSeries admin, and get a lot of people expecting me to speak for women in technology overall. I can’t do that. I have my experiences, they have theirs, and having shared biology doesn’t make us instantly able to understand and speak for all of us, except to keep pushing our talents as being the important thing, not our gender.

  • http://gwallgofi.com/ Joseph Gwynne-Jones

    Completely agree. I’m not very interested in hearing about women in technology – I’ve always been of the mind that if they want women in tech then let them talk about tech instead of their gender. If talking about gender then it defeat the point of “women in tech”.

    There are already many awesome females working in technology, and many that have made huge progress. I want to hear about what the progress is, the benefit of it – the gender no longer matter.

    I recently gave a talk on the rookie track at bsides London – I’m deaf so I presented it in sign language. It’s about technology (to be specific, about passwords). My disability had nothing to do with it – so I’m with you there!

    • http://www.snipe.net snipe

      I’m not sure that gender no longer matters. There are still definitely issues that need to be addressed, but again, I think these are issues we see in all of society, not just tech – and not just for women. I do understand what you’re saying, though.

      Incidentally, as a hearie who used to be fluent in ASL, I would have loved to have watched your talk in sign. I’m hoping to be involved in DEAFcon at Defcon this year, and I realized I don’t know ANY of the technical signs, since it’s been so long since I signed, and computers weren’t as much of a thing back then. o_O Do you have any resources you could point me to specifically for technical/computer signs?

      • http://gwallgofi.com/ Joseph Gwynne-Jones

        Here’s a link to my video of the talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRfLzev7V-4 – as it’s a rookie track, it’s just around 10 minutes – however as I’m a Brit, we use BSL (British Sign Language) – (most obvious difference is that we finger spell less (and when we do, it’s two handed not 1 handed as in ASL). :) I went a bit too fast, nerves perhaps, so that I didn’t give my interpreter much chance to keep up. Whoops. Still a great experience for me.

        To be honest I don’t actually know much technical signs myself – there really isn’t that many deaf people in UK that’s as versed in IT as I am (they exist, but not many of them!). Especially when talking about IT security. I either spelt them or made up my own that I agreed with the interpreter beforehand – it’s hard on him too since he doesn’t understand the subject, there isn’t any technical signs so I’ll finger spell quickly and if he miss, he have to know etc! He coped quite well despite having met me that day (I hail from North of UK, and talk is in London so got a local).

        Ask around at DEAFcon, I’m sure any deafies would be happy to tell you what they know :-)

      • http://www.snipe.net snipe

        You did a great job – and OMG you sign so fast! LOL I was hoping I could parse it without audio, but it was way too fast. (I’m also very, very rusty, so I don’t think it was just your nerves.)

        I’m surprised at how similar BSL and ASL are, to be honest. I could recognize a lot of of the signs. For some reason, I remembered there being more differences between the two. (I was learning Guatemalan sign language at one point, so my brain had to translate Spanish *and* sign at the same time. It was slow-going, but really fun to learn.)

        I have some security talks that include password stuff, if you’re ever interested. Use them at will if you think they’d be helpful to you. http://slideshare.net/snipeyhead/

        This is the one I used to give to my own company for our quarterly security training: http://www.slideshare.net/snipeyhead/security-primer-13065286

        It touches on passwords, social engineering, etc. The one from Macworld 2014 is more of a corporate IT security thing, aimed at Mac sysadmins.

  • http://www.snipe.net snipe

    Thank you, Lorna!

  • @eweidman

    Entertaining and well written. Needed to be said. Thank you! I bet you are a hell of a speaker!

  • http://www.snipe.net snipe

    That’s a good point, and certainly something to keep in mind. I still think the only way I’d consider it would be on a panel, where multiple perspectives are represented – and yes, only if I was presenting a technical talk at the same conference.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this post; this point needs making more often. There are a lot of people out there talking about women in tech, and it needs talking about, but that doesn’t mean every woman should be expected to speak about women in tech; that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s the same problem that has male accomplishments lauded as “a $ROLE” and female accomplishments lauded as “a female $ROLE”.

    Thank you for standing up for this point, and for setting a good example as a technologist/engineer. Here’s hoping that one day nobody will see any reason to qualify that as “female technologist” or “female engineer”.

    • http://www.snipe.net snipe

      Thank you, Anon!

  • kundasang

    This post made my day. You rock.

    • http://www.snipe.net snipe

      Thank you!

  • rsanchez1

    Being a technology expert qualifies you to talk about technology at a tech conference. The problem from the conference organizer’s perspective is they can’t just bring men in to talk about women in tech. It’s “simply being a woman in tech” that legitimizes a women in tech talk. It’s not about qualifications, it’s about actually being listened.

    I think the reason they went to the women in tech angle right away is because this is a current issue in tech, and the conference organizers want to reflect that. No doubt the audience will get used to seeing women talking about actual tech stuff. A conference will still want to talk about the latest topics of interest for their audience.

    • http://www.snipe.net snipe

      I completely understand why they went that way, @rsanchez1:disqus. My point is that it’s disappointing when the assumption is made that while I am a woman in tech, that would be the thing I want to talk about. They’re allowed to not select me because I don’t want to talk about women in tech, and I’m allowed to be annoyed that their approach to solving for women in tech is to have women there to speak only about women in tech. When the only women speakers men see are ones talking about women in tech, it does everyone a disservice, because it reinforces the perception that while we exist in this space, we’re not really qualified to speak about tech things.

      My position is that some of the women in tech issues will solve themselves as men and women both start seeing more women talking about technology. It’s still unusual to see women speakers (talking about tech) at tech conferences right now. When that changes, it will help change the perception that we should be allowed but not respected for our tech chops.

  • http://lightspandigital.com Mana

    Love it. I also hope event organizers stop setting up “women in tech” pannels every time someone asks why there aren’t more women speakers at the conference. I’d rather get in a boxing match than be on another one of those. Creating these categories, reinforcing these categories doesn’t solve any problems. Let technologists talk about technology and anthropologists talk about social issues.

    • http://www.snipe.net snipe

      I’m not sure it’s a good idea that we stop talking about it altogether. There is a clear case for increased diversity in tech, and since it’s currently white male dominated, sometimes these discussions can help lend perspective, help them understand why diversity matters, and hopefully end up with some practical ways to work towards more diversity.

      My problem is more that so often, the only women speakers are ones there to speak about gender in tech, which then makes it look like that’s all we’re good for talking about.

      I think the diversity conversations are important, they just can’t be the only conversations we get invited to at conferences.

      • http://lightspandigital.com Mana

        I agree. That was my point too. That most women in tech get invited to do women in tech talks, and in most cases in response to criticism that there aren’t more women speakers at tech conferences. This just happened at TechWeek Chicago – they were accused of sexism and their response was to propose yet another panel to discuss women in tech.

  • tzakrajsek

    Would be nice if the tech world didn’t include any gender commentary at all because gender is the least significant attribute of an engineer. Thanks for a great read.

  • http://John.do/ John Saddington

    bravo. bravo.

  • papayasoft

    Excellent, thanks. Snipe renews her reputation – at least in my eyes – as a reliable source for cogent good sense.

  • Natalia

    Finding your blog has made my day. I’m so glad I’m not the only female dev that feels this way. Thank you.